These days, most of us in Western culture perceive submission as a dirty word. But the Biblical concept of submission in marriage is a beautiful thing that invites women to trust, and men to step up into loving leadership. If you don’t believe me, keep reading.
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1 Peter #18. 1 Peter 3:1-2
1 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 3 Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.1 Peter 3:1-6, ESV
Here it is: the moment you’ve all been waiting for: “Wives, submit to your husbands.”
This is obviously a verse that sounds very out-of-step with our current culture. It comes across as patriarchal, oppressive toward women, and so old-fashioned as to be silly. In the minds of some people, it proves how horrible Christianity really is. It appears to be unjust, the product and producer of male privilege.
One of the challenges of living in the early 21st century is that, largely because of social media, we are losing our historical perspective. Huge portions of the population seem unaware of the fact that at other times in history, many wonderful people felt differently than the social media mob feels today. In fact, they seem unaware that until very, very recently, many things were considered quite reasonable that are now so offensive as to get someone fired. People today are destroyed socially, and often lose their whole career, for having opinions that weren’t remotely controversial even ten years ago. More than twenty years ago is treated as ancient history.
Because of all of this, there are a large proportion of Christians in the Western world who try to make verses like this meaningless. The Christians who try to eliminate any meaning or significance from such verses call themselves “egalitarians.” Sometimes they also go by the name “evangelical feminists.”
Some egalitarians say that Peter was merely telling women to fit in with the culture around them. Others say that Peter was just joking around, being sarcastic. Some claim that if we interpret the bible correctly, it actually says the exact opposite of what it appears to say. Other egalitarians suggest that even though the Bible teaches that wives should submit to their husbands, God was just compromising with ungodly culture, and now today we are supposed to come up with new teachings about men and women that go beyond what the Bible actually says. They say that today we understand better than the apostles what God really would have said, if the apostles hadn’t been so stuck in their own culture and time-period. (They don’t seem to consider the possibility that we might be stuck inside our own time period and culture). If you really want them, I can give you exact references from books by Christian egalitarians, demonstrating these arguments.
Hopefully, just by sharing egalitarian arguments so clearly, you can see that they are problematic. Even so, I truly understand the desire to pretend such verses don’t actually mean anything. In many ways, I wish the Bible didn’t have verses like this one. But, unfortunately, the antics of Christian egalitarians contradict almost every good principle of Bible interpretation. If we were to accept the way egalitarians treat scriptures like this, we would have to accept that most of the Bible is meaningless. If you really want to dig into why that is, I’m happy to get you a copy of my book: In God’s Image, which is all about this topic.
In the meantime, let’s try to approach these verses the same way we approach all Bible verses. Before we get into our specific verses today, I want to point out that the New Testament repeats this teaching several times. Besides here, in Ephesians, Colossians and Titus, wives are told to submit to their husbands. In Corinthians and 1 Timothy, women are taught to relate to men as different from themselves, and having a unique spiritual responsibility that women do not have. In all of those verses, the New Testament does not give culture as a reason for the teaching. Instead, this teaching about men and women goes back to creation, to the fall of human beings, to the nature of the Trinity, and to the nature of Christ’s relationship with the church. In other words, it is a deep and pervasive teaching in the Bible that men and women are created by God to be different, and that those differences should be appropriately expressed in marriage and in the church.
With that, let’s look at 1 Peter chapter 3. First, let’s remember the context. Peter made the case that we are the very special people of God: specially selected to be his children, an ethnicity of holiness, priests in the way of Jesus, bought by God with the precious blood of Jesus. Because of who we are in Jesus, we live different lives. Our lives are to reflect our identity as God’s chosen ones. So, we abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against our souls. We submit to governing authorities, because we inhabit a better kingdom with a perfect king. We submit to bosses or others who have authority over us, and we do so not because they are wonderful people, but rather, because we are God’s people. We are followers of Jesus, who entrusted himself fully to God, even in the face of massive injustice and suffering.
In the same way, writes Peter, wives submit to your husbands. In other words, submit in the way of Jesus. Submit because of Jesus, not because your husband is the most wonderful person who ever lived. Entrust yourself, not to your husband’s righteousness, but to God’s. Submit because when you do so, as a specially chosen daughter of God, as a follower of Jesus, God turns it into a thing of everlasting beauty.
First, what is submission? Many bible teachers feel that the core New Testament passage about marriage and submission is Ephesians 5:21-35. I agree. If you wonder where I get some of the ideas that follow, read that passage. In that passage, it tells husbands to love their wives sacrificially, as Christ loved the church and gave his life for it. A husband’s love in marriage is supposed to give the world a picture of Christ’s love for the church. In the same way, a wife’s submission to her husband is supposed to be like the submission of the church to Christ. Her willingness to let her husband lead is meant to show the world how the church is supposed to respond to Christ.
So, I might say it like this: Submission is a wife’s divine calling to honor, affirm, and encourage her husband’s leadership of their family, and to support that leadership with her own gifts and abilities. The core thing that happens when a wife submits to her husband is that she trusts God to be at work in and through her husband, and she supports God’s work in that way.
Part of this means that husbands and wives aren’t just doing their own thing separately, like roommates with benefits. They make a life together. They approach life as a team. I don’t mean husbands and wives can’t have their own friends, or individual hobbies. I think it’s healthy for married couples to have a few separate interests. But being married means making a life together. They have to find ways to work together to live the life that God has given them. A wife trusting God to work through her husband, and supporting and encouraging her husband’s leadership of their life together, is a tremendously important component of making a godly life together.
In our culture today, submission is associated with the idea of domination. However, that particular association is unique to our culture and to our time. Elsewhere in the world (and at other times in history), billions of people value appropriate submission as much as we might value compassion. In such places (East Asia, and Africa, for two examples) submission is a very positive thing. When we define it the way we just did above, we can see that it need not be humiliating or negative at all. It is an appropriate respect for the responsibilities of leadership entrusted to others. When we offer that respect, it also brings honor to ourselves.
Let’s briefly talk about what submission is not. Husbands are not called to dominate wives. Biblical submission is a gracious entrusting of oneself to God first, and through God, to husbands. But it is not a call to be a doormat. It is not a call to allow yourself to be subjugated and manipulated. No woman must submit to physical or emotional abuse, or any kind of deliberate harm. No woman must submit to being controlled, or humiliated, or treated like a child. (No man must submit to this, either)
In addition, all of the things we said in previous lessons about submitting to government, and to masters, apply in this case. You should not go along with your husband when he wants you to sin. You should not go along with your husband when he wants you to stop reading your bible, or praying, or going to church. Not only that, but trusting God in your marriage means that you should not encourage or support your husband when he wants to sin himself, even if it is without involving you. John Piper addresses this, adding an important thought:
The supreme authority of Christ qualifies the authority of her husband. She should never follow her husband into sin. Nevertheless, even when she may have to stand with Christ against the sinful will of her husband (e.g., 1 Pet. 3:1, where she does not yield to her husband’s unbelief), she can still have a spirit of submission—a disposition to yield. She can show by her attitude and behavior that she does not like resisting his will and that she longs for him to forsake sin and lead in righteousness so that her disposition to honor him as head can again produce harmony.(John Piper & Wayne Grudem, 50 Crucial Questions. Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2016)
Peter says that when women are disposed to honor and affirm and support the leadership of their husbands it can have a profound impact on those husbands. In fact, he suggests it as a means to reach husbands who are not following Jesus with the gospel.
Many years ago, our neighbors were not Christians. The wife was a self-proclaimed radical feminist. After a couple years of praying and talking, the wife became a believer and started following Jesus. We taught her to read her Bible, and she began to do so regularly. Then, just two or three months after that happened, she approached me when I was taking out the garbage.
“Did you know about these verses?” she demanded, reading me this exact passage from 1 Peter.
“Yes,” I said, wincing inwardly. I was kind of hoping it might have been a bit longer before she came across them. I knew they would really challenge her feminism.
“Does this mean pretty much what it says?” she asked.
“I believe it does,” I said. I waited for the angry outburst, but she just stood there, chewing on her lower lip for a few seconds, thinking. Finally, she turned back to me, and declared, “I’m going to try it.”
Two months later, her husband became a follower of Jesus. He agrees that it was in large part due to the change he saw in his wife. As a pastor, one of my privileges is to walk with people through their struggles and also their joys. I know personally of at least one other man who became a Christian because his wife did her best to put Peter’s words into practice. I know of other marriages where the two were already Christian, but their relationships were transformed when wives took this seriously.
I think one of the key things about submission is the surrendering of control. Again, I don’t mean submitting to be controlled by your husband. But I do think that being Biblically submissive means that wives must give up trying to control or manipulate their husbands, or even trying to control things through their husbands. It involves letting go, trusting God to work through the man you committed your life to.
I believe that in general, good men respond positively to vulnerability combined with trust. I think when a man believes that his wife is genuinely counting on him to handle things, he really does want to come through for her. He is motivated by his wife’s godly submission in a way that no amount of nagging can accomplish. That’s not to say, women, that your husband will never disappoint you, just as you can’t say you will never disappoint him. Also, he may come through for you in a way that is perfectly acceptable, but not the exact way you planned, or not in the manner you would have done it. Part of godly submission is allowing your husband to do things differently than you might.
However, if he is a wise husband, he’ll enlist your help. The trick though, is to help without taking control; to maintain your attitude of trust in God and support of your husband’s responsibility as a spiritual leader.
But your ultimate trust is that God will work in and through your husband. When you believe that, you will also do your best to use your own talents and energy to help him succeed, because then the two of you are successful together, as a team, and that is the way God designed it to be.
Women, I don’t think you can get up enough trust on your own for this. You need the power of the Holy Spirit to work in you in order to trust God enough to submit to your husbands in this way. Men, you know you don’t have what it takes to be worthy of such submission. We too, need the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to be godly leaders in our families.
There is more to be said on this. We’ve only really covered verses 1-2. So next time we’ll talk about Braids, Beauty and Biology!