Lesson 5: The Truth About Submission
Lana was a starry-eyed newlywed, passionately in love with her new husband. Not two years before, she had been through a painful divorce. This time it's going to work, no matter what it takes, she told herself time and again. The failure of her first marriage haunted her. This time I'll do everything his way, and nothing will go wrong.
She and Jeff were both Christians. Although they attended a small fellowship, they had no close Christian friends. They had been married just six weeks when Lana began to feel sick. Her breasts were painfully sore, and she was constantly nauseous and sleepy.
I wonder if I'm pregnant . . .
The thought brought horror to Lana's heart. Jeff had made it very clear that he wanted no children for at least five years. Even after that, he wasn't so sure. "You're all I need," he'd told Lana. "I don't need any other friends, and I sure don't need kids."
But the pregnancy test she'd secretly purchased at the pharmacy confirmed her worst fears. Yes, Lana was pregnant. And she was terrified. What would Jeff say?
"Well, we'll just have to see about an abortion," he told her matter-of-factly when she finally found the courage to break the news to him.
"Some people think abortion is, well, murder," she remarked tentatively.
"Well, that's their problem. This is my life, you're my wife, and I'm saying that you're going to have an abortion. We've got a good thing going here and we don't need to mess it up with a baby." He gave her a hug and a kiss.
Lana was saddened. She kept having brief glimpses of a baby in her mind's eye—a baby who looked a little like her and a little like Jeff. But her commitment to her new husband overshadowed all other considerations.
All her life, Lana had been taught that Christian wives are supposed to submit to their husbands' authority and wishes. In her first marriage, she'd been less than cooperative, and the marriage had ended in divorce. As far as she was concerned, she'd learned her lesson. This time she would submit to her husband's orders—no matter what.
She called the local abortion clinic number, made an appointment, and walked into the clinic the next day with Jeff. She waited tearfully and nervously for her name to be called. As Lana finally got up to go into the cubicle where the abortion would be performed, she turned to her new husband and smiled bravely.
"I hope you know how much I love you. I'd do anything for you, Jeff."
What does submission mean? How inclusive is it? Does it mean that a wife can never disagree, can never have a part in decision making, cannot control the budget, write a check, or even have money to spend without accounting for it? Does it mean that a wife obeys her husband in the same way a slave obeys his master, or the way a child obeys his parents? Does it mean that a woman's personality is to be repressed or obliterated, having no valid expression? Is marriage a chain of command?
Accepting God-Given Authority
In the first place, let's consider God's view of human authority in general.
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
God has instituted human authority, and it is for our own good. First Peter 2:13 picks up the same theme. It says,
Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.
What does this mean? Paul and Peter are both saying that submission to God means submission to God-ordained authority. This means that rebellion against such authority is rebellion against God.
There are four major areas of authority addressed in the Bible—human government, church leadership, employers, and the home.
In the home there are two levels of authority. The first is the authority that both parents have over the children. The second is the authority that the husband has over the wife. Sometimes, when the subject of submission in the home is discussed, the wife is placed in the same relationship as the children. That should not be so.
In some churches and in some books and seminars, submission is so badly taught that women have been told to obey their husbands, even if they instruct their wives, as Jeff did Lana, to do something morally wrong.
Some Notable Exceptions
In thinking this through, I've come to realize that there are biblical exceptions to submission in every area of authority. For instance, with regard to obedience to government, the Hebrew midwives did not obey Pharaoh and kill all the little boy babies—thus Moses was saved and God blessed the midwives. Rahab did not obey her king and turn in the Hebrew spies—she and her family were spared when Jericho was destroyed. Daniel would not pray to an idol or to his king, and he deliberately disobeyed the king's decree. God honored him for his faithfulness.
As far as employer/employee relations are concerned, we read about three God-fearing young men who were administrators under Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. They would not bow down in worship to his image and laid their lives on the line as a result. And God rescued them from the fiery furnace.
There was also an obscure little man named Obadiah whose story is recorded in 1 Kings 18:9-14. When all the prophets of God were ordered killed by Ahab and Jezebel, he protected a hundred of them. He was employed as a servant of the king, and yet he defied his employer's orders.
God once blessed the actions of a son who disobeyed his own father. Saul's son Jonathan was ordered by his father to kill David. Instead he protected David, who was his closest friend.
And as for wifely submission, consider the story of Abigail. Her husband Nabal had arrogantly decreed that David and his men should receive no provisions from his vast and wealthy household. Yet Abigail disregarded her husband's orders and did just the opposite. She delivered massive supplies to the future king and even pleaded with him not to retaliate against her household in response to her husband's refusal to help, "because he is a fool!"
Why did Abigail do this? Because she was concerned that David, God's anointed king, not bloody his hands over her husband's churlish behavior. Because she was protecting her husband's life. And because she was saving the lives of all the men in her household.
Abigail was rewarded richly for her efforts. God struck down her foolish husband Nabal. David, the recipient of her generosity, was profoundly impressed by her wisdom and courage. Once she was widowed, he took her to be his wife.
Clearly, human authority can be abused. And as children of God, we must obey our Father. The apostles have set a vivid example for us.
The religious leaders of Israel, called the Sanhedrin, were supposed to be obeyed, and every good Jew obeyed them. Even if the men in the Sanhedrin were wrong, they were to be honored and respected. The Sanhedrin decided that the apostles could not teach about Jesus Christ.
Look at Acts 4:18-19.
Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard."
In Acts 5:28-29 the Sanhedrin's high priest again rebuked them,
"We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name," he said. "Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's blood."
Peter and the other apostles replied: "We must obey God rather than men!"
Obedience to God
We are not free to cop-out on responsibility by doing something wrong because an authority tells us to do it. All human authority is under the umbrella of God's authority, and God's authority must be obeyed first. You can't say "Well, my boss told me to lie and I have to lie because he is my boss," or, like Lana in our story, "I have to do this because my husband told me to." No, you don't have to!
If there is a conflict between God's rules and man's, the believer must choose to obey God. And bear in mind, there may be suffering involved. Of course we know, as 1 Peter 2:19 tells us, if we suffer for doing good, God is pleased with us.
Submission is not mindless, childlike obedience without responsibility for one's actions. So what is it? Whenever submission of the wife is taught in the New Testament, the headship of the husband is equally taught. It is a two-way street. Let's contemplate the husband-wife relationship, that very unique union which is so different from every other kind of authority/submission relationship.
In Ephesians 5:18-21, we learn that all Christians, men and women alike, are to be controlled by the Spirit of God. One of the evidences of the Spirit's control is submission to one another out of reverence for Christ. This kind of Christian submission is only possible if we are being controlled by the Spirit.
Who is doing the submitting in Ephesians 5:21? Everybody! It is a mutual submission. As Spirit-filled Christians we are to submit to one another. Then Paul goes on to be more specific. In the verses that follow, he describes how that submission looks in various categories. He talks about parents and children. Slaves and masters. Husbands and wives.
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 Savior. 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.
Submission vs. Obedience
How does "submit to your husbands" differ from Genesis 3:16 where God says your husband "will rule over you"? Are the two passages talking about the same thing? No, in fact they are quite different. The Genesis prediction comes as the consequence of sin. The Ephesians' imperative comes as the result of our being filled with the Spirit. The two are not the same at all.
First of all, let's talk about the word "submit." This is a different term from the word "obey," which is used in relation to children and slaves. It is important for us to understand that the word used to command obedience from children and slaves is never used in a command form for wives. The "submission" Paul applies to husbands and wives can be compared to the relationship between a president and a vice-president. They are equal in personhood, but they have different responsibilities. Since the president has greater authority, he also has greater responsibilities. This is true in marriage as well. God holds the husband responsible to love his wife and be a godly leader.
Paul says "submit" or "subject yourself" to your husband. Peter says "to your own husband." That eliminates the possibility of women being submissive to all men, a fallacy which is sometimes taught in Christian circles. Neither does it mean that single women must submit to single men.
Submit to your own husband as to the Lord—that is the command. So does your husband somehow become the Lord in your eyes? Should you submit to him unquestioningly just as if he were God? No! The Scripture simply means that you submit to your husband's leadership as an act of obedience to Jesus Christ. Do you see the difference? You obey Jesus Christ by your voluntary submission to your husband.
This kind of submission has nothing to do with inferiority. The fact that we see it in the Godhead confirms this. The Son submits to the Father. The Spirit submits to the Father and the Son. Yet Father, Son, and Spirit are each called God. There is no inferiority implied. There is simply order—the proper order which God has designed.
This voluntary submission is also a service rendered to God through the control of the Holy Spirit. It is not something that we are going to do happily on our own. At one time or another, all of us are bound to resist it. But keep in mind that while women are commanded to submit to their husbands, men are commanded to sacrificially love their wives.
Seeking the Will of God
What we often don't realize is that there are many blessings to be found in biblical submission.
I had to learn this by hard experience. When I was married thirty-nine years ago, there was no pre-marital counseling, nor were there the numerous books and courses on Christian marriage that we have today. My father had died when I was seven, so I was not accustomed to male authority.
When Fred and I married, I really didn't think much about this submission stuff. It took nine years of stubbornness on my part and determination on my husband's before the Lord penetrated my self-will with His Word. My husband and I were at an impasse. I wanted to do something that he refused to have done. I was reading Ephesians 5 one day, and the Lord clearly spoke to me from the written page. "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife . . ."
But Lord, what if I'm right and he's wrong? What will happen if we don't do something about this problem right away? My imagination projected all kinds of terrible consequences if we didn't do things my way. But the Lord kept up the pressure, and finally I said, "Lord, I am Your child and this is Your Word which I must obey. I want Your will for my life more than I want my own way. I am willing for my husband to be an instrument in Your hands to show me Your will. And I will trust You to give him the right decisions."
From then on, before I suggested a course of action to my husband, I'd tell the Lord, "It's Your will I want. My husband's decision will be Your will for this situation."
It began to amaze me how many times we were in agreement. The tension and conflict caused by my insistence on my own way disappeared as I trusted God to speak to me through my husband.
This is the approach a Christian woman can take whether she is married to an unbeliever, an immature believer, or a strong leader. When we depend on God to use the instruments He has provided for our guidance, He has a way of changing minds, wills, and actions to bring about His purposes.
I should tell you that it took a year before what I thought had to be done right away was done. And none of the dire consequences I thought would result ever happened. God understands the pressures that submission brings into our lives and He is there to help. All He wants is that we want His will above all else, even our own way. There is a wonderful freedom and peace when we view the marital relationship this way.
Marilee was the youngest of six children and had moved from New York to California to marry Ted. Most of her brothers and sisters still lived on the East Coast, as did her widowed mother. In recent months her mother's health had deteriorated dramatically.
Each of Marilee's siblings had shared the responsibility for the dying woman, financially and with physical care. Ted had been generous about sending money to New York to assist with medical bills, but he stubbornly refused to allow his wife to go care for her mother. There had been several unpleasant conversations about the subject, and Ted's final words had been, "The answer is no, and don't ask me again!"
"It's so unreasonable!" Marilee fumed as she spoke to her friend Helen. "We've got plenty of money, and Ted and the kids are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves for a few weeks. He's just being controlling, and I hate it!"
"I don't blame you at all, Marilee . . ." Helen was frustrated with Ted, too. But good friend that she was, she didn't want to fan her friend's anger into full flame.
"I feel like taking money out of the bank, buying a ticket, and just leaving. That's what I should do. What if Mom dies before I can get there? I'll never forgive myself. I haven't seen her in five years, Helen. Five years!"
"Well, before you do that, let's pray together. I think God may want to do something about this Himself."
"Like what?" Marilee was so incensed, she couldn't even imagine God being on her side in the matter.
"Like changing Ted's mind."
"Oh, sure. Right. Ted's mind? God might be able to create the universe in six days, but He'll never change Ted's mind!"
Helen shook her head and smiled. "Come on, let's pray anyway."
Reluctantly Marilee brought the whole issue before the Lord. She told Him how angry she was. Before long tears replaced her rage—grief over her mother's impending death. How she longed to see her again before she died. But then she added, "Lord, I want Your will more than my own way."
Helen hugged Marilee before the two parted. "I'm expecting a miracle, whether you are or not!"
"Well, God can do anything, I guess. But this seems pretty hopeless."
That night while Marilee was preparing dinner, Ted walked into the kitchen, and rather timidly handed her an envelope. "Marilee, I think God wants you to have this . . ."
"What is it?"
"It's a plane ticket to New York. You leave Friday, and the return date is open. I wasn't sure how long you'd need to stay. The kids and I will be fine."
Marilee stared at Ted in absolute shock. "What on earth changed your mind, Ted?"
"I don't know. I just got to thinking about how I'd feel if my own mother were sick, and I realized I was being unreasonable. Sorry, Honey." Ted grinned sheepishly. "You know how I am . . ."
This applies to unbelieving husbands, too. So don't say, "Well, my husband isn't a believer so I'm not going to submit to him." Just pray for him. Submit to him. And leave the rest with God.
Of course, wives must submit to their husbands in everything certainly does not refer to sin. No wife should ever submit to a dishonest or immoral plan. And even in the case of righteous or neutral decisions, from time to time we all have our own personal struggles with submission.
Remember the reason we are to submit. Because, just as Christ is the head of the church and the church is His body, so the husband is the head of the wife (Eph. 5:23).
A Special Kind of Love
When you read the passage on marital submission in Ephesians 5, you notice that much more responsibility is given to the husband than to the wife. Paul concludes his remarks by saying,
Each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
This word "love" is not that affectionate, loving friendship we find in Titus 2, where women are instructed to love their husbands. This love is the Greek word agape. Agape love is far more an act of volition than of emotion. It is a chosen attitude in which a man lays aside his own selfish desires and his own rights and takes care of his wife.
As Paul instructs husbands to love their wives, he uses the analogy, "just as Christ loved the church." How did Christ show His love for the church? Jesus Christ did not have to leave His throne in heaven. He did not have to come to earth, to live in poverty for thirty-three years in a human body. He did not have to suffer at the hands of sinful men. He did not have to die. Jesus Christ gave up His rights so that we could have eternal life. And this is the same type of love a husband is supposed to extend toward his wife.
Agape love is not dependent on the recipient. It is an act of the will. It is a commitment. "Love your wife as your own body" and because she really is an extension of your body. Here, again, the one-flesh relationship of Genesis 2 is emphasized. The wife is not a child, not a slave, not a toy, not a property. She is his complementary partner, one flesh with him. He is to nourish and cherish her just as he nourishes and cares for his own body.
Seeking Her Highest Good
Biblical marriage requires mutual submission. Yes, the wife yields her rights and submits to her husband's leadership. But the husband is to yield his rights to independence, to controlling all the money, and to making all the decisions. He is to recognize that he is married to a woman who is one flesh with him.
For some men, this is a difficult assignment and a big issue. It is very hard for a man to sacrificially give up his own rights for the sake of his wife. And yet God requires an unselfish love that seeks the woman's highest good, with no hint of her husband lording it over her. This view of marriage is distinctively Christian, an expression of God's love acted out through the control of the Spirit.
As a matter of fact, Christian marriages were astonishing to the Roman world. In a society where women had no rights, here was wifely submission balanced by loving sacrificial headship. Marriage was placed on a very firm basis of mutuality, with both partners having equal rights. Such an arrangement was revolutionary in that day.
I remember hearing a prominent leader say, "A husband's responsibility is to find out his wife's strengths and skills and to do everything he can to develop them." And this man was as good as his word. When he realized that his wife Jean was gifted at writing, he saw to it that once the children were grown, she went back to graduate school and got her degree in journalism. Today his wife is a well-known author and speaker, because her husband took it upon himself to encourage the use of her gifts and bring her to fulfillment. That is what loving, sacrificial headship can accomplish.
When comparing marriage with Christ's relationship to the church, Paul says, "This is a profound mystery." Now the word mystery in the Bible is not like an Agatha Christie novel or a "Perry Mason" episode on television. A mystery in the Bible is something that cannot be found out by human reasoning but must be revealed by God.
How can God take two totally opposite people and make them one? And how can Christ be wedded to the church in one body? Both are, indeed, mysteries. Do you see why Satan attacks Christian marriages? Because he wants to defile and distort the picture God has given us to illustrate His Son's relationship with the church.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.
1 Peter 3:7
Some people have understood the expression "weaker partner" to mean that the wife is weaker physically, mentally, spiritually, and morally. This is not the case. Paul is talking solely about her physical distinctiveness. Woman was created to bear children, not to chop down trees.
It is interesting to note that a man's prayer life can be blocked if he does not respect or honor his wife. Both partners must keep grace and forgiveness alive in the marriage. When bitterness and resentment are given a place in the home, more is lost than personal warmth and enjoyment. The vital element of the husband's prayer life, through which he receives both guidance and assistance, will be hindered. No couple should attempt to function within the confines of that sort of handicap.
A man should prayerfully take his wife's concerns to heart when making any decision. He should listen to her. He should pray with her. He should seriously consider the consequences she might bear in the wake of his choices. There ought not be too many instances in a good, healthy marriage where a man actually moves in a direction of which his wife disapproves. I heard one of my professors say, "Men, if your wife doesn't agree with a major decision, don't do it. Ask God to bring her into agreement if it's His will."
Becoming a True Husband
Marriage should provide a warm and healthy environment where the wife can grow to her full potential. She should thrive under her husband's protection, encouragement, and selfless provisions.
I found some powerful insights in a book by Dwight Small called Marriage as Equal Partnership. It comes to us from a man's point of view and summarizes a husband's headship in a clear and eloquent manner.
Headship is not at all a husband becoming a master, boss, tyrant, authoritarian—the dominant coercive force. Neither does it imply control or restriction. His being assertive and her being suppressed. And it cannot mean he assumes any prerogatives of greater virtue, intelligence or ability. It does not mean that he is active and she is passive. He is the voice and she the silent partner. Nor does it mean that he is the tribal chief, the family manager, the one who has superior rights or privileges. He is not the decision maker, problem solver, goal setter or director of everyone else in the family's life. Rather he is primarily responsible for the common advance toward freedom and fellowship—creating a partnership of equals under one responsible head. . . . Throughout the equalitarian process the husband knows all the while that he bears the responsibility, before God, for the healthful maintenance of the marriage. . . .
We are on the safe side when we see the definition of subjection in the person of Jesus himself. He, being equal with the Father, relinquished that equality to become the servant of us all. . . . Every Christian is called to servanthood as the expression of his or her new life in Christ. Servanthood is the identifying mark of every true Christian believer. A servant's role is to make sure that the other person's needs are met.
In marriage, servanthood is an act of strength, not weakness.