When ever the topic of submission comes up, the standard objection is “But where do you draw the line?” This is a good question which we ought to consider.
We live in an egalitarian society, where any kind of hierarchy is considered to be bad. But our Maker has established a chain of authority and submission for His people, and we ought to give His instructions our attention. God’s Word is for His people. I do not expect an unbeliever to understand or apply God’s standards that He has given for own His people to follow. These are house rules that are ours, and we do not impose them on our neighbors. But we also tend to run to the hard cases (read Rachel’s post The Human Shield) to create an argument against the easy cases. Were there no abused women in Ephesus when Paul wrote his words about submission to them? Of course there probably were, and wise pastors would watch out for them. But . . . were there no quarrelsome wives in Ephesus either? Paul was addressing the latter, and we still need to hear this today.
Submission is a holy thing. Why do I say this? Because Jesus submitted to the Father. Submission is seen and lived out for us in the very Godhead. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:5-11).
Submission is emphatically not women to men. It is wives to husbands, and, as I said in the last post, it is up to wives to be submissive, it is not up to their husbands to enforce it. But what if a husband becomes a little tyrant? What if he is not a believer? What if he is abusive to the kids or to the wife? What if he is an all out toad of a husband?
First, if you married such a man, you might need to start with repentance. You freely made an unwise choice. It is actually helpful to acknowledge this to God before you move forward. Abigail did this when she told David her husband was a fool. You don’t have to pretend your husband is wise and loving if he is not. Abigail intervened when her husband was being dangerously foolish, and the Scripture commends her for this. We ought to follow her example if we are in a similar situation. For many years, as we have taught on submission, we have also held up Abigail as an exemplar.
Second, you are a free woman in Christ. You are not a second-class citizen like a Muslim woman in an Islamic culture. Christianity is radically opposed to such things. Men and women are co-heirs and equal in their standing before God. Children are equal to their parents in the same way; employers are equal to their employees; students are equal to their teachers. But we still expect obedience and submission in such relationships (though we may not call it that). But this does not mean you have to do anything your boss or teacher or parent tells you to do. I will point again to Abigail.
If a husband is misusing his authority as a husband and father, he can be held accountable. He is not an absolute authority any more than a teacher or an employer is. If an employer asks the employee to lie or cheat, it’s time to pull the plug and move on. If a teacher requires something immoral of her student, the student should refuse. If a church oversteps its authority (arranging marriages, demanding financial gifts), then it’s time to leave. If a husband is pushing the limits in a similar way, a wife should not submit to him. His authority is limited. God’s authority outranks his by a long shot. If you cannot submit to your husband “in the Lord” than you may not submit to him, period. God’s Word guides us, not a fallible man or institution.
So what does this mean? Here are a few examples. If a husband leaves the Protestant faith to join an apostate church, a wife should not follow him. She should stand firm on this and absolutely refuse. If her husband is asking her to do ungodly things (like pose for nude pictures that he can put on his phone), then she should utterly refuse. If he hits her or threatens to hit her (or anything else that might fall into the violent category), she should not hesitate to call the police. If he is being a jerk at home, she should call her pastor for help.
Now some wives may think that calling for help or calling the cops or just telling her husband no is disrespecting her husband. I think it is the reverse. She is holding him accountable. She is affirming that she is under God’s authority, and she obeys Him first. She will not lay aside her primary loyalty to God to obey any secondary authority. If she simply puts up with such ungodly behavior, she is disrespecting herself, her husband, and everyone else who is directly involved. It certainly takes courage and faith to draw the line and tell your husband, “No.” Women often want to protect their husbands from the consequences of their (disobedient) behavior. But that is not what they need. Why do so many battered wives (or girlfriends) in our country stay on for more bad behavior? No one is making them stay, and yet they would rather take it than leave. This is terrible, and we ought to help any women we know out of such a situation.
So now that I’ve addressed some of these things, I’m sure you can think of more. I will say it again: a husband’s authority over a wife is not absolute. But it does not follow from this that he has none at all.