Me? Obey Him?

Me?  Obey Him?

 By Elizabeth Rice Handford

(A Review)

            We are living at a time of great rebellion against authority.  Some historians have traced this modern characteristic to the decade of the 1960s.  Of course, all though history there have been people and movements that have rebelled against human authority but that decade saw an increased emphasis upon personal freedom, autonomy, liberation from time-honored restraints, and rejection of the Scriptures as the ultimate authority of right and wrong. 

            One element of this overthrow of authority is seen in the home, particularly in a son and daughter’s relationship to parents and the wife’s relationship to her husband.  For forty years we have seen an increased emphasis on “child’s rights” and “equality in marriage.”  Indeed, there are elements of truth to this emphasis.  God does say that a child is precious as a creation of God and should not be exploited or harmed in any way.  And God also says that a wife is a person with individual interests, intelligence, aptitude, and gifts and these should be allowed to blossom and should be used to the glory of God.  However, our humanistic culture has twisted God’s design so that His order in the home has been overthrown in the name of equality.

            The book, Me? Obey Him?, by Elizabeth Rice Handford, addresses the issue of a wife’s subjection or submission to her husband.  She observes that egalitarian ideas have permeated society and the church itself has been affected in the process.  She is convinced that many women who profess to believe in Scriptural submission really do not know what it is or how it is to be applied.  Indeed, Handford is correct in this assessment.  We too are convinced that not only society as a whole but the church as well (here, we refer to Protestantism and Catholicism in general—not particularly Christ’s body) has failed to see the importance and implications of wifely submission.  The vast majority of people (even those professing to believe in Scripture) simply do not accept the truth of the Biblical submission of women.  This is truth both of women and men, of wives and husbands. 

            The Southern Baptist Convention (consisting of perhaps 16 million members) recently added a section to their statement of faith that admonishes wives to graciously submit to the loving leadership of their husbands.  This Biblical statement created a furor in the Convention since many Baptists believe that Scriptural teaching on this subject was meant only for first century culture.  Supposedly, it was not intended for our modern and advanced age in which equality of the husband and wife is taken for granted.  The Texas Convention, consisting of over 3 million members, call themselves “moderates” and strongly object to this statement, calling the submission addition unwarranted and wrong.

            Those who believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:21; Matt. 4:4; 1 Cor. 14:37; 1 Thess. 2:13) are aware that there is a proper, God-designed hierarchy in God’s order.  Paul says that God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of the man, and the man is the head of the woman (1 Cor. 11:3).  This does not at all imply an inferiority of the woman to man any more than it implies the inferiority of Christ to God.  A woman may have more intelligence, more understanding, more education, more abilities, more physical stamina, and more gifts than a man does, but the man is still the rightful “head” of the woman.  Further, this principle applies in a special way in the marital relationship.  The husband is the head of the wife and the wife is to be submissive to the husband (Eph. 5:22-27; Col. 3:18-19; Titus 2:4-5; 1 Peter 3:1-7). 

            In the context of the rebellion and unsubmissiveness of the majority of wives, Handford attempts to encourage wives to graciously, willingly, creatively, and humbly submit themselves to their husband’s leadership.  This applies to Christian wives who are married to Christian husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24) and those who are married to unbelieving or “disobedient” husbands (1 Peter 3:1-6).  Because of the widespread disregard of Biblical teaching in this issue, there indeed is a need for calling Christian women to submit as Scripture enjoins.  Furthermore, there is the need for instruction on how to submit with the right attitude of mind.  Handford seeks to do this.  Further, she seeks to not only encourage submission, but wants women to realize that they are to submit with the proper attitude.  She has observed that some women submit grudgingly.  They may obey their husbands but they do so with a poor attitude.  Further, they may have an independent attitude and when they force themselves to submit to their husband’s request, they wonder why their husband does not appreciate the effort.  Handford says that a woman should not only submit, but should do so with a humble, yielded, and gracious spirit.

Apparently, a sizeable number of women have turned to Handford for counsel in this area.  Her book was first released in 1972.  By the time of her revised edition of the book (in 1994), some 600,000 copies were in print!  Great numbers of generally conservative women have been influenced by Handford over the years!

             For some time there have come to our attention a number of books that address this important issue of order in the marriage, the headship of the husband, and submission of the wives.  Some do offer helpful counsel to women (and men) while including certain questionable and even false concepts.  Historians have often observed that movements in society tend to react against certain false views or practices, but, in turn, take the opposition to wrongful extremes.  Sadly, this has happened in the matter of authority and submission.  While opposing the egalitarian view that encourages a woman to rebel against her husband’s authority, some writers and teachers have gone to the opposite extreme by saying that the husband’s authority is absolute in nature.  In other words, some have so emphasized submission that they counsel women to actually sin if their husband demands this.  In this way, the husband’s authority rises to a level that surpasses even God’s authority.  We are convinced that this is what Handford has done.

             Let us examine some of the teachings of Handford to determine how Scriptural they are.  We shall not cover all of the contents of the book since we agree with that part of it that is Scriptural and encourages women to recognize the husband’s headship and leadership.  But we shall note those portions which are questionable or even outright false.  Hopefully this will be helpful for those women (and men) who have departed from Scriptural teaching by accepting nearly all that Handford writes. 

             First, Handford makes some unwarranted assumptions on various Biblical matters.  Many are inconsequential, but they are there.  For instance, was Zipporah an Ethiopian? (p. 24; all pages numbers are to the second edition).  Did Zipporah complain that circumcision was “too bloody” for her son? (p. 25).  Is the husband really the “savior of his wife’s body”—or was Christ the Savior of the body (His people)?  (p. 27).  Does a husband’s “garments” “cover the nakedness” of his wife “spiritually as well as physically”?  (p. 28).  While some of these strange or questionable statements do not get to the heart of Handford’s thesis, it does show that she does not necessarily employ the best hermeneutical methods.

             Second, after Handford lists the various passages to enjoin a wife to submit to her husband (pp. 29-30), she asks some penetrating questions (notice some of these, with our emphasis):  “Is there, in any one of them a restriction on a wife’s obedience?  Does a single Scripture mention any situation where a wife ought not to obey?  Is any command qualified by an ‘if’?  If the husband were not a Christian? If the wife thought God were leading her contrary to his command?  Is there a hint, in any Scripture, that a wife may have to choose between conflicting authorities?  If you are intellectually honest, you have to admit that it is impossible to find a single loophole, a single exception, an ‘if’ or ‘unless.’  The Scriptures say, without qualification, to the open-minded reader, that a woman ought to obey her husband” (p. 31). 

             This passage shows the direction that Handford is leading her readers.  The way she words her questions intimidates the reader into thinking that maybe there are not qualifications, no exceptions to a woman’s obedience.  In reality, there are nearly an infinite number of exceptions that would cause a Christian woman to not obey her husband.  We refer, of course, to anything unrighteous, anything wicked, anything sinful.  She must not compromise the ways of God and the will of God even for her husband.  While she must submit to and obey her husband, she must refuse to obey any request or command that is sinful and wrong!  But her questions imply a negative answer to them.  In reality, all of the questions should be answered positively!  This shows how subtle Handford’s doctrine of absolute submission comes to us. 

            Third, Handford speaks of “conflicting authority” in the life of a woman.  She says, “There is no hint that a woman may have to choose between conflicting authority.  God knows it is impossible to live under two rulers. . . . God does not expect a woman to have to answer to conflicting authorities” (p. 32).  Again, a problem arises.  Are there not several authorities in the life of a woman?  Scripture says that a woman is to submit to her husband (Eph. 5:22,24).  It says that she is to submit to the civil government (Romans 13:12).  It says she is to submit to male teachers (1 Tim. 2:11-12).  It says she is to submit to overseers (apparently, Heb. 13:17).  Over them all, she is to submit to God and Christ who have all authority (Matt. 28:18).  Isn’t it possible that these authorities may be conflicting?  Of course.  What is the government requires an honest tax report be filed and she must sign it.  Then what if her husband requires her to sign a dishonest report.  Both authorities are legitimate and they conflict with each other.  Furthermore, the supreme authority (God) has spoken to the issue—that she must be honest and must not lie (Eph. 4:14,25).  

She then seems to admit that there are other authorities and these must be obeyed also (pp. 33-35).  How does she reconcile these seemingly conflicting points?  She believes that God will perform a miracle so that she does not have to choose between two conflicting authorities!  She writes, “If a miracle is needed in order for God’s child to fulfill both obligations, God will do a miracle to make it possible. . . . It is safe to conclude that when God told a woman to obey her husband, He intended for her to be able to do so without the risk of disobeying other authorities” (pp. 34-35).  How false!  This implies that God will always protect her—even with an actual miracle—so that she need not disobey her husband by obeying another authority—such as the government or God Himself!  Scripture does not promise a miracle to make obedience to God easy.  In fact, Jesus and the apostles warn us again and again that obedience to God will often be costly.  

We do need to choose between man and God!  How does she deal with Acts 4:19-20 and Acts 5:29 which tell us that we must obey God rather than man?  She says that the Jewish council released Peter and John since they had not broken any religious or civil laws!  But how does she deal with Acts 5:29 when it is clear that the apostles had, indeed, disobeyed the authorities (compare 4:17 with 5:28)?  In this case, the apostles plainly said that they needed to disobey the council because they needed to obey God!  Wives also must sometimes choose between obedience to God and obedience to the unrighteous requirements of a husband!  Again, Handford asserts, “God is not going to give anybody two conflicting commands so that it is impossible to obey them both!” (p. 37).  If a husband tells a woman to kill her unborn baby and God says for her not to murder, this seems like two conflicting commands.  Whom will she obey? 

Fourth, Handford says that she must obey her husband and negate her convictions about the will of God.  Some sins are clearly mentioned in the Bible (like murder, theft, and lying).  But what about those items which pertain to application of the Word of God?  There are hundreds of applications here.  Pornography, evolution, bestiality, abortion, smoking, drugs, and a hundred other matters are not specifically addressed in the New Testament but all of them are clearly wrong.  Further, a sensitive wife who seeks holiness may have rightful convictions about modesty (1 Tim. 2:9-10; Matt. 5:27-28), matters of worldliness (1 John 2:15-17), convictions about materialism (Matt. 6:19-21) and finances (Luke 16:10).  Is she to ignore these God-produced convictions that are based on the word of God, or is she to disobey God in these matters while obeying the unrighteous demands of a heartless husband?  If a husband wants his wife to wear a bathing suit in public, what is she to do?  If he wants her to view pornography or watch a suggestive video, what recourse does she have?  If he wants her to celebrate a religious holiday that she has convictions against, what is she to do?  If he wants her to subscribe to a questionable magazine for him, or buy beer for him, or buy cigarettes for him, or wants her to forsake the assembly and go to the Catholic or Mormon church with him, what is she to do?  

Although Scripture does not specifically address such matters, we know that they violate numerous Biblical principles.  Is a wife obligated to ignore her convictions and obey the will of her husband in these matters?  (As a side comment, this whole discussion shows the extreme care that a young woman should exercise in choosing a husband.  Let her make sure that he is filled with a love for God, a respect for God’s Word, and a genuine love for her!) 

In light of this, notice these shocking words in Handford’s book: “Whom should she obey?  The Scriptures say a woman must ignore her ‘feelings’ about the will of God, and do what her husband says.  She can be certain of what God wants her to do, as if God had spoken audibly from Heaven!” (p. 35).  Shocking, yes.  How do we understand Romans 14:23 where Paul plainly says that whatever is not of faith is sin?  In other words, one who proceeds to do that which he believes is wrong sins!  This even pertains to that which is objectively right (like eating meat—which is what is pointed out in context of Romans 14).  How much more when it pertains to that which is objectively wrong!  No, the wife cannot blindly obey her husband as if his voice was like God speaking audibly from heaven!  From this we begin to see another point that will arise later, that of placing a husband before and above God! 

Fifth, Handford leads a woman to render what may be considered blind obedience!  Notice her explanation: “It is a burden too heavy for a woman to bear, if she is required to assess every decision of her husband’s to ascertain if it is really right or wrong.  If she is forced to determine what is right, and act accordingly, then her behavior cannot be called obedience.  She is making the final decision about what she will or will not do.  God never intended for a woman to have to be accountable to Him for the rights or wrongs of her husband’s decisions.  If she does right consistently, then God will protect her from having to do something morally and irretrievably wrong” (p. 37).  Should a wife simply discard her spiritual and moral discrimination?  Should she simply accept her husband’s orders without considering whether they may be God’s will or Satan’s will?  Indeed not!  A woman is just as responsible before God as is her husband.  She must determine God’s will.  If she does not, Satan will deceive her into thinking that wrong is right and right is wrong.  

The Christian woman as well as the Christian man must “abhor what is evil; cling to what is good” (Rom. 12:9b).  She must be like Jesus who “loved righteousness and hated lawlessness” (Heb. 1:9).  She must “cease to do evil” and “learn to do good” (Isa. 1:16-17).  She must seek peace and holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).  Since Jesus warned that many (most?) families will be divided between those who follow Jesus and those who remain in their sins (Matt. 10:34-37; Luke 12:51-53), which implies that many Christian sisters will be married to children of the devil (John 8:44), there is no way that a sister can safely assume that her husband will lead her to God’s will.  In contrast, she must diligently consider whether her husband’s requirements (especially an unsaved husband’s requirements) are indeed the will of God! 

            Sixth, Handford has a chapter entitled, “Does God Really Mean What He says?”  Above the chapter title, I wrote, “Surely Elizabeth must be a deceived false teacher!”  This chapter reveals how far a woman such as Handford can go with her doctrine of submission.  Jesus condemns those in Thyatira for “tolerating” a woman in their midst whom, He said, “teaches and leads My bond-servants astray” (Rev. 2:20).  We are convinced that Handford, in places like this, also teaches and leads deceived women astray from uncompromising devotion to the Lord and from the way of holiness.  She writes, “We could not find an exception when obedience might not be required, not one qualifying ‘if’” (p. 38).  Yet, hundreds of verses do show that there are exceptions to obeying a husband’s sinful requests.  The same principle is true in other authority-submission arrangements.  A son or daughter is to obey the parents—if it does not require sinning.  A citizen is to obey the government—if it does not require sinning.  An employee or slave is to obey the employer or master—if it does not require sinning.  And we must go on:  A wife is to obey her husband—if he does not require sinning.  Thus, there are clear exceptions and qualifications to submission.  A wife must submit—unless the submission requires sin

            Notice this subtle reasoning, similar to the proverbial question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”  One cannot answer it yes or no!  Here are the words: “What if my husband’s command conflicts with God’s commands?  Isn’t it strange that we choose this particular command of God to challenge [whether to obey God by not murdering or to obey a husband by murdering]?  We could say the same thing about any two of the Ten Commandments, but we don’t.  We don’t go around asking, ‘What should I do if I have to make a choice between murdering or stealing?’  We don’t lose any sleep at night worrying, ‘What if I have to choose between committing adultery or bearing false witness?’  Why not?  Because the Scriptures and reason both tell us God would never give two orders impossible to obey” (pp. 38-39).  Isn’t it possible to have to choose between two different commands of God when it comes to submission?  Indeed it is!  God says to a woman, “Obey your husband.”  He also says, “Do not murder.”  Both commands are from God.  But the command to obey one’s husband is limited by the will of God!  A wife is to obey in all things that are righteous.  She must obey the Lord—and disobey her husband—when her husband commands anything against the will of God!  This should be very simple to see but some are deceived in our day into thinking that one must obey a husband—even when she must disobey the Lord in doing so! 

            To show the perverted and deceived thinking that is conveyed in this book, we must quote a rather lengthy section, but it is needed to see what is being said:  “However we fail in other ways, we don’t intentionally give our children opposing commands.  God is perfect; He wouldn’t do it either.  It is a slander against a holy, loving God to think He would give two commands impossible to keep.  Suppose a woman says, ‘Dear Lord, I really love You.  With all my heart I want to serve You and do Your will.  I read in Your Word that I’m supposed to obey You by obeying my husband, and that’s what I’m going to do.’  Is it conceivable that our heavenly Father, righteous and loving as He certainly is, would give her the evil gift of making her sin?  No, never.  That is not the kind of God we serve!  Our God commands, and then He makes it so we can obey. That is His eternal commitment to His children” (pp. 39-40).  How deceptive this reasoning is—and how many women are captured by it. 

            It is true that a responsible parent would not give a child two conflicting commands.  A father would not tell his child to go to Aunt Dorothy’s house for the day and tell the same child to go to Aunt Susan’s house for the day.  It is impossible to obey both commands.  What if a father should tell a young child, “I want you to work in the garden all day and nothing must change this requirement.”  He also gives the child the order, “Be submissive to your older sister.”  Now, what if the older sister should say, “Come, Johnny, let’s watch television all day!”  What should the child do?  The child should do what he knows the father would want.  In this case, the older sister would be abusing her authority by telling Johnny to not do something that the Father has already commanded.  Handford should know that God has spoken on many, many issues.  Yes, God has also commanded a wife to obey her husband—but she must always remember that the husband’s authority is derived and limited by the will of God!  God has not given the husband the right to command anything that negates the revealed will of God!  How plain, but how different from Handford’s reasoning. 

            Handford then approaches her doctrine of lesser commands and greater commands.  He reasons, “We may not use the keeping of a lesser command as an excuse for breaking the greater command” (p. 41).  Since she considers obedience to a husband as a greater command, she feels justified in disobeying some of God’s “lesser commands” if this is what a husband wants her to do!  In other words, a wife may violate lesser commands, and thereby sin (1 John 3:4), if her husband requires this.  But she stops short of saying that a wife should commit “greater” sins like murder, adultery, and the like.  For instance, she believes that God wanted Eunice to circumcise Timothy but she did not do it because of the opposition of her husband (p. 42).  This, however, reads a lot of supposition into the text of Scripture (Acts 16).  Further, Handford says that a wife may disobey the command of God to gather with other Christians for worship (Heb. 10:25) if her husband does not allow this (pp. 43-44).  These are “lesser commands” and small sins compared to the greater command to obey the sinful demands of a disobedient husband.  “Neither will He punish a woman who misses church because her husband forbids her to go to church and she obeys Him. . . . Still, God will hold her husband accountable if she cannot attend church because of his command” (p. 44).  By this means, Handford opens up the idea that when a woman disobeys the word of God, God will not hold her accountable but will hold the husband accountable because of his sinful requirement.  Obviously, this principle will open the door to all kinds of sins if we can somehow convince ourselves that they only violate “lesser commands” of God.  The disobedient wife, therefore, is not held accountable for her sin—the husband will be held accountable. 

            Although Handford does not carry this principle through, it can be applied to other authority arrangements in life.  A Christian son may be required to sin by his drunk, drugged, blasphemous father, and the son would be required to submit since the sin may be deemed of lesser importance than the command to obey the parent!  A citizen may be required to commit a lesser sin than disobedience to the government, he would be thereby justified by God!  An employee may be required to tell a small lie, a lesser sin, and he would be justified by God since that would be smaller than the greater sin of disobeying one’s master in refusing to lie.  Handford’s principle applies to all authority arrangements but they are all equally wrong. 

            The absolute authority doctrine of Handford comes out clear in this passage:  “Look at it this way: if you choose which commands you will obey and which you don’t obey, you aren’t obeying at all—you are doing all the time what you decided to do! [In other words, if you choose whether to obey your husband or whether to obey the will of the Lord, you really are not obeying your husband at all.] . . . . You don’t let your children decide which orders they obey.  Unless there is obedience all the time, there is no obedience any of the time.  So, if you choose when to obey your husband, you are not obeying him at all.  You are simply doing your own will, and sometimes it happens to coincide with his wishes” (pp. 45-46).  Can we see the fallacy in her reasoning here?  If an unbelieving father tells his submissive and obedient son to go to the cigarette vending machine and get him a pack of cigarettes, what is he to do?  Obviously, the Christian son must humbly refuse to sin.  Since he cannot obey “all the time,” and must “decide which orders he obeys,” does this mean that there is “no obedience any of the time”?  Absolutely not, contrary to Handford’s assertion.  The son generally obeys but he must not sin since he knows that his ultimate authority is God (Acts 5:29).  If an abusive and lustful father should require his fifteen-year-old daughter to commit incest (porneia, fornication), what is she to do?  Will she obey his lustful demands—or will she obey God’s commands requiring holiness?  Obviously, she should obey God.  Does this act of disobedience mean that “there is no obedience any of the time”?  Of course not.  Only deceived thinking would reason in this way. 

            The same is true of the wife.  Handford says, “If you choose when to obey your husband, you are not obeying him at all.  You are simply doing your own will. . . .”  Absolutely not!  A Christian wife must choose when to obey her husband.  She wants to obey his every wish.  But, realistically, if he is an unbeliever, indwelt by Satan, a son of the devil, and an enemy of righteousness, then there will probably be times when she simply cannot obey his unrighteous demands.  This is elementary Biblical teaching but it seems to escape Handford’s reasoning.  While Handford says that a wife is simply “doing her own will,” Scripture says that she is doing God’s will if she refuses to sin for her husband! 

            An interesting and amazing section follows.  Handford stresses the importance that the wife maintain a submissive spirit and live in “daily obedience”—a rightful emphasis (p. 46).  She then asks this question of a woman, “Has your husband ever actually commanded you to do something wrong?”  She answers, “In the hundreds of times I have asked these questions, not once, if my memory is right, has a woman answered, ‘Yes, I am always obedient, and yet my husband has required me to break one of God’s laws.’  Never!  Why?  Because, when a woman takes God at His Word, submits to her husband without reservation, fears God and loves Him, then God takes upon Himself the responsibility to see that a woman does not have to sin!” (p. 47).  Handford continues, “I have never known of a case where, when a woman said to her husband, ‘I will obey your implicitly, as if you were God, and trust you to make the right decisions for me,’ then set out to do it in loving, sweet, heart-yearning submission, he required her to do wrong” (p. 47). 

            There are several things about this that need to be addressed.  Has her experience been so limited that not one woman has ever been required to do wrong by a sinful husband?  Or is she demanding that a woman be absolutely perfect in order for her to qualify for this kind of exemption from doing wrong?  Is she offering a promise that she cannot fulfill?  Has there not been countless women who have been required to do wrong by sinful men and simply had to refuse, in obedience to God?  If it be objected that there was some imperfection in their attitude, it must be acknowledged that no woman is sinless.  There are defects in women just as there are in men.  However, in this teaching of Handford, surely she is placing unjustified, illegitimate, and cruel “guilt” upon many women who sincerely want to obey their husband but simply cannot do so fully since he is a hardened sinner and an unreasonable man.  The same is true, of course, in all authority relationships of life.  Can it be said that the Christians in Rome simply were not obedient and submissive enough, therefore they were thrown to the lions under Nero?  Can it be said that the reason why some sons and daughters had to choose between obeying their parents and obeying God was because they just were not submissive enough?  All of this is cruel and places wrongful blame upon sincere people down through the ages—from the time of Christ forward! 

            One other objection to Handford’s thoughts must be shared.  Is it ever right for a wife to say, without qualification, “I will obey you implicitly, as if you were God, and trust you to make the right decisions for me”?  No!  A wife cannot obey her husband as if he were God—because a husband can make wrongful demands upon a wife.  Further, a wife cannot trust a husband who has absolutely no regard for God (and may be an enemy of God—Rom. 5:10; James 4:4) to “make the right decisions” for her.  Scripture says that we are not to walk in the counsel of sinners (Psalm 1:1-3).  Yes, a Christian wife will seek to obey her husband as fully as possible but she must realize that his thinking is controlled by the enemy, thus he will be thinking in unscriptural ways.  Therefore, on occasion (hopefully not habitually) a wife will need to simply refuse to sin and choose to obey God. 

            Handford goes on to say, “If God tells a woman to obey [obey her husband], then He performs whatever miracle is necessary to make her able to obey!” (p. 48).  “God just does not make people choose between commands.  He is not that kind of God!” (p. 48).  This is expecting too much; it is expecting more than what God has promised.  God has not promised that He will perform a miracle every time a sinful husband commands his wife to sin!  Where is the place of suffering?  Where is the occasion for persecution?  Jesus tells us again and again that we must face persecution (Matt. 5:10-12; 10:28; 24:9).  The apostles also warn us of the persecution and tribulation and suffering that awaits the faithful child of God (2 Tim. 3:12; Acts 14:22-23; 1 Peter 4:12-19).  Much of this persecution will come from family members (Luke 21:16; Matt. 10:34-36) and from civil and religious authority (Acts 4-5).  Where do we receive the idea that a wife will receive a miracle so she can obey her husband, a son will receive a miracle so he can obey his parents, a slave will receive a miracle so he can obey his master, and a citizen will receive a miracle so he can obey the government?  No, God does not always deliver us from hard but necessary choices in life.  We are faced with two conflicting decisions—will we obey the authority and sin (husband, father, mother, master, ruler, etc.)—or will we obey God and refuse to sin (Acts 5:29)?  This should be plain, but for some reason Handford cannot see it. 

            Again, Handford writes, “God never gives two commands impossible to obey.  He will never make a woman choose between two wrongs if she wholeheartedly follows the Scriptures.  Does God really mean it when He commands a wife to be in subjection to her husband?  Without a doubt!  It is a positive, direct command God expects to be obeyed, in faith, knowing and doing the will of God regardless of the consequences!” (p. 50).  Apparently Handford means that God will never allow a woman to be faced with these two wrongs:  (1) Disobey her husband (when he requires her to sin), and (2) sin (such as lying, or some other sin).  How is it possible for her to make such an amazing claim?  Spiritual deception is the only answer that seems appropriate.  In reality, for the past 2,000 years there have been numerous instances in which a person had to choose between a human authority (such as a husband, a ruler, or an employer) and God’s authority.  For instance, a wife might face the question of whether to obey her husband who requires her to sin (e.g., tell a lie) or whether to obey God who forbids her to sin.  It is this simple, but Handford continues to promise hopeful wives that such a case will never arise.  How sad and how cruel! 

            In a chapter on “Bible examples,” Handford seeks to show that women were willing to obey their husbands without questioning.  For example, she cites the case of Sarah’s lie to Pharaoh in Egypt.  In this case, Abraham “asked her to lie for him, to say she was his sister, not his wife” (p. 52).  Sarah “let God take care of it” and He performed a miracle to do so!  Handford then praises Sarah for her “obedience” to her husband.  This take us to the core of her teaching.  She says that Sarah did right in lying (sinning) in obedience to her husband’s request.  How plain!  God said not to lie.  Abraham said to lie.  Handford justifies and praises Sarah for obeying Abraham rather than seeking some way out so she would not need to disobey God.  It is interesting that nowhere in Scripture does it plainly say that Sarah did right in her lying and deception.  This case shows how Handford can justify sin by saying that a wife was merely obeying her husband!  Thus, she can affirm, “The overwhelming weight of Bible testimony about a wife’s obedience is that God expects a woman to obey her husband cheerfully, immediately and without reservation” (p. 57).  Cheerfully, yes!  Immediately, yes!  But without reservation?  No, she must always obey God rather than her husband if he requires her to lie or commit any other sin! 

            Perhaps a minor point, but one worthy of noting, is Handford’s statement on page 62: “A woman has the privilege of choosing which man she will obey.  She needs to obey only her own husband, not every man!”  She cites Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; and 1 Peter 3:1 which do affirm that a woman should submit to her husband.  But, perhaps without knowing, she is falling into a feminist argument here.  Feminists say that a woman is not obligated in our age to be submissive to any man.  She is independent and, if she marries, she enters a relationship of entire equality.  It seems like Handford is willing to turn from this totally unbiblical stance but she only goes so far!  She says that a wife is to be submissive to her husband—and this is entirely correct (even if she takes this to unjustified lengths).  

However, Scripture does not stop with a wife’s relationship to her husband; it also addresses a woman’s relationship to man in general.  Therefore, even single women, separated women, divorced women, and the host of widows have a responsibility.  Scripture says that the head of the woman is the man (1 Cor. 11:3).  Evidently most scholars recognize that this is speaking of the woman and the man and not simply the wife and the husband.  Therefore, Paul’s teaching on the covering in vv. 4-16 pertains to all women and not just to married women.  Here is a case in which men (in general) are the head of women (in general).  Obviously, this does not mean that any man can walk up to a woman and command her to do this or do that!  But it does show that God recognizes a certain order in the human realm.  Additionally, Paul points out that a woman should submissively receive teaching from legitimate (Christian) male teachers (1 Tim. 2:11-12).  The context would show that this does not just pertain to a woman’s relationship to her husband (see 2:1-3:16).  Therefore, strange as it may seem, Handford (while taking an extreme view concerning the husband-wife relationship) fails to take a full enough view of the man-woman relationship! 

            In a chapter on “problems” encountered, Handford again addresses the question of what to do when a husband commands a woman to not meet with the saints or do any Christian service.  She asks, “How can I be a good Christian if he won’t let me go to church?”  Again, “Let’s ask that question another way: ‘How can you be a good Christian if you don’t obey the plain command of God to obey your husband?’  The first step of Christian grown is surrender of our own will to God’s will.  The most important way to be a good Christian is to obey God’s commands” (p. 81).  This shows the subtlety of Handford’s reasoning and how she twists Scriptural teaching.  This reminds us of Peter’s admonition.  He says that there are some things in Paul’s writings “hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16).  People do “distort” (NASB) and “twist” (ASV) Scripture.  Notice that Handford speaks of obeying God’s command to obey one’s husband.  She doesn’t speak of God’s command to not forsake the assembly of Christians (Heb. 10:25).  She is willing to disobey the command of God to gather with Christians in order to obey the command of the husband to not meet with Christians.  Why doesn’t she say this plainly so we can see the difference and see what she is counseling Christian women?  As it stands, it seems like she is simply arguing for obedience to a husband while failing to inform us that God requires us to meet with other Christians for worship, edification, admonishment, fellowship, and so much more.  

            Under service for Christ, she says something similar: “Even if your husband will not permit any outward Christian service, you still serve God when you love Him and praise Him” (p. 84).  But Paul commands us, “Through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13b).  When we love God, we will obey Him (1 John 5:2-3).  When we love Jesus, we will obey Him (John 14:15).  When we love our brothers and sisters, we will serve them (Gal. 5:13).  Sometimes it may be necessary to choose God over one’s husband to carry out the Lord’s will. 

            The question arises as to what a wife should do if the husband “gives the children permission to go to an R-rated movie” (p. 86).  Handford says not to criticize the husband before the children for this will cause them to “disrespect all authority, even God’s.”  Instead, the wife should freely allow them to go to the movie and talk to them about it later!  How would a wife’s stand for God’s authority (in promoting holiness) cause them to “disrespect” God’s authority?  This is the kind of compromise that Handford recommends through her book.  She then says, “Obey God.  Obey your husband.  God will see to it that bad influences on the children are counteracted” (p. 87).  Sometimes one cannot obey both God and one’s husband.  Their requirements may be mutually exclusive!  Furthermore, simply sitting back and allowing a disobedient, perverse, abusive, and degrading husband raise the children may very well seal them in their sins! 

            In her new chapter on appealing a bad decision, Handford says that it is wrong to murder an unborn baby.  It is wrong to engage in adultery.  And it is wrong for a man to beat his son (p. 90).  This is good and Handford is to be commended for seeing that some things definitely are sinful and wrong.  She goes on to offer some helpful questions for a wife to consider when confronted with the requirement to sin:  “Am I Assuming Guilt for My Husband’s Behavior?” (p. 91).  “Have I Consistently Obeyed Him in the Past?” (p. 92).  “Is it Really Wrong, or Does it Just Seem Wrong to Me?” (p. 93).  Again, “Can I Discover the Basic Intent of His Decision and Move to Meet That Need?” (p. 94).  These and other questions listed are important for a wife to consider.  Yet even here it would seem that Handford is allowing for some compromise in the ways of God.  She seems to allow for some worldliness and questionable behavior.  For instance, she seems to approve of a wife’s going to a bar with her husband (p. 94).  She thinks it was good that a wife go to the stock-car races with her husband (pp. 94-95)!  She then returns to the points made earlier:  “About certain unassailable wrongs, a woman certainly must take her stand.  She must not commit murder.  She must not let her husband physically or sexually abuse the children or herself.  She must not commit adultery with another man” (p. 97).  But why even bring these items up?  For 96 pages it seems like Handford has been saying that a wife will never be faced with the choice between obedience to her husband and obedience to God!  Further, she seems to be saying that even if she should sin, her husband will be the one whom God holds accountable.  And further yet, she seems to be saying that if she simply consistently submits, God will perform a miracle so she will not need to commit murder or commit adultery.  Why even say at this point that she must not murder or commit adultery if this possibility would never arise for a woman who is truly submissive?  

            Handford seems to misunderstand a promise of God.  In 1 Cor. 10:13, Paul says, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it.”  The temptation to sin is common to man.  God will not allow the temptation to sin and fall away to be greater than the sincere Christian can endure.  God will provide a way of escape so that we are not required to sin.  But the way of escape may require suffering!  It may require trials and difficulties and martyrdom itself!  Yet a Christian does not have to sin!  Handford says, “God always, always makes a ‘way to escape’ for the child of His who obeys Him.  God makes it so His children do not have to sin” (p. 100).  Later, she says, “When God commands a woman to obey Him by obeying her husband in everything, then God takes upon Himself the responsibility to make it turn out right” (p. 104).  Again, Handford assumes that God wants a woman to obey her husband in everything (with no exceptions and no reservations!) and if she does this, God will make everything turn out right in the end.  But this is a dangerous course to pursue if it involves sin.  In other words, if the husband requires sin, evil, worldliness and the woman submits to this, how can she claim the promise that all things will work out?  Even the promise of Romans 8:28 is only to those who “love God”—and those who love God will obey Him even if it means disobedience to the sinful demands of an evil husband!  The “way of escape” may be the way of suffering.  And the way of escape may be simply refusal to obey the sinful demands of an unbelieving husband! 

            In her final chapter, Handford writes of her thesis in a succinct way:  “God commands a wife to obey her husband.  He obviously meant what He said.  He made no exceptions for extenuating circumstances” (p. 114).  We repeat: God made no exceptions for obedience to one’s husband for extenuating circumstances!  This is absolutely false!  A wife must obey her husband—with the exception of SIN!  A wife must not sin!  If Hanford really believes that a wife should not sin (any sin whatever), then she does not hold to absolute submission.  But since she does not allow for any exceptions or any limitations to obedience, she evidently believes in absolute submission.  

            What do we mean by “absolute submission”?  We mean that there are some who say that a wife must render absolute and unqualified obedience to a husband regardless of what he requests, commands, requires, or wishes.  It means that some say that there is no exception to the command to obey one’s husband.  It means that there are no limitations to one’s obedience.  Although Hanford seems to stop short of adultery, child abuse, and murder, she seems to allow for massive amounts of sin and worldliness.  Her entire book is an apologetic for this kind of absolute stance.  A wife—if she is to be an obedience and submissive wife—must be willing to render unqualified obedience to her husband. 

            Since we live in a world of imperfection, even relatively good and submissive Christian wives will not be sinless.  Although they may sincerely want to obey their abusive husbands, it may not always be possible.  If a husband should require her to sin, she must refuse.  If a husband requires her to indulge in worldliness, she must say no.  If a husband requests her to dress immodestly, partake of sinful activities, disobey the will of God, the Christian wife must humbly and kindly and lovely explain that she cannot disobey God her Father or Christ Jesus her Lord.  While some may say that a wife should not commit sins of commission, she should not commit obvious sins of omission either.  Thus, if the husband forbids her to read her Bible, pray to God, confess Jesus as her Lord, meet with the saints, edify fellow-believers, receive edification from other sisters or brothers, or sing to the Lord, she must kindly but decisively explain that she “must obey God rather than man”—including her husband (Acts 5:29). 

            We can imagine why there would be a subtle pull in the direction of this absolute submission teaching on the part of a minority.  In the case of certain men, they may like the idea of requiring absolute submission on the part of their wives.  In this way, they can exercise absolute rulership in the home and not be concerned about a wife objecting to a request of his because of she considers it sinful.  Therefore, the absolute submission view would give the husband total control over his wife and he will not need to concern himself about her convictions of the will of God.  Obviously, this doctrine can allow carnality and pride to develop unhindered in the heart of such a husband.  The same is true regarding parents.  If they can insist on absolute submission of their teenager, without being concerned whether the teenager considers a particular demand to be sinful or not, this gives the parent unlimited power and authority.  It will also stimulate pride and carnality on the part of the parent.  Therefore, the absolute submission doctrine does have some attraction to husbands and parents who are willing to force those under them to render total obedience without respect to sin.  We do not suggest that all adherents to the absolute submission doctrine have these subtle motivations, but the tendency is definitely there! 

            While the major problem in America today is the lack of submission because of the pervasive humanistic and feminist influence, this minority view of absolute submission is a major problem for some.  In effect, sin against God is justified in the name of a wife’s submission to the sinful demands of her husband.  While not overlooking and acknowledging the good in her volume, we believe that Elizabeth Rice Handford has done much, much harm in her book, Me? Obey Him?  This is not the only book promoting this absolutist teaching.  Several others are also on the market but perhaps Handford’s book has had the greatest circulation.  Certain teachers and preachers also seem to promote this teaching, although some of them seem to stop short of requiring a woman to sin for her husband.  Every faithful Christian who holds to the inspiration and authority of Scripture should oppose this sin-promoting teaching. 

            It must not be forgotten that the principles of wifely submission are applicable to other authority relationships as well.  Absolute submission may be applied (and often is) to the relationship of a son or a daughter to a father and mother.  While God commands a child to obey his or her parents (Col. 3:20; Eph. 6:1-3) and disobedience to parents is severely condemned (Romans 1:30; 2 Timothy 3:2), we must remember that on one (including a child) must sin.  It may be easy for us to think of a child of 3 or 5 or 7 being required to submit to a parent, but teenagers are also to be submissive to their parents.  Those who would encourage absolute submission in this realm must face the reality that some parents request or require a 12-year-old or a 15-year-old or a 18-year-old to sin.  Do they want to encourage this sinfulness?  Furthermore, absolute submission likewise has application in the realm of employer-employee and citizen-ruler arrangements.  Do absolute submissionists want to require absolute submission in these relationships as well?  It is part of the same principle. 

            We encourage all readers to renounce the thesis of Handford’s book and to renounce the teaching of absolute submission wherever it is found.  While renouncing the extremes of absolute submission and the sin that it promotes, do not neglect to teach and practice the submission to rightful authority that Scripture demands.  Let us reject the wrong and stand for the right that we might be true to the will of God in this matter and every other matter in which God has spoken.

Recommended

For those who would want to study this issue further, we would recommend other articles available on the True Discipleship website:

Absolute or Limited Submission?

Is Biblical Submission Absolute or Limited? 

Richard Hollerman

   

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