The Sensitive Subject of Womanly Submission

The Sensitive Subject
of Womanly Submission

Richard Hollerman

The Biblical topic of the submission of the woman to the man definitely is a sensitive subject in the twenty-first century.  In the past, men have abused the principle and taken advantage of their wife and others.  Today, the reverse may be true—a man may be so brainwashed by humanistic society that he dares not question the status quo that promotes an egalitarian relationship in society and especially in marriage.

Both extremes are wrong.  It is wrong for man—any man—to exercise a mean, autocratic, arbitrary, dictatorial authority over the woman.  On the other hand, it is also wrong for woman—any woman—to insist on authority over man and refuse to have a proper submissive relationship to the man. This is true particularly in the marital relationship.

In all of our discussion on this relevant theme, we must go to God for the answers since He is the one who created “male and female” in the beginning (Genesis 1:26-27).  He knows our natures best and is qualified to inform us of His will on this subject as well as what really works best for both man and woman.  This is not something that is imposed arbitrarily from above, but it is found without our very nature—the way God made us.

We all know that God does prescribe an authority relationship.  Perhaps 1 Corinthians 11:3 says it best: “Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.”  Paul is saying that though man and woman are equal in regard to their humanity, there is a proper headship arrangement: God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of man, and man is the head of the woman.

Many other passages center on marriage and state that the wife is to be “submissive” or under “subjection” to her husband (Ephesians 5:22-24, 33; Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:4-5; 1 Peter 3:1-6).  Sarah is given as an example of this attitude, for she called her husband “lord” and obeyed him (1 Peter 3:5-6).  The husband, in turn, is to love, care for, protect, bless, serve, and treat his wife with gentleness and kindness (Ephesians 5:25-33; 1 Peter 3:7).  Paul tells us that there is a reciprocal relationship between man and woman (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:8-9, 11-12).  It is also good to realize that this submission is to man and not just to a husband (1 Timothy 2:11-15), although it particularly relates to the husband (cf. Ephesians 5:22, 24; Colossians 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1).

If everything works the way God intends it to in marriage, the man is to love and care for his wife, and the wife is to respect and submit to her husband.  This doesn’t mean that a woman has no mind of her own.  It doesn’t mean that she is inferior to the man, any more than Christ Jesus the Son was inferior to God the Father.  But it does mean that the respective roles of the husband and wife must be observed if we would please God and carry out the God-created relationship in marriage, the one that is natural to the very inner spirit of both husband and wife.

Although Jesus Christ was equal with God the Father pertaining to His deity, He was subservient to the Father in regard to His humanity.  Notice that Jesus was submissive to the Father in this unique role (cf. John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38; Philippians 2:5-8).  He didn’t object to this subordinate role, but saw it as important, significant, right and necessary.  This should be the same attitude that the wife manifests.  In this attitude, she is following the Lord Jesus Himself.

In every relationship of life, we must always remember that God comes first.  The citizen must know that God comes before government (Matthew 22:21; Romans 13:1-7).  The member must realize that God comes before elders or overseers (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; Hebrews 13:17).  The employee must realize that God comes before his boss or manager (Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-4:1; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Peter 2:18-20).  The son or daughter must realize that God comes before a parent (Ephesians 6:1-3; Colossians 3:20; Matthew 10:37).  In all things, “we must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29)—if there should be a conflict between what God requires and what a human authority figure may require.

A principle that should be borne in mind by every husband and wife is that the husband has no God-given right to force his wife to submit in a way that her Christian convictions are violated.  The believer’s conscience is a very precious part of his or her being and must not be offended or violated!  We must remain true to God at all costs, regardless of the consequences.  Just as a citizen may need to refuse obedience to the government, just as an employee must sometimes refuse obedience to his supervisor, just as a son or daughter must sometimes refuse obedience to a parent, and just as a member may need to refuse to submit to a congregational elder, so a wife may need to refuse to sin for the sake of her husband.  She must not have a belligerent, rebellious, or defiant attitude—but she must gently, kindly, humbly explain that her first loyalty is to God and the Lord Jesus Christ and she just can’t sin, even for the sake of her husband.

There are cases when an unbelieving husband or a worldly husband may seek to impose his will over that of his wife in matters of Christian conviction.  Maybe he just wants his own selfish way.  Sometimes a man’s pride is at stake and this is the reason for his unreasonable demands.  Perhaps he is embarrassed that his wife insists on distancing herself from the world of which he is part.  Maybe he married a very worldly woman himself and doesn’t like that she has changed because of her salvation and because of the Scriptures.  And perhaps he is jealous of Jesus, thinking that her interest in the Lord is some strange way is disloyalty to him. Whatever the reason, some husbands stubbornly insist on denying their wife the freedom to obey the Lord as she understands it.  Granted, she may be mistaken on some of the minor points, but she may have deep convictions that she must submit to the Lord and His Word in many areas that he just doesn’t believe.

We might think of many examples of what a husband may want for his wife.  He either refuses to allow her to do certain right things or he demands that she do certain wrong things that she cannot do and yet keep her conscience pure.  We think of the following:

  • He may refuse to allow her to read her Bible.
  • He may disallow her to meet with other Christians.
  • He may not allow her to sing to the Lord around the house.
  • He may want her to engage in worldly entertainment or recreation.
  • He may want her to buy and prepare junk food about which she has convictions.
  • He may not allow her to dress modestly.
  • He may not permit her to have long hair.
  • He may not allow her to wear a covering or veil.
  • He may want her to wear jewelry.
  • He may not allow her to teach their children the Bible.
  • He may want her to engage in certain unnatural sexual practices.
  • He may want her to drive their children to ball games or other entertainment.
  • He may not permit her to home-school their children.
  • He may want her to drink alcoholic beverages with him.
  • He may want her to buy cigarettes for him.
  • He may want her to cheat on the income tax for him.
  • He may insist that she lie on the telephone for him.
  • He may require her to turn on worldly music in the home.
  • He may want her to watch worldly programs with him.

I suppose that the list of possible examples is nearly endless, for perverse men seem to invent more ways to bring pain and conflict into the life of their wife.

Somehow, unbelieving or compromising men may know a little about what the Bible teaches about womanly submission to the husband, and they seek to exploit this to their own ends.  Selfishly, irrationally, and wickedly, they try to impose their will on their wife and insist that she submit to him even when this violates their conscience and causes them to disobey the Lord Himself.  Such men need to know that Scripture states that the husband does have rightful authority over his wife, but this would be in matters of indifference and areas of right—not in areas of wrong.  In the context of woman’s submission, Peter says that the wife must “do what is right without being frightened by any fear” (1 Peter 3:6).  The wife must “do what is right” even when she must humbly refuse to obey the evil demands of an unbelieving husband.

The Word of God is clear that the husband’s love and gentleness is the context in which he is to exercise his authority and headship.  Instead of being an autocratic and mean spouse, the husband is to be a servant leader, one who is filled with sacrificial love for his wife.  This love is modeled after the intense sacrificial love of Jesus Himself (Ephesians 5:25-33).  If he has such love, it is much easier for a wife to gladly submit to his rightful headship.  Peter adds that he is to relate to his wife in “an understanding way, as with a weaker vessel, since she is a woman, and grant her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7).  If he has this humble, gentle, kind, and loving attitude, the wife is more likely to willingly and gladly submit.  And if he willingly submits to God and Christ, the wife should be more willing to submit to her husband.

The apostle Paul had “authority” over the believers in Corinth.  He refers to “our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you” (2 Corinthians 10:8). In another place, he speaks of “the authority which the Lord gave me for building up and not for tearing down” (13:10).  Paul was careful to exercise his authority with wisdom and with humility.  In one place, the apostle wrote, “I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—since I am such a person as Paul, the aged” (Philemon 9).  In like manner, it would be good for the husband to lovingly and sweetly “appeal” to his wife and not “order” her to submit to his authority.

On the side of the wife, she must be doubly sure that what she is standing for is truly God’s will.  It should not just be her preference or her personal desire.  She can also be guilty of selfishness and rebellion, deceitfully claiming that she has a Christian conviction about something when it is not a conviction at all but a personal hidden desire of hers that is the object of contention.  Let her make sure that she is standing for truth and righteousness and only then let her insist on obeying the Lord.  Generally, it will be much easier for a husband to allow his wife to obey the Word of the Lord when he is aware that she generally seeks to willingly submit to him in other matters.

The matter of authority and submission, of headship and subjection, is filled with difficulties.  Many of these come from the fact that we are living in an age of egalitarianism—in which nearly everyone thinks that marriage is a 50/50 arrangement with no headship.  In one respect, it may be said to be a 100/100 relationship, for the husband and wife should live in harmony, according to the will of the Lord (1 Peter 3:7-9).  And many of the difficulties also come from the fact that not a few husbands are filled with selfishness, meanness, and unkindness; many women also are independent in attitude, selfish in perspective, and rebellious in disposition.  This all comes from sin and it must be crucified if we would have marriage as God intended it.

A husband should allow his wife to have some liberty to make her own choices.  He need not make all of the decisions in order to maintain his authority.  If you are husband, permit your wife to follow her preferences in matters of indifference or judgment.  Only impose your will when you are convinced that the part of wisdom and God requires you to make certain demands on your wife.  Paul said, “Let your gentle spirit be know to all men” (Philippians 4:5).  This gentle spirit has a special place in the relationship of marriage.

Husbands, love your wife and give yourself for her.  Wives, respect and submit to your husband.  Both husband and wives need to memorize choice scriptures as Ephesians 5:22-33, Colossians 3:18-19, and 1 Peter 3:1-9.  Let the husband and the wife joyfully, humbly, and eagerly search the Scriptures for the answers and let them both submit themselves to the Lord Jesus Christ who has all authority and yet loves them with a sacrificial love (Matthew 28:18).

 

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