Headship, Submission, and Abuse (Pt. 2)

What is authority for?

Our culture has become hyper-aware to how the locomotive of authority can run off the tracks, creating the train-wreck of abuse. From police officers using unnecessary force, to CEO’s exploiting employees, to spiritual leaders taking advantage of members, we hear story after story of individuals in positions of authority who abuse those under it. And it can lead us to think that authority itself is inherently sinister. But this is far from the truth:

“When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.” (2 Samuel 23:3-4)

When authority is used justly and righteously it results in the flourishing and vitality of those under authority, not their demise. But this, of course, forces us to ask: how does one use authority rightly?

Husbands and Headship

In my previous post I examined that while the Bible does teach that wives are called to submit to their husbands, husbands are not given the authority of command, but counsel. This means that husbands are never free to coerce their wives to do contrary to their will, and especially are not free to use physical violence. Therefore, when a husband attempts to use the authority of command to coerce his wife, or uses physical force as a means of punishment or correction, he is employing a kind of authority that God has not granted him, much in the same way if I reached for a gun off a near-by police officer’s belt and attempted to arrest someone–I am attempting to use an authority that I do not possess and so my use of that authority is illegitimate.

But I want to provide another means by which the authority of a husband is hemmed in, not just by the kind of authority he has, but also by the purpose of that authority.

The Limits of Authority

We must remember that only God possesses unconditional, total authority. No other institution of authority on earth possesses this kind of limitless power. God will deputize certain people and systems with authority, but this is always limited authority.

The most basic form of limitation we see in any authority is when it comes to sin. If any authority asks us to do something that God forbids, or forbids something God has commanded, we are obligated to no longer submit to that authority. So, for instance, even though Paul says that whoever fails to submit to the government disobeys God (Romans 13:1-2), when the governing authorities in the book of Acts command the apostles to stop preaching the gospel, the apostles respond with: “We must obey God rather than men,” (Acts 5:29; cf. 4:19-20). When an angel opens the jail cell of the apostles, Peter did not respond to the angel that they must submit to the government and stay put. Instead, they walked out and immediately began doing what the authorities had just forbidden them from doing: preaching the gospel (Acts 5:17-21). The apostles realize that when governing authorities forbid something that God commanded, they must disobey the governing authorities. Similarly, even though Ephesians 5:24 states, “wives should submit in everything to their husbands,” when a husband tells his wife she must sin, she likewise should respond with: I must obey God rather than men.

But a husband’s exercise of authority is further limited by what the very purpose and goal of his authority is: to love his wife like Christ does the Church.

What A Husband’s Authority Is For

Following the classic text on a wife’s submission to her husband, Paul then turns to the husbands and explains:

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.” (Ephesians 5:25-33)

A couple of points of summary: A husband is to use his authority to…

  • Deny himself for the good of his bride (vs. 25)
  • Have his wife’s godliness as his goal (vs. 26-27)
  • Provide for the needs of his wife with the same priority he provides for his own needs (vs. 28-29)
  • Cherish, love, and woo his wife (vs. 29-30)
  • Maintain his wife as his highest familial obligation and remain faithful to her (vs. 30)
  • Do all of these things to such a degree that he mirrors Jesus’ own love for the Church (vs. 25-33)

Even the most skeptical of male headship in the home would admit that if the above were consistently practiced by a husband, it would not only fail to produce the abuse and exploitation it is suspected of, but would even lead to a wife’s flourishing and joy. I was, however, reminded by a woman who had left an abusive relationship that a man can appear to follow nearly the entire list above, but still twist all of that into a means by which he coerces or takes advantage of his wife (i.e. Look at how good of a husband I am, you are the one who is the problem here). Which, of course, is a denial of the entire passage. We are to love, serve, cherish, and care for our wives like Christ did the church–and Jesus does not guilt His bride into obedience by emphasizing how faithful He is in contrast with her sin. He, without qualification or condition, simply serves, loves, and gives. That is what a husband’s authority is to look like.

The question we are considering now, however, is what happens when a husband uses his authority for other purposes than the ones laid out above? Is a wife obligated to submit to her husband’s authority when it appears to be turned away from the model in Ephesians?

We could think of both mundane examples (a husband insisting he drive the car, for example) as well as more grievous examples (a husband demanding his wife never question him). Here are some examples of ways I have personally seen men stretch their authority to such a degree that the model of Ephesians 5 is no longer recognizable:

  • A husband demanding that his wife wear her hair everyday in a particular style and punishing her with silence if she fails to do so.
  • A husband using physical violence or verbal abuse to discipline his wife when she fails his standards.
  • A husband demanding that his pregnant wife who is in active labor make him dinner before he takes her to the hospital.
  • A husband telling his wife directly and indirectly that she is no longer allowed to spend time with certain friends or family members out of a desire to keep her isolated.
  • A husband telling his sleep deprived wife that she is not allowed to try alternative methods of sleep training and feeding their newborn, despite her earnest requests.
  • A husband forbidding his wife from going to church.
  • A husband who forbids his wife from talking with others, or explicitly tells her to lie to others, about their marriage.
  • A husband who keeps their financial information, account passwords, debt, etc. hidden from the wife.
  • A husband who forces his wife against her will to have sex with him.
  • A husband who uses his good deeds to guilt his wife (“Look at everything I have sacrificed for our family, why can’t you do more?)
  • A husband who always blames their marital problems on the wife (“If you were more submissive, I wouldn’t get so angry)

Some of these are more serious than others, but all of them reveal a husband who is using his authority in the home very differently from the purpose that it was given. A good pastor-friend of mine works by a simple maxim when doing marriage counseling: any man who is constantly insisting on his authority in the home is a man who does not understand what the purpose of authority in the home is for. Any man who is constantly asserting his authority and demanding his wife’s submission is a man who likely has imported a worldly idea of authority and leadership into marriage, rather than letting the servant-hearted leadership of Christ shape him.

What’s a Wife to Do?

So, what is a wife to do in such scenarios? Ephesians 5:24 tells her to “submit in everything” and 1 Peter 3:1-6 even commands women married to unbelievers to submit to their husbands. So, does this mean that a wife is obligated to acquiesce to anything her husband asks of her, from something as banal as wearing a certain hairstyle to as grave as remaining silent under violent abuse?

Consider briefly the example of Abigail and Nabal found in 1 Samuel 25. Abigail is described as, “discerning and beautiful” while Nabal is “harsh and badly behaved,” (1 Sam 25:3). Nabal’s name literally means “fool”, and his folly and belligerence are displayed in his lack of hospitality and rudeness to David’s soldiers, refusing to offer them food or sustenance despite David’s forces keeping their flocks safe (1 Sam 25:5-12; 17; 25). Deeply offended and angry, David intends to storm Nabal’s household and slaughter him and all the men in the home (1 Sam 25:13;21-22). Abigail, however, intervenes. She prepares a large gift of food and wine and sends them to David, imploring him to show mercy (1 Sam 25:18-31). In doing so she deliberately disobeys her husband–in fact, we are told explicitly, “she did not tell her husband Nabal,” (1 Sam 25:19). David’s anger cools and he acknowledges that Abigail has just saved her husband from his death and David from bloodguilt (1 Sam 25:32-35), particularly praising her “discretion” (1 Sam 25:33). Abigail’s wisdom is so profound that David tells her that he has “obeyed” her voice (1 Sam 25:35).

David Meeting Abigail by Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577 – 1640); c. 1620

Abigail’s discernment and wisdom lead her to realize that her husband had made a foolish decision, so she deliberately disregards her husband’s authority and saves the lives of countless others, and God appears to vindicate her decision through the judgment he pours out on Nabal. The next day, Abigail informs Nabal of what happened and immediately he is struck with terror so that, “his heart died within him,” (1 Sam 25:37) and he dies a few days afterwards (1 Sam 25:38). What would have happened had Abigail submitted to her husband’s authority here? David would have committed a great sin (see 1 Sam 25:33, 39) and all of the males of Nabal’s house would have been unjustly slaughtered. While we should always be cautious when interpreting narrative passages, it is itself noteworthy that an entire chapter of the Bible is devoted to a wife subverting her husband’s authority and being blessed for it by King David.

This strengthens the argument that when a husband uses his authority wrongly a wife is not bound to submit. But does that render the command for her to submit to her husband functionally meaningless? I don’t think so, in my next article I will provide a way to consider the complex balance needed between submission to a husband when authority is used properly, and a freedom to disregard that authority when it is used wrongly.

2 thoughts on “Headship, Submission, and Abuse (Pt. 2)

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