God’s Word inevitably conflicts with the plans of man. For instance, the Word directs us to acknowledge the God of the Bible as the One True God—we are to have no other gods but Him. Yet the sinful heart of man is inclined to persistent idolatry, seeking to satisfy our need to worship and find assurance in anything and everything but the God of the Bible.
God’s Word tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Therefore, we’re commanded not to steal, murder, or bear false witness. Yet men are perennial thieves, liars, and gossips who trample one another in an effort to elevate their own image or status. The Scriptures teach that adultery is sin, yet men and women continue to be unfaithful and deal treacherously with one another. God’s Word tells children to honor their father and mother; yet one can simply turn on the television or walk through any shopping mall to see that the world is far from compliant with this command.
All of God’s commands have been continuously broken since the fall of man. Our hearts are full of “evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness” (Mark 7:22-23). Without Jesus, we are in bondage to the sin we claim to hate. Of course, we’re liars, because we really love our sin.
Rebels from the Start
We are born rebels. In the Fifth Commandment, when God calls for children to honor their parents, He is teaching us that He is the ultimate source of all authority, and that He has the right to delegate that authority according to His providence, in the home, in the church, and in the civil realm. It is for our good and His glory.
Still, we make all sorts of excuses for why we shouldn’t have to be under anyone’s authority. We piously claim we are under the authority of God alone; but too often we nullify that claim by refusing any real accountability.
When we are taught as children to honor our parents, we are better able to honor authority in other jurisdictional spheres; and ultimately, we are better able to honor the Lord. The Westminster Larger Catechism demonstrates the extension of this principle:
Who are meant by father and mother in the fifth commandment?
By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, (Prov. 23:22,25, Eph. 6:1–2) but all superiors in age (1 Tim. 5:1–2) and gifts; (Gen. 4:20–22, Gen. 45:8) and especially such as, by God’ s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, (2 Kings 5:13) church, (2 Kings 2:12, 2 Kings 13:14, Gal. 4:19) or commonwealth. (Isa. 49:23)
Submission in Marriage
The Bible is clear. God has established a polity—a government in the home. By God’s decree, the husband is to be the head of the wife, and by default, the ruling authority in the home (i.e., Genesis 2:18-25, 3:16; 1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:23, 6:1; Colossians 3:20). It is clear that this polity was established during the time of Creation, before any secular culture had been formed. The polity of the home is by God’s appointment—by His decree and for His glory.
Within the home, the Lord instructs wives to submit to their own husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18). It is interesting to note, the Word does not direct a woman to submit to men in general, only to her own husband (who happens to be commanded to sacrificially love her). This is important because within the Christian faith women are rightful heirs with their husbands of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7). Indeed, before the throne of God, men and women stand as equals, rejoicing side by side in the finished work of the Savior (Galatians 3:28). Individually, men and women are heirs according to the promise.
And yet, within the home, wives are called to submit to their husbands. Nowhere does the Bible call on husbands to force their wives submit to them. The instruction comes from the Lord directly to wives. There is no more a command for men to make their wives submit than there is a command for women to force their husbands to love them!
Submission begins when a Christian wife recognizes Christ’s love for her and responds with a willingness to obey Him in all things. Then, even though it may go against the norms of society and the desires of the flesh, He calls her to submit to her own husband’s leadership in the Lord. And, in submitting to her husband, she submits to the Word of God.
Husbands are also charged in Scripture—they are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25-30), sacrificing, serving, defending, nurturing, leading. Husbands are called to live with their wives in a gentle and understanding way, recognizing their inherent differences (1 Peter 3:7).
Men are called to remember that a wife is a great treasure (Genesis 2:18; Proverbs 18:22, 19:14, 31:10) to be appreciated and cherished. She is given by God; so, together, they might become one flesh (Genesis 2:24), moving forward in unity to fulfill the mission God has given them.
Biblical submission is a beautiful expression in a Christ-honoring marriage. Remember, a Christian wife is a daughter of the King, and a slave to no man. Her service to her husband is a reflection of her willing service to her Lord and King, Jesus.
If a woman forced her husband to love her, we would easily recognize the fact that she was not truly loved at all. Whether or not this husband claimed love with his mouth, we would all know that it was bondage that forced his words. Love can only exist in freedom. He must choose to obey God and sacrificially love his wife, whether or not she is lovable; and in so doing, he makes it easier for her to obey God.
The same is true with biblical submission. If a man forces his wife to submit to him, he has created a slave. But when a wife, by God’s grace, and out of obedience to her Lord and King, willingly submits to a fallible husband, she is a servant—a servant of the Lord and a blessing to her husband. She has yielded her will to the will of her Father for a heavenly purpose. And in so doing, she has made it easier for her husband to love and lead her.
A Christian wife’s submission in marriage is thus not one of mechanical compliance to a husband’s every whim or desire. If a wife is to truly help and complete her husband, she will often need to provide input on important decisions, and even respectfully challenge a husband’s conclusions at times. However, as long as the husband’s requests are not sinful or unreasonable, a wife should respectfully follow her husband’s lead, even when she is unsure whether or not a decision he has ultimately made is the wisest choice.
But how far does submission go? Sometimes “helping” a husband means confronting him. The Lord often uses those closest to us to help us deal with the sin in our hearts. Biblical submission does not mean that a wife cannot seek help from her elders or other God-ordained authorities regarding a husband’s sin. Christian husbands are sinners, even if they are sanctified sinners.
But this begs the question: What if a submissive Christian wife confronts a husband with his sin, and he doesn’t listen? Or even worse, what if a husband asks his wife to sin? Or what if he sins against his wife or children through cruelty or neglect? Does a Christian wife have any recourse in such a situation? Or should see quietly suffer along with her children while her husband increasingly grows out of control?
In an effort to create their own self-serving domestic kingdom, there are men who have used the Holy Scriptures for personal gain—they have used verses on submission (given to wives) to justify their warped version of domestic tyranny. Some erring church leaders and teachers have instructed women to obey their husbands even to the point of sin (the assumption being made that God will intervene at the last minute). Horror stories of forced abortion, adultery, perversion, pornography, and incest have all been cloaked under the excuse of “submission.”
In some cases, true abuse has been shamefully overlooked and excused by those who should be protectors and guardians of the sheep. One desperate wife and mother appealed to her elders, only to be sent home, chastised for dishonoring her husband, and blamed for not being submissive enough.
This is why rightly dividing the Word of Truth is crucial. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. Jesus would never ask His Bride to sin. Can you even fathom Jesus physically or verbally assaulting His Wife?
Wives are called to submit to their husbands as to the Lord. How do we submit to the Lord? Willingly, selflessly, and cheerfully. Wives are to submit to their husbands in all the same ways she would submit to the Lord. And the Lord would never ask His Bride to sin.
There are times when a Christian wife must disobey her husband. She is not called to submit to him in areas where he is walking in unrepentant sin. In times like this, a Christian woman can and should avail herself of the other spheres of jurisdiction that God has established—that of the church, extended family, or, when necessary, the state. God uses these means to restrain evil.
There are indeed biblical precedents for the practice of going to a different jurisdiction when faced with a sinful situation. Abigail, when married to Nabal, went to David and interceded for her foolish husband (1 Samuel 25). In essence, Abigail went beyond her immediate authority to correct a dangerous situation that her husband had brought about. By her actions, she saved her people from death. In Daniel chapter 6, Daniel disobeys the proclamation of King Darius concerning prayer to God. In Acts 5:29, Peter gives that courageous proclamation, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
And so, there are times when a wife not only can, but must seek help from a higher God-given jurisdiction. These jurisdictions—of home, church, and state—do not stand as isolated islands; they are interconnected powers that work together for the glory of God and the expansion of His Kingdom.
But what should we say of the husband who is not under church authority; who perhaps refuses to attend a faithful church; who has isolated his family and set himself up as lone prophet, priest, and king for the family? What should a wife do in such a case? I believe a Christian wife must follow the Lord. If a husband keeps his family from assembling together for an extended time, and shows no sign of committing to a church, a wife may prayerfully and respectfully appeal to her husband, letting him know that she must find a doctrinally sound church where she and their children can be accountable—and protected (Hebrews 13:17). She may also explain to him that by keeping her from the accountability of a church body, he is asking her to sin (Hebrews 10:25); and she must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29).
When aligned with the principles of God’s Word, the Christian family, comprised of husband, wife, and children, is a beautiful expression of godly order, sacrifice, love, and Gospel expansion. Therefore, we have an obligation to live within the bounds of biblical authority; otherwise we have lawlessness, chaos, and tyranny.
Our call as Christians is to obey the commands of the Lord, even when they are not considered culturally relevant. This includes biblical submission to authority; and, regardless of station, we are all under authority—authority which exists for God’s glory. The Fifth Commandment was given along with a promise, “Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12) As we train our children, we must instill in them an understanding of the consequences and magnitude of this important mandate from God. As Christians, we all desire that our children know the peace of God, and the God of peace. But do we fully understand that this blessing often comes as children see the God of peace manifested in the actions of parents? It is much more than what we say—it is far more in what we do (Phil 4:9).