reason for living

Submission of Christian wives to their husbands.

For Christians

What is submission?



There are a lot of misconceptions about submission and submissive people.  Before we can intelligently consider what the Bible has to say on the subject of submissive wives we need to clear these misconceptions out of our way.  Let me begin with a few simple statements about the nature of submission:

  • Only a strong person can be submissive.
  • Submissiveness is not timidity, it is not servility, it is not subservience, it is not docility, it is not degrading, it is not a sign of weakness.
  • Submission is a sign of strength, not of weakness and a greater degree of submission requires a greater degree of strength of personal character.

Submission is an act of the will — it is the result of a choice, a decision.  The act of submission can only come from a choice that a person makes.  Submission cannot be enforced upon a person.  Either a person submits of their own free will or they do not submit at all.  Submission is a gift that one person chooses to give to another person.  By contrast oppression is the act of extracting something from a person against their will.  Submission and oppression are, therefore, opposite qualities of a relationship and not even remotely similar.

The submission of a good wife is a glorious thing that is intended to help her and her husband to have a contented life together.  Problems in life and in marriage are more or less inevitable but when a woman is submissive to her man it is much more likely that those problems can be resolved harmoniously, without unpleasant quarrelling and without bitterness and resentment.  Those people who look down on submission as if it were something demeaning, degrading or humiliating are merely showing that they have no understanding of what submission is and that they are quite ignorant of its power.

If you are a Christian wife who has been feeling uncomfortable with the Biblical demand that you submit to your husband then, I hope, these statements have perked up your interest and given you a glimpse of the bright cheerfulness ahead.  Being submissive to your husband does not mean, as so many ignorant detractors of submission seem to think, that you should be an empty-headed bimbo, or that you should have no opinions of your own, or that you should be like a doormat.

If you are a Christian husband I hope that you will take care to understand the nature of submission and be careful to understand your responsibilities in response to your wife's submission to you.  A submissive wife is not a justification for an abusive husband.  God commands men to love their wives with the same kind of love that he [God] gave to his people ... that's a pretty tough assignment to give a mortal man and it doesn't include the possibility of abuse.

Usually when I am asked to comment regarding the submission of wives, I find myself in a debate where somebody is trying to prove from scripture that women do not really have to submit to their husbands or obey them.  In this article I will attempt to demonstrate the error in such thinking.  The argument is not especially difficult but it does tend to focus on the negative side of life rather a lot and consequently doesn't make submission sound very desirable.  So, before I get into the detailed passage-by-passage arguments I would like to try and explain why a wife who is submissive towards her husband is such a glorious and powerful component of an earthly family and of the Christian family at large.  The Christian message is, after all, “good news” and hence a reason for delighted cheerfulness and joy, but in these focused theological debates it sometimes seems that the Christian life is all long faces and dour clothes and instructions towards restrictive behaviour.

A submissive wife is one whose heart is inclined towards satisfying her husband and who has made a choice to be led by her husband, to accept his authority and to be his helper in the broad biblical sense of that word.  She does not seek to please her husband because she is afraid of his rebuke or rejection or punishment, but because she delights to please him and finds satisfaction in doing so.

For a man, a submissive wife is a pleasure to be around because she helps him to feel peaceful and contented, she is a reliable helper who can be depended upon.  He can trust her with his deepest desires and fears because he is not afraid of her scorn or her rejection or her anger.  He can relax with her because he knows that even when he makes mistakes, she will be working with him to put them right and minimize the consequences rather than using them to prove a point or as an excuse for rejecting him in some way.  A man who has a submissive wife acquires a greater sense of self respect because he knows that she respects his authority in her life and she is not in any way trying to belittle him.

A submissive wife is one who makes a choice not to resist her husband's will.  That is not to say that she cannot disagree with him or that she cannot express an opinion.  Indeed the submissive wife is, by definition, a strong woman and will usually therefore have her own opinions and these may often be different to the opinions of her husband.  Can she express them?  Of course she can, and indeed it might often be wrong for her not to express them since she is, after all, supposed to be her husband's helper, not his slave or doormat.  Expressing her opinions and giving advice and suggestions will often be a valuable part of the help that she gives her husband.

Let us see how this works in life by using an analogy of a road for life and junctions in the road for each of life's decision points of choices.  The married man and woman set off walking along the road of life and at each junction they choose which road to take next.  Sooner or later they will arrive at a junction where they each desire to take a different road and hence there is a disagreement:

In the disharmonious family there is a quarrel, there is cajoling or bullying, there is intimidation and bitter words.  The quarrel might last for the rest of their lives with neither giving ground and thus they never move on or, finally, either the husband and wife continue along one road together with one of them feeling resentful and both of them feeling bruised and wary of the other, or if they could not even obtain an unpleasant agreement then the marriage might simply fall apart and they separate, each taking a different road.  None of these outcomes is pleasant or desirable. 

When a submissive woman finds that her wishes conflict with those of her husband she has little or nothing to fear.  If her husband is respectful then they will discuss the matter together agreeable, frankly and cheerfully and through the discussion they might reach either a compromise or one of them might change their mind completely and accept the other person's wishes.  If this happens then they can then continue along the road they have now agreed upon with no sense of bitterness and without having expressed any angry words.  However agreement might not be reached so then what?  If they cannot reach agreement then the submissive wife needs only to obey her husband and accept his wishes graciously.  Having done this there are now only a few possible outcomes, all of which have positive aspects and none of which is particularly terrible.  In the first possible outcome they will take the road the husband selects and, in due course they will discover that they have chosen a good route through life and both will be happy.  In the second possible outcome they will take the road the husband selects but, in due course, they discover that it was not such a good choice after all.  All they do is turn around, go back to the junction and take a different road; there has been no need for argument, nobody has felt disrespected or belittled and they have not bruised one another.  Although the husband's choice turned out to be a bad one, they have discovered the mistake together, discovered it quickly, and swiftly got back onto a better road and, in the process, they have strengthened their bond by having been able to disagree with dignity and mutual respect.  They are not stuck in a perpetual argument at the junction, they have not separated and the process of finding a mutually acceptable road has not weakened their marriage.

If the submissive woman has a husband who is not respectful and who is inclined to abuse her gift of submissive then still she has little to fear.  The worst possible outcome is that they will travel a bad road together until the next junction.  Although the road might be bad it is good to remember the positive aspects of the situation: They have still remained together, they have kept alive the possibility of improving their relationship as they make their way through the troubles of life, they have not wasted time and damaged one another in a bitter quarrel and they are not still standing at the junction locked in argument.  They have moved on, and therefore given themselves the hope of another choice later.  This, remember, is the worst possible outcome.  Even with a selfish husband it is still possible that he will acknowledge that the road is bad and that they will turn back to take another route.

I have mentioned this example of a road journey to try and illustrate that submission can bring real and worthwhile benefits to a marriage.  The scripture also indicates that the act of submission by a woman is able to influence a bad man to change his ways but even if he doesn't change, her choice of submission will still allow her to avoid the worst of the possible problems that a bad marriage and husband might bring.

 

The key text concerning the submission of wives to their husbands

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.  In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church-- for we are members of his body.  "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery -- but I am talking about Christ and the church.

However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Taken from Paul's letter to the congregation at Ephesus, chapter 5, verses 22 to 33.

 

Submission in the Christian world

Submission of one person to another is described in various forms in the Christian faith.  There is the submission of wives to husbands, of slaves to masters, of Christians to one another, of Christians to the ruling authorities, and Christians to God.  If my own experience is anything to rely on, then it seems that we Christians do not much like the idea of submission and, if we think about it at all, then we do so on order to reduce its application to our day to day lives.  In this document I hope to redress the balance slightly.

 

We don't really like the idea though ...

In the “Western World” of the twenty-first century, the form of submission that is perhaps most frequently contested is that of wives to husbands.  It has been pointed out on several occasions and by various people that the scriptures do not say that wives are to obey their husbands — only that they are to submit to them.  Now, each of the clauses in the preceding sentence is true; the problem comes with the word “only” that is used to connect the two clauses.  The women (and many men) who want to limit the authority of a husband over his wife are seriously mistaken if they think that a husband can expect less compliance from a submissive wife than from an obedient one; the truth is quite the reverse.  Obedience is easy.  Submission is hard.  Obedience demands little.  Submission demands much.  It is not possible for a wife to submit to her husband without also being prepared to obey him; a submissive wife is also an obedient wife.

 

The meanings of the words "submit" and "obey"

If I obey then I do what those who have authority over me tell me to do.  There must be an explicit command given before I can obey it and consequently if no command is given then it is not possible for me to be either obedient or disobedient.  Obedience does not of itself require me to be cheerful, willing, co-operative or contented.  I can be surly, rude, bitter and unhelpful and still be obedient.  I do not have to be willing to be merely obedient because mere obedience can be forced upon me.  For these reasons, obedience is easy when compared to full submission.

In order to submit to a person who has authority over me, I do not need to wait for an explicit command but instead I can attempt to anticipate the commands and thus avoid the need for them to be given.  Anticipating the commands does not mean that I can substitute my own agenda or my own will but rather that I am trying to imagine what the person in authority will want me to do next; I am trying to make my will conform to theirs.  Attempting to anticipate the commands does not allow me to disobey any command that has been explicitly given — those I am still required to obey.  If I am to be truly submissive I must also learn to be contented, cheerful, willing and co-operative even if I do not like doing what is required of me.  Finally submission is a choice that I must continuously make.  It can be seen therefore that submission is far more demanding than merely obedience and requires much more of me than does mere obedience.

It is also worth repeating that submission is NEVER enforced upon a person.  Submission is the opposite of oppression.  In fact submission is a gift that one person gives to another.  In a marriage, submission is the wife's gift to her husband.  If the husband is wise he will treasure that gift and handle it very carefully because his own happiness depends on it.  Submission is a gift that must be renewed each day or even each moment.

 

Trying to wriggle out of the obligation to obey

It has been claimed that a wife need only obey her husband when her husband's will conforms to the will of God and that is right for a wife to disobey her husband when what he commands is wrong.  At first sight this argument seems to be very reasonable but unfortunately it leads into chaos and emptiness and also leaves the wives in a very cruel “no-win” situation.  It is true that all husbands are fallen and sinful and it follows that they will make mistakes and that they might desire and command what they ought not desire and command.  It is also true, but more frequently overlooked, that all wives are fallen and sinful and it follows that they will make mistakes and that they might desire what they ought not desire.  God knew both of these facts when he arranged for scripture to be written and yet he still gave wives the instruction to submit to their husbands.  He knew that husbands would wield the authority that he gave them imperfectly and he knew that wives would respond to that authority imperfectly.  It is a terrible wrong for husbands to abuse their authority but it is no less terribly wrong for wives to reject or usurp their husband's authority.

Some of the people who claim that wives have the right to selectively submit to their husbands have put much emphasis on three New Testament passages - Acts 5:1-10, Acts 4:19 (and a similar passage in Acts 5:29) and Ephesians 5:21.  It is worth looking at these to see what they add to the debate.

 

A passage to consider:  Acts 5, v1-10

The first passage concerns Ananias and his wife Sapphira who sold a field, brought the money to the Apostles feet and were promptly struck dead.  It has been said that this proves that a wife who does something sinful because her husband commanded it, will be punished by God and that therefore it is right for a wife to obey her husband only when she thinks his will is in accordance with God's will.  The fact that anyone can draw such a conclusion from this passage reveals only how desperate they are to avoid having to admit that wives must obey their husbands.  Even a simple reading of the passage will show quite clearly that Ananias and Sapphira were in the deceit together.  There is nothing at all in the passage to suggest that Sapphira was ordered to do something that she thought wrong; indeed there is nothing to suggest that she was ordered at all.  Verse 2 reads as follows:

“But with his wife's agreement he kept part of the money for himself ...”  Verse 2 as presented in the Good News Bible.

“And with his wife's knowledge and connivance he kept back and wrongfully appropriated some of the proceeds ...”  Verse 2 as presented in the Amplified Bible

It is very clear, then, that Sapphira was not forced by her errant husband to do something that she did not wish to do; she was not obeying an order that she thought wrong but rather she was aiding and abetting a plan of which she approved.  We cannot conclude from the story that Sapphira was an innocent and unwilling partner in wrongdoing and, consequently, this passage is irrelevant to the present discussion.

 

A second passage to consider:  Acts 4 verse 19

This passage concerns the instructions given by the Sanhedrin to Peter and John, and the reply, repeated below, that was given by the disciples:

“You yourselves judge which is right in God's sight — to obey you or to obey God.” From the Good News Bible (the text is identical in the Amplified Bible)

Let us first state an obvious but important point: This is not a conflict between a husband and a wife but between two groups of male Jews.  The relationship between the parties is therefore very different to that between a husband and a wife [footnote 1].  We also need to ask whether the Sanhedrin had any authority over Peter and John.  Both parties were claiming to represent God — but which of them had the better claim?  The two disciples had received their commission personally and physically from the mouth of Jesus himself.  Jesus came to set aside the old religious order and to establish a new one in which the role of the Sanhedrin (assuming it had ever had any role in God's sight) was to be diminished.  This by itself gives strong reason for believing that the Sanhedrin did not have any authority over Peter and John however the words that the disciples used are perhaps more significant; they did not simply refuse to obey the Sanhedrin (though they implied that they were going to) rather they threw the whole command back at the Sanhedrin by telling the Sanhedrin members “judge for yourselves” and thereby questioned the Sanhedrin's authority to issue the order at all.  Implicit in the disciples' response is the notion that the Sanhedrin knew, or at least ought to have known, that it was acting beyond its powers.  In a modern setting the disciples might have said “If you stop and think for one moment you will realize that your own laws and rules prohibit you from giving this order.”

Also it is worth remembering that when this conversation took place Jerusalem was within the Roman empire; the final authority was not the Sanhedrin but the Roman governor and the Romans did allow a certain amount of religious freedom.

For the reasons given above this passage does not give any support to the notion that wives should only selectively obey their husbands.

 

The third passage to consider:  Ephesians 5:21

The third passage “Submit to one another because of your reverence for Christ” is apparently given to believers in general.  Consequently the form of submission referred to in this text is slightly different to that spoken of in other texts.  Because this command applies to all relationships (including those between equals) it is not feasible for it to always imply unconditional or automatic obedience.  Obedience to one another cannot be forced on equals since it would be impossible to know who should obey who!  The other aspects of submission remain valid however.  Thus although this passage does show that obedience is not always a part of submission it does not give occasion for wives to disobey their husbands because a husband and wife are not equal in role or function.

Very important side note: The inequality of role and function for a husband and a wife are biologically obvious but this does not imply inequality in value.  The desire and tendency to award a value to everything is itself a symptom of our very fallen nature.  Personally I would rate a wife as one of the most valuable assets in the universe and the bible lends much support to the notion that having a wife is something that a man ought to treasure and value highly.

It can be seen therefore these passages do not by themselves give a wife any grounds for disobeying her husband.  To know whether there are times when a wife can legitimately disobey her husband it is necessary to look directly at the nature of sin.

 

The nature of sin

Without going into all the arguments and texts, the New Testament teaches that sin is, in part, the doing of what you believe to be wrong; Paul in his teachings uses the example of food.  Thus if you believe that it is morally wrong for you to eat a particular food — cabbage for instance — then you sin every time you eat cabbage even though God has not prohibited the eating of cabbage.  It is your belief that condemns you.  Consequently if a wife really believes that it would be morally wrong to obey her husband then she will sin by obeying him and she should therefore disobey him.  However, this is a very uncomfortable, unloving and unbiblical position ...

A very unkind “No-win” situation

If we say that a wife can choose whether or not to obey her husband then we will often place her in a very difficult position.  If she disobeys her husband in order to supposedly obey God then she has automatically disobeyed God.  This means that whatever she does will be wrong and this seems to me to be an extremely unloving and burdensome position to put anyone into.  God's instructions that a wife should obey her husband are far kinder and more loving because she can always obey God by obeying her husband.  If her husband tells her to do something that God disapproves of then it is her husband (not her) who will have to give an account of it to God.  The woman cannot be held accountable for the matter because her responsibility (the bit that God will ask her to account for) is to obey her husband.

 

An obedient wife does right even when she does wrong...

If the married woman believes that is more important to obey God by submitting to and obeying her husband then she can do this with complete confidence.  Sarah obeyed Abraham and went to live with both the king of Egypt [Footnote 2] and with Abimelech the king of Gerar [Footnote 3].  There is no indication that Sarah was held responsible by God or made to suffer for these events even though God was offended by them.  Now, keeping these two events in mind, let us see what the Apostle Peter wrote on the subject of submission of wives to husbands:

In the same way [Footnote 4] you wives must submit to your husbands, so that if any of them do not believe God's word, your conduct will win them over to believe.  It will not be necessary for you to say a word, because they will see how pure and reverent your conduct is.  You should not use outward aids to make yourself beautiful such as the way you do your hair, or the jewellery you put on, or the dresses you wear.  Instead your beauty should consist of your true inner self, the ageless beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of the greatest value in God's sight.  For the devout women of the past who placed their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful by submitting to their husbands.  Sarah was like that; she obeyed Abraham and called him her master.  You are now her daughters if you do good and are not afraid of anything.

1 Peter 3:1-7 Good News Bible

So Sarah, the woman who obeyed her husband even when what he told her to do was morally wrong, is held up as an example of how Christian wives should be.  Christian women married to non-Christian men are told to submit to them and, by implication, obey them.  It is almost inconceivable (to me at least) that Peter should be incapable of imagining the possible conflicts of morality between a believing wife and an unbelieving husband but nonetheless Peter doesn't make any special provision for such a situation.  Yet even in the same passage Peter tells wives that they are to “do good”.  At first glance this seems grossly unfair; the wife is to obey her husband even when what he tells her to do is wrong, yet she is also to “do good”.  This apparent paradox is easily removed if we remember that a person can only be held responsible for sin when they have a free choice in the matter.  If Peter is assuming that the wife has no choice except to obey her husband then he is also assuming that she cannot sin in what she obediently does.  In such circumstances, her only possible sin is that of disobeying her husband.  Notice also that Peter describes this sort of conduct as being of “the greatest value in God's sight”.  In other words, this is what God expects and desires from a married woman and it is not the same as what he expects and desires from a married man.

A wife's obedience to a misguided, errant or ungodly husband does not mean that any harmful consequences of his wrong actions will be avoided, but this should not concern a Christian (man or woman, in this or any similar situation) too much.  Our obedience leaves room (a) for us to grow individually in the fruits of the spirit and (b) for God to act miraculously:

 

A couple of examples of men obeying God by submitting to sinful men

Jesus obeyed his father, was arrested illegally, tried unfairly, judged wrongly, executed without having committed a crime, suffered horribly and died.  His obedience provided the means by which we are saved.

Paul of Tarsus was also treated unfairly and wrongly and he also endured great physical suffering (read 2 Corinthians 11:23-31 for Paul's own description of his troubles).  Nonetheless Paul did not seek to oppose the Governing authorities by forbidden means but instead entrusted his case to the one who always judges fairly.  His obedience allowed the Gospel to be spread to the entire world.

We as mere mortals are not expected to understand all of what is happening in the world around us [Footnote 5].  We cannot see what God will do one second into the future and we are only rarely aware of what he did one second in the past.  We are only capable of living moment by moment and it is in the present moment that we must obey — trusting always in God's promise that all things work together for good for those who love the Lord (Romans 8).

 

Where did love go?

I would be surprised if some readers were not by now asking what has happened to the God of love and remarking that all of this seems a little harsh.  To such a charge I would reply that in some ways it is very harsh.  We are called to be obedient unto death.  God has provided a moral law that is totally unyielding.  We do not judge the moral law — it is the standard against which we are judged.  If there are mitigating circumstances surrounding my failure to reach the required standard then our God, who is just, will know them and take them into account.  The fact that I cannot attain the required standard on the occasions when there are no mitigating circumstances is precisely why the Son of God had to be crucified on my behalf:  That is how harsh the moral law of God is and how loving and merciful our God is — it his by his law that we are condemned and by his grace and sacrifice that we are saved.  Love does not set aside the requirement for obedience but on the cross at Calvary love does deal with the consequences of disobedience.

However, near the beginning of this discussion I gave an example of a husband and wife taking a journey through life and I tried to demonstrate that, in fact, where a wife has a submissive attitude and is therefore willing to obey her husband, the outcome can never be as bad as worst that can happen where there is no obedience or submission.  The requirement for a woman to submit to her husband and to obey him is harsh in the sense that it is not optional but it is the harshness imposed by a loving God who knows that this strict approach will always avoid the worst of the possible outcomes and always provide the possibilities for a couple to grow together, mature, gain wisdom and learn to love one another more effectively.

The alternative, if you recall in my example, was that the couple might find themselves trudging together with bitterness and resentment, might be stuck at the same junction indefinitely and locked in unproductive argument, or they might simply separate altogether.  The path of submission and attendant obedience is something our loving God has ordained for us so that we can enjoy marriage even with conflicts and disagreements.  The requirement for wives to be submissive and obedient seems harsh to those who have not understood the concepts, who have not understood its rich benefits to both husband and wife, and who have not recognized the awfulness of the alternatives.

 

A summary reminder: What is submission?

As already mentioned, submission is a gift that one person gives to another.  Now I would like to briefly reiterate and expand upon some misconceptions about a submissive person.

Misconception: A submissive person is weak.
This is very wrong.  In fact a very weak person cannot submit.  Only a very strong person can submit fully.  Remember, submission is a gift that must be given freely.  It is impossible to force a person to submit because that is a contradiction in terms.  A weak person can be manipulated and forced to obey but then that is no longer submission but oppression.
Misconception: A submissive person has no control.
Actually nobody is every fully in control of their own lives because nobody can control all of their circumstances.  Submission is an act of the will; a submissive person makes a positive choice to submit to another person.  Consequently a submissive person has at least as much in control as any other person, possibly more since many people never make definite positive choices but merely drift from one excuse to another.
Misconception: Submission is degrading.
In fact submission is a very beautiful and enormously valuable gift that only a strong person can give.  Nobody is degraded by giving, or wanting to give, beautiful and valuable gifts to another person.  Submission is a gift that benefits the giver even if the receiver is incapable of treating the gift and the giver with the appropriate respect and care.
Misconception: A submissive person is abused.
Well, it is true that a submissive person could be abused by a stupid person who does not appreciate the value of the gift.  However, anybody can be abused, submissive or not, so this irrelevant.

 

FOOTNOTES

1.  A husband and wife are bound together until separated by death; they are not free to separate from one another.  The husband and one wife are made one in a fashion that does not exist between any other two of God's people.  The dispute between the disciples and the Sanhedrin is also a dispute between "equals" to the extent that all the parties to the conflict are men.  A different situation arises between a married couple simply because "the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church" (cf Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:3) — in other words the husband is responsible for, and will be held accountable before God for, his wife.  By itself this is no easier than the original situation and it certainly does not allow the wife to act according to her own will.  She now has a choice between doing what she believes her husband wants her to do and doing what she believes God wants her to do.  Her own desires don't get much chance to surface.  God in his written word has told her to submit to, and hence to obey, her husband.  It follows therefore that by obeying her husband she is obeying God.  Nonetheless it might be that after prayerful consideration she will conclude that she must disobey her husband and if she really believes that this is God's will then she must do it.
2.  Genesis 12:10-20
3.  Genesis 20
4.  The previous passage should also be read — it discusses the idea of doing what is right by submitting even though it might lead to unpleasantness and suffering.
5.  Proverbs, chapter 20, verse 24: The Lord has determined our path; how then can anyone understand the direction his own life is taking?

Copyright © 1992, 1993, 1999, 2000, 2003

 

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