It seems that Family Life has taken it upon themselves to provide a list of 40 no-no’s to Christian husbands. Some of these new Thou Shalt Not’s are Biblical common sense; others are challenges that men should strive for; some of them are just plain bad advice; and some of them are lies that deny God’s Word. Topping the list of this last category is #27: “Stop telling your wife that she is supposed to ‘submit’ to you. If she is not following you, that means you’re not leading her as Christ loves the church.” Both the imperative in the first sentence and the declarative in the second are worth looking at.
First the imperative: “Stop telling your wife that she is supposed to ‘submit’ to you.” We’ll ignore the scare quotes around “submit” for the time-being. On one hand, it is highly questionable how useful it is for a husband to tell his rebellious wife that God has instructed her to submit. After all, if he has to say it, then saying it won’t do any more good than any of the other things he’s said that she has disregarded. On top of that, issuing instructions that he knows will not be carried out tends to undermine his own authority over time. And yet, many modern American husbands are in a bit of predicament. They’re the last ones who should be speaking this particular word of God to their wives, and yet no one else is doing so—in many cases, it really has come down to the last person on the list.
The first people should be pastors, for it’s their vocation to preach the whole counsel of God. But how often has this particular counsel crossed the lips of an American pastor? When I studied at seminary, one of my classes spoke of God’s design for marriage, and these complimentary roles of husband and wife: to love sacrificially and to submit, respectively. The professor told us that we can stray from this design in two ways: a domineering and abusive husband on one hand and a rebellious wife on the other. The former error received a great deal of attention and condemnation; little was said about the latter, except an acknowledgment of its existence. I contacted the professor privately with my concerns, and, to his credit, he acknowledged the criticism and provided some balance in a subsequent class. Nevertheless, its discouraging to think that the whole counsel of God needs to be specifically asked for, and that many future pastors probably went through the lesson without anyone asking and therefore without balance.
Indeed, while I’ve never heard it from the pulpit at all, the only time I’ve heard it addressed in a Bible study that I wasn’t leading was to say that “yes, women should submit, but a man has to love as Christ loved” followed by about 10 minutes of instruction on how men should be doing this but are not—much of which amounted to “loving your wife means doing what she wants and never making her upset.” Of course, the practical effect of this approach is to completely invert submission. While this unbalanced treatment might be expected in a Middle-Eastern country in which headship is routinely abused, it is utterly irresponsible in the West where submission is generally seen as a dirty word and a wife’s rebellion is enshrined as both a right and a duty.
The second people who should deliver God’s instruction are the older women of the church, as Paul instructs in Titus 2:3-5. Here too, we encounter a problem. We have reached point in American history in which the older women are the very baby-boomers who sought to abandon this instruction en masse in the first place. It would seem that they have little knowledge of the subject and just as little inclination to train younger women. In many (perhaps most) cases, they are more likely to instruct women to follow their hearts and not be a doormat than to pass on anything God has actually instructed.
The next group on the list are simply brothers and sisters in the faith who admonish and encourage one another in their struggles to live their callings. Here, we do find the occasional voice reminding wives of their God-given responsibilities. Unfortunately, these voices are still fairly rare, socially distant, and are often drowned out by the multitude of voices attempting, one way or another, to redefine submission as some form of not-submission (e.g. mutual respect) and headship as some form of not-headship (e.g. “spiritual” headship.) Furthermore, these voices are easily dismissed because they are outside the American mainstream even in churches, and though they have ample Scriptural support, they are without any substantial pastoral support.
It is only then, when all these other avenues have failed, that we reach the husband—not because he has less responsibility for his wife’s instruction than any of these others or because his authority does not extend to delivering the message, but because his delivery of this message will always look self-serving, even when it is not. And yet, however it may come off, the husband is often the only one willing to deliver God’s message at all.
Now we return to the declarative part of this advice: “If she is not following you, that means you’re not leading her as Christ loves the church.” In other words, “Your wife will naturally submit to you as soon as you start doing an adequate job of leading her; It’s you’re fault that she’s not following God’s instruction. She is excused and you are to blame.” This sentiment seems to come up whenever the topic of submission is discussed. After all, when we are discussing God’s design in marriage, we are talking of something which He called “very good.” Naturally, we would expect it to be of mutual benefit to all involved, and while exploring why this is so is beyond the scope of this blog post, it most certainly is so. Accordingly, in the context of defending God’s Word on this subject, it is entirely appropriate to point out that women seek out this kind of male authority and naturally want to submit to it. For in this context, we mean “naturally” as “according to God’s design in creation.”
All of this changes, however, when the context becomes disobedience to God’s instructions. In this context, “naturally” means “according to our sinful nature,” for that is the only part of our nature that seeks to disregard God’s word. But in this context, submission to proper authority immediately ceases to be something that women do “naturally.” Consider ancient Israel. Was their constant rebellion against God’s authority because God wasn’t leading them well enough? When most of the 5000 men (along with the uncounted women and children among them) who Jesus miraculously fed abandoned him shortly thereafter (John 6), was this because Christ wasn’t loving them as well as Christ loved them? Perhaps the Pharisees’ problem was also that they were just insufficiently loved by Christ. I’ve heard the rhetorical question asked, “What woman wouldn’t want to submit to a man who loves her like Christ loved her?” But like so many rhetorical questions, this one has an unexpected answer: a sinful and rebellious woman. According to the same apostle who wrote about submission, this means all people, women included (Romans 3:10-18). But much of the American church refuses to call a spade a spade in the case of submission. Instead, they blame the husband and tell him to man up.
Paul did not add any conditionals to his instructions to husbands and wives in Ephesians. It’s not, “wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord if they love you as Christ loved the church,” nor is it the other way around for husbands. Indeed, the moment one makes these instructions conditional, they become utterly meaningless. There are no husbands who love their wives as well as Christ loves the church. There are no wives who submit to their husbands as the church ought to submit to Christ. If these are the conditions, then the instructions might as well have never been delivered. But they are delivered and are not conditional. Indeed, Peter makes this explicit in his first epistle when he instructs wives to be subject to their husbands even if they do not obey the word (1 Peter 3:1). The only thing conditions do is to send husbands and wives on a hunt for sin in their spouses in order to excuse their own disobedience.
The Church needs to stop being a party to this madness by returning to its responsibility to teach the whole counsel of God. The feminist rebellion of the last century has brought unprecedented death and misery, and it is shameful that churches have played along with it for so long.