Headship, Submission, and Abuse (Pt. 1)

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While in seminary a professor of mine was teaching on the nature of authority and submission as it related to church members and pastors. He opened the discussion by reading passages about children’s submission to their parents and then asking if a child was responsible to submit to their parents. Yes, we all agreed. He then asked if the Bible taught that wives are commanded to submit to their husbands. Yes, we all agreed. Then, he asked if a parent had the authority to discipline their children if they failed to obey. Yes, we all agreed, somewhat suspicious of where this was going. Finally, with a wry look on his face, he asked us if a husband had the authority to discipline his wife if she failed to obey him.

Everyone in the classroom was quiet. The professor’s eyebrows went up at our silence.

“You better say ‘No’ to that question,” he chided.

We all let out a collective sigh. Of course, we intuitively knew, No way, a husband can’t ‘discipline’ his wife, but we had walked perfectly into the professor’s rhetorical trap. What was the difference between the authority a parent had over the child and the authority a husband had over his wife? The professor then explained, “And this is why understanding the differences in the nature of authority is so critical.”*

Submission and Abuse

Consider three passages:.

“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.” (1 Peter 3:1-2)

“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.” (Ephesians 5:22-24)

“Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” (Colossians 3:18)

One criticism often levied against churches who take these verses seriously is that they can serve as weapons to coerce abused wives to remain silent: if wives are to submit to their husbands “in everything”, doesn’t this provide the perfect excuse for abused wives to be taken advantage of?

Does it? Tragically, there have been numbers of stories of pastors who have used these passages to tell abused wives to remain with their abusers.** As a pastor, I have seen firsthand the devastating effects of women who have suffered abuse at the hands of husbands who have used the Bible to legitimize their violence. It produces in women a terrible dilemma: the Bible commands them to submit to their husbands, so if they attempt to escape the abuse aren’t they sinning? Even more heartbreaking is when women in these situations believe that the abuse is their fault: if only I were more submissive, they tell themselves, then my husband wouldn’t have to do this.

These tragic stories can lead one to think that if a church wants to be a safe place for abused women they must abandon what the Bible says about husband and wives.

Brothers and sisters, these things shouldn’t be so! Our churches and pastors should be those who speak out most strongly against abuse, not despite our theology, but precisely because of it.

My aim here is limited. This article is lightyears away from the pastoral counsel a victim of abuse needs. Rather, this is aimed at those who are convinced of the biblical teaching of headship and submission, but are unsure how to respond to the evils of abuse.

So, let me flesh that out some by starting with this question: If a husband is physically abusing his wife, is she required to continue to submit to his authority? The short answer I will give is: No, a wife is not obligated to continue to submit to abuse.

Particular Kind: Command or Counsel?

Only God has unconditional authority that must be submitted to at all times. He grants certain institutions on earth (government, churches, pastors, husbands, parents) the right to exercise authority, but does not do so uniformly. The nature of authority a parent has over their child is not the same kind of authority a husband has over his wife.

After my seminary professor had thoroughly gotten my attention, he then went on to delineate between two different types of authority: the authority of command and counsel. The authority of command is the authority that has legitimate grounds for using discipline as a method of enforcing the strictures of authority, while the authority of counsel relies on persuasion and teaching. (He has actually written about this recently here, see point 4).

The authority of counsel is where the one in authority has legitimate authority, but cannot coerce the subject to do contrary to their will–they can only persuade. The authority of command, on the other hand, is an authority that can require its subjects to submit regardless of their willingness. Parents, government, and congregations posses the authority of command, while husbands and pastors possess the authority of counsel.

These distinctions are crucial.

Command

The authority of command can require those under their authority to submit, regardless of their willingness. For instance, the state can require you to pay taxes, whether you want to or not (Romans 13:1-7); parents can require their children to obey them whether the child wants to or not (Proverbs 29:15); and congregations can require unrepentant members to submit to church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20). How do they do this? The authority of command is authority that can levy punishment when the subjects do not submit: Paul warns the Romans that the state does not carry the sword in vain (Romans 13:4); Proverbs tells parents to use the rod to discipline disobedient children (Proverbs 19:18; 23:13-14); and congregations can use the keys of the kingdom to remove unrepentant church members from membership (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5). Notice: each of these three institutions have been given a particular instrument of discipline by the Lord: a sword (government), a rod (parents), and the keys of the kingdom (congregations).***

So, if one evening at the dinner table my five year old takes one look at his dinner and says, “Yuck, I’m not eating that!” I can tell him, “Bud, you need to try it first, take a bite.” If he stamps his foot on the ground and says he won’t eat it, then I can send him to a timeout. I can use consequences. Why? Because I am his parent; I have the authority of command and I have been given an instrument of discipline to enforce consequences.

Counsel

Now, as bizarre as this may sound, imagine that same scenario, but instead of my 5 year old, it is my wife. Would I have the authority to force her to eat her dinner? To threaten consequences if she didn’t?

Of course not. Why? Because I, as her husband, do not possess the authority to coerce her to do contrary to her will.

God has not given husbands the authority of command, but of counsel. The authority of counsel relies on persuasion and teaching, not coercion. In any disagreement or decision we are making I can speak with my wife, teach, explain why I think this or that is good or bad, but after I do this, she is left to decide how to respond. And, as the Bible explains, her ordinary posture should be one of glad submission. But that doesn’t mean that if my wife doesn’t submit to me I am free to “discipline” her–she isn’t my child, she is a “co-heir” with me, deserving of “honor” and my “understanding” (1 Peter 3:7).

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say her disagreement with me is wrong and she is failing to submit biblically. Even still, I cannot insist she submit in the same way I can with my children, and I especially cannot use punitive measures to get what I want. How do we know this? Nowhere in the Bible are husbands told to implement punishment/discipline on their wives. There is no corresponding instrument of discipline that God gives husbands that they can use like the government (sword), parents (rod), or the congregation (keys).

Rather, husbands are called to model their headship off of Christ’s earthly ministry, a ministry of lowliness, service, and death to self (Ephesians 5:25-27) and are explicitly told to “not be harsh” with their wives (Colossians 3:19). Often conservative Christians talk about how husbands should lead their wives well, getting the idea of leadership legitimately from the Bible’s language of headship and submission. But it is worth noting that Ephesians 5 doesn’t tell husbands to “lead your wives, as Christ led the church,” but “love your wives, as Christ loved the church.” The headship and leadership of a godly husband is defined first and foremost by the kind of love that “did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom,” (Mark 10:45). Unfortunately, many times Christian men can import into the Bible a worldly definition of what leadership is rather than Christ’s model of lowliness and service (cf. Mark 10:42-44).

Granted, wives are commanded to submit to their husbands, but, importantly, this command is only given to wives. Nowhere in the Bible are husbands told to make their wives submit to them. It is not a husband’s job to make his wife submit to him–that is between her and the Lord.

Christlike Authority

The Bible is clear that a husband does have unique authority in marriage, but it is an authority that looks like Jesus’ dying, serving, loving. When it is clear that a husband’s authority relies on leading his wife through counsel and persuasion, not coercion and command, it radically changes how the husband approaches the nature of his leadership. He cannot ramrod his agenda through, cannot browbeat his wife into submission. His wife’s submission to him is not something that he can require from her the same way he can require it from his children. Even when his wife does not respect him, he can lovingly and gently speak with her, pray for her, and call her to God’s Word. But he cannot treat her like a child in need of the rod of discipline.

This is clear from 1 Peter 3:7, “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.” “Weaker vessel” here refers to the fact that a woman’s physical stature generally is weaker than a man’s. And this is precisely what abusive husbands prey on. They can push their wife around and intimidate them because they usually are a more formidable physical presence than their wives.

When Peter explains that wives being a “weaker vessel” should lead husbands to “honor” their wives it means, at a bare minimum, that a husband using physical violence/intimidation is unequivocally forbidden. Which is instructive to the very nature of the kind of authority a husband has–the “rod of discipline” is not a tool he possesses in marriage.

Illegitimate Authority

Now what happens when a husband attempts to use an authority of command rather than counsel? If a husband is angry at something his wife did or thinks she is not being submissive to him and he reaches for the “rod of discipline”, so to speak, is the husband exercising a legitimate application of his God-given authority? He is not. He is performing a Satanic inversion of Christ’s model of laying down his life for the good of his bride: laying down his bride’s life for his own good.

Consider an analogy: Hebrews 13:17 tells church members to “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” If I were to approach one of my parishioners, read that verse, and tell them they needed to give me all the money in their wallet, or I would throw them out of the church, would I be legitimately using my authority? Of course not–not just because that would be a serious jerk-move, but because pastors do not possess the authority to remove someone from the church. The keys to bind and loosen are given to the congregation, not the pastor.

If it is demonstrated that a husband using punishment/coercion to force his wife to submit to him is illegitimate, then the question becomes whether or not a wife is bound to submit to an illegitimate application of her husband’s authority. It is my understanding that a wife is only called to submit to the authority that God has given her husband, but that is the authority of counsel, not command.

Therefore, if a husband attempts to use violence or threats to force his wife to submit to him, he is doing so illegitimately and, therefore, the wife is not morally bound to continue to submit to this. God has given him no authority whatsoever to do such a thing. Or, to put it another way, a wife is only bound to submit to the kind of authority God has given her husband (authority of counsel).

Particular Goal: What’s Authority For?

In my next article I will examine how the purpose of an institution’s authority further hems in how authority is to be used and when we are obligated to submit to it.


* This was Jonathan Leeman in his Doctrine of the Church class he taught in conjunction with a 9Marks Weekender conference at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC, in the Fall of 2019.

**While there are many different species of abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual, etc.), I am going to limit this article to the category of physical abuse, simply because it provides the clearest example to illustrate the principle detailed below.

***None of this, of course, necessarily means that what these authorities are requiring is inherently right. Governments, parents, and congregations can use their authority to enforce wrong decisions.

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