Now will I sing to my well beloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My well-beloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill: And he fenced it, and gathered out the stone....16th October 2017
I know of no verse in the Bible that is as concise and obvious in its meaning and yet so controversial and difficult to apply practically as Colossians 3:18. On the surface, it’s pretty simple:
Wives must submit to their husbands as is fitting in the Lord.
If there are no questions, we can all go home now! But the obvious simplicity becomes incredibly complex as you begin to sort it out. For one thing, there are probably thousands of subjective opinions about what a submissive wife is like. Many think of the Archie and Edith Bunker model, where the husband rules the roost by barking orders at his half-witted slave of a wife. A husband once complained to me that his wife wasn’t submissive. I asked him what he thought that meant. He snapped, “When I say, ‘Paint the house black,’ she picks up a brush and starts painting!”
In a similar vein, some think that submission means the total passivity of the wife. The husband makes all the decisions without consulting her or taking her needs and desires into account. He controls the money, determines where the family will live, whether he will take a new job, whether they buy a new car, etc. She passively goes along. I heard of a seminary graduate who came home and without discussing it, announced to his wife that they would be moving across the country where she had no family or friends. He couldn’t understand why she wasn’t excited about this great ministry opportunity for him!
Others think that submission means that the wife should take care of all the household chores—cooking, cleaning, shopping, and dealing with the kids, while the husband works, brings home the paycheck, and watches sports on TV.
On the opposite side, many Christians now embrace “egalitarianism.” They claim that there are no distinctive roles for men and women in marriage or in the church. There should be “mutual submission,” with no one exercising final authority. They argue that the biblical commands for wives to be subject to their husbands were culturally determined. Paul told wives to be subject to their husbands in that male-dominated culture so that the truth of the equality of the sexes would not interfere with the gospel. But now that we live in a more egalitarian age, we should cast off all gender-based role distinctions.
As if the subject were not difficult enough to sort out, we also have widespread wife abuse, which is often blamed on teaching wives to be submissive. One in three women have been the object of some form of physical violence from an intimate partner. One in five women have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner. About one in five instances of domestic violence involves a weapon (these statistics from ncadv.org).
If you think that such abuse is rare in the church, you’re not in touch with reality. The late Chuck Colson told this story on his “Breakpoint” radio program (10/20/09):
A woman I’ll call “Marleen” went to her pastor for help. “My husband is abusing me,” she told him. “Last week he knocked me down and kicked me. He broke one of my ribs.”
Marleen’s pastor was sympathetic. He prayed with Marleen—and then he sent her home. “Try to be more submissive,” he advised. “After all, your husband is your spiritual head.”
Two weeks later, Marleen was dead—killed by an abusive husband. Her church could not believe it. Marleen’s husband was a Sunday school teacher and a deacon. How could he have done such a thing?
Tragically, studies reveal that spousal abuse is just as common within the evangelical churches as anywhere else. This means that about 25 percent of Christian homes witness abuse of some kind.
And the statistics on physical abuse don’t include verbal and emotional abuse. So in light of all these confusing factors, how should we deal with Paul’s admonition to wives to submit to their husbands? First, we need to answer the question:
What is submission?
1. Submission is to put oneself under another’s authority.
The Greek word Paul uses here is a military term meaning to put oneself in rank under another. God has ordained the principle of authority and submission in a number of different spheres: Citizens are to be subject to civil authorities (Rom. 13:1; Titus 3:1); slaves to their masters (Col. 3:22; Titus 2:9); church members to their leaders (1 Cor. 16:16; Titus 2:15; Heb. 13:17); children to their parents (Col. 3:20); and wives to their husbands (Eph. 5:22, 24; Col. 3:18;Titus 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1). Every time the New Testament speaks to the role of wives, the command is the same: “Be subject to your husband.”
We don’t like the idea of submission to authority. But before you react against this command, consider some mitigating factors. First, whenever God grants authority, it is always for the blessing and protection of those under authority and never for the advantage of the ones in authority. God loves people and in His wisdom He has ordained proper authority for the benefit of the human race. If those in government authority use their position to further their own interests at the expense of those under them, they are corrupt and will answer to God, who delegated authority to them. Likewise, any husband who uses his authority in the home to lord it over his family for his own advantage is liable before God for abusing his authority. To be in authority does not mean greater perks, but rather greater responsibility and accountability before God.
Second, it’s important to recognize that husbands are never commanded, “Exercise authority over your wife!” The headship of the husband is stated as a fact, but the commands to submit are always given to the wife. The husband is commanded to love his wife sacrificially. Almost always when couples come for marriage counseling, they are pointing the finger at each other. The wife complains that the husband is unloving and insensitive. He complains that she isn’t submissive and doesn’t meet his needs. But Paul tells husbands (Eph. 5:25), “Love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” He tells wives (Eph. 5:22), “Be subject to your own husbands as to the Lord.” When husbands and wives each focus on their God-ordained responsibilities toward each other, there will be harmony, not abuse.
Third, to be in authority does not in any way imply the superiority of the husband or the inferiority of the wife. A wife may in fact be superior in intellect and spiritual maturity to her husband. Paul affirms elsewhere (Gal. 3:28) that she is just as much a member of Christ as her husband is. Peter calls the wife a “fellow-heir of the grace of life” (1 Pet. 3:7). She is in every way equal as a person to her husband. But God has ordained the principle of authority for the orderly functioning of government, the church, and the home. To resist it is to resist God who ordained it (Rom. 13:1-2).
To put oneself under the authority of another does not imply passivity. A submissive wife is not one who meekly goes along with her husband, while keeping her thoughts and feelings to herself. Close relationships are built on truthfulness and openness in a context of love. If a wife withholds her viewpoint or feelings under the guise of submissiveness, she is creating distance in her relationship with her husband.
Also, a submissive wife should properly confront her husband’s sin. When 1 Peter 3:1 says that a wife should win a disobedient husband “without a word” by her godly behavior, it is not prohibiting her from speaking. Peter means that the main emphasis of the wife’s way of changing her husband should be her behavior, not sermons. A disobedient husband will not be won over by a preaching, nagging wife. But that does not mean that in the context of living a godly life, a wife cannot lovingly speak to her husband about his disobedience and how it is damaging their relationship. If a wife does not speak the truth in love, she is not fulfilling her responsibility in the marriage.
True submission is communicated both by attitudes and actions. A wife can be strong and even outspoken and yet be submissive in spirit if she respects her husband and backs his leadership even when she disagrees. Or she can be outwardly submissive but inwardly defiant, using deception and manipulation to get her own way. God doesn’t want grudging compliance, where a wife says, “I’ll submit; but I know you’re wrong and I’ll never let you forget it when it doesn’t work out.” True submission means that after an open sharing of thinking and feelings, with prayer, if there is still a disagreement, a wife yields to her husband’s authority and seeks to help him in his responsibility to lead under God. In our over 42 years of marriage, Marla and I would be hard pressed to come up with a single instance where we haven’t come to mutual agreement.
But perhaps you’re wondering, “Couldn’t the submission of wives just have been a cultural concession on Paul’s part, as in the case of slavery? Since the submission of women runs counter to our culture (rather than with it, as in the first century), are we not free to develop egalitarian marriages based on mutuality apart from any hierarchy of submission and authority?” In other words,
Is the submission of wives valid in our day?
2. Submission is valid for all times and cultures because it is fitting in the Lord.
In God’s original creation, the man and woman together were to reflect God’s image which, in part, involves the voluntary submission of the Son to the Father in order to carry out the divine plan of salvation. Though the Son is co-eternal and co-equal with the Father, Jesus submitted Himself to the cross so that Satan’s dominion would be broken. The husband and wife are to relate to one another as the Father and Son relate to each other. The wife, though equal with her husband, submits to him to reflect God’s image and to fulfill His purpose of dominion over Satan.
Paul develops this theme in Ephesians 5 where he states that Christian marriage is a picture of Christ and the church. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so wives ought to be to their husbands (Eph. 5:24). Why? Because through Christ and the church, which Paul calls the new man, created in God’s image (Eph. 2:15; 4:24; Col. 3:10), God is recovering what was lost in the fall of the first creation. Christian marriage, as the unit of the church, is to reflect God’s image through the sacrificial love of the husband for his wife and the voluntary submission of the wife to her husband in a context of equality as they exercise dominion over God’s enemy.
One way that an enemy can defeat its foe is to instill discontent and insurrection among the ranks. If you can get the enlisted men complaining about their lot, fighting against the officers, and trying to grab authority, you’ve just about won the war. That’s why Satan first approached Eve, not Adam, and got her to usurp his authority. Today his strategy is the same: to promise greater happiness to wives if they will get out from under their husbands’ authority. Many Christian wives do not realize that we are engaged in combat against the unseen forces of darkness in heavenly places and that Christian marriage is to reflect the relationship between Christ and the church. So they cast off the idea of authority in marriage—and play right into Satan’s hand!
So the principle of the headship of the husband and the submission of the wife is not cultural. In creation God’s order was to create the man first and then to create Eve as his helper. At the fall, the authority of the husband, which the wife had usurped, was specifically decreed (Gen. 3:16). Paul’s analogy of Christ and the church is the basis of his appeal for the proper order in marriage. Thus it is fitting in the Lord for the wife to submit herself to her husband to uphold God’s purpose for creating human beings, namely, to reflect His image and to crush Satan’s dominion. It’s not up for grabs if a culture believes differently.
Beyond the theological reasons, I believe there are other reasons to follow the biblically ordained roles for husbands and wives. God has made us as male and female with distinctive strengths, weaknesses, and needs. When each partner dies to his or her pursuit for self-fulfillment and lives in obedience to God to fulfill the needs of his or her mate, both partners are fulfilled. A godly, loving husband provides protection and support, both financially and emotionally, for his wife, which she lacks if she is independent of him. But, more specifically …
How does submission work out in practice?
3. The practice of submission involves an attitude of respect and a response to a husband’s leadership.
It’s interesting that while Titus 2:4 mentions a wife’s loving her husband in the context of submission, neither Ephesians nor 1 Peter (nor Colossians) mention a wife’s love. Instead Ephesians (5:33) and 1 Peter (3:2, 6) both mention respect in connection with submission. Respect is a crucial element of biblical submission.
But what often happens is that a couple starts marriage with high expectations. They’re in love and they think that love will conquer all their problems. But not too far into the marriage, the honeymoon wears off and there are disappointments as expectations are not met. Often this takes place unconsciously, since many of the expectations are not consciously identified. The husband, who may not be as relationally tuned in as his wife, deals with his marital disappointments by burying himself in his job.
The disappointed wife tries to remodel her husband by nagging him about his shortcomings and about not meeting her emotional needs. He’s clueless about how to meet her needs, but he’s pretty confident in his job, so he pours himself into work. When he makes feeble attempts to lead spiritually or relationally at home, she resists his efforts, because she doesn’t respect his relational skills or his spiritual leadership. The end result is emotional distance, relational hurts, and sometimes the disintegration of the marriage.
If, instead of that downward cycle, a wife will work at showing her husband respect, acceptance, and appreciation for anything she can possibly affirm, and she responds to his attempts at leadership, it will lead to greater unity and intimacy in the marriage. Wives, make note of this: Men react to nagging either by flight or by fight. A nice husband will run for cover; a more belligerent husband will fight back. But neither leads to greater marital intimacy. But 1 Peter 3:1-4 says that even a disobedient husband may be won by a wife’s gentle and quiet spirit.
Part of submitting to your husband involves looking for things that please him and doing them. But some of you may be thinking, “If I do that, how will my needs be met?” Or, “I’d meet more of his desires and needs if he weren’t so selfish and would meet more of my needs!” But marriage is not a 50-50 deal. Each partner needs to give 100 percent in the way God has ordained and leave their partner’s response up to the Lord. When that happens, God often changes the partner and the needs of the one who stepped out first in obedience to God are met.
Many years ago a wife on the verge of divorce came to me, along with two of our elders’ wives, who were counseling her to leave him. Her husband, who professed to be a Christian, left early each morning for a long commute to work and returned late in the evening, after stopping off to have a couple of beers at a bar. He would eat dinner, watch some TV, and hit the sack. Except for providing for them, he was completely disengaged from the family. She had to do it all and she was extremely frustrated and constantly let him know about it.
I explained 1 Peter 3 and advised that rather than criticizing and nagging her husband for his lack of involvement, she thank him for his hard work and for anything else that she honestly could affirm. I told her to make her home a refuge for him so that there was nowhere else that he would rather be. She took my advice and stopped nagging him. Instead, she cheerfully greeted him when he got home, telling him how much she appreciated his hard work. She focused on meeting his needs. He started coming home earlier, eating dinner with the family, and even leading them in family devotions. When I left that church, with tears streaming down her cheeks she thanked me for holding to God’s Word that day. She said, “I wouldn’t have my family together today if you had compromised what God’s Word says.”
So the practice of submission involves an attitude of respect and a response to the husband’s leadership. But what about a wife who has an abusive husband or a husband who is disobedient to the Lord?
Must a wife submit to a disobedient husband?
4. A wife should submit to a disobedient husband except when she or the children are in danger or when he commands her to do something against God’s Word.
We must consider 1 Peter 3:1-2: “In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior.” “Disobedient to the word” primarily refers to an unbelieving husband, but it may include a professing believer who is difficult, cantankerous, or disobedient.
What should the wife do? First, she should to make sure that her behavior, attitude, and words, are “chaste and respectful,” and that she has a “gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Pet. 3:4). “Chaste” means, “pure, undefiled.” She should never retaliate to abusive speech with abusive speech or punish her husband with the silent, angry treatment, but rather, give a blessing instead (1 Pet. 3:9). If she is angry and bitter, she needs to repent and show him God’s love (Matt. 5:44-46; Luke 6:27-28, 32-33). “Gentle” means “strength under control.” “Quiet” means not being contentious or argumentative.
A wife should never join her husband in sinful behavior. If he makes a profession of faith or is a church member, but insists that she join him in sinful behavior, after appealing to him, if he persists she should go to the elders of the church to seek godly counsel. They need to confront his sin. If he is not a believer, she should gently explain the reason that she cannot join him in disobedience to the Lord (1 Pet. 3:13-16).
If the disobedient husband is being verbally but not physically abusive, the wife needs to make sure that she does not provoke him by her words or behavior (unless he is provoked by her godly behavior!). She should gently explain that she would like to be close to him, but his abusive speech is creating distance. If he threatens violence or is violent against her or the children, she should flee to a place of safety. If he has been physically violent or he’s using illegal drugs in the home, she should report him to the police. God ordained the government to punish evildoers and protect law-abiding citizens. No man should be allowed to bully his family and cause them to live in constant fear because of his violent temper.
But, coming back to 1 Peter 3, winning the disobedient husband without a word means being a godly example in the face of his ungodly behavior (1 Pet. 3:8-17 goes on to explain this). Sometimes (but not always) God will use a wife’s godly behavior to bring her disobedient husband to repentance and faith. But whatever his response, she will know that she is pleasing the Lord.
If you’re in a difficult situation, I encourage you to seek godly counsel. Find a mature woman of God to confide in and pray with. The command for a wife to submit is never license for a husband to be abusive. An abusive husband needs to repent. A wife’s submissive, gentle, and quiet spirit is God’s way to win a disobedient husband to repentant faith in Christ (1 Pet. 3:1-4). It follows the example of the Lord Jesus, who, while being reviled, “did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23). Submission to God-ordained authority is not easy, especially when the authority is not godly. But it is “fitting in the Lord.”
- Is it ever right for a godly husband to assert his authority over his wife? If so, when? How? Give biblical support.
- Agree/disagree: A submissive wife can and should confront sin in her husband.
- If a wife is a born leader and her husband is content to let her lead, must they follow the biblically mandated roles? How?
- What are the limits for a wife regarding submission to a verbally abusive husband? When is, “Enough is enough?”