She came to me cautiously. Clearly she was a woman distressed by her husband’s deep unkindness. Her story touched on pain, on fear, on confusion, on hatred. My heart ached with sympathy as her heart cried for help.
I responded to her cautiously. Clearly she needed the true counsel of God’s Word to salve her pain, her fear, her confusion, her anger. I feared offering her crumbs of worldly wisdom that would lead her away from the Saviour, from the truth that would set her free. In the end I told her what I knew although I discerned hopelessness in her eyes as my words failed to touch her need. My counsel could have been summed up in one word: submit.
This one-eyed advice is the most oft given counsel for women in fundamental churches. Wives, submit. It’s the bottom line, the end of the story. The problem with one-eyed advice is this: it’s half blind. It fails to grasp the big picture, to capture a well-rounded perspective.
Under the reign of this Cyclops of submission teaching, wives have been trapped in miserably dysfunctional marriages. Cruel abuse terrorises wife and children who are required to submit without question to the whim of the man of the house. He uses the word “submit” like a scourge to dominate and control all that his wife and children do. And wives endure all this believing that God has one ultimate command for them: submit.
This is not to say that wifely submission is a concept to be avoided. Nor is it my purpose to undermine the importance of submission in the marriage relationship. On the contrary, I hope to sharpen our understanding of submission as it fits into the tapestry of God-given revelation. Biblical submission is gloriously beautiful when it plays its part in the whole counsel of God. But when submission trumps all other injunctions, it threatens to betray us to its distorted focus. We who teach the Bible do wives an injustice when we imply that submission is the only word for Christian women. Here are some cautions to consider when teaching about wifely submission:
1. Does our teaching mostly focus on what we have to do, or does it focus more on Who it is we worship? Do we magnify “good examples” or do we lift up the person of God when we teach? Are we constantly striving to give our listeners a clearer, more complete picture of the God whom we serve? Or do we imply that Christians can never measure up even though Jesus paid it all for us? And beyond what is taught in the pulpit and classroom, do we as teachers provide our students with an honest picture of living faith in the God we teach? Do our actions and reactions demonstrate that God is full of grace and truth? Do we reflect both his justice and mercy in the way we handle relationships? Can we run to Him because we are sure of His love while fearing Him because we are sure of His holiness? If we teach that the Christian life is more about what we do and less about Who we worship, then we are setting up our listeners for failure. A warped understanding of God will surely lead to a warped understanding of biblical submission. Trying to submit without certainty in the loving and perfect purposes of our infinite God will lead to despair.
2. Do we understand who we are in God’s sight—not only His unique creation but also His particular redeemed ones? Is our identity well-grounded in the fact that we are “called, loved by God the Father and kept by Jesus Christ”? (Jude 1) Is every day filled with awareness of what it cost God to give us freedom from sin? When we truly begin to grasp the gospel in the larger sense of who we are in relation to God, we also begin to grasp the deep seriousness of our sin. With this backdrop of truth, sin in our own lives and in the lives of our loved ones can be tackled more meaningfully. We will refuse to brush it off or put up with it because sin cost God the life of His much loved only Son.
3. The concept of submission must be taught in the context of all the other relational texts in the New Testament: love one another fervently, encourage one another, exhort one another, etc. Remove the context of the wider teaching of Scripture only at great peril to Christian families!
“Doing Good” Does Not Equal “Being Nice”
Luke 6:27 tells us to “do good to those who hate [us]”. Proverbs 31 describes the virtuous woman as one who does her husband good and not harm. What does “doing good” to another entail? The word itself implies blameless, noble and beautiful actions toward another. We often think of ‘doing good” only as “being nice”, but “good” doesn’t always equal “nice”. Sometimes being nice is simply a way to avoid conflict; niceness can mask fearful self-preservation. The motivation of self-preservation may interfere with doing what is best for a person when doing good to that person requires taking action that that person won’t like. Especially when that action may lead us into unpleasant or even painful conflict. But our hope as we walk into the conflict is that true good may come out of pain.
This kind of doing good cannot mean letting an abusive person continue in his abusive patterns. A woman who allows her husband to continue in destructive abusive behavior is far from doing him good. He is self-destructing while also destroying his family and any relationship that he has with God. A wife who enables that behavior by silently “submitting” to it sins against her husband and against her children (if children are involved). By refusing to properly deal with the issue of abuse, she fails to “do good” to him by not confronting him about his sin. However, a wife who takes the risk of lovingly confronting her husband about his sin not only truly seeks his good but also demonstrates courageous faith. This kind of courage is one of the chief characteristics of women who are called “Sarah’s daughters” in 1 Peter 3:6: “And you are [Sarah’s] children if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.”
How the Church Can Help
When an abused person confronts her abuser, she places herself in a dangerous position. She cannot be expected to tackle such a situation alone. A support group such as her church family can help her fulfil her role to “do good” to her abusive husband by coming alongside her with encouragement and even being actively engaged in the process of confrontation and restoration. Galatians 6:1 addresses this issue: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” An abused wife who is seeking help should be assured that
1. Her story will be believed and she will be accepted as she is.
2. There is a safe place where she can escape to when things get out of control at home.
3. People are praying for her and her husband.
4. Godly men in the church will be willing to gently confront the husband about his sin, repeatedly and over a long period of time if necessary.
5. Counselling is available for both husband and wife to help the husband be “restored” to genuine fruitfulness and for the family to be restored to healthy relationships. This includes helping the wife face her own spiritual needs.
Only the Gospel Heals Broken Lives
Following these steps towards confronting an abusive husband is not failure to submit. It is seriously taking the whole counsel of God and applying it to family relationships. Unlike the teaching of some, the ultimate goal is not for the family to maintain the appearance of unity. The ultimate goal is for the gospel to be applied to broken people and broken relationships so that in our weakness God can be glorified. And if the marriage doesn’t make it in spite of all the support, the wife should not become a pariah because she didn’t just keep her head down and put up with the abuse. She has done the right thing by seeking help for herself, for her children and for her husband. To have done otherwise would have been to fail to love her family and to do them good.
If we are to do justice to the whole message of the Scriptures, then we cannot allow the topic of submission within marriage to be taught without these caveats. Submission is not the only word we have to offer Christian wives. We have the entire revelation of the inspired Scriptures and the Saviour by Whose stripes we are healed.