Wifely Submission in Biblical Context

by Catherine Clark Kroeger | October 30, 1998
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All too often people fail to grasp the balanced biblical teaching on a subject because they fail to study the material in its immediate context; nor do they try to understand how the material relates to the totality of Scripture. Few areas have suffered more from these omissions than the subject of wifely submission.

There is indeed a dictate in the Bible “that every man should be ruler over his own household.” But this decree (Esther 1:22) was formulated by the tyrannical pagan King Ahasuerus and his injudicious advisors. Ahasuerus is later villainously persuaded to add a second decree, that all Jews in his empire should be exterminated. The book of Esther is the story of how a courageous and faith-filled woman negotiates a reversal of those decrees. She risks her life to enter into the king’s presence uninvited, an act of civil and marital disobedience. With the prayerful support of her people, she uses her wits, skill and charm to win deliverance for the Jews. Then Esther “wrote with full authority” (Est 9:29) to establish the celebration of Purim. “Esther’s decree confirmed these regulations about Purim, and it was written down in the records” [of the Persian Empire] (Est 9:32). Both of the king’s decrees have been overthrown, and Esther stands as a woman and a Jew who has gained the respect and support of her husband.

She is not the only woman in the Bible to follow the leading of God rather than that of her husband. Abigail, a wise and beautiful woman, realizes that the behavior of her churlish spouse has endangered the lives of all the males in their household. In defiance of her husband’s insulting action toward David, she rushes to undo the damage. As she is bearing gifts to effect a reconciliation, she meets David at the head of a war party, intent upon annihilating her family. Her wisdom and good sense cause David to exclaim, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed” (1 Sam 25:32-33). Though Abigail’s stupid husband dies in a fit of rage, the rest of the family has been saved by her intervention. Indeed, the early church considered her a prophet because of her understanding and proclamation of God’s purposes for David (see 1 Sam 25:28-31).

Other godly women made decisions that were honored by their husbands as well as their communities and were blessed by God (1 Sam 1:21-24; 2 Kings 4:8-13; Prov 31:16- 20). Sarah, by compliance with her husband Abraham’s unwise instructions, brought misfortune on others and reproach upon the people of God (Gen 12:10-20; 20:2-18), whereas Abraham was specifically instructed by God to follow the dictate of his wife (Gen 21:12). In the early church, Priscilla and Aquila appear to have functioned in their marriage and ministry as fully equal partners, in contrast to foolish Sapphira who suffered the consequences of following her husband’s deceitful stratagem (Acts 5:1-10).

The Bible represents women as responsible individuals, capable of making good decisions and of thereby growing into maturity. In an analogy to marriage, Christ is depicted as a bridegroom implementing the full development of the bride’s potential, including the ability to make her own decisions (Eph 5:25-27). Jesus specifically deplored one person’s claiming ascendancy over another (Mt 20:25-28; Mk 10:42-45) and declared that it hindered intimacy (Jn 15:15). The concepts “headship” and “submission” are translations of Greek terms that had quite different connotations in their original contexts; great care should be taken in applying them to modern marriage. Notably, each New Testament mandate for a woman’s submission is always within a context of equality and mutual submission (1 Cor 7:3-5; Eph 5:18-33; Col 3:13-19; 1 Pet 2:16-3:8) along with a strong injunction against marital abuse (Eph 5:28-29; Col 3:19; 1 Pet 3:7).

Far from placing women in a restrictive position, Scripture empowers and affirms women both as individuals and within marital relationships. Christianity is based upon mutuality, interdependence, and equality of all members (Eph 5:21; Gal 5:13; 1 Pet 5:5). Equally shared decision-making is the pattern sanctified by Scripture and proven effective in human experience.