The book of Ephesians documents and applies the comprehensive reign of God in Christ. In Ephesians 5:22-33 Paul brings this reality to bear on marriages by addressing how our earthly unions are symbols of our union with Christ. The overwhelming majority of the passage puts responsibility on husbands to nourish, cherish, and give themselves up for their wives.
Paul addresses wives in verses 22-24, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”
We should not read those verses out of context – both in the context of the Paul’s command to husbands to live as sacrificial leaders and in the context of the whole counsel of Scripture (Acts 20:27). What does “submit in everything” really mean? Paul’s exhortation for wives to “submit in everything” has more to do with a woman’s general, ongoing attitude of respect and humility toward her husband in all areas of life, rather than always doing everything he wants (1).
Below are four instances when wives should not submit to their husbands and can instead resist their leadership. I am indebted to my former professor and current friend Dr. Steve Tracy the vast majority of everything written below (2).
1. When his leadership would violate the Lordship of Jesus.
When husbands ask their wives to sin, they should not do so. Consider Ananias and Sapphira in Acts chapter 5. Sapphira’s willingness to go along with her husband left her morally responsible for the sin they committed together.
Every Christian woman’s first allegiance is to Christ: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This includes the cultivation of intimacy with Christ, attending church, and seeking out meaningful biblical community. “A husband has no right to dictate his wife’s relationship with Christ.” (3)
2. When his leadership would violate her conscience.
Jesus wants us to be able to “not pass judgment on ourselves” for what we do (Romans 14:22-23). Specifically what I have in mind here is sexual (as many husbands may have sexual desires and expectations, even within their marriage, that are not necessarily sinful, but nonetheless make their wives uncomfortable), but there may be other instances (alcohol consumption, for example) in which a wife’s conscience will need to be taken seriously.
3. When his leadership would compromise the care, nurture, and protection of her children.
The harm that abusive fathers cause is incalculable. The Father is a Defender (Psalm 68:5), Jesus is an Intercessor (Rom 8:34) and the Spirit is a Advocate (John 14:17); wives who protect their children image God and love well.. It is important to note that children are called to obey both their fathers and their mothers. “If a husband is harsh, verbally abusive, or uses excessive forms of punishment (including physical abuse), a wife has a moral obligation to protect the children regardless of her husband’s requests or demands” (4). Because of physical power dynamics, this protection may require fleeing and/or legal help.
4. When his leadership would enable her husband’s sin or abuse.
Love does not tolerate sin. Sin dehumanizes and repentance is fundamentally humanizing. Husband’s might tell their wives “not to tell” someone about his addictions or they might repeatedly act in anti-christ ways by being demeaning, intimidating, pridefulness or degrading. We don’t want to be in the habit of enabling sin in general, but, in particular, Christians have biblical justification to take action, resit, and flee when sinfulness manifests as abuse: physical, spiritual, or emotional.
“The prudent sees danger and hides oneself” (Proverbs 22:3). “David (1 Sam 18:11; 19:10; 23:14), Elijah (1 Kings 19), Jesus (John 7:1; 8:59), and Paul (Acts 9:22-25; 14:5; 17:8-10) all fled from avoidable assaults by kings, priests, and other authorities”(5). Not yielding might look like fleeing, hiding, filing assault charges, calling 911, or calling on pastors to exercise church discipline. The immediate and preeminent priority in these situations is safety. Wives have warrant to get space from abusers: “The sixth commandment would mandate that kind of self-defense” (6).
Not yielding to abuse is ultimately loving to the abuser. Abusers are dehumanizing themselves and need to stop both for the sake of the abused and for their own sake; unrepentant people will not inherit the Kingdom of God. The pain that results from real consequences can awaken the abuser, who has been minimizing his behavior, to the reality of what he is doing. People tend to not change until the pain of not changing increases. Husbands whose wives have separated because of their abuse or infidelity should receive the pain and the shame that comes from being separated as a gift – the discipline of the Lord (Hebrews 12:5).
If you need help, or aren’t sure if you need help but are curious, here are some possible next steps:
- Tell someone, a safe person, about what you’re up against in your marriage. We need healthy support networks to make meaningful changes in our marriages.
- Come in for counseling at R/Gateway – Counseling Application
- Get help from a different counseling service – Biblical Counseling Arizona
- Educate yourself about abuse beyond how it is extremely briefly discussed in this blog post:
(1) “everything” here is pantas which in context can mean either, 1) all without exception (every single one), or 2) all without distinction (every single kind). Here Paul is speaking of all kinds, arenas, types, or spheres – all without distinction.
(2) These four instances are adapted from Dr. Steven R. Tracy’s six instances in this wonderful article WHAT DOES “SUBMIT IN EVERYTHING” REALLY MEAN? THE NATURE AND SCOPE OF MARITAL SUBMISSION.
(3) Ibid, p.28
(4) Ibid, p.30
(5) Ibid, p.32
(6) John Frame, RECENT REFLECTIONS ON DIVORCE