Time and again I hear Christian speakers and writers reminding women to be submissive, or be in subjection, to their husbands. Some churches and ministries emphasise and elaborate on wifely submission to such an extent that, for some, submission has become an all-pervasive principle that deeply influences a woman’s sense of self. It impacts on every aspect of a woman’s life including her place and role in the family, in the church, in the workforce and society, and, especially, her place and role in marriage.
Limits of Wifely Submission in Marriage?
Disturbingly, some Christians have tried to work out the parameters and limits of wifely submission and attempted to define what types and amounts of harmful and hurtful behaviour a wife should put up with before she may resist her husband, say “no” to her husband, or even leave the marriage. It seems to me that when we begin defining and quantifying certain forms of bad behaviour and abuse against women, we have missed the point entirely. The point of any instruction or law in the Bible is justice, mercy, and compassion (Zech. 7:9-10; Matt. 23:23; Rom. 13:9-10). Justice, mercy, and compassion are the godly ideals and motivations that should be forefront in our minds and hearts when putting any Biblical principle into practice.
Both Peter and Paul instructed wives to be submissive to their own husbands (Eph. 5:21-24; Col. 3:18-19; Tit. 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1ff). However, the concept of submission has been exaggerated by many Christians. Submission is the opposite of resistance and rebellion. Peter and Paul wanted wives to be allied with their husbands, in supportive and harmonious marriages, and not alienated from them. Note that neither Peter or Paul wrote that wives must obey (hupakouō) their husbands.
Both Peter and Paul wrote about mutual, reciprocal submission in Christian relationships (Eph. 5:21; 1 Pet. 3:7; cf. 1 Pet. 5:5 NKJV). They wrote that husbands should be caring and considerate towards their wives, and sacrificially love and honour them. In many churches, these instructions to husbands are rarely insisted upon as much as the apostles’ instructions to wives.
Limits of Submission to Governing Authorities?
Not only did Peter and Paul instruct Christians to be mutually submissive to each other, they also instructed Christians to submit, or be subject, to governing authorities.
Let everyone be submissive 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, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgement on themselves. Romans 13:1-2
Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed . . . Titus 3:1
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority . . . 1 Peter 2:3
What intrigues me is that, despite the clear exhortations for Christians to be submissive to governments, I have not heard Christian leaders emphasise or insist that Christian citizens need to put up with the harmful policies and actions of their governments. To the contrary, I see many Christians resisting government policies which they perceive as being unbiblical and detrimental to society. Many Christians have even formed their own lobby groups.
Many Christians belong to the Tea Party movement in America which is opposed to certain government policies. These Christians have no scruples about criticising their government and encouraging other Christians to join in with their opposition. Ironically, many of these same Christians continue to insist that wives need to be completely submissive to their husbands, even to husbands that exhibit ungodly and hurtful attitudes and behaviours. What hypocrisy!
Giving the Church a Bad Name
One thing that many churches have failed to take into consideration (when they have formed their views of submission) is the reason why Paul and Peter instructed wives and citizens to be submissive. In some passages, the apostles wrote these instructions so that the first-century church would not get a bad name among their pagan neighbours, thus hindering the spread of the Gospel message. (See Tit. 2:4-5; cf. 1 Tim. 5:14; 6:1.) Peter directed his instruction of submission to Christian wives with unsaved husbands, hoping that it might bring about the conversion of their husbands (1 Pet 3:1). The spread of the Gospel was a primary reason the apostles wanted Christians to be submissive.
The ministers and churches who over-emphasise and even romanticise wifely submission are giving the church a bad name in contemporary societies where male primacy and gender discrimination are considered unethical. Moreover, the oppressive and restrictive views of some men and the overly romanticised and elaborate views of some women in regard to submission, do not truly represent the freedom and equality, or the mission, of the Good News of Jesus.
Is your view or practice of “submission” merciful towards women? Do you hold to the double standard that Christians can criticise and oppose the government and its policies, but women cannot question or refuse their husband’s requests? Is your view and practice of submission giving the church a bad name and making the Gospel unattractive to people in contemporary society who value gender equality?
I have written more articles about Biblical submission in marriage here.
 Some ministers, such as John Piper, even state that women should be submissive to all men and that submission is the defining trait of “womanhood”. These are unbiblical and potentially harmful teachings.
 In some Christian circles, the simple concept of wifely submission has been turned into an elaborate and contrived lifestyle, far beyond what the apostles could have envisioned.
 Titus 2:5 in the King James Version (Authorised Version) says that the older women should teach the younger wives to be obedient to their own husbands. However the Greek word for “obedient” does not occur in this verse. The word is more accurately translated as “submissive”.
© Margaret Mowczko 2011
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