I was brought up in a faith tradition that taught women to be “subject to” their husbands.
I went into my marriage believing this teaching. I went into my marriage with every intention of being a “good Christian wife.”
It did not occur to me, as I spoke my wedding vows, that there might come a time when I would have to choose between “Christian” and “wife.”
If I had had a “good Christian husband,” I might have gone on being a “good Christian wife” until death did us part.
When I think about that, my heart breaks. Would I make that choice—to live out my days as a “good Christian wife” to a “good Christian husband”—if I could? Would I choose it, even though it would have meant spending my life “perfecting” myself according to the doctrines of my childhood, becoming ever smaller, quieter, more invisible; suppressing the spirit within me—all the while believing that was God’s plan for me, and for all women? Would I choose that option just to avoid heartbreak?
I am glad I don’t have to make that choice. I am not certain what I would choose. Divorce is a terrible process to go through.
Our marriage was never healthy, but I was committed to the idea that marriage is sacred and eternal. So I made excuses for my husband’s bad behavior and set what boundaries I could around it. It worked well enough for me to hold the marriage together for far longer than it deserved. Then, in the wake of a trauma that came achingly close to our family, my husband went to pieces. He had always had a mean streak; now, he became openly emotionally abusive and increasingly controlling. He began trying to cut me off from family and friends, a tactic I recognized easily enough as “spousal abuse, stage one: isolate, then escalate.” I knew what was happening. And no amount of crying out to God seemed to make it stop.
When threats, cruelty, and intimidation did not fully persuade me to cut off all contact with my parents, siblings, and cousins, my husband resorted to gaslighting. He made up terrible, ugly lies about my family; he insisted they were true. Had they been true, they certainly would have been the sort of appalling things that merit breaking off a relationship.
I knew they were not true.
But if I wanted to hold my marriage together, I was going to have to act as if they were true, because the assault had two fronts. The first front was the false accusations themselves, which could be leveled against my family with or without my participation, to devastating effect. The second front was a massive wall built in my childhood by my own faith: the wall that said, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife.” Never mind that the passage—or even the sentence—does not begin or end there. Never mind that the command does not exist in isolation, the way it is often taught. The church had preached that decontextualized statement at me all my life, and it was all my husband wanted to hear of God’s word. He was going to break me on that wall. God had made him superior; I must obey. He had spoken; I must obey. If he said a thing was so, I had to behave as if it were so; I must obey. God was on his side, and I had to be, too. The Bible told him so.
I cried out to God: Is this true? Am I required to consent to a lie, to behave as if a lie is true, because my husband has said so? Lord God, how can this be? Am I required to live a lie for your sake?
When I found my answer, it came (as answers do) from a place both obvious and unexpected. It came from another wife—but not one of the wives who are cited as examples we should all learn from. It didn’t come from a wife anyone would have pointed me to—not the Proverbs 31 wife, nor Sarah, nor Ruth, nor even Esther. It wasn’t Hannah, nor Mary, nor Elizabeth. No, the wife who gave me God’s answer was none of those.
I found her in Acts 5:1–10. “Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge, he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.”
This was a wife in agreement with her husband. And what they agreed to do…was lie.
But they didn’t do it together. Ananias went alone to carry their gift to the apostles. He was confronted with his lie and struck dead by the Lord.
About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”
At that moment she fell down at his feet and died.
There is a heretical doctrine, often illustrated as a set of nested umbrellas, that teaches not just that a wife must submit to her husband, but that her faith, her salvation, is dependent upon how well she does so. There’s a big umbrella above: that’s Christ. There’s a smaller umbrella beneath: that’s the husband. There’s a third, even smaller umbrella beneath: that’s the wife. Her calling in Christ, according to this teaching, is to make herself smaller, quieter, more invisible, more obedient to a man. This is the complementarian/patriarchal doctrine, and it is widespread—but it is not found in Scripture.
Sapphira’s witness is not the witness of complementarians or patriarchists. Instead, it is the witness of Romans 14:12. Each of us must give an account to God for what we do.
Sapphira’s husband was a liar, but she did not have to be. Sapphira accounted for herself. She was made visible to the apostles—to God himself. She was required to speak, and by her own words she would stand or fall.
I was convicted when I read Sapphira’s story. To participate in my husband’s lies would accomplish nothing but to make me a liar, too. I would walk in a lie straight to my own death, just as Sapphira had.
I could no longer be a good Christian wife. The two had become incompatible. I had to choose: I could be the wife my husband demanded, or I could be a Christian, and live in truth.
I chose to stand in truth.
The truth was a wrecking ball to my marriage. My husband utterly refused to live in it. He refused to live with someone who was unshakably committed to it. When I set a firm boundary, refusing to cut my family out of my life, he left.
What’s more, the truth was a wrecking ball to the wall of silent submission that had bound me from childhood. A wall that turned out, when tested, to be built upon sand, utterly without foundation. Like Sapphira, I had to speak. Unlike Sapphira, I chose to speak truth, regardless of any man.
I committed myself to the truth. And the truth, as promised, set me free. It continues to set me free.
Let this word be preached in all the churches: if you are a woman, you must speak. God has called you to speak, and like Sapphira, you must answer. What truth have you been forbidden to speak? Is it a truth about your relationship? Is it a truth about your talents, and your calling? Is it a truth about evil that was done to you, or to someone else you know?
By your own answer you stand or fall. Break down the wall of silence, the wall of I will speak as my husband speaks, or as my father speaks, or as my abuser speaks. Seek out the truth for yourself, live in truth: you are a child of God, fully imago dei. You are called as a laborer to his harvest, and you must go.
Photo by Bratovanov on Shutterstock.
 For a description of the “umbrella doctrine” please see: https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2017/03/13/patriarchy-bill-gothard-and-the-umbrella-of-protection/