TRUE BIBLICAL SUBMISSION
For some years now, there has been a renewed emphasis upon
the family and upon harmonious husband-wife relationships.
As an outgrowth of this "back to the family" trend,
many families are now educating their children at home or
in Christian schools, apart from the humanistic context of
the public school system. Many also have developed convictions
on the permanency of marriage and the wrongfulness of divorce
and remarriage. For the most part, this interest in family
living, family solidarity, and family values has been good.
Scripture does show how important it is that husbands and
wives commit themselves to each other, train their children
in the ways of God, and promote the "family values" that
are taught in the word of God.
One of the additional trends is the teaching on Biblical
roles for the husband and the wife. Although we do not endorse
the "Promise Keepers" organization, we do acknowledge
that it has stimulated a commitment in many men to love,
understand, and lead their wives. Women, in turn, have been
encouraged to fulfil their role as a wife and mother in the
home. Again, this is a Biblical emphasis that does need our
support and encouragement.
A side issue that seems to have surfaced, with the teaching
of the woman’s role, relates to the Biblical mandate
of the wife’s submission to her husband. Scripture
does indeed command the wife to be in submission to her husband.
Paul writes, "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as
is fitting in the Lord" (Colossians 3:18). Again, Paul
elaborates, "Wives, be subject to your own husbands,
as to the Lord. . . . As the church is subject to Christ,
so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything" (Ephesians
5:22,24). In his letter to Titus, Paul says that wives must
be "subject to their own husbands, so that the word
of God will not be dishonored" (Titus 2:5). Peter echoes
the same command, "In the same way, you wives, be submissive
to your own husbands" (1 Peter 3:1a). The evidence is
overwhelming that the wife must be in subjection to her husband.
Furthermore, Paul says that "a woman must quietly receive
instruction with entire submissiveness" (1 Timothy 2:11).
This is a submission to godly teachers who are teaching the
truth of God. Beyond this, Paul points out that "the
man is the head of a woman" (1 Corinthians 11:3). Therefore,
womanly submission goes beyond the husband and includes Scriptural
teachers and man in general. The main emphasis, obviously,
is submission to the husband.
The general teaching of Scripture, therefore, is that the
wife must be in submission to her husband. The term "submit" is
from the Greek hupotasso, which has been defined as "to
rank under" (W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New
Testament Words) or "to place or arrange under" (Wesley
J. Perschbacher, The New Analytical Greek Lexicon). Arndt
and Gingrich render the term, "subject oneself, be subjected
or subordinated, obey" (A Greek-English Lexicon of the
New Testament). Thayer adds this: "to arrange under,
to subordinate . . . to subject one’s self, to obey" (A
Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). Therefore, the
wife is to place herself under her husband, be subjected
to her husband, be subordinate to her husband, and obey her
Although this teaching of male headship and leadership appears
to be quite forthright and unequivocal, the vast majority
of women simply do not practice womanly subordination and
submission. Perhaps 95% to 99% of women simply do not realize
the full implications of male headship and the woman’s
subordination and submission, They have bought into the contemporary
societal view that the man and women are entirely in an equal
position. Society has so degenerated that women fill the
same role as men in education, business, politics, and in
nearly every other sphere of contemporary life. In the home,
most people assume that the wife is entirely equal to the
husband. This egalitarian view is relatively recent in the
world but it seems to have captured nearly all in its deceptive
maze. Even many religious people have been deceived by this
modern phenomenon. Admittedly, most conservative Evangelicals
and Fundamentalists do recognize something of the Biblical
teaching, but even here few women consistently practice a
thoroughgoing submission. They too have been influenced greatly
by the prevailing feminist philosophy that dominates society
at large. It would seem that most women resist the Biblical
teaching because they fear that they will lose their autonomy
if they are submissive to their husband and subordinate to
men, and most men refrain from speaking on authority and
submission either because they have been influenced by feminist
theology or because they fear offending their own wife or
the women they know!
As might be expected, the Biblical teaching on authority
and submission has been vigorously opposed by secular feminists
of our day. They ridicule this as a prime example of male
chauvinism in the past—an attitude that must be opposed
in every way possible, especially with the use of ridicule,
unkind aspersions, and demeaning put-downs. Liberal religious
feminists join in the same denunciation of the rather clear
Biblical teaching. The so-called "Evangelical feminists" attempt
to cling to some semblance of Scriptural authority in some
areas, contending that submission was simply a cultural arrangement
of the first century. Just as slavery was done away with
in time, so the patriarchal family structure must also be
discarded in light of contemporary enlightenment. They say
that Jesus, while knowing better Himself, simply accepted
the first-century customs and practices. Paul also may have
known better but did not want to unnecessarily upset social
institutions and customs. Some say that Paul really didn’t
know better but was just "a child of his times" and
thought that it was God’s will for women to be in subjection
to men. All of this opposition attempts to overthrow the
consistent teaching of Scripture on womanly submission. All
of it, in some measure, compromises the inspiration and authority
of God’s word.
We must not overlook the fact that the Bible not only speaks
of the submission of woman, but also teaches submission to
other persons. For instance, the Scriptures teach that:
- The son and daughter must be submissive to parents (Luke
2:51; Col. 3:20; Eph. 6:1-2).
slave (or employee) must be submissive to his master
(or employer) (Titus 2:9; 1 Peter 2:18; Eph. 6:5; Col.
- The citizen must be submissive to secular governmental
authorities (Rom. 13:1-2; Tit. 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13-14).
- The believer must be submissive to Christian workers
(1 Cor. 16:15-16) and leaders (Heb. 13:17).
the wife is not the only one who must be in submissive
to another. Men also must be submissive to
others (to the employer, to
and to workers and overseers in the assembly).
As a reaction against the dominant opposition to Biblical
authority and submission in our age, some well-meaning men,
and even women, seem to have taken an extreme position regarding
the requirement that the wife submit herself to her husband.
They have taken a Scriptural concept and have arrived at
illegitimate conclusions. They point out that Paul says wives
must be submissive "to their husbands in everything" (Eph.
5:24). From this they reason that a wife must submit to or
obey her husband in "everything" that he may request,
ask, or command. She has no choice in the matter. She has
no basis of denial. She must not refuse to obey or submit
to her husband in any matter that may come up. Some of those
who teach this absolute authority and absolute submission
go so far as to say that a wife must obey and submit even
when her husband requires her to sin in some way! "After
all," they reason, "didn’t Paul say that
a wife must submit in everything?" They understand "everything" to
mean everything right and everything wrong, everything that
is righteous and everything that is wicked, everything that
is Scriptural and everything that may be unscriptural. They
accuse those who would question their interpretation of denying
the Bible, rejecting Paul’s statement, and disobeying
the "plain teaching of the Bible"! Some may not
go quite this far but contend that a wife is to do everything
she can to avoid sinning. However, if the time comes for
a decision, the wife should go ahead and actually sin for
Generally, these people who espouse absolute authority and
submission say that God does not credit the woman’s
sin to her but to her husband. Although she was the one who
sinned, she didn’t want to sin. Since she was only
obeying a sinful husband, God holds the husband accountable.
He will answer to God for the sin; the wife is free from
blame. This is the rationale given to justify a wife’s
deliberate sin for the sake of her sinful husband.
Some may wonder if this is actually taught and practiced.
Yes it is. Sometimes a teacher, pastor, or writer may say
that a woman should stop short of sin, but when we inquire
into what they mean, we discover that they actually do allow
for sin—especially sin of omission.
One book that promotes absolute authority and submission
is before me at this very time. The author explains his "absolute
submission" view in this way: "Is it best for a
wife to forfeit her submissiveness when the fears of danger,
error, sinfulness or disobedience seem to be the only plausible
result of her husband’s leadership? I want to emphatically
say to you, ‘No!’, for it is during those fearful
times when a wife’s submission is most important and
valuable in the hands of God. Granted, wives, these times
may put your submissive character and development to a test,
but they are definitely not times of rebellion or defiance.
They may reveal the quality and extent of your submissiveness,
but let there be no question about it—God wants you
to submit." We can see that the author is telling women
that they should submit to the point of sinfulness and disobedience—obviously,
to God! In other words, a wife must choose to disobey God
and obey her husband when there is a conflict between the
The same author continues with this explanation and counsel: "Many
times wives will know or sense that their husband’s
requests, policies, principles, and other things are wrong
in the sight of God. When wives face such situations, it
is best to respond with this attitude and prayer—‘Lord,
I know that what my husband is expecting is wrong in Your
sight, but I also know it is wrong in Your sight for me not
to submit; therefore, I want to submit to my husband, trusting
that You will work in this to bring to pass that which is
right.’ It is important that wives as well as husbands
discern between right and wrong in life situations." (Emphases
in these quotations are ours.) Again we can clearly see that
the author says a woman should do something that is "wrong
in the sight of God" if her husband requires it. He
and others with this persuasion say that true wifely submission
requires this kind of submission to the point of sin.
Several observations may be made to this teaching of absolute
submission. First, some of these proponents conveniently
overlook an equally-inspired statement of Paul that teaches
the woman’s submission. Paul writes, "A woman
must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.
But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority
over a man, but to remain quiet" (1 Tim. 2:11-12). The
woman is not to have authority over the man. But notice what
else Paul says. The woman must be "entirely submissive" to
brothers who are teaching. Are there no limits to this submission?
Of course, there are! She must submit to teaching brothers—as
long as this submission does not entail sin, false doctrine,
or any wrong. If a male teacher tells her to pray to Mary,
she must quietly and humbly refuse. If he tells her to stop
reading her Bible, she must oppose his demand. If he tells
her to do any wrong of any kind, she must refuse his request.
It is not difficult to see this. Why would some who understand
limited submission of the woman to the teaching brother (even
in a passage that speaks of "entire submissiveness")
not be able to see the limited submission of the wife (when
the passage speaks of submission "in everything")?
Second, the wife-husband relationship is not the only one
that appears to require absolute submission. We have seen
that the wife must be subject in "everything" (Eph.
5:24) and must be "entirely submissive" to teachers
(1 Tim. 2:11). What about the other authority-submission
relationships? Consider the following:
Civil Government: "Submit yourselves for the Lord’s
sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the
one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the
punishment of evil-doers and the praise of those who do right" (1
Parents: "Children, be obedient to your parents in
all things, for this is well-pleasing to the Lord" (Colossians
Employers: "Slaves, in all things obey those who are
your masters on earth" (Colossians 3:22a). "Urge
bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything" (Titus
Almost everyone can understand that Paul is speaking of
the general rule in these passages. Under most circumstances,
believing citizens must be subject to every governmental
official and regulation. Generally, a child must obey his
or her parents in all things. And under normal circumstances,
a worker must obey his supervisor in everything required
on his job.
But are there any exceptions? Surely there are. If the Chinese
government should require Christian parents to have an abortion
after they have a certain quota of children, they must strongly
and firmly refuse—even if it means they will be thrown
into prison. If a father should urge his son to take drugs,
smoke, get drunk, blaspheme, burn his Bible, or any other
sin, the son must humbly refuse his father’s wrongful,
unreasonable demands. If a supervisor should require a believing
employee to lie on the phone, buy cigarettes, attend a drinking
party, or participate in lewd behavior, the Christian employee
must firmly refuse. We have already mentioned that if a teacher
should require a believer to commit sin or accept a false
teaching, the Christian must clearly refuse. Hopefully, all
of us can see this truth. In authority-submission relationships,
there are exceptions to submission. Why do we think the husband-wife
relationship is different? Why do some assume that submission
limited in every other relationship, but absolute in the
wife’s relationship to her husband?
Third, we must always remember that God has absolute authority,
supremacy, and sovereignty. He alone is able to demand absolute
submission and obedience! When He has commanded some action,
we must take it. When He requires us to do something or not
do something, we must humbly submit. Authority is the right
to command and expect obedience. Jesus also has universal
authority. He declared, "All authority has been given
to Me in heaven and on earth" (Matt. 28:18; cf. John
17:2). Every other authority is derived. Jesus said to Pilate, "You
would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given
you from above" (John 19:11). Pilate, as the Roman governor
of Judea, had authority—but it was a human authority,
a derived authority and a limited authority. We must submit
ourselves to human authority as long as we remember that
God’s authority is absolute. If there is a difference
between the requirements of a human authority and God’s
supreme authority, we must always choose to submit to God’s
Maybe a human illustration will help us to see this principle.
If the president of a company tells John, an employee, to
prepare a written report of some kind the next day, what
should the employee do? Obviously, he should prepare the
report (assuming that it does not require sin). What if John’s
immediate supervisor comes along and tells him to ignore
the president’s directive but to do another task the
next day? If there is a clear conflict between the order
of the president and that of the supervisor, John surely
will obey the president’s order—even though,
under normal circumstances, the supervisor’s requests
must be honored. This is also true in the spiritual realm.
Although we, as believers, must generally and usually submit
to the government, the employer, the husband, the parent,
and the overseer, there are exceptions to the rule. Whenever
any human authority requires something that is in conflict
with our supreme authority, then we must refuse to submit
to the human authority and must humbly obey God’s absolute
authority. We sin if we do otherwise!
Fourth, unqualified submission to God is a principle that
is found in the Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation. It
has always been God’s will that we put Him first, that
we submit to Him before any human being, that we willingly
sacrifice ourselves to yield to Him rather than refuse to
obey Him. An incident in the life of the early believers
illustrates this well. Jesus had commanded that the good
news of His death and resurrection be preached to every person
(Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-47). However,
the religious leaders in Jerusalem "commanded" Peter
and John "not to speak or teach at all in the name of
Jesus" (Acts 4:18). What did these apostles do? Did
they acquiesce to their demand, reasoning that they must
submit to governing authorities? No, they boldly replied, "Whether
it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather
than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking
about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:19-20). They
knew what was "right in the sight of God"! They
knew that they must not "give heed to [them] rather
than to God." God must come first! He had absolute authority;
their authority was limited. When there was a conflict between
human authority (that of the Jewish council) and divine authority
(that of God), they must submit to divine authority. They
must obey the teaching of Christ rather than the sinful restrictions
of the religious leaders.
Soon all of the apostles were brought before the religious
authorities for violating the command to not speak of Christ.
They said to the apostles, "We gave you strict orders
not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have
filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring
this man’s blood upon us" (Acts 5:28). The apostles
had clearly violated their demand. Did the apostles recant
and promise that they would obey? What did they do in the
face of irreconcilable differences between the requirements
of human authorities and God’s authority? Peter and
the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than
men" (v. 29). This must always be the answer of the
true believer. When a husband, as a human authority, should
require a wife to sin (by doing wrong or failing to do right),
she must have the same attitude as did the apostles. She
must always think, "I must obey God rather than man."
Fifth, the examples of limited submission argue against
the absolute submission view. There are dozens of places
in Scripture where we see people of God resisting authority
when that authority requires disobedience to God. The Israelite
midwives obeyed God rather than Pharaoh in Egypt (Exod. 1:17-20).
The magi disobeyed Herod’s command to report on the
infant Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). Abigail honored David and his
men rather than taking her husband’s wicked lead (1
Samuel 25). Jesus sided with his disciples rather than acquiesce
to his mother and brothers’ request (Matt. 12:46-50).
Peter says that the slave is to do what is "right" rather
than "sin" in his circumstances (1 Peter 2:19-20).
This is not the place to examine all of the examples in which
believers were willing to obey God rather than submit to
unbelievers who required something sinful. A fairly thorough
treatment of this and the whole issue we have been discussing
is found in our book, Authority and Submission: Absolute
or Limited? One should consult this book for a much more
complete discussion of passages in the Old and New Testaments.
Also, the book discusses the verses that appear to permit
or teach sinful submission to the government, the master,
the husband, the parent, and overseers.
This entire subject must be seen in the context of God’s
absolute claim on our life and our discipleship to Christ
as Lord. If we are subject to God, the ruler of heaven and
earth, then we must obey Him before any human being—however
important obedience would be under normal circumstances.
If we are disciples of Jesus and have accepted His Lordship
over the universe and over our personal lives, then whatever
He requires must be obeyed regardless of the opposition of
any human authority. This is true of our commitment to the
New Testament itself. Some may be willing to submit to Jesus’ words,
but fail to see the importance of the apostles’ words.
The teaching of the apostles is actually the teaching of
Christ Jesus and of God the Father (cf. John 17:7-8; 1 Cor.
14:37; 1 Thess. 2:13; 4:2; 2 Peter 3:2). We must be submissive
to the Lord’s words throughout the new covenant writings
even when this submission places us in conflict with a human
How does this principle of God’s absolute authority
relate to man’s limited authority? What would it mean
to a wife who is determined to obey God over and above her
sinful husband’s unjust demands? Suppose a wife is
married to an unbeliever (including one who is quite religious
and a professing "Christian," but who has not genuinely
been born of God). Or suppose that she is married to a husband
who has fallen away from the faith and consequently is not
sympathetic to the ways of God. What should the true Christian
wife do if he should require her to do the following:
- Attend the Mormon Church with him rather than meet with
the saints (Heb. 10:24-25; Acts 2:42)?
- Go to the Catholic Church with him instead of having
fellowship with Christians (Heb. 10:24-25)?
- Go with him
to a drinking party that will be filled with a sordid atmosphere
(1 Pet. 4:3-5)?
- Watch an X-rated movie with him (Matt. 5:27-30; Eph.
- Tell someone a lie for him (Eph. 4:25)?
- Participate in
wife-swapping with him (Heb. 13:4)?
- Speed on the highway
(Romans 13:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13-14)?
- Wear immodest, revealing
clothing or cut her hair (1 Tim. 2:9-10; 1 Cor. 11:14-15)?
- Distribute literature that promotes false teaching (1
- Purchase cigarettes, whisky, a lottery ticket,
junk food, or questionable literature at the market (Romans
9; 14:23; 1 Timothy 5:22b)?
- Attend her husband’s
or son’s football game or wrestling match
On the other hand, a husband may forbid his wife to do certain things that
God would have her do. What if a sinful and unbelieving husband should refuse
to allow his wife to:
- Read and study her Bible (Matt. 4:4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17)?
- Meet with the saints (Heb. 10:24-25)?
- Pray to the Lord
(1 Thess. 5:16-18)?
- Confess her faith in Christ Jesus
(Mark 8:38; Matt. 10:32-33)?
- Teach and train their children
the word of God (2 Tim. 3:15)?
- Send or receive letters
from fellow-Christians (Heb. 3:13)?
- Read and study edifying
Biblical teachings (1 Tim. 2:11)?
Sometimes the absolute submission proponents will counsel a woman to "make
an appeal" to her husband who is requiring some sin. They teach that some
husbands will agree to their wife’s request to be relieved from the necessity
of sinning. Daniel’s appeal to the commander in Nebuchadnezzar’s
court to eat vegetables and drink water for ten days is sometimes offered as
an example of such an action (Dan. 1:8-16). There is an assumption that if
the appeal was refused, Daniel would have agreed to eat the king’s food.
But this is only an unfounded supposition. In reality, knowing Daniel’s
strength of character, we should believe that he would not have "defiled
himself" regardless of the commander’s response to the request (v.
8). Later on, he was willing to disobey the king’s command to not pray
to the God of heaven (Dan. 6:1-23). We must remember also that Daniel’s
three friends likewise refused to obey Nebuchadnezzar’s command to worship
the image of gold (Dan. 3). A wife can and should appeal to a sinful husband
when he requires her to sin. If her general demeanor is one of humility and
submission, with a "chaste and respectful behavior," and genuine
modesty (1 Peter 3:1-4), many husbands will not require a wife to disobey the
Lord. However, it is utterly naïve to think that this will always be
the outcome of a sincere and humble appeal.
Even after a wife’s quiet and humble entreaty to be
relieved of sinful requirements, some hard-hearted husbands
will still seek to coerce her to do the wrong and forbid
her from doing the right. While a husband may not literally
force his wife to comply with his ungodly requests, a husband
can become obnoxious, mean, belligerent, withdrawn, or verbally
abusive if his wife does not honor his desires. This shows
why a wife must have a pure and tender spirit even when she
must refuse to acquiesce to her husband’s sinful desires
This principle of limited submission must not be used as
an excuse for a wife’s unsubmissive attitude and disobedient
behavior. Some women may look for excuses to disobey their
husbands! They may use this teaching as a way of not doing
what they do not want to do or doing what they want to do.
They have a "rebellious" attitude (Prov. 7:11)
that uses this Biblical teaching to satisfy their own sinful
attitude of insubmission and insubordination. The believing
wife must recognize the general teaching of Scripture on
authority and submission. She must also realize that this
teaching rests upon time-enduring principles that are rooted
in creation itself; it is not simply a teaching that comes
from transitory customs and human tradition (cf. 1 Cor. 11:7-12;
14:34; 1 Tim. 2:11-15).
The principle that we have been discussing in this article
is our concern at present. The wife who has been excusing
her carnal living, her worldliness, her immodesty, her disobedience,
and her sin by saying that she is simply being submissive
to her husband needs to be aware that she has a Lord who
asks, "Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and
do not do what I say?" (Luke 6:46). She needs to remember
that simply calling Jesus, "Lord, Lord," is not
enough. Only those who do the will of the Father will enter
the kingdom of God (Matt. 7:21). She needs to remember that
her absolute authority is God Himself and His Son, Jesus
Christ. She must be subject to the word of God before and
above her submission to her husband. Even if she must suffer
for her obedience to God (and her disobedience to her husband),
she must be willing to suffer.
Peter says that the wife must be submissive to her husband
(1 Peter 3:1), but then he says that a believing wife is
a "daughter" of Sarah (who obeyed Abraham) if she "[does]
what is right without being frightened by any fear" (v.
6). A wife is to be submissive only when what she does is
right; she must never do wrong by obeying a sinful husband
rather than obeying God!
The wife would do well to make humble entreaty of her husband
rather than directly disobey him. As some have advised, she
should offer "creative alternatives" to his sinful
demands. She should try to determine why he is requiring
the wrong or forbidding the right and should seek to yield
as much as she can. She should maintain positive attitudes
of "a gentle and quiet spirit" in her heart (1
Peter 3:4) so that her husband will be more willing to ease
his sinful restrictions. But if all of these avenues are
denied, sometimes a wife may simply need to refuse to sin—for
the Lord’s sake. When faced with the decision of whether
to obey a husband who is requiring her to sin or whether
to obey God who requires that she not sin, the believing
sister can only reply, "We must obey God rather than
(Notice also the article entitled, "Absolute or Limited
Submission?," which is a compilation of comments from
various writers on this very subject.)