“Breathe fire” burst into our vernacular recently with one mom’s viral Facebook post. She raged about the fate of Josh Duggar’s “submissive” wife after news broke about his infidelity. The phrase quickly set off a hashtag firestorm on social media and became a rallying cry of sorts for women to know their worth and know they offer something uniquely powerful to this world that no one should squelch – and that something is not a womb.
I like the phrase. I like the imagery and clout behind it. It describes so aptly how I want my daughters to view themselves.
By God’s grace, it was how I was raised. I was raised to believe I could and should go as far as I wanted in my academic career, which was all the way through college, which I primarily paid for. I graduated magna cum laude, landed a book contract at age 25, and at 30 had an office, a staff and a title.
One of the people who heavily influenced me was my grandmother Marie. If she were still alive, I bet she would dig “breathe fire” too. She had a tenacity about her that, in the 1920s, put her behind the wheel of her father’s tractor wearing men’s denim and a broad-brimmed straw hat. She told her father, “If I work like a man, you will pay as if I am a man.” So he did.
Her tenacity stuck to her like skin throughout her life. She famously shut down a wealthy neighbor with a penchant for railroading those he considered less than him.
The thing I identify with most about my grandmother, however, is her seemingly opposing traits of breathing fire and being a submissive wife.
Although she was known to stand on her own two feet, she was also known for her dedication to her domestic life. She was renowned as a cook, quilter, child-rearer, servant to our family church, and, poignantly, wife committed to following her husband’s lead.
In the rise of “breathe fire,” the term “submissive wife” seems to rankle women all the more, as if it is a flagrant insult. It is seen as the polar opposite of breathe fire, with imagery of shackles and suppression. (Search stock photos for “submissive wife” and that is what you will see, among many R-rated things.)
The term originates from the Apostle Paul’s letters in the New Testament. He instructed wives to submit to their husbands in both Colossians 3:18 and Ephesians 5:22, saying it is in line with God’s intention for Christian households.
Like Paul, and my grandmother, I believe God intended for the husband to lead the family (the workplace is a whole other kettle of fish).
God specifically tapped men to lead in their homes. Studies have shown the effects on families and society when men do not or are not taught how to properly fulfill their intended role. Crime rates escalate among populations without strong male leadership in the home, as do poverty and academic underachievement.
In a Christian household, the man is to lead, and the woman is to submit to his leadership.
Unfortunately, “submissive wife” has been frequently misunderstood and misapplied for generations.
God did not mean for wives to be subjected to abuse of power and enforced silence. He meant for submission to be one-half of an equation for unity in marriage.
Paul, in his letters to both the Colossians and Ephesians, provides the other half as well. He writes a hard-hitting conviction to husbands on the proper treatment of their wives, which basically forbids abuse of power (Col. 3:19) and tells them to build up their wives (Eph. 5:28-29) – something conveniently overlooked by many.
Misapplication of “submissive wife” commonly results in circumstances that are not much better than a fatherless home, if at all.
I am not surprised the broader public tends to define “submissive wife” as a wife without voice, without defense to her husband’s whims, and, heartbreakingly, without biblical grounds to leave the marriage should the circumstances be dire (e.g., infidelity, abuse or other endangering behavior).
That is not what submissive means.
To explain how I see myself as a submissive wife, I will use an analogy drawn from my corporate America career:
I am the senior vice president to the president.
My husband is the leader, and I am second in command, a post that, in my experience, is never given to someone meant to have a posture of weakness and defenselessness.
God intends for the man to embrace Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 5:25 to love his wife the way that Christ loves the church. Put another way, he is to lead the way Christ would. If his leadership is truly Christ-like, then it is marked by compassion, edification, commitment to the greater good, and selflessness.
In the corporate world, I had no qualms whatsoever about following a leader whose leadership was marked by these characteristics. I trusted those leaders. I believed in them and their intentions. I gladly submitted to their leadership. Likewise, I gladly submit to my husband, who also leads with these characteristics.
It’s not that I think I could not lead our family; it’s that I believe God wants my husband to lead.
As the “senior vice president,” I am not without influence, voice, power, position, respect, or leadership roles of my own. Far from it.
My husband sees me as his sounding board, confidant, best friend, closest ally, trusted advisor and compass. He relies on me because he knows I breathe fire. He has seen it happen, and quite frankly doesn’t care to be on the receiving end.
Instead, he wants to harness that fire to help propel our family forward, toward a vision he casts and on a path he thinks is best. In both the vision casting and the pathfinding, I play a critical role, just like a senior vice president does.
My husband’s leadership does not happen in a vacuum, devoid of any contact with me or input from me. Believe me, I give him pah-lenty of input. Sometimes in written form.
He doesn’t always take my advice or make decisions I am super pumped about, but like an SVP to a Pres, my role is to support publicly and disagree privately, with respect. (Exception: if he made a decision that endangered anyone, which he never has.)
That is what a submissive wife role is meant to look like. One in which she uses her ability to breathe fire to work harmoniously with – not for — her husband.
It’s a position not of imprisonment, but rather empowerment.
It’s a role I wish were better understood and better applied.
Breathe fire and submissive wife do go together. If we allow them to.
And when we do, the lovely blooms.
Originally published on my previous blog, Find the Lovely.