The statement in the title is true, but is often used as a canard to nullify headship. It is offered as fine print which secretly negates the clear terms of Christian marriage. As an example of how this is used to (practically) nullify submission, see Kathy Keller’s sermon Headship and Submission at FamilyLife. The folks at FamilyLife liked this part so much they called it out separately (second emphasis mine):
Kathy: If there are husbands out there that are saying, “Yes, I’m the head. This is good teaching. I like this head stuff.” It’s respectful submission between equals. Submission is something that a wife gives. It’s not something that a husband can demand. Christ emptied Himself. He didn’t grasp equality with God. It was a voluntary submission. This proves that headship does not imply superiority, nor does submission imply inferiority.
The misdirection is nested in the word “demand”. If by demand she means force, this is technically true. But it gives the impression that it isn’t something a husband has a right to expect from his Christian wife, that she hasn’t already promised to give it by the very act of agreeing to marry him. She already made the choice to become his wife, and wives are to submit to their husbands.
To put it another way, here is a list of other things which a husband can’t force:
- His wife’s sexual fidelity; she has to freely choose not to pull the train at the local biker bar. The same goes for her having to freely choose not to divorce him and marry another man (adultery).
- His wife’s choice not to murder him and/or his children. She has to freely choose this.
- His wife’s choice to follow the instruction in 1 Cor 7 not to deny sex to him. She has to freely choose this.