Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Virtue of Obedience- Or the Post I Never Planned to Write

I used to listen to hour after hour of Christian radio programs while driving through the long, flat state of Indiana. My trip home from Madison, Wisconsin to Buckhannon, West Virginia ran ten hours. Except for the one time I listened to eight hours of Suze Ormon tapes, my mind was usually too frazzled from law school exams to remember to pack cassette tapes for the trip. The radio was a fun medley of new finds and old favorites until I left Chicago. From Southern Illinois to Ohio, there was nothing but talk Christian radio stations.

Somewhere in deep Indiana, during three years of cross-country trips from 1997-2000, is when I first heard this notion of “wives being obedient to their husbands”, and “fathers being head of their families”. I don’t mind telling you, that about five minutes into any discussion of this topic, I turn off my radio in disgust at such old-fashion drivel.

Like all virtues in my faith journey so far, my children have taught me the importance of “obedience.” I have hit the age where my eldest can now, we Southerners say, “sass her Mother.” It broke my heart the first time. By age four, I had gone from being hurt and shocked, to wondering out-loud to my husband “How can I get some positive reinforcement on this subject fast because the repeated time-outs in the naughty chair are just not cutting it!”

It was at that moment that I realized, “When did my daughter ever see me being obedient?” There were lots of things, such as table manners, that my husband and I were able to model for her. When we wanted the kids to sit still in their chairs or to chew with their mouth closed, we’d make an elaborate “thank you Daddy for sitting so still in your chair tonight” production during dinner. That system worked well for us. But how would I “teach” the virtue of obedience.

At first, my method was obvious and forced. Jon would ask me to pass the peas at dinner. I’d make a big, showy production “Look, I’m passing the peas to Daddy because I’m being OBEDIENT. I’m not saying, “I don’t want to!” or “Not now, maybe later.” I’m passing the peas, quickly and cheerfully because I liked to do what I’m asked.”

Then I started to slip “obedience” into our nightly rosary intensions. Each night since the beginning of Advent, I’ve prayed for the same things for my children. I pray for Hannah to become more obedient, Alex to finish potty training and Maria to stop her teething pain and start sleeping again. The virtue of obedience seemed to fit neatly into my own quest for increased meekness and humility. I didn’t know what I was praying for exactly, or who I wanted to become more obedient “too.” It was more a vague feeling that sort of stayed vague and undefined for a few weeks.

My first act of conscious obedience to my husband occurred over this hallway chair. As you can tell from this interior shot of my apartment’s front door, I don’t have much room. The hallway is less than three feet wide. There’s no entryway, screen porch or mudroom. Only a few feet of linoleum to handle two young kids, a baby, and a jumpy, nervous dog.

When my husband first moved a chair in the middle of the hallway, I disliked it. I thought it made the place look “cluttered.” I tripped over it. The kids kept dropping toys under it. It was hard to vacuum around it. For a few days, I moved the chair back to the living room each morning. Every night, my husband moved it back.

One day, I thought, “I guess I can leave the chair there. I’m trying to learn how to be obedient.” So that was my little silent gift to my husband. I chair, in a position I heartily disliked.

Nothing happened for a few more days. Then I noticed that it made a convenient place to sit a child down to put on his snow boots. It was a place to put the dog leash in between dog walks. I could place the baby carrier on it while sorting the mail. This chair, that totally violated my inner homemaker, was full of useful purposes.

About five days into “the chair as a gift” experiment, my husband started loudly praising me. “Thank you so much for letting me keep a chair here. It really helps me to have a comfortable place to change my shoes in the morning.” The praise, repeated night after night left me feeling a little sheepish. It was just one chair after all.

His repeated praised got me thinking. What say does my husband have at home? Sure we picked out the IKEA furniture together. Once we hung up the pictures together and found a place for the couch, I have made all future “home” decisions. For example, I handle all the grocery shopping. As a result, we eat peas for dinner most nights instead of corn. We use Colgate instead of Crest. We drink Coke instead of Pepsi. Multiply control of a dozen daily decisions over hundreds of days. Over time, my husband could easily feel that his home was as impersonal to him as hotel room.

Recognizing how powerful my role as a full time “home-maker” had become made it easier to cheerfully acquiesce to my husband few stated preferences.

Then came the kid rules. In the past, my husband has made bold pronouncements such as “no toys in Mom and Dad’s room.” I’ve usually argued against such sweeping changes with the rationalization that these rules will be impossible to enforce with a 4 & 3 year old. Since the burden of “enforcement” falls upon me, I should get to set the rules. This time, I let the “no toys in the parent’s bedroom” stand unchallenged.

The next morning, Alex and Hannah both tugged armfuls of toys into our room while I nursed the baby. “Remember Dad’s rule, no toys in here,” I said reluctantly. “But I want to,” went the familiar refrain. I sighed. This was going result in tears and multiple trips to the time out chair. “Remember what Dad said?”

Suddenly, I experienced the power that usually resides with used car salesmen who refer to fictitious managers. “Oh, okay.” The kids left the room trailing their toys wordlessly behind them. What happened? Because I wasn’t the one setting the rules, they couldn’t argue with me. Everyone in the house knew that Dad was fanatic about kicking the toys out of his room. I wasn’t the one deciding what would be and wouldn’t be permissible. I was simply the cop enforcing the rulebook.

It’s only been two months, but I can’t tell you how many arguments this has saved me. I don’t have to decide what the rules should be on the spot and under fire. Once I’ve figured out that the no toy rule can be enforced and makes life so much better, I’m more willing to take my husband’s other parenting advice. Alex should learn how to cut his own food and not rely always on Mom to do it. My soft-heart, and even more honestly, inability to stand loud crying, has stopped by from pushing my middle-child into ever increasing levels of independence.

I don’t live under Jon’s dictatorship. If one of his proposed family rules don’t work out, I’ll bring it to my husband’s attention. My level of input hasn’t change in regard to my home or my kids. Instead, my attitude have changed. When Jon makes a suggestion that I disagree with, I don’t instantly say “that isn’t going to work” and launch into Smith Debate President mode. Instead, I take a “wait and see” approach. If problems arise after trying a new project Jon’s way for five days or more, I’ll tell Jon about them in private. Together we brainstorm solutions. So far, the Mom as ‘loyal first-mate approach” has worked well.

By mid-January, I thought that was “all she wrote” on the subject. I figured out an easier way to make joint-decisions about the household and the raising of our kids. Then my husband made a thrilling announcement last week. Jon is currently working his way to a 3rd Degree in the Knights of Columbus. My husband is traditionally “not a joiner”. The skill that he used to avoid even the basic, mandatory promotions during ten years of Army Reserve Duty is legendary among his unit. So it was with complete surprise that I heard my husband say “I’m want to take this thing seriously and move up high in the ranks. The Knights need a leader who will take seriously his Catholic faith and complete the rituals with honor and respect.”

“Where did this change come from?” I asked bewildered, but pleased. “It came from you, I guess. You made room for me at the top of our household. I’m not naturally a leader, but having you defer to my decisions and respect my opinion has made me more confident, more clear-headed.”

Wow! Where this obedience trail is going, gentle readers, I have no idea. I’m just reporting the facts at this point. (I just told my headstrong daughter this morning that if she wants to become a nun, she’ll have to practice obedience to her Mother Superior. What better way to master that tricky virtue than to start now by cheerfully putting on her knee socks when asked by her actual Mother rather than whine “But it’s not snowing today!” By Jolly, did she now put on her knee socks in a flash.)

Do you have any thoughts on the obedience issue? Do you see any connection between how children mind their parents and how a wife cheerfully, and respectfully obeys her husband’s requests?


  1. Maybe you've hit the nail on the head as to why my two year old doesn't listen to a word I say.

    Seriously though, this is a topic near to my heart. I was raised by a father who was a dictator and have since rebelled against anyone having any "say" over what I do or who I am. This has proven to be difficult in my marriage. I don't have any good thoughts on the issue yet but I'm trying to form them.

    Thanks for the great post.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I think obedience is an often overlooked part of our walk with God. Your thoughts on how it has impacted your marriage and in turn your children is eye-opening. Maybe I need to rethink how I do things. My husband is happy to go along with whatever, so he is not naturally going to take over a leadership role, but I know he needs to do so. Anyway, great post--thanks!

  3. Thank you for posting this. It's a great example to me as a semi-newlywed and as a brand new mother. I really appreciated it. And with that, I have no advice or thoughts as I haven't really been there much yet.

  4. I've been thinking about this a lot (I think I first started thinking about it because of your posts about the issue). I'm also going to do a post about it soon.

    I've been thinking a lot about how all the saints have agreed that obedience is critical to growing in holiness, and I realized: if we (women who stay home w/ kids) are not obedient to our husbands, to whom are we obedient? Nobody. Husbands who work outside the home have to be obedient to someone else in the workforce; even if they're CEO's they have a Board to answer to, or if they're entrepreneurs they have to be obedient to their investors or clients. So I thought it was interesting to realize that if we're not obedient to our husbands, we're obedient to no one.

  5. I have a surprise for you over on my blog. Thank you for the great posts!

  6. I found your post through Jen's Links page, and I can't help wondering a few things... Please don't take this as hostile, I'm just trying to tease out some ideas!

    First, wouldn't it have made things easier in the first place had you both talked about why you did/didn't want the chair there? Isn't "obedience" sometimes a way around simple communication?

    I find the concept of "obedience" in the context difficult because I see marriage as being between equals--not people who are identical, but people who are equal to one another and can come to agreements about what happens in a household. I simply have not encountered any occasions in my marriage in which "obedience" seemed to apply. As for my children, I explain obedience as a way of teaching--if they are to learn from us, as parents, they must listen to what we say and do the things that we ask them to do. In this way, their obedience to their parents is like the obedience all of us should show to God.

    Pledging obedience to another person is a bit like admitting that that person is superior in maturity, intelligence, or power to oneself. I don't feel that I am called to surrender my will because I am married, and my husband would not wish me to do so. If he did, I probably would not have married him.

    To answer the point Jen raises obout to whom women who do not work are obedient, husband and wife should both be obedient to God together. I do work, outside the home, in academia, part time (though my days are spent with my youngest children), but I would not consider myself "obedient" to a superior--at least not in the sense we are discussing. There are other situations that call for obedience, like to obey the just laws of one's country.

    In today's society, one's husband is not automatically assumed to have superior education--moral or intellectual. It would have made sense for a women who was not educated or given moral instruction to rely on--and thus to obey--her husband in all things, rather like we teach our children to obey because they must learn these things from us. The husband as conceived in that situation would have the authority and the moral responsibility for his wife and her obedience to God. Do we still believe that? Or is the obedience just a show for our children and a practice for ourselves? Is there a real moral imperative here, or is it a matter of learning something that we should apply elsewhere?

    Even Laura Ingalls Wilder had a problem with promising to be obedient to her husband!

  7. I guess I got carried away and forgot a key point... I'm not sure what you are talking about here is really the way most people think of the "obedience" thing. Isn't it really just allowing yourself to share responsibility--something that should happen in any mature relationship? Is this really the same as being obedient, or is it simply give-and-take, cooperation, and considering another's feelings and preferences?

  8. Hey Literacy-chic! I'll try to squeeze this in before your Lenten blog fast... :)

    To answer the point Jen raises obout to whom women who do not work are obedient, husband and wife should both be obedient to God together.

    Agreed, but SO many of the saints place a high value on obedience to other human beings as well, even if those other human beings aren't as saintly as they are. Rarely in the lives of the saints do you come across a story of a saint being told to do something by a superior and disregarding the superior's request to do it their own way instead.

    Also, what is the Catholic thought on what Peter is talking about in chapters 2 and 3 of his first epistle? My reading of that is that it's pretty clear that wives are supposed to be submissive to their husbands in some form of another. But maybe there are some nuances I don't understand.

    Isn't "obedience" sometimes a way around simple communication?

    Perhaps. But isn't "communicating / discussing things" sometimes a way around humility? I know it is for me. :)

    I recently came across this quote on Happy Catholic that really made it click for me why there's so much emphasis on obedience among the great Christians:

    Do you ever wonder why God values obedience more than sacrifice? Because obedience is someone else’s idea of what you should sacrifice.

    ~David Manuel

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Excellent post. I used to think obedience to a husband was the lowest form of humiliation a woman could endure.

    Now after 8 years of marriage (plus a few of "living in sin"), I really agree with you on this. Someone has to have the final say in those instances when there is a disagreement that we can't compromise on. (Those disagreements are usually so unimportant --like the placement of a chair, but they can turn into real battles that can really hurt a marriage.)

    When my husband and I first got together, we really butted heads on some things. I was right. I was stubborn. And NOBODY was my boss. But time and experience have softened me. My husband needs respect. I need love. The more I respect him, the more he adores me. It's so cool.

    I think God created man to be the head of the home for a simple reason. Peace. If we married couples are constantly having power struggles, we are just going to destroy our marriages. So God made a simple set of rules. If we follow them, we avoid a lot of chaos. It's hard sometimes to be humble and swallow our pride. But the joy of a peaceful home and a happy husband make it all worth it.

  11. I think it's important to understand that as Catholics we do not read the bible literally. We are allowed to view the bible through the lens of the culture that produced it, and to interpret what is relevant to our own experience. For some reason, it seems like it is easier to put in perspective some things than others.

    Abigail, forgive me, but don't you think that your prior behavior was a bit controlling and bossy? I don't consider myself "obedient" to my husband just because I share decision making with him on both large and small things. That's mutual respect. Both individuals in a marriage need to submit to the authority of the joint marital unit. There is no need for one member to "win" or cast the tie breaking vote in a disagreement. Couples need to learn how to resolve these conflicts and compromise. If a wife is always "submitting" to a husband who is "in charge" then her voice and opinions and ideas as a mature and intelligent human being are lost, and the husband must make decisions on his own, possibly mistakes, all because of some imaginary virtue of having a single leader in a family instead of a team.

    The purpose of scripture is not to impose a cultural template on us, but to guide is in becoming more holy and more Godly. Husband and wife should both submit before God, and practice obedience to God, to the Church, and to legitimate civil authority. The understanding we have of female equality in modern times can greatly enrich marriage, if we allow it to do so. The excuse of female submission has been used so long to suppress women and their talents, and for men to exercise a cruel and unfair authority in the home, that I honestly dislike seeing it perpetuated. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. Husband and wife should both submit, before God and before each other. In marriage, there is no 'I' or 'you,' only 'we'. The struggle for dominance on either part is inappropriate. It is not right for one partner to constantly defer to the other. It may be a big ego boost for the one being deferred to, but in the long run it's a recipe for unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

    Children need to show obedience to their parents because they have not yet learned the self-control, prudence, and wisdom to make their own decisions and run their own lives. As soon as they are ready to do this, parents are expected to step back. This is a different situation than a marital relationship. Perhaps your husband responded so readily to your change in attitude because you were actually dominating him--a character flaw we women tend towards quite often. (And it is this that I truly think is the take-away message for the modern reader of the bible.)

  12. Anon -

    If a wife is always "submitting" to a husband who is "in charge" then her voice and opinions and ideas as a mature and intelligent human being are lost...

    That is not true. Letting your husband hold the place of head of the household doesn't mean that anyone thinks less of your maturity or intelligence.

    Take the structure of the Church, for example. Does the fact that the Bishop is in charge of the diocese mean that the priests' voices as mature and intelligent human beings are lost? I think that what is being proposed for the family structure is no different than what is expected of those in religious life: just because someone has the tie-breaking vote or the leadership role does not mean that he or she is assumed to be smarter or better or more in tune with God than the other people, and it does not mean that those who are not in leadership positions are silenced from voicing their opinions. It's just that systems work best when there is a designated leader.

    Both individuals in a marriage need to submit to the authority of the joint marital unit. There is no need for one member to "win" or cast the tie breaking vote in a disagreement. Couples need to learn how to resolve these conflicts and compromise.

    Would this work in any other system? Would companies be able to function well if there was no org chart, if the entire executive team had to come together and agree on every single decision? Having one clear leader does not mean that the subordinates' voices are not valued or heard. The Senior Vice President is not assumed to be weak or stupid just because he's not CEO, for example.

    I'd be interested to know if you're opposed to the concept of obedience generally, or just within marriages. Because there is no doubt that this virtue has been widely prized by great Christians from the New Testament to the present day.

    I know that it shocks our ears to hear of such a thing because there have been so many times throughout history when women were not properly respected, and I can appreciate where you're coming from in your concern that we as women not let ourselves be devalued as human beings. But my take is that that's just not what's going on here with the call to obedience within marriages. Though sometimes the two have gone together, I don't think that letting husbands lead the family is inextricably linked with their wives being seen as doormats.

  13. That was me, above.

    Jen, I think it's interesting that you keep bringing up modern corporate structure, which is hugely dysfunctional and causes misery to almost everyone who works within it. What a terrible thing to model a marriage upon!

    Anyway, I addressed this at some length in my livejournal. I'm not usually a religion blogger, but will be tackling some religious topics.
    To answer your question, I do not believe that obedience for the sake of obedience is a virtue. Obedience for some other purpose is. There are times in all of our lives when we need to practice obedience, and also times when we need to practice leadership.

  14. That URL got cut off. The post is at, for Feb. 8, 2008.

  15. Catherine wrote "To answer your question, I do not believe that obedience for the sake of obedience is a virtue. Obedience for some other purpose is."

    I completely agree. But if you look at the Biblical passage, Ephesians 5:21, you see that St Paul starts off: "Be subordinate to one anther out of love for Christ." So in Christian marriage, husbands and wives are being called not to obedience for the sake of obedience but to obedience out of love for Christ. In this Christian model advanced by St Paul the husband is head of the household; but his headship is only in the sense that it is like that of Christ, one of loving his wife as he loves himself, even to the point of laying down his life to die for her.

    If these verses have historically been warped away from their true meaning and been used to excuse the domination of women, that doesn't invalidate an attempt to live them in their true sense. For a wife to make herself subordinate to her husband shouldn't mean making herself a doormat; but should be the living out of marriage in imitation of Christ who came to love and to serve by dying on the cross. Thus the husband shows himself to be head of the house by dying to his own selfish wants and desires and loving his wife as he loves his own body, for truly the two are one flesh.

    And I think that's what most of the discussions on the subject lose sight of, that the verses are clear that a wife's obedience/submission should not take place in a vacuum or be merely one-sided. Rather, her husband also is also submissive to her out of love for Christ. The husband is only head of the family inasmuch as he acts in persona Christi, if he ceases to act Christlike, then he ceases to be head of the house because his headship is a spiritual headship it's not fundamentally about governance.

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