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What about submission?

(This is something that I wrote in response to a personal question several years ago.  It doesn’t deal directly with narcissism but discusses the limits and the purpose of the Bible’s teaching on submission.  I offer it here to those who bring this concern in the context of the rest of our teaching.)

The Scriptures are clear that a wife is to submit to her husband.  However, the same Scriptures are also clear that God’s people are to submit to each other.  (Eph. 5:21, Rom. 12:10; Phil 2:3; 1 Peter 5:5)  Submission is part of all Christian relationships.

One could ask whether a wife is to love her husband.  We would answer without hesitation that she should, yet there is no Scripture that says so (except indirectly in Titus 2:4).  Only the husband is told to love in the marriage relationship.  Of course, the wife should love her husband, if for no other reason, because all Christians are called to love one another.  (John 13:34; 1 John 4:7, et al.)

Some teachers suggest that these specific commands are given because of certain propensities in the husband and the wife.  The wife, they say, leans toward rebellion and will damage the family if she is out from under her husband’s authority.  The husband leans toward control and needs to be reminded to love gently.  Yet it is very obvious to anyone who observes that many men struggle with rebellion and many women should be reminded to love.  These teachers would simply reply that God chose to single out the wife for submission and the husband for love and that we are not to argue with His command.

Yet, they miss the point of the Scriptures!  We are all called to submit to each other and we are all called to love each other.  Just because the command is not repeated for each side of the relationship does not mean that it is not meant for each side.  In Titus 2:3 the older women are admonished not to be “given to much wine.”  However, there is no such admonition for the older men or for the younger women.  Are we to assume that alcoholism is okay for the others but not for the older women?  Of course not.  This simply doesn’t need to be repeated.

When we realize that we are all called to submit and love, it becomes obvious that the meaning of submission and the meaning of love have to be determined in the light of the kind of relationship.  We are not called to love others in exactly the same way a husband is called to love his wife.  There are a variety of levels and shades of love.  Should we love our neighbor the same way we are called to love God?  We are called to love our neighbor because the love of God is in us, but the meaning of the term is somewhat different.

In the same way, we are called to submit to the elders of the church, to the authorities of government, and to God.  Obviously there are different levels of submission.  The apostles made it clear that they were to submit to God before, or in a more serious way, than they were to submit to the government leaders.  A wife’s submission to her husband has the same limitations.  No wife should submit to her husband in the same way she submits to God.  Nor should she submit to another man in the same way she submits to her husband.

In a more general sense, submission is the same in all relationships.  Submission is deference, a willingness to put the needs or desires of others above our own.  We defer to others because of love, but if our relationship is distant, we may defer on the basis of order and authority.  If the government demands something, such as observing a maximum speed limit, we are to obey for the sake of civilization and order.  Yet, the proper motivation is still to be love.  We obey the speed limit, for example, because of the love we have for others and the desire to protect them.  We trust that the government sets such standards for mutual protection, in other words, for our own good and for the good of others.  Since this is quite consistent with our own motivations, we obey joyfully.

A marriage relationship is not a distant one.  Love is the foundation of marriage.  Paul said that marriage was a sort of picture of the relationship of Christ and His church.  We are to understand that as a love relationship, rather than a relationship based on structure or authority.  Any husband who commands his wife as a king would command a servant, or who abuses his wife, certainly does not portray the relationship Christ has with the Church.  Christ never suggests that His people are worthless slaves.  Instead, He loves us and even gave Himself for us.

Christian submission is always based on love, rather than authority.  Even obedience to Christ is commanded in the context of His incredible love.  We were His enemies until He loved us to Himself.  (Romans 5:10)  Our obedience to Him and our love for Him come as the result of His love. (1 John 4:19)  We know that it does not cause His love.

If marriage is a picture of the relationship of Christ and the Church, then the submission of a wife comes as a result of the love of a husband.  She defers to him because she is confident of his love for her.  She knows that he would do nothing to hurt her willingly, so she trusts him and allows him to lead.  Christians know of the great love of Christ and trust Him to lead in their lives.  He does not demand obedience; He loves and obedience flows as His people see that love and learn to trust Him.

What about a marriage that is broken, where the husband is abusive or adulterous?  Is the wife bound to submission even then?  This is a real question for many who find themselves in dangerous marriages.  If he demands that she stay with him even though he is a danger to her or the children, does she have to obey?

We have an example in Scripture that clearly answers this question.  When the apostles were told by the authorities not to preach the gospel, they answered that they must obey God rather than man. (Acts 5:29)  They understood that there was a point where obedience must stop – because of love.  If they loved the people of the city where they were preaching and if they loved the Lord who had saved them, then they must tell their story.  They disobeyed because there was a higher call on their lives.

When a husband is a danger to his wife or children, the wife must find a way to protect herself and the children – because of love.  Love for her children and love for her husband would demand that she find that protection.  If her husband is clearly wrong and is acting outside the will of God, she may be called by love to confront him and disagree with him.  When a wife blindly submits, like a dog or farm animal, she deprives the husband of an important challenge to wrong actions.  Too often the wife is the only one who knows the truth and she has a responsibility to either deal with it or reveal it to others.  (Matthew 18)

There are many situations where corrupt authority loses its right to submission.  We are not commanded to submit to evil governments that deny the right to worship God.  We are not bound to silent submission when others are hurt.  If an elder of the church commands an immoral action, he has no right to obedience.  If a police officer demands a bribe, we are not expected to obey.  A corrupt husband, who does not lead in love, should have no expectation of submission from his wife.

Fathers are commanded by God not to provoke their children, to do that which would move the hearts of their children against the Lord.  (Ephesians 6:4)  In fact, if they do that and the children turn their hearts away from the Lord who loves them, the fathers have committed a grievous sin.  (Matthew 18:2-7)  Should the mother stand by and watch while this sin is committed, just for the sake of being silent and submissive?  How does that promote the cause of Christ in the marriage relationship?  When children are abused or mistreated, the mother may have to step out of her silence and stand strongly against that which grieves the Lord.

A great deal is made of the sanctity of marriage as a holy institution of the Lord.  Obviously, this is true and God hates that which destroys a marriage.  This is why the Scriptures speak so clearly about adultery and divorce.  However, as much as marriage is a holy institution before God, so an abusive marriage is an unholy abomination before God.  To take a holy thing that belongs to God and use it to hurt or control others is to make it into an abomination.  Sex is a holy blessing from God; immoral sex is an abomination to Him because of the misuse of the holy thing.  Silver and gold are beautiful blessings from God, but an idol of silver or gold is an abomination to Him.  Bringing a child to the Lord is a wonderful thing, but burning a child as a sacrifice to Him is an abomination.  When marriage, which is meant to be joyful and loving, becomes a cover for cruelty and abuse, it has become a curse to the children and the Church, and a stench to the Lord.

Of course, the primary goal should always be to restore a marriage to the love it once had, or to the purpose of love God had for it.  A wife should pray for her husband while she does what it takes to protect herself and the children.  Many husbands have been won to the Lord when the trouble is exposed and dealt with.  A relationship can be restored only when the danger is removed.  A wife who decides that it is time to leave may have the responsibility to place protective boundaries around her and the children, even while she hopes or works to restore the relationship.  This is the way to restoration, not a barrier against it.

And what about the teachers who proclaim that the husband is to be obeyed no matter what?  It seems to be an axiom that those who desire to control others hate to be controlled themselves.  While they teach others to obey government, they often refuse to obey when government challenges their actions.  While they teach their followers to submit to the authorities of the church, they often set themselves above the authorities of their own churches.  They obey when it suits them.  Teaching submission apart from loving relationship is usually evidence of someone whose motives are less than holy.  Those teachers should simply be ignored.