Is True Biblical Submission Absolute or Limited?

Is True Biblical Submission Limited or Absolute?

Is True Biblical Submission

For some years now, there has been a renewed emphasis upon the family and upon harmonious husband-wife relationships. As an outgrowth of this “back to the family” trend, many families are now educating their children at home or in Christian schools, apart from the humanistic context of the public school system. Many also have developed convictions on the permanency of marriage and the wrongfulness of divorce and remarriage. For the most part, this interest in family living, family solidarity, and family values has been good. Scripture does show how important it is that husbands and wives commit themselves to each other, train their children in the ways of God, and promote the “family values” that are taught in the word of God.

One of the additional trends is the teaching on Biblical roles for the husband and the wife. Although we do not endorse the “Promise Keepers” organization, we do acknowledge that it has stimulated a commitment in many men to love, understand, and lead their wives. Women, in turn, have been encouraged to fulfil their role as a wife and mother in the home. Again, this is a Biblical emphasis that does need our support and encouragement.

A side issue that seems to have surfaced, with the teaching of the woman’s role, relates to the Biblical mandate of the wife’s submission to her husband. Scripture does indeed command the wife to be in submission to her husband. Paul writes, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord” (Colossians 3:18). Again, Paul elaborates, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. . . . As the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5:22,24). In his letter to Titus, Paul says that wives must be “subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored” (Titus 2:5).

Peter echoes the same command, “In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands” (1 Peter 3:1a). The evidence is overwhelming that the wife must be in subjection to her husband. Furthermore, Paul says that “a woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness” (1 Timothy 2:11). This is a submission to godly teachers who are teaching the truth of God. Beyond this, Paul points out that “the man is the head of a woman” (1 Corinthians 11:3). Therefore, womanly submission goes beyond the husband and includes Scriptural teachers and man in general. The main emphasis, obviously, is submission to the husband.

The general teaching of Scripture, therefore, is that the wife must be in submission to her husband. The term “submit” is from the Greek hupotasso, which has been defined as “to rank under” (W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words) or “to place or arrange under” (Wesley J. Perschbacher, The New Analytical Greek Lexicon). Arndt and Gingrich render the term, “subject oneself, be subjected or subordinated, obey” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). Thayer adds this: “to arrange under, to subordinate . . . to subject one’s self, to obey” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). Therefore, the wife is to place herself under her husband, be subjected to her husband, be subordinate to her husband, and obey her husband.

Although this teaching of male headship and leadership appears to be quite forthright and unequivocal, the vast majority of women simply do not practice womanly subordination and submission. Perhaps 95% to 99% of women simply do not realize the full implications of male headship and the woman’s subordination and submission, They have bought into the contemporary societal view that the man and women are entirely in an equal position. Society has so degenerated that women fill the same role as men in education, business, politics, and in nearly every other sphere of contemporary life.

In the home, most people assume that the wife is entirely equal to the husband. This egalitarian view is relatively recent in the world but it seems to have captured nearly all in its deceptive maze. Even many religious people have been deceived by this modern phenomenon. Admittedly, most conservative Evangelicals and Fundamentalists do recognize something of the Biblical teaching, but even here few women consistently practice a thoroughgoing submission. They too have been influenced greatly by the prevailing feminist philosophy that dominates society at large. It would seem that most women resist the Biblical teaching because they fear that they will lose their autonomy if they are submissive to their husband and subordinate to men, and most men refrain from speaking on authority and submission either because they have been influenced by feminist theology or because they fear offending their own wife or the women they know!

As might be expected, the Biblical teaching on authority and submission has been vigorously opposed by secular feminists of our day. They ridicule this as a prime example of male chauvinism in the past—an attitude that must be opposed in every way possible, especially with the use of ridicule, unkind aspersions, and demeaning put-downs. Liberal religious feminists join in the same denunciation of the rather clear Biblical teaching. The so-called “Evangelical feminists” attempt to cling to some semblance of Scriptural authority in some areas, contending that submission was simply a cultural arrangement of the first century.

Just as slavery was done away with in time, so the patriarchal family structure must also be discarded in light of contemporary enlightenment. They say that Jesus, while knowing better Himself, simply accepted the first-century customs and practices. Paul also may have known better but did not want to unnecessarily upset social institutions and customs. Some say that Paul really didn’t know better but was just “a child of his times” and thought that it was God’s will for women to be in subjection to men. All of this opposition attempts to overthrow the consistent teaching of Scripture on womanly submission. All of it, in some measure, compromises the inspiration and authority of God’s word.

We must not overlook the fact that the Bible not only speaks of the submission of woman, but also teaches submission to other persons. For instance, the Scriptures teach that:

  • The son and daughter must be submissive to parents (Luke 2:51; Col. 3:20; Eph. 6:1-2).
  • The slave (or employee) must be submissive to his master (or employer) (Titus 2:9; 1 Peter 2:18; Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22).
  • The citizen must be submissive to secular governmental authorities (Rom. 13:1-2; Tit. 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13-14).
  • The believer must be submissive to Christian workers (1 Cor. 16:15-16) and leaders (Heb. 13:17).

Therefore, the wife is not the only one who must be in submissive to another. Men also must be submissive to others (to the employer, to the government, and to workers and overseers in the assembly).

As a reaction against the dominant opposition to Biblical authority and submission in our age, some well-meaning men, and even women, seem to have taken an extreme position regarding the requirement that the wife submit herself to her husband. They have taken a Scriptural concept and have arrived at illegitimate conclusions. They point out that Paul says wives must be submissive “to their husbands in everything” (Eph. 5:24).

From this they reason that a wife must submit to or obey her husband in “everything” that he may request, ask, or command. She has no choice in the matter. She has no basis of denial. She must not refuse to obey or submit to her husband in any matter that may come up. Some of those who teach this absolute authority and absolute submission go so far as to say that a wife must obey and submit even when her husband requires her to sin in some way! “After all,” they reason, “didn’t Paul say that a wife must submit in everything?”

They understand “everything” to mean everything right and everything wrong, everything that is righteous and everything that is wicked, everything that is Scriptural and everything that may be unscriptural. They accuse those who would question their interpretation of denying the Bible, rejecting Paul’s statement, and disobeying the “plain teaching of the Bible”! Some may not go quite this far but contend that a wife is to do everything she can to avoid sinning. However, if the time comes for a decision, the wife should go ahead and actually sin for her husband.

Generally, these people who espouse absolute authority and submission say that God does not credit the woman’s sin to her but to her husband. Although she was the one who sinned, she didn’t want to sin. Since she was only obeying a sinful husband, God holds the husband accountable. He will answer to God for the sin; the wife is free from blame. This is the rationale given to justify a wife’s deliberate sin for the sake of her sinful husband.

Some may wonder if this is actually taught and practiced. Yes it is. Sometimes a teacher, pastor, or writer may say that a woman should stop short of sin, but when we inquire into what they mean, we discover that they actually do allow for sin—especially sin of omission.

One book that promotes absolute authority and submission is before me at this very time. The author explains his “absolute submission” view in this way: “Is it best for a wife to forfeit her submissiveness when the fears of danger, error, sinfulness or disobedience seem to be the only plausible result of her husband’s leadership? I want to emphatically say to you, ‘No!’, for it is during those fearful times when a wife’s submission is most important and valuable in the hands of God.

Granted, wives, these times may put your submissive character and development to a test, but they are definitely not times of rebellion or defiance. They may reveal the quality and extent of your submissiveness, but let there be no question about it—God wants you to submit.” We can see that the author is telling women that they should submit to the point of sinfulness and disobedience—obviously, to God! In other words, a wife must choose to disobey God and obey her husband when there is a conflict between the two!

The same author continues with this explanation and counsel: “Many times wives will know or sense that their husband’s requests, policies, principles, and other things are wrong in the sight of God. When wives face such situations, it is best to respond with this attitude and prayer—‘Lord, I know that what my husband is expecting is wrong in Your sight, but I also know it is wrong in Your sight for me not to submit; therefore, I want to submit to my husband, trusting that You will work in this to bring to pass that which is right.’ It is important that wives as well as husbands discern between right and wrong in life situations.” (Emphases in these quotations are ours.) Again we can clearly see that the author says a woman should do something that is “wrong in the sight of God” if her husband requires it. He and others with this persuasion say that true wifely submission requires this kind of submission to the point of sin.

Several observations may be made to this teaching of absolute submission. First, some of these proponents conveniently overlook an equally-inspired statement of Paul that teaches the woman’s submission. Paul writes, “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:11-12). The woman is not to have authority over the man.

But notice what else Paul says. The woman must be “entirely submissive” to brothers who are teaching. Are there no limits to this submission? Of course, there are! She must submit to teaching brothers—as long as this submission does not entail sin, false doctrine, or any wrong. If a male teacher tells her to pray to Mary, she must quietly and humbly refuse. If he tells her to stop reading her Bible, she must oppose his demand. If he tells her to do any wrong of any kind, she must refuse his request. It is not difficult to see this. Why would some who understand limited submission of the woman to the teaching brother (even in a passage that speaks of “entire submissiveness”) not be able to see the limited submission of the wife (when the passage speaks of submission “in everything”)?

Second, the wife-husband relationship is not the only one that appears to require absolute submission. We have seen that the wife must be subject in “everything” (Eph. 5:24) and must be “entirely submissive” to teachers (1 Tim. 2:11). What about the other authority-submission relationships? Consider the following:

Civil Government: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evil-doers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13-14).

Parents: “Children, be obedient to your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing to the Lord” (Colossians 3:20).

Employers: “Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth” (Colossians 3:22a). “Urge bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything” (Titus 2:9a).

Almost everyone can understand that Paul is speaking of the general rule in these passages. Under most circumstances, believing citizens must be subject to every governmental official and regulation. Generally, a child must obey his or her parents in all things. And under normal circumstances, a worker must obey his supervisor in everything required on his job.

But are there any exceptions? Surely there are. If the Chinese government should require Christian parents to have an abortion after they have a certain quota of children, they must strongly and firmly refuse—even if it means they will be thrown into prison. If a father should urge his son to take drugs, smoke, get drunk, blaspheme, burn his Bible, or any other sin, the son must humbly refuse his father’s wrongful, unreasonable demands.

If a supervisor should require a believing employee to lie on the phone, buy cigarettes, attend a drinking party, or participate in lewd behavior, the Christian employee must firmly refuse. We have already mentioned that if a teacher should require a believer to commit sin or accept a false teaching, the Christian must clearly refuse. Hopefully, all of us can see this truth. In authority-submission relationships, there are exceptions to submission. Why do we think the husband-wife relationship is different? Why do some assume that submission limited in every other relationship, but absolute in the wife’s relationship to her husband?

Third, we must always remember that God has absolute authority, supremacy, and sovereignty. He alone is able to demand absolute submission and obedience! When He has commanded some action, we must take it. When He requires us to do something or not do something, we must humbly submit. Authority is the right to command and expect obedience. Jesus also has universal authority. He declared, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18; cf. John 17:2).

Every other authority is derived. Jesus said to Pilate, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). Pilate, as the Roman governor of Judea, had authority—but it was a human authority, a derived authority and a limited authority. We must submit ourselves to human authority as long as we remember that God’s authority is absolute. If there is a difference between the requirements of a human authority and God’s supreme authority, we must always choose to submit to God’s authority!

Maybe a human illustration will help us to see this principle. If the president of a company tells John, an employee, to prepare a written report of some kind the next day, what should the employee do? Obviously, he should prepare the report (assuming that it does not require sin). What if John’s immediate supervisor comes along and tells him to ignore the president’s directive but to do another task the next day? If there is a clear conflict between the order of the president and that of the supervisor, John surely will obey the president’s order—even though, under normal circumstances, the supervisor’s requests must be honored.

This is also true in the spiritual realm. Although we, as believers, must generally and usually submit to the government, the employer, the husband, the parent, and the overseer, there are exceptions to the rule. Whenever any human authority requires something that is in conflict with our supreme authority, then we must refuse to submit to the human authority and must humbly obey God’s absolute authority. We sin if we do otherwise!

Fourth, unqualified submission to God is a principle that is found in the Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation. It has always been God’s will that we put Him first, that we submit to Him before any human being, that we willingly sacrifice ourselves to yield to Him rather than refuse to obey Him.

An incident in the life of the early believers illustrates this well. Jesus had commanded that the good news of His death and resurrection be preached to every person (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-47). However, the religious leaders in Jerusalem “commanded” Peter and John “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). What did these apostles do? Did they acquiesce to their demand, reasoning that they must submit to governing authorities? No, they boldly replied, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). They knew what was “right in the sight of God”! They knew that they must not “give heed to [them] rather than to God.” God must come first! He had absolute authority; their authority was limited. When there was a conflict between human authority (that of the Jewish council) and divine authority (that of God), they must submit to divine authority. They must obey the teaching of Christ rather than the sinful restrictions of the religious leaders.

Soon all of the apostles were brought before the religious authorities for violating the command to not speak of Christ. They said to the apostles, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (Acts 5:28). The apostles had clearly violated their demand. Did the apostles recant and promise that they would obey? What did they do in the face of irreconcilable differences between the requirements of human authorities and God’s authority? Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men” (v. 29). This must always be the answer of the true believer. When a husband, as a human authority, should require a wife to sin (by doing wrong or failing to do right), she must have the same attitude as did the apostles. She must always think, “I must obey God rather than man.”

Fifth, the examples of limited submission argue against the absolute submission view. There are dozens of places in Scripture where we see people of God resisting authority when that authority requires disobedience to God. The Israelite midwives obeyed God rather than Pharaoh in Egypt (Exod. 1:17-20). The magi disobeyed Herod’s command to report on the infant Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). Abigail honored David and his men rather than taking her husband’s wicked lead (1 Samuel 25). Jesus sided with his disciples rather than acquiesce to his mother and brothers’ request (Matt. 12:46-50). Peter says that the slave is to do what is “right” rather than “sin” in his circumstances (1 Peter 2:19-20).

This is not the place to examine all of the examples in which believers were willing to obey God rather than submit to unbelievers who required something sinful. A fairly thorough treatment of this and the whole issue we have been discussing is found in our book, Authority and Submission: Absolute or Limited? One should consult this book for a much more complete discussion of passages in the Old and New Testaments. Also, the book discusses the verses that appear to permit or teach sinful submission to the government, the master, the husband, the parent, and overseers.

This entire subject must be seen in the context of God’s absolute claim on our life and our discipleship to Christ as Lord. If we are subject to God, the ruler of heaven and earth, then we must obey Him before any human being—however important obedience would be under normal circumstances. If we are disciples of Jesus and have accepted His Lordship over the universe and over our personal lives, then whatever He requires must be obeyed regardless of the opposition of any human authority. This is true of our commitment to the New Testament itself. Some may be willing to submit to Jesus’ words, but fail to see the importance of the apostles’ words. The teaching of the apostles is actually the teaching of Christ Jesus and of God the Father (cf. John 17:7-8; 1 Cor. 14:37; 1 Thess. 2:13; 4:2; 2 Peter 3:2). We must be submissive to the Lord’s words throughout the new covenant writings even when this submission places us in conflict with a human authority.

How does this principle of God’s absolute authority relate to man’s limited authority? What would it mean to a wife who is determined to obey God over and above her sinful husband’s unjust demands? Suppose a wife is married to an unbeliever (including one who is quite religious and a professing “Christian,” but who has not genuinely been born of God). Or suppose that she is married to a husband who has fallen away from the faith and consequently is not sympathetic to the ways of God. What should the true Christian wife do if he should require her to do the following:

  • Attend the Mormon Church with him rather than meet with the saints (Heb. 10:24-25; Acts 2:42)?
  • Go to the Catholic Church with him instead of having fellowship with Christians (Heb. 10:24-25)?
  • Go with him to a drinking party that will be filled with a sordid atmosphere (1 Pet. 4:3-5)?
  • Watch an X-rated movie with him (Matt. 5:27-30; Eph. 5:3-12)?
  • Tell someone a lie for him (Eph. 4:25)?
  • Participate in wife-swapping with him (Heb. 13:4)?
  • Speed on the highway (Romans 13:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13-14)?
  • Wear immodest, revealing clothing or cut her hair (1 Tim. 2:9-10; 1 Cor. 11:14-15)?
  • Distribute literature that promotes false teaching (1 Tim. 1:3)?
  • Purchase cigarettes, whisky, a lottery ticket, junk food, or questionable literature at the market (Romans 12:1-2, 9; 14:23; 1 Timothy 5:22b)?
  • Attend her husband’s or son’s football game or wrestling match (James 4:4)?

On the other hand, a husband may forbid his wife to do certain things that God would have her do. What if a sinful and unbelieving husband should refuse to allow his wife to:

  • Read and study her Bible (Matt. 4:4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17)?
  • Meet with the saints (Heb. 10:24-25)?
  • Pray to the Lord (1 Thess. 5:16-18)?
  • Confess her faith in Christ Jesus (Mark 8:38; Matt. 10:32-33)?
  • Teach and train their children the word of God (2 Tim. 3:15)?
  • Send or receive letters from fellow-Christians (Heb. 3:13)?
  • Read and study edifying Biblical teachings (1 Tim. 2:11)?

Sometimes the absolute submission proponents will counsel a woman to “make an appeal” to her husband who is requiring some sin. They teach that some husbands will agree to their wife’s request to be relieved from the necessity of sinning. Daniel’s appeal to the commander in Nebuchadnezzar’s court to eat vegetables and drink water for ten days is sometimes offered as an example of such an action (Dan. 1:8-16). There is an assumption that if the appeal was refused, Daniel would have agreed to eat the king’s food. But this is only an unfounded supposition. In reality, knowing Daniel’s strength of character, we should believe that he would not have “defiled himself” regardless of the commander’s response to the request (v. 8). Later on, he was willing to disobey the king’s command to not pray to the God of heaven (Dan. 6:1-23).

We must remember also that Daniel’s three friends likewise refused to obey Nebuchadnezzar’s command to worship the image of gold (Dan. 3). A wife can and should appeal to a sinful husband when he requires her to sin. If her general demeanor is one of humility and submission, with a “chaste and respectful behavior,” and genuine modesty (1 Peter 3:1-4), many husbands will not require a wife to disobey the Lord. However, it is utterly naïve to think that this will always be the outcome of a sincere and humble appeal.

Even after a wife’s quiet and humble entreaty to be relieved of sinful requirements, some hard-hearted husbands will still seek to coerce her to do the wrong and forbid her from doing the right. While a husband may not literally force his wife to comply with his ungodly requests, a husband can become obnoxious, mean, belligerent, withdrawn, or verbally abusive if his wife does not honor his desires. This shows why a wife must have a pure and tender spirit even when she must refuse to acquiesce to her husband’s sinful desires or demands.

This principle of limited submission must not be used as an excuse for a wife’s unsubmissive attitude and disobedient behavior. Some women may look for excuses to disobey their husbands! They may use this teaching as a way of not doing what they do not want to do or doing what they want to do. They have a “rebellious” attitude (Prov. 7:11) that uses this Biblical teaching to satisfy their own sinful attitude of insubmission and insubordination. The believing wife must recognize the general teaching of Scripture on authority and submission. She must also realize that this teaching rests upon time-enduring principles that are rooted in creation itself; it is not simply a teaching that comes from transitory customs and human tradition (cf. 1 Cor. 11:7-12; 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:11-15).

The principle that we have been discussing in this article is our concern at present. The wife who has been excusing her carnal living, her worldliness, her immodesty, her disobedience, and her sin by saying that she is simply being submissive to her husband needs to be aware that she has a Lord who asks, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). She needs to remember that simply calling Jesus, “Lord, Lord,” is not enough. Only those who do the will of the Father will enter the kingdom of God (Matt. 7:21). She needs to remember that her absolute authority is God Himself and His Son, Jesus Christ. She must be subject to the word of God before and above her submission to her husband. Even if she must suffer for her obedience to God (and her disobedience to her husband), she must be willing to suffer.

Peter says that the wife must be submissive to her husband (1 Peter 3:1), but then he says that a believing wife is a “daughter” of Sarah (who obeyed Abraham) if she “[does] what is right without being frightened by any fear” (v. 6). A wife is to be submissive only when what she does is right; she must never do wrong by obeying a sinful husband rather than obeying God!

The wife would do well to make humble entreaty of her husband rather than directly disobey him. As some have advised, she should offer “creative alternatives” to his sinful demands. She should try to determine why he is requiring the wrong or forbidding the right and should seek to yield as much as she can. She should maintain positive attitudes of “a gentle and quiet spirit” in her heart (1 Peter 3:4) so that her husband will be more willing to ease his sinful restrictions. But if all of these avenues are denied, sometimes a wife may simply need to refuse to sin—for the Lord’s sake. When faced with the decision of whether to obey a husband who is requiring her to sin or whether to obey God who requires that she not sin, the believing sister can only reply, “We must obey God rather than men.”

(Notice also the article entitled, “Absolute or Limited Submission?,” which is a compilation of comments from various writers on this very subject.)

Richard Hollerman



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