First draft prepared in November 2004.
From time to time people write to reason4living asking for clarification of articles or asking for advice about particular problems. Most of those enquiries are about relationships and the relationship articles are the most frequently read articles on the web-site. Furthermore the relationship questions generally follow a well worn path. If you are a Christian woman and looking for answers to relationship problems you are not alone:
Here are some examples of questions that we have received. Actually these questions are ones we invented ourselves. We invented these questions because we don't want to reveal anybody's secrets but, despite being fictitious, these invented questions are based on real ones and do accurately portray the tone and content of the real questions that occasionally arrive. What we mean is we invented the wording, but not the situations that they describe.
As you can see, married Christian women can find themselves in some quite challenging situations. You might have noticed that all of the above sample questions were asked by women and the husbands appeared to be at fault. We do get questions from men too but this article is about a dilemma faced by wives so questions from men are not so relevant. Before continuing, I should point out that, nobody should attempt to read too much into the above example questions nor start passing judgement about the character of the men involved. First, it is somewhat unlikely that any of the women were perfect wives and some of the women who put questions like these to us even claimed that they were themselves largely responsible for the poor condition of their marriages as a result of their own neglect or unfaithfulness. Some of the couples had lived in bad circumstances with a significant degree of hardship and stress as the result of conflict, sickness or poverty and some of the men had been treated badly by their wives. What is done is done and here at reason4living we only want to help people decide how to deal with their own bad situations in a constructive and God-honouring fashion.
The issue for many of reason4living's female correspondents is not the discomfort or pain of the situation but the dilemma of how to obey their husband without doing something that they believe to be sinful or morally wrong. One person managed to encapsulate the problem with the following question:
Should a woman obey a husband who asks her to sin gravely to her own destruction?
Since this question is a tidy précis of the problem expressed by several correspondents, this article will answer this specific question.
Before we answer the question, however, I want to stress that whatever is written here is for people who are trusting Jesus as their personal Lord and saviour and who have been born again through the Spirit of God. That is vitally important because our relationship with God through Jesus defines what we can hope for. If we know nothing about Jesus, how can we trust his promises and how can we expect to meet him? If we are not imbued with the divine life then we are clinging only to a mortal life that isn't going to endure very much or very long. If you are not already putting your trust in Jesus, this might be a good time to start, so please do read on anyway.
To answer the question fully we are going to have to delve into several different aspects of the Christian faith and take clues from different situations so, to make life a little simpler we will answer the question by first dismantling it and answering it portion by portion before trying to deal with it as a whole.
Let's look first at the idea of destruction and this, straight away, is where a person's relationship with God is vitally important. A person who is born again through the Spirit of God cannot be destroyed; it simply isn't possible. That person can suffer terribly and endure the most awful and unimaginable physical and emotional agonies but eventually their body will expire and their spirit will go free. If we are to stand any chance of living the lives God intended us to live and becoming the people God intended us to become then, even while we busy ourselves with attempting to live good and happy lives on planet Earth we have to also remember that we are only passing through and that we are on our way to somewhere else. My body can be destroyed, and it is going to rot or burn one way or another anyway, but I myself, imbued with the life of God, am something more than a mere body and for me mortal death is merely a gateway to somewhere else. For the man or woman who is born again of the Spirit of God, mortal demise is, if I can reuse a few famous words: not the end, nor even the beginning of the end but merely the end of the beginning. God has promised that he will not condemn us because at Calvary Jesus has already dealt fully with our sin and the consequences of our sin and now there is nothing left for God to do about it; nothing else is necessary. If God is for us, who can be against us? If God is for us, who will condemn us? So, in the eternal sense, destruction is just not possible and therefore it is not something that a reborn wife needs to fear.
Nonetheless we are called to look after ourselves in the bodily sense while we are mortally alive. When we involve ourselves in acts that are sinful or evil or just plain stupid then we get hurt emotionally, and sometimes physically. There can be intense emotional pain, feelings of rejection, despair, loneliness and isolation. It is not destruction in the total and eternal sense but it is in some ways destructive and, if nothing else, it is unpleasant. How, as disciples of Jesus, are we to deal with such experiences?
At this point I think it is important to remember that we are broken people living in a broken world, that we were saved in a broken world, that we are called to serve in a broken world and we are called to grow in a broken world. No lesser a theologian than Paul of Tarsus himself was obliged to wonder how it was that the bad he did not want to do, he did, while the good he did want to do, he failed to do. There is, therefore, no real possibility that we are going to avoid sin and its attendant emotional pain and suffering. On the contrary it looks very much as though pain and suffering is something that God expects us to go through and that it is something that he uses to teach us more important lessons. God has nowhere promised his children an easy and cosy life but, instead, has forewarned us that it will be painful, that we will be reviled, that there is a cost that we should count before we even start following Jesus, that we we will suffer for our faith and that God himself intends to purify us by passing us through the fire seven times over. In the new testament there is not a single one of the disciples who does well, in any material sense, out of following Jesus: James was beheaded, Stephen stoned, John exiled, Paul tortured imprisoned and presumed executed, and so on ... That doesn't mean that we should go out seeking suffering and painful experiences but it does mean that we should take care that we handle pain and suffering with the right attitude. Foremost, we should remember, as mentioned earlier, that whatever we experience is not the end; it may feel destructive but it is not destruction. Furthermore, there are many valuable lessons that are taught to us through dark and tearful anguish. The gold may beg to differ but the wise metalworker insists that the gold emerges from the furnace a little purer and brighter each time. If we are trusting Jesus as our wise metalworker then we can also be confident that each agony does, in some way, improve us.
In fact the agony is itself evidence that some good process is somewhere, somehow taking place. A toddler that had fun with the fire and now is lying in a hospital burns unit knows nothing of the equations that describe combustion or of the regeneration of tissue or of intravenous therapy; all that toddler knows is lots and lots of pain. The pain, however, is a good sign because a dead toddler would feel nothing. In a similar way, emotional anguish is an indication that some part of us is still living in touch with the moral reality of the universe as God created it. Pain is something that God himself equipped us with for our protection but also for our education. In the future, not only will that toddler be more careful what it plays with but it will also be able to teach a few other toddlers not to make the same mistake and it will be able to empathize with, support and comfort those that do make the same mistake. It has been damaged in one way but it emerges from the hospital better equipped in other ways. The bit that was damaged wasn't going to endure more than a few decades anyway, while the bits that are improved can be eternal.
To summarize this section, we cannot avoid sin and we cannot avoid suffering. What we have to do is treat our suffering as manure that fertilizes our spiritual roots while we, grafted into the vine, grow into something more glorious and more fruitful.
Now I want to quickly address something that is probably a minor point; a mere technicality. Many people talk about the seriousness of the sin that they wish to avoid. Our question, for example, used the words “sin gravely” which of course implies that some sins are more grave than others. Let's look at this just briefly:
Contrary to popular opinion there are no moral degrees of sin. To be sure there are sins that are more or less socially acceptable, and there are sins that cause us greater or lesser amounts of personal suffering, and there are sins that are more or less easily ignored or concealed, but in terms of our relationship with God one sin is just as bad as any other sin. When the standard that you are called to is that of perfection, it really doesn't matter how you messed up, only that you did mess up. One slightly silly but easy way to imagine this is to think of a rope that we use to climb from earth to God sitting on a cloud above, and every sinful act puts a break in the rope. Consequently it doesn't matter whether you put one break or a hundred breaks and it doesn't matter whether you break the rope twenty feet above the ground or two feet below the cloud; any single break, anywhere, will be sufficient to prevent you climbing to God in the cloud. In fact, since we have all sliced our ropes in hundreds of places, it is impossible for us to get to heaven by our own efforts which is exactly why it is such Good News that God took the form of a man and came down to earth to find us and recover us. But that is another story.
Before we get to the core of our sample question I want to step aside and look at something that is important in answering the question properly. The God of the Bible is, if some people are to be believed, a cantankerous, capricious, wholly unreasonable and outright cruel deity who asks for the impossible and then condemns people for not achieving it. This is not a true reflection of God's nature but since it is a common accusation lets investigate it; some stories come immediately to mind:
Let us consider, for example, the case of Moses who, in the Book of Exodus, has just done a sterling work in moving a million or two grumbling Israelites out of Egypt at the start of their journey into the promised land and now finds himself uncomfortably camped at the side of the sea, apparently trapped between marshland, hostile desert terrain and violent enemies. His compatriots are threatening to stone him to death because they are missing their cucumbers, while his former boss, The Pharaoh, is in a bad mood and is bringing the Egyptian army out to renegotiate Moses' terms of employment. At this point Moses is beginning to think that God owes him a favour or two, or at least an explanation and so in his agitated despair, he prays for advice and deliverance. How does God respond? For sure God doesn't admit that perhaps he hadn't planned the mission all too well and that they'll try it again some other time. He doesn't even offer a few words of tender comfort. No, all Moses receives is the abrupt response of, “Moses, why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to march on.” This response translates into modern English as something like “Moses what are you prattling about? Get off your backside and get moving.” Now that isn't exactly the cosy sort of response that our tender-hearted, cute and cosy little God is supposed to give but then that's probably because its only the populists who think that we worship a cute and cosy little God and they're pretty muddled up in their thinking anyway. So what was really going on? In fact it is very simple: Moses and his compatriots were camped by the sea because they had decided that God's instructions were unreasonable. God had told them to travel in a certain direction but there was a sea or marsh across the route and since they obviously couldn't march through the sea or the marsh it was proven in their minds that God was stupid or cruel or both. In other words, God's instructions were, what an atheistic, humanistic, faithless society would, and did, label “unreasonable”; God wanted them to destroy themselves by drowning, and that for no apparent reason. However we know how the story actually ends: Moses recovered his trust and the Israelites did march on, and as their feet entered the sea God made a way for them to pass. Was it unreasonable? To somebody who doesn't know God, yes, but to a disciple of God, no. The plan that God had in mind was bigger and more glorious than the parts of the plan that he had explained to Moses. God was not just taking the Israelites out of slavery (which was all they themselves really cared about) but he was also using the occasion to teach them and us something about himself, something about ourselves, something about the nature of the universe and something about the kind of relationship we need to have with him.
God often asks us for behaviour that is, when considered in oversimplified, godless and humanist terms, unreasonable and apparently foolish or destructive or both. In reality God asks us for behaviour that will bring glory to himself and that will deepen our understanding of ourselves, of the universe, and of our place within it and hence will deepen and strengthen our relationships with God and other people. However, just as Moses discovered, God's plans are frequently not obvious to minds that are full of preconceptions, and sometimes we have to take the plunge before things become clearer. God doesn't tell us everything at once and if he did, would we understand or believe him. If you had been an Israelite in Egypt and Moses announced that God had told him that you were going to walk through the sea without getting your feet wet, would you have abandoned your cucumber patch and followed him? Or would you have condemned Moses as a lunatic? Perhaps, sometimes, some things are best left unsaid!
The quick answer to this question is no. In the story we just considered, that of Moses leading the Israelites across the sea, there was a happy ending for Moses and his compatriots but the faith that pleases God does not always lead to health, joy and prosperity. In fact it often leads to pain, grief and suffering. Consider the following excerpts from the document written to the Hebrews. At first it seems like the faithful will, like Moses at the seashore, all experience triumph and see the glory of God manifested in powerful, awe inspiring acts:
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days. By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient. And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again.
The letter addressed to the Hebrews, section 11:29.
So far it all sounds quite exciting and good doesn't it? But before we can even catch our breath the author continues in the very next sentence:
Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated — the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.
So although we'd like to think that the faithful will always know the pleasures of comfortable prosperity and the delights of peace and harmony it seems that such things aren't guaranteed. Why is this? Why does God let those who try to obey him suffer such torments? The author of the letter to the Hebrews continues:
God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
The implication of this is not only that material mortal comfort is not guaranteed but also that God doesn't even intend it to be so. Suffering is apparently part of the deal for some people and the suffering has a purpose, namely that we learn perseverance, that we find an opportunity to identify and struggle with our own sinfulness, and that we learn to focus on what is truly and eternally important rather than concentrating on what is temporal and of little value.
So now let us come to discussing obedience. Does God really ask that a wife should always obey her husband or does he not? Is it reasonable that she should give unconditional obedience to a fallen, broken man? Additionally, keeping in mind what we just learned from Moses' experience, is it sensible that we should expect God's idea of reasonableness to conform to our own?
Let's take a look at the passage in the Bible that defines the relationship between a husband and wife.
... the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman,' for she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. Genesis, (the book of beginnings), section 2:20 to 2:24 as it is presented in the NIV Bible.
The above short passage shows us the basic nature of the relationship between a husband and a wife and despite its brevity it is possible for us to learn quite a lot from this passage.
We can also learn a few other things that are not explicitly stated but which are implied: If the woman has been formed from him then it follows that she and he share the same basic nature and characteristics and this in turn suggests that she has needs not altogether unlike his. Since she is formed to be his helper, it follows that she is not his slave, nor beast of burden, nor child, nor parent nor just an ordinary acquaintance.
In other words the relationship between a husband and wife is quite unlike the relationships that either of them have with anybody else because the marriage relationship is not just two separate persons engaged in shared activities, but is also the conjoining of two persons at a deeper emotional and spiritual level.
This background to the creation of woman and the relationship between husband and wife is important for helping us to correctly apply the instructions given to wives in the following passage that was originally written to Christians in Ephesus:
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. The letter to the disciples in Ephesus, section 5:22 to 5:24.
The above passage does not spell out the exact details of how a Christian woman should relate to her husband in any particular circumstances, but when considered within the context of the relationship between husband and wife, it does set forth the general guidelines within which she should make her decisions.
First, she is to be submissive to her husband. Lots of people don't know what the words submit and submissive mean and quite wrongly think that there is something weak, degrading or demeaning about being submissive; such thoughts are entirely wrong. In fact only a strong person can be fully submissive because submission is a deliberate, conscious choice that a person makes and continues to make even in difficult circumstances, and it is a glorious and precious gift that one person gives to another. There is nothing degrading about giving precious gifts and there is nothing weak about choosing a tough course of action. (footnote YY)
Second, the husband is the “head” of his wife, which means of course that he is ultimately in charge. This doesn't mean that he must make every decision nor that he should ignore his wife's advice, dreams and opinions but it does mean that accountability stops with him and hence final authority also rests with him.
Third, the wife is to give her husband the same honour and respect that she would give to God if she were ever to meet him. This doesn't mean that the husband is God, nor that he possesses divine power or infallibility, nor that the wife should pray to her husband. Also it doesn't mean that the wife is bound to obey mindlessly. However, it does mean that if a wife wishes to challenge her husband's actions or choices, she should do so with the same deference and humility that she would use if she were challenging God, her heavenly father, and also that, if her husband does not change his mind, she should be willing to accept his decision and obey him with good grace, with humility and without resentment.
Fourth, there is no part of her life over which her husband does not have authority and no part of her life for which her husband will not have to give an account. “Everything” includes everything. This doesn't mean that a husband should attempt to assert control in every part of his wife's life (only a foolish man would try!), but it does mean that the wife is not entitled refuse his wishes in any part of her life.
Next let us review something that Peter taught:
In the same way [footnote ZZ] 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.
The first letter from Peter, section 3:1-7, as presented in the Good News Bible
The passage above reinforces the teaching that was given to the disciples at Ephesus. We will refer to this passage again later but, for now, one very important point to notice is that the Christian wives are not told that their top priority should be to avoid every kind of evil and keep their husbands on the straight and narrow ... Instead, what God considers to be of the greatest value in a married woman is the ageless beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. Many married women will, if they are honest, have to admit that this is not an easy thing for them to achieve.
Another important point to notice in Peter's remarks is that he uses Sarah as an example of how Christian women should defer to their husbands. Some Christian women might be thinking that it was easy for Sarah to treat her husband with respect because she was married to a spiritual giant like Abraham but, in fact, Abraham was far from perfect and the bible records two occasions when Abraham told Sarah to do something that God thoroughly disapproved of and Sarah, in each case, obeyed (footnote AA).
As already mentioned, these instructions are given in a generalized manner and they do not specify exact details for how they are to be applied in a particular situation; that is something each of us must work out for ourselves on each occasion. In order to help us to decide how to implement these instructions it is helpful to see who the instructions were originally given to and under what circumstances they were given.
What we have in both of the above New Testament passages are instructions that were given to people who were living fairly ordinary lives. What we mean is that the people to whom these instructions were directed were not at that time involved in some special crisis situation but, instead, they were just doing ordinary things like doing their day to day jobs, going shopping, bringing up children, visiting friends and relatives, getting married, being sick, preparing to die, and doing all the ordinary activities that are common to all societies. Furthermore these instructions were given to fallen people, who could, and did make bad choices and take wrong actions.
Consequently these instructions certainly apply to all contemporary Christian people who are also living ordinary lives. The next thing we have to consider is how much ordinary life can vary before it stops being ordinary and becomes a special case or exceptional case in which these instructions become inappropriate and can be justifiably and temporarily set aside.
This is important: All instructions have limits of ordinary applicability and outside those limits it might, or might not, be appropriate to suspend or ignore the instructions. Consider, for example the road traffic regulations that say that vehicles should not exceed the speed limits, should not pass red stop lights and that they should not overtake other vehicles by weaving in and out of the traffic. These instructions are given to all drivers and are intended to ensure that the roads are a safe and harmonious travelling environment for everybody engaged in their ordinary everyday journeys. However when a driver is in charge of an ambulance or fire tender and is on the way to, for example, a major chemical spillage, it might (but also might not) be appropriate for that driver to disobey all of these road traffic instructions and drive their vehicle in a manner that would, ordinarily, be considered reckless.
The instructions given to wives concerning their relationship with husbands also share the notion that there are limits to their applicability. We will consider this by presenting and analysing two fictitious example situations.
Imagine a situation in which a husband who is a fairly ordinary sort of fellow one day arrives home completely delirious and with an obvious wound on his head and in this delirious state he tells his wife that she should pack a bag and burn the house down because they are moving to a new area. Should the wife obey or not? We know that the biblical instructions apply to people in ordinary everyday situations but is this an ordinary everyday situation? Clearly it isn't because only a very tiny percentage of the population will ever suffer a head wound that leaves them delirious. So, having conceded that this is an exceptional situation we must now ask ourselves if it is sufficiently exceptional that the wife would be correct to ignore the day-to-day instruction that a wife should obey her husband and, instead, take the exceptional action of disobeying her husband? Now there is no straightforward answer to this question and certainly there is no tidy little rule book that we can refer to in order to pick the correct response from a list of choices. Instead we have to consider the intent of the instructions for wifely obedience and consider, as best we can, how we can achieve the same goals in these exceptional circumstances. God has given us brains and a certain amount of freedom of thought and we are obliged to use them as best we can. We know from reading the bible stories and considering them intelligently that our God is a God who cares very much about relationships between people. We know that our God thinks it very important that we care for one another. We know that God has often described the relationship between himself and his people as if it were a relationship between a husband and a wife and we know that God normally deals with his people gently. Consequently although there is a very clear instruction for the wife to obey her husband we can see that in this exceptional situation her obedience would would not help to bring about the sort of relationship between her and her husband that the original instruction was meant to facilitate and so if this particular wife refuses to burn the house down on this particular day she will have done no wrong. Equally however, if the wife is a simple minded woman (and God has created simple minded people and we are not to despise them) and believes that she should always obey her husband no matter what and does therefore burn the house down, she too will have done no wrong. Admittedly she will now be homeless but she has heard the word of God and trusted it with her limited understanding and acted faithfully according to what she understood, and our loving God is not going to despise her or criticize her for that.
The example we have just considered, that of a brain damaged husband issuing unreasonable instructions was not too difficult. Now let us try a harder example.
This time imagine a husband who is not a God-fearing man and who is, shall we say, a bit of a rascal, prone to be easily irritated and quite aggressive in expressing his displeasure. This man and his wife run a small greengrocers shop and he tells his wife to add some weights to the scales so that the customers will effectively be cheated on the price of the fruits and vegetables that are sold in their shop. How should this wife respond to her husband's instruction? We will assume, for the sake of our discussion, that the wife has already attempted to negotiate with her husband and that he has listened to her opinion and has rejected it. She is therefore in a situation where she must either obey or disobey and there is no possibility of postponing that choice.
As a small aside, some people might say that this is such a minor sin that it isn't really worth bothering about, to which I would reply that they might want to reread their bibles. In the Bible, dishonesty (not, as often thought, sexual morality) is the sin that God rails against most strongly and most often. In the eyes of God, cheating in a transaction is most certainly not a trivial offence. (Footnote PP). Earlier we noted that actually all sins are equally bad but if we were ever to change our mind and create a list of sins ranked by badness then dishonesty would, by Biblical standards, be the most serious of them all.
Anyway, let us get back to the woman's situation and the choice she must make: will she obey her husband and cheat the customers or disobey her husband and take whatever consequences that brings? If we are going to be rational we must analyse this wife's choice in exactly the same way that we analysed the choice of the wife in our first example, and this means that we must ask whether this is a situation that commonly occurs in ordinary life or whether it is an exceptional situation. If it is a common situation then it is covered by the instructions that the apostles gave to god-fearing wives but if it is exceptional then, as in our first example, we will have to work from a more generalized approach to decide how she should respond. So, which is it: common or exceptional? Sadly there is nothing exceptional about dishonesty in general, nor dishonest traders in particular, and the situation of Christian women married to unbelieving husbands is explicitly mentioned in the apostolic instructions. Furthermore, as we saw in our first example, the general purpose of the instruction for wives to obey their husbands is because it is an important means of maintaining harmony in relationships. So it would seem on all counts that this particular wife should obey her husband.
However, this conclusion is liable to cause much consternation because, at a superficial analysis, we here have an apparent paradox: As a god-fearing woman, the wife in our second example wishes to avoid sin and yet she is apparently presented with two choices both of which involve sin and no third option. Superficially, it appears that either she sins by disobeying her husband or she sins by acting dishonestly with the customers. This is a good moment to remember a few important aspects of the Christian life: First, as we saw earlier, suffering is often an unavoidable part of the deal so nobody should complain too much merely because the woman's position is difficult. Second, God is a fair and just God and does not condemn his children for failing to achieve something that was always unattainable. Third, God will not hold somebody to account for a matter that was not under their control. Consequently either God is cruel or stupid, or one of the two possible courses of action does not cause the wife to sin. Thus although there are practical problems that the woman will face, such as when the customers discover that they have been cheated, God cannot and will not condemn her for the cheating since this was not something that she could prevent because she is not entitled to disobey her husband in this ordinary and common situation. What God requires from this woman in this common situation is that she should obey her husband; if her husband instructs her to do something that is immoral then it is her husband who will be held accountable, not her. The practical problems are, of course, unfortunate, and we would wish that they won't happen but, nonetheless, take care to note that in this situation there was no possibility of the woman avoiding practical problems; if she had disobeyed her husband then she would have had practical problems with her marital relationship and if she obeys her husband then she will likely have practical problems of some other kind. We must remember that we live in a fallen world and, one way or another, we will always face difficult choices and tough situations and practical problems. However that is not really the issue: What we are concerned about is this woman's relationship with God and how her actions affect that relationship and how God regards her actions. God has said, through the teaching of the Apostles, that in ordinary day-to-day situations, a Christian wife should obey her husband. This is an ordinary day-to-day situation and she is a Christian wife and so she should obey her husband. God is not going to condemn her for doing exactly what he has asked of her.
God has not told they wives that they should only obey their husbands when what they command is “right”, pure and holy, indeed he has not given even the slightest hint that they should assess the moral virtue of their husband's instructions before deciding whether or not to obey. What God has told Christian wives to do, is to submit to their husbands in everything.
So, in this second example, the wife can obey her husband and engage in dishonesty he commands without actually being guilty of sin herself.
There is really only one alternative to this conclusion, which is that God isn't too clever because he apparently didn't realize that these sorts of conflicts of morality could occur when he instructed Christian wives to submit in all matters to their atheist or pagan husbands.
One matter that should be apparent from these two examples is that there are going to be many situations where the correct course of action will be not be clear. Each wife will need to proceed using the understanding, intelligence and faith that she has. The apostolic instructions and the text of scripture do not give us precise recipes for every possible circumstance. Instead they provide us with a general framework of understanding within which we have to operate and form our own choices and actions. God is merciful and wise and he knows that we are going to get it wrong from time to time but since that would appear to be fine with him it follows that we don't have to worry too much about our mistakes either. God is like our father: he would love to see us running around but first we have to learn to stand-up and take two steps forward without falling over and, no matter how much we stumble, our heavenly father is overjoyed just to see us trying.
There is another depth to the situation that we must consider: God has actually said that there is something of immense value (to him) in a Christian wife's submissive obedience to her husband, namely that through such obedience some husbands will actually be brought to repentance.
In the same way 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
Perhaps too few women take this passage seriously but, writing as just one man, I should like to confirm for the benefit of any doubting Christian sisters, that a woman's submissive conduct can communicate in a way that reaches deeper into a man's heart and mind more deeply than words alone can accomplish and thus can achieve more than a great many words, and also that submissive obedience is extremely attractive and therapeutically calming for a troubled soul.
When a man takes the headship in a relationship (i.e., he takes the role that God intended him to have) a woman will find that it creates some sort of deep resonance within her and in a similar way, when a woman takes the role God intended for her (that of submitting to her man) there will be a corresponding and undeniable resonance within the man's soul. It is something like the genuine smile, the genuine hug of affection ... you might not know or be able to articulate exactly why it should influence you positively, but something happens at a subconscious level that cannot be avoided and, ultimately, cannot be denied. In a sense, what is happening is that when the wife moves more deeply into the role she was created to fulfil by submitting to her husband, her husband is automatically moved closer to his created role which is to submit to God. In marriage the two became one, and if one of the two moves then the other one moves too!
Of course none of the foregoing means that it will always be right for the woman to continue in the cheating. Nor can the woman use her husband's bad attitudes as a lame excuse for having a bad attitude herself. If her husband has told her to cheat with the weighing scales that doesn't mean she should also attempt to short-change the customers. She can obey her husband but if she goes further and commits immoral acts on her own initiative then she herself will be responsible for those extra acts. Also the woman could not be excused the dishonesty if, in fact, she had agreed with her husband that they should cheat. This was the situation with Saphira and Annanias who conspired to lie about the money they received when they sold some land.
“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.
In that case they were both in full agreement about the dishonesty and both were equally condemned. Finally, the wife can still gently and prayerfully encourage her husband to be honest but she should do this knowing that her submissive attitude will likely have a much more positive influence on her husband than any words she could ever speak to him. Submissive obedience has the potential to quietly and harmoniously achieve what persistent scolding would never even get close to attaining.
Let us now briefly return to Moses' experience while leading the Israelites out of Egypt. If the wife in our first example was permitted to disobey her husband's unreasonable instruction then why was it wrong for Moses to disobey God's apparently unreasonable instruction? Understanding the distinction will help us to make the correct decision when we face similar situations.
The wife in our first example was excused her disobedience because of the requirement that she obey her husband was given for use in ordinary day-to-day situations but she faced an exceptional situation and therefore had to decide whether the general instructions were still appropriate for maintaining harmony between her and her husband.
The reason Moses was scolded for not obeying an, apparently, unreasonable instruction is because he was given specific instructions for dealing with an exceptional circumstance. Moses' situation, that of leading the Israelites out of Egypt was a unique experience for which he received specific, unique and explicit instructions. He did not have to decide whether the instructions were appropriate for use in an exceptional situation because he received the instructions specifically for that exceptional situation and consequently his disobedience was without excuse.
In Northern Europe and Northern America in the 21st century our cultural environment has been strongly influenced by the godless philosophy of feminism. It is possible that some ideas promoted by feminism have in some cases applied a helpful or necessary correction to some aspects of society that had gone bad but nonetheless the ideas that arise from god-denying philosophies are not a clever substitute for divine wisdom. One of the destructive consequences of widespread feminist attitudes has been a general unstated assumption that heterosexual men are responsible for most of the disharmony in marital relationships. It is rarely stated explicitly but it is implied by the fact that we have anger management courses for violent husbands who lose control of their fists but no corresponding courses for wives who, equally destructively and painfully, lose control of their tongues.
It is true that men do have defects in their personalities and in their attitudes towards God, and that they desire and do things that they ought not to desire and do; this we all know and we are frequently reminded of it. However it is equally true that women have defects in their personalities and in their attitudes towards God, and that they also frequently desire and do things that they ought not to desire and do. For some reason, however, the world's pressure groups, policy makers and media choose to ignore or downplay most of the failings of women.
What we should keep in mind is that God knew all of these things even before man and woman were created, and yet he still told us that it was a good thing for wives to submit to their husbands. Christian women should be very cautious about resisting their husbands on the grounds that their husbands have bad attitudes or are not quite as godly as the wife might like. God knows even more about a man's deficiencies than does that man's wife ... and yet God unambiguously instructed wives to submit to their husbands.
The plain fact is that God has instructed fallen women to submit to fallen men and he clearly thinks that this is the best possible arrangement. Consequently if a Christian woman declines to submit to her husband, and chooses to disobey her husband, she had better be very sure that the circumstances are truly exceptional. Circumstances that are less than perfect, indeed circumstances that thoroughly tainted with sin and imperfection are in fact commonplace — that is to say they are ordinary and normal, and definitely not exceptional — and it was for precisely these very tainted and imperfect circumstances and to sinful and very imperfect people that God set out his plan for how a marriage should be conducted.
This might be a good moment to reconsider an example we used earlier in this article, namely the applicability of road traffic instructions and how drivers of emergency vehicles are sometimes entitled to disobey the rules of the road because of some exceptional circumstances. In that example we noted that when the driver of an ambulance or fire tender is attending some major emergency it might be appropriate for them to exceed the ordinary speed limit, drive through red stop lights instead of stopping, and overtake other vehicles by weaving in and out of the traffic. However this privilege to disobey the rules does not set aside the intent of the rules and does not take away the driver's ordinary responsibility to drive in accordance with the intent of the rules. What we have to remember is that the rules of the road are not purposeless and whimsical inventions of a capricious mind but, on the contrary, the rules of the road are intended to help everybody travel safely, efficiently and enjoyably. When the driver of an emergency vehicle chooses to disobey the ordinary traffic rules they are still obliged to act in a way that is consistent with the intent of those rules. In other words, they must still drive safely and considerately. Drivers of emergency vehicles are able to reconcile their rule-breaking behaviour with the intent of the rules because they travel in specially adapted vehicles (equipped with klaxons and flashing lights) and they participate in special training so that their driving skills are very much greater than those of ordinary drivers. The wife who proposes disobeying her husband should keep this attitude in mind. Unless she is confident that she can disobey her husband while still achieving the aims that God intended her obedience to achieve then, like the ordinary drivers, she should follow the rules and obey her husband even if it is inconvenient or painful to do so. A wife who disobeys her husband without the necessary preparation and the necessary skill will not be acting like the emergency vehicle driver in exceptional circumstances. Instead she will be acting more like an adolescent joy-rider or like one of the self important drivers who think that their own hurry, lateness or other commonplace problem justifies exceptional behaviour and who then drive in fashion that harasses and endangers all who have the misfortune to encounter them. Also we should remember that our pride will want us to believe that we encounter exceptional situations far more often than we really do.
There is another very important point that we must address.
Implicit in a Christian wife's refusal to obey her husband is a belief that her husband is wrong and that she knows better than he does. Sometimes her husband will indeed be wrong but sometimes she will be the one in error and an action that she thinks sinful will in fact be untainted. Sometimes the husband, regardless of whether he is a Christian or not, will have a better, deeper, more righteous understanding of a particular situation than does his wife. Sometimes a religious wife will have been badly taught by her religious teachers and her understanding of what is right and wrong, moral and immoral will be incorrect. Sometimes a person can be so zealous about keeping their religious rules that they can overlook the purpose and objectives of those rules and, furthermore, this is an abomination to which religious people are more susceptible than irreligious ones — it was the fault for which the highly religious God-seeking Pharisees were roundly condemned and is often found in people who have attended Sunday meetings for a lifetime. Sometimes a god-fearing wife will be more ignorant, less informed, and have a worse attitude in a particular situation than does her unbelieving husband. Sometimes a woman's rationality is unduly influenced by hormonal changes.
When we are prepared to concede that women can and do get things badly wrong then we can also begin to appreciate how God's instructions to wives shine with hope and wisdom and can keep a couple out of serious marital disharmony despite the fact that they are both fallen and sinful creatures and even when there are problems between them that they need to resolve.
What we need to understand is that while it is important to avoid problems and sin, it is much more important that we grow into the kinds of people that God created us to be and intends us to become. When a man and a woman marry they are no longer two but one and there is no real advantage in the wife being pedantic about points of morality if her pedantry contributes to the disintegration of the relationship. It therefore vitally important to understand that God's instructions to wives concerning the relationship between them and their husbands do not concern themselves with the rightness and wrongness of the husband's desires and instructions. God's instruction for wives to submit to and obey their husbands are not primarily a means of bringing about virtuous living but, rather, they are a means of bringing about peaceful and harmonious living. Once a couple have attained peace and harmony, then they will also have the conditions in which virtue (and the best of us is never very virtuous anyway) can grow and develop in its own good time.
If a woman adopts the fashionable attitude of acting as her husband's judge and refuses to obey him whenever she deems his instructions to be sinful or inappropriate then certain bad consequences follow: First, she is disobeying God by disobeying her husband. Also instead of peace and harmony there is now most certainly conflict, tension and a fracturing of the relationship between them. Her husband will feel himself less valued and the negative aspects of his character such as indignant pride and excessive egotism will be inflamed leading to worse communication between them. Also, since her husband will feel less able to depend upon her, he will ask for fewer constructive things from her. In those circumstances the woman is now less able to perform her role as helper and thus both she and her husband will feel less satisfied and the opportunities for conflict will increase. It doesn't take a lot of intelligence to see that this is a downward and destructive spiral. In some couples the destruction will be explosively rapid and in some couples it will be a lingering disharmony that leaves them wearily cohabiting for decades and never benefiting from the joyous intimacy that God intended them to have. Consequently even if the woman had been correct to think that her husband's original instruction was morally wrong, very little good, and a great deal of bad, has followed from her disobedience. Having women judge their husbands has been the fashionable and “politically correct” style of marriage promoted in many countries throughout the last few decades of the 20th century and continues to be the promoted style of relationship in the 21st century. Whatever few benefits such a relationship might have are amply outweighed by the disadvantages.
Those who try to have a wife judge the moral virtue of her husband's commands have fallen into a trap: Namely that they have started with some ideal notions of the perfect marriage and perfect husband and then, having found that the husband and marriage are less than perfect, decided that it is necessary to alter the husband or suspend the marriage obligations until he becomes perfect. These women forget that they chose to marry an imperfect man, those that were married in the Protestant tradition forget that at their wedding they promised to obey an imperfect man, they forget that they themselves are imperfect and liable to make mistakes and they forget that God, who has always known all of these things has already prescribed his own solution, namely that women should submit to and obey their imperfect husbands. In short, those who would have a Christian woman disobey her husband whenever he issues an imperfect or immoral instruction are themselves being downright unreasonable and immoral.
As you might expect, God's way is better: If we follow God's plan whereby a fallen women submits willingly to her husband while all the while accepting that he is a fallen man who will sometimes desire and command what he ought not desire and command then we can anticipate some very positive results:
In the first place she is constantly affirming him with her respectful obedience and her submissive attitude; too few women understand the beneficial power of this kind of behaviour (possibly because too few women practise it). In the second place, the gently submissive wife is helping to create an peaceable, calm and non threatening environment in which her husband feels at ease to question and criticize his own attitudes and to listen to her challenges. Of course if the man were a perfect man then he would be humble enough to accept a challenge from his wife under any circumstances but, then again, if he were a perfect man this entire discussion would be unnecessary. In third place, the wife is setting a good example and everybody is naturally attracted to righteousness even if they resent they way it shows up their own faults. In fourth place the wife will be growing into the role that God intended her to fulfil and will thereby be being obedient to God regardless of her husband's faults. Moreover, because she and her husband are intimately spiritually conjoined, then as she moves more deeply into her God-intended role, her husband is automatically moved towards his God-intended role. The conjoining is elastic not rigid but nonetheless if one moves, the other must eventually be moved too. In fifth place the wife is learning to love in the biblical sense of that word, that is to say, she is learning to be patient, to be kind, to keep no record of faults, to persevere, to constantly hope and so on. It is interesting to remember that the definition of love as given in the Bible (footnote NN) is expressed entirely in terms of having a positive response to bad or negative events, which does of course imply that we cannot use bad events as an excuse for not loving as God desires us to. In sixth place, and not to be underestimated, the wife's obedient submission means that there is more likely to be harmony in the home instead of quarrelling. It is true that there are rare occasions when a quarrel has a beneficial cathartic effect and is better than false harmony, but in general harmony is to be preferred. In seventh place, the woman's submissive attitude will be evident to other people outside the home and God will be glorified because of it. Furthermore, in time, it is quite likely that some other men will remark positively to the husband about his wife's pleasant nature (particularly if it contrasts with the prickly behaviour of their own women) and that will enhance his appreciation of her and help create within him a greater willingness to communicate and perhaps to compromise. Also some people will be led to ask about the source of the love that they see in the wife and she will be able to mention the name of Jesus to them. In eighth place, the husband's faults are the stone against which the wife's virtues are to be honed; she will have ample opportunity to develop humility, patience and perseverance, to learn the power of prayer and to learn to trust. She will also have ample opportunity to reflect upon, and work to diminish, her own faults and failings, which are likely much greater than she realizes. In ninth place we should recall that faithful and trusting obedience releases God's power into the world. A wife who obeys her husband out of respect for God's command is thereby automatically obeying God, regardless of what her husband commands. Moses was neither the first nor the last person who was called to trust and obey an instruction he didn't fully agree with in circumstances that he didn't fully understand. Throughout the bible the trusting obedience of just one person is repeatedly seen to be sufficient to allow the awesome power of God to flow from heaven to Earth. (Footnote XX)
So, when we consider the problems that can arise when a wife gives her unconditional, respectful and submissive obedience to her husband we must also take care to consider the benefits and offset the one against the other. The benefits are many and accrue to both parties. Moreover the benefits are guaranteed to occur while the problems are only possibilities of which many will never actually happen. The benefits accumulate day by day, while the problems that can come can also go. The benefits can be carried forward into eternity while the problems are merely temporal and will one day be left behind.
When we take the benefits into account, and see how large and how many they are, and when we remember that our life on earth is temporary and is the environment in which we can learn to become the people God intended us to be, it is no longer surprising, or unreasonable, that God should instruct wives to submissively obey their fallen husbands.
Indeed we could almost turn the entire question on its head and cheekily observe that a woman who resents or objects to having to submissively obey her fallen husband is, perhaps, exactly the kind of woman who most needs the benefits such submission would bring.
So what have we learned?
First we have learned that we should not always expect God's demands to be reasonable according to our own limited understanding of what is reasonable.
Second we have learned that through apparently unreasonable actions God achieves far greater things than we could have expected. We saw how God's apparently unreasonable demand of Moses was actually intended to allow the Israelites to see the glory and power of the God as he made the waters move aside for them to pass. We also saw that God's demand that a Christian women obey her unreasonable husband helps create the conditions in which harmony and repentance can possibly bring forth the fruit of salvation for the errant husband.
Third, we have learned that God does not condemn people for behaviour about which they had no choice and consequently if God has instructed a woman to obey her husband, he cannot then condemn her if her husband, in the ordinary course of life instructs her to do some bad things and she obeys. The wife has no choice about the bad behaviour because she is already bound to obeying her husband.
Fourth, we have seen that in exceptional circumstances we can set aside the explicit instructions that were intended for ordinary circumstances but even in exceptional circumstances we must still act in a way that is consistent with the intended purpose of the ordinary instructions. However we have also seen that when simple minded people lack sufficient wisdom to act on their own initiative, God is not unreasonable and will not condemn them for taking the instructions meant for ordinary circumstances and applying them to exceptional circumstances.
Fifth, we have seen that we need to be careful about what we call exceptional and that we do not assume that our own preferences are the only form of ordinary life. The sins and failings we see around us and that we ourselves commit are nothing new and no sin can be called worse than any other. When the Apostles instructed wives to obey their husbands they were quite capable of knowing that difficult situations and conflicts of morality were going to arise between Christian wives and unbelieving husbands and yet they specifically instructed those wives to submit to those husbands. A Christian wife should not refuse to obey her husband merely because she happens to think that his instruction is wrong or immoral, because God expects her to submit to a fallen man and fallen men do issue wrong and immoral instructions. Moreover the wife might actually be in error by thinking that an instruction that is actually good, is bad; It is not only husbands who make mistakes.
Finally we have seen that, when measured on an eternal and divine scale, the potential benefits considerably outweigh the potential problems.
Footnote YY: The topic of submission is also discussed in one part of another article.
Footnote ZZ: In the same way ... Peter tells wives that they are to have the same attitude as the people he has just discussed, namely slaves who are punished by evil masters and Jesus who was killed by evil men. They are not to resent their suffering, nor resist those who have authority over them, nor become bitter but, instead they are to persevere in humility and learn to be content during their suffering, all the while entrusting themselves to God.
Footnote PP: If you had thought that telling lies was only a minor sin, you might like to read an article about dishonesty.
Footnote NN: The Biblical concept of love is expressed throughout the Bible but is summarized in section 13 of Paul's first letter to the disciples in the city of Corinth.
Footnote XX: Examples of trusting obedience followed by awesome divine action. Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice and became the only person in the Bible to be known as the friend of God. Joshua saw the walls of Jericho collapse. Samson saw the Philistines defeated. Jesus conquered death itself. Noah became the ancestor of all who live. ... etc, etc.
Footnote QQ: Ooops! Where has footnote QQ gone?