Anyone who has played Monopoly knows about the “get out of jail” card. This card allows the player to avoid the unpleasant outcome of missing a turn. In the course of the game, if a player lands on a space or draws a card sending him to jail, this card can come in handy.
Too often in life, without openly acknowledging it, we all seek to have such “cards” in reserve and pull them out when it suits us. More than once during mentoring times with wives, I hear about husbands pulling out the “submission card” on them, virtually ending all discussion. Does the Bible teach that God gives husbands such a “submission card”? If so, where do we find it? Moreover, what does it entail? Does God give women a “you are not being loving to me” card of their own to justify actions that stem from frustration when their husbands are not being loving to them?
In Ephesians 5:22–33, St. Paul lays out the basic premises to bring about harmony in marriage.
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.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
Anyone who has been married for any length of time knows that these directives are impossible to attain apart from regeneration. In other words, these are instructions to act beyond our sinful inclinations, responding to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. However, the Scripture nowhere contains a directive to husbands to enforce a wife’s submission. Nor does it direct a wife to reprove or correct her husband for failing to love her as Christ loves His church. These commands to submit and to love are directed to each partner in the marriage by the Word, and are a matter of individual obedience, on the part of husband and wife,to the Lord.
Too often, couples use this portion of Scripture to bludgeon each other, pointing out where the other party is failing, rather than rectifying their own areas of non-compliance. This is a prime example of focusing on the speck in another’s eye while living comfortably with the plank in your own (Luke 6:41–42). A spouse is not free to disregard the directive particular to him/her based on the other person’s dereliction of duty. Therefore, in essence, there is no such thing as the “submission card,” or the “love me card.”
An Important Difference
It is useful to examine the difference between submitting to authority and being a submissive individual. If I am driving down the freeway and I see a car behind me marked as a highway patrol car with the lights on, I know that I am to pull over to the side of the road. I do this because I am submitting to the authority of the highway patrol. If I am told that I was driving too fast, and I disagree (let’s say I had my cruise control on and I know I wasn’t), I should not be required to say, “Yes, Officer, you are right I was speeding.” That would amount to being submissive to what he alleged disregarding what I know to be true. I, then, can challenge the assertion of the officer without challenging his authority. This distinction applies to every area of life and thought, and thus is the Biblical way to be under authority.
Imagine a marital relationship where each spouse strives to outdo the other in showing honor (Rom. 12:10), even when in the midst of a disagreement! For it is in times when the two are at odds with each other that the temptation to dishonor is greatest. What does it mean to show honor? Is it a one-way street or are both parties in a marriage called to do so? The answer lies in the creation account of the institution of marriage.
God did not give Adam his wife immediately after he was created. God allowed Adam to feel his need for a counterpart of his own apart from the animals. God declared that it was not good that Adam go through life on his own and gave him one who was compatible, yet different from him—Eve. Although they were one flesh, they remained two individual people with callings separate from each other—Adam, the husband (leader, provider, and protector) and Eve his helper (nurturer and mother of all). Neither was to determine autonomously what was good and what was bad, in terms of their marriage or in any other regard.1 God’s Word, from the beginning, was to be the necessary and only standard by which to fulfill their respective callings.
Adam in Eden no doubt had at least one pet dog from the moment of his creation as a mature man. He was created mature into a mature creation. If all he needed was someone or something to boss and to order to come at his whistle, or his beck and call, a dog would have been sufficient. But God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him” (Gen. 2:18). A helpmate is not a doormat, but a subordinate and necessary partner.2
Eve was created to help Adam, but nowhere in Scripture does it say that Eve was to get her direction as to how to help her husband from her husband. I believe it is a distortion of God’s created order when men take it upon themselves to assume that they are righteous in demanding that their wives submit to them unquestioningly, as if they were to be some sort of robot.3 R.J. Rushdoony notes,
The requirement of unquestioning obedience by any human authority is a sin and defiles the very intent of God’s word. The unquestioning obedience which Scripture requires is only to God, never to kings, rulers, employers, husbands, or parents. To render unquestioning obedience issin.
Obedience thus is basic to God’s plan for man, but all obedience must be to the word of God: “those things which are revealed belong unto us.” “The secret things” means essentially the hidden things of the future, and the “revealed” means “the unfolded issues of the day” in terms of the law-word of God (James Moffatt). In a secondary sense, however, all that the word of God forbids to us means not only the issues of the future, but also men and the things of today. We cannot treat the world as something totally ours to use: it must be used under God. We cannot treat people as our creatures. Even in marriage, in its sexual relationship, the boundary is sharply drawn. The menstruous woman cannot be taken (Lev. 18:19, 20:18): to do so is to treat her as totally man’s creature, which no man can do. The woman was also guilty, if she permitted it.4
Thus, the basis of a godly marriage is a commitment and covenant to God’s law as the primary means to live a holy life, followed closely by a commitment and covenant to serve God’s Kingdom together. Without a fidelity to God’s Word as the standard, circumstances of disagreement or conflict will deteriorate into an autonomous struggle for domination.
Another passage that is often cited regarding the marital relationship comes from 1 Peter 3:1 –7:
Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
It is important to note the fact that the first word in each directive is “likewise.” The likewise has to do with what St. Peter covers in the early part of this epistle. He is speaking to all believers in terms of the necessity to go beyond the milk of the Word and learn how to apply the law of God over every area of life and thought. He addresses rulers and subjects, masters and slaves, and every other institution. Therefore, in the truest sense, no person in any position has a “divine right” to lord it over anyone else. Rather than resort to anarchy and revolution when those in authority act this way, it is the Word of God that must direct our action and response. Rushdoony notes,
“The secret things” of God extend to our own lives and persons. We are not our own: our todays and tomorrows are totally under the government of God, and, beyond our obedience to His law-word, we have no right to demand special knowledge, reward, or privileges. Precisely because God requires us to be obedient to Him, He at the same time sets boundaries on our authority over one another and our claims upon one another. We have Christian liberty to the degree that we have Christian obedience.5
Who Should Do the Teaching?
Husbands and wives need instruction and guidance in fulfilling their duties to God in their respective callings. Although God’s law-word is sufficient for such instruction, St. Paul in his letter to Titus makes it clear who should be doing the teaching: older women teach the younger ones, and older men teach the younger men (Titus 2). The assumption, of course, is that those with age and experience filter both in terms of fidelity to Scripture, not replacing doctrine with personal preference. Having gone through similar circumstances themselves, older believers can offer perspective and insight.
There may well be times when a wife disagrees with how her husband is providing and protecting. She may advise, but he remains responsible for those aspects. Likewise, there may be times when a husband does not like the form or manner in which his wife performs her duty as a helpmeet, but that should not nullify the duty of the wife to help, as she understands it from Scripture. Much of this can and should be learned from those God has ordained to be the teachers.
How have we lost a heritage that included men and women working together in unity, with mutual respect and honor? Rushdoony sheds some light:
In the European tradition, rulers were compared to God, and husbands to Christ, employers to God, and priests and pastors to Christ, without any real stress on the difference between absolute and relative authority. In the American tradition, the Puritans began by resisting authority in the name of God, and they established a tradition of godly and relative authority as against idolatrous and divine right authority. As a result, America has not had the revolutions and social upheavals so common to Europe. Too many European groups in the U.S. today are reviving this dangerous tradition, wherein rulers expect people to be unquestioningly obedient, wives to be docile cows, employees to bow and scrape before their employers, and church members never to question the pastor or priest in his infallible wisdom. The result is either stupid obedience or wild rebellion.
The Puritan wives were not given to servile obedience, and they provided the strong-willed helpmeets necessary to the conquest of a continent. The Puritan men held that the Kingship of Christ was the only absolute power, and they acted on that principle.
Today, as anarchy and contempt for authority are spreading everywhere, the worst possible answer is a blasphemous and idolatrous doctrine of authority. The only valid answer to either of these two crimes is godly authority.6
When the Kingdom of God and His righteousness are paramount, normal day-to-day conflicts can be resolved as a husband and wife self-consciously apply God’s commands. Sadly, pre-marital counseling avoids the mundane, daily issues a couple will face, and fails to spend time exploring the difference between mere abstractions and actual convicting application. Since marriage is a voluntary union (unlike being born into a family), it is incumbent upon each of the parties to resolve that they know exactly what they are promising to uphold, and have demonstrated to each other the understanding of Biblical directives and a commitment to God’s Word as the only and final authority.
One might think that this perspective would prevent marriages from ever taking place, setting the stage for power struggles. On the contrary, for believers contemplating marriage, the Biblical doctrine of authority establishes a bond of mutual respect for the unique roles God has ordained for the husband and for the wife. Moreover, rather than presume a “happily ever after” mentality, there would be a strong foundation laid to weather the eventual storms of life. Obedience to the commands and ordinances of God is fundamental to the Christian life. If we wish to see our culture restored based on the family as God’s primary institution, we need to get this right, moving away from a pagan mentality that asserts the powers of human beings can ever be absolute.
The origins of this belief are in pagan antiquity and in emperor worship. They rest in the belief in the immanent deity inherent in earthly powers. This pagan concept has infiltrated and corrupted the Biblical doctrine of obedience. It must be resisted, and the people of God must be taught that it is asin to require unquestioning obedience, and a sin to yield it. We are not God: we cannot require or expect for ourselves the absolute obedience due unto God. We are not man’s creature: we cannot yield to any man the absolute and unquestioning obedience due only unto God. The church must be cleansed of the requirement of pagan obedience or it will continue under the judgment of God.7
1. This is the sin of Genesis 3:5, using our own definitions of good and evil and not God’s.
2. R. J. Rushdoony, Salvation and Godly Rule (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books,  2004), pp. 495–496.
3. Those who use internet sites are well aware of CAPTCHA, a challenge-response test used in computing to determine whether the user is human. Any honest examination of Proverbs 31 demonstrates that Scripture not only demands women be godly, but they exercise their jurisdictional role in marriage as a fully capable human. The Bible does not call for a robotic partner in marriage. When such is the foundation of a marriage, a husband who demands such unquestioning obedience is guilty of stealing and coveting his wife’s calling, time, and conscience.
4. ibid, p. 497.
6. ibid, pp. 497–498.
7. ibid. pp. 498–499.
- Andrea G. Schwartz
Andrea Schwartz is Chalcedon’s family and Christian education advocate, and the author of eight books including: A House for God: Building a Kingdom-Driven Family, The Biblical Trustee Family: Understanding God’s Purpose for Your Household, Empowered: Developing Strong Women for Kingdom Service, Woman of the House: A Mother’s Role in Building a Christian Culture, and The Homeschool Life: Discovering God’s Way to Family-Based Education. She’s also the co-host of the Out of the Question podcast, and Homeschooling Helps (weekly live Facebook event). She can be reached at [email protected].