Can I Change More Than Me?
Jerry N. Duncan, Ph.D., ABPP
When I was nineteen, my pastor recommended I attend a week-long conference presented by Bill Gothard in Oklahoma City. Bill Gothard would travel from city to city around the world and pack large conference centers with people anxious to learn practical application principles from the Bible for marriage and family life.
One evening he told the story of a couple who came to him for help with their marriage. He said the husband began with, “Bill, I need you to talk with my wife. She doesn’t understand the concept of submission.” Bill turned to the wife who said, “Bill, I do understand the concept of submisiion. In Ephesians 5 it says that a wife should submit herself to her husband. I have been taught that literally translated, that means she is to treat him with honor and respect. That makes the verse in front of it make sense, because it says, ‘Submit yourselves to one another.’ He is supposed to submit himself to me too, which makes perfect sense if it means to treat with honor and respect. He thinks it means I am supposed to obey him. Plus, in the verse following, it says, ‘Husbands, love you wife like Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it.’ I have been taught that that verse means exactly what it says. He is supposed to go back to Scripture, learn how Jesus treated others, and then treat me that way. Well, I have been taught that Jesus was a sacrificial/servant lover, not a dictating boss. My husband doesn’t treat me that way.”
Bill turned to the husband who said, “Well, I could love her in a sacrificial/servant way if she was submissive to me.” Bill turned to the wife who said, “ I can assure you that if he was loving me in a sacrificial/servant way, I wouldn’t have any problem treating him with honor and respect.”
Bill said, “Let’s turn to the passage in Ephesians 5 and see what it says.” He read, “Wives submit yourselves to your husbands as unto the Lord-period. Husbands, Love your wives like Christ loved the church and gave himself for it-period.” He then said, “Guys, there is no contingency clause here. It does not say, ‘Wives, if he loves you like Christ loves the church, submit yourselves to your husband. Or, if she is submissive, then love your wife in sacrificial/servant ways.’ These are individual, specific, and direct commands from God to each of you individually. You do them as an act of individual obedience to God, not contingent upon the other person’s behavior. Just because we live in a contract-based society, you are not free to treat your marriage like a contract. You do what’s right regardless of whether your partner is doing what’s right.”
That made a lot of sense to my nineteen-year-old mind. I later learned in graduate school that marriage and family therapists tended to teach family members to think in “systems” terms. Systems theory teaches that when you are part of a system (marriage, family, work group) if one part of the system changes, the rest of the system has to eventually change. A bad cycle of behavior cannot continue unless everyone continues to play his/her part. If one person becomes aware of and eliminates his/her negative contribution to a sick and negative cycle, the cycle can no longer continue, and it stops. Conversely, if one person consistently behaves in new positive ways, the system he/she is a part of will eventually change in a positive way.
Yes, you can change things.