Headship, Submission, and Abuse (Pt. 3)

In these articles I have been arguing that husband’s authority in the home is limited by the kind of authority he possesses (counsel, not command) and by the purpose of the authority (to love his wife like Christ does the Church.) But how is a wife to discern when her husband is using his authority appropriately and therefore requires her submission?

The first basic line is whether or not the husband is requiring the wife to sin by submitting. If a husband’s request forces the wife to sin, she is obligated by her commitment to the Lord to disregard her husband.

Beyond the issue of that, consider an illustration I have used elsewhere before:

The Circle of Authority

Let’s say that the white at the center of the circle represents applications of a husband’s authority that are legitimate and align with the purposes of Ephesians 5:25-33. The blue on the edge represents illegitimate applications of authority that are outside of the purpose. While a husband is operating within the “white,” the wife is obligated to submit to her husband. When he, however, begins trying to operate in the “blue” she is no longer bound to submit. Between those two lie the gradations of white to blue, a “questionable” domain of the use of authority (more on this later).

This distinction assumes that when Paul tells wives to “submit in everything” (Ephesians 5:24), he does not mean “submit in all things without exception”, but rather means, “in general, wives should normally submit to their husbands.” It should be the normal posture of a wife to submit to her husband, whenever possible. But this does not mean that a wife is bound to submit to her husband no matter what. Again, the example of Abigail and Nabal is pertinent here (1 Samuel 25), or imagine the example of Ananias and Saphira in Acts 5. Saphira follows her husband’s lead and participates in his sin and is struck dead for it (Acts 5:1-11).

Is this special pleading? I don’t think so. If we accept that all authorities must be disobeyed when they command us to sin, then this means that Paul already assumes that “in everything” cannot mean “in everything without exception.” To use the analogy of the government once more, consider how strongly Paul phrases our obligation to submit to the governing authorities:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:1-2)

Whoever resists the authorities resists God–full stop. And yet, the entire book of Acts represents story after story of the apostles deliberately disobeying governing authorities whenever they forbid gospel proclamation. When the early church refused to worship Caesar, they were not reprimanded by other Christians for failing to submit to the government. My guess is that many married couples who hold to a very rigid concept of headship and submission would also be quick to resist the government if it began to forbid the preaching of the gospel (as would I). But that demonstrates that they intuitively recognize that any institution of authority is limited in its reach when it begins to require sin.

But to take the analogy of the government another step forward, are we obligated to obey anything the government asks of us, provided it isn’t sinful? If the government tomorrow requires me to wear my hair a certain way or forbids parents from using formula to feed their babies, are we obligated to obey? Again, my assumption is that most people, especially those who hold must strongly to headship and submission, would say “no.” We realize this because the purpose of government limits its application of authority. The purpose of government is “to promote justice through the proportionate punishing of evil and to promote human flourishing and order.” Forcing me to look a certain way or use a particular method to feed my infant doesn’t land anywhere in the ballpark of that purpose. So, for the government to require that of me would be a “jurisdictional transgression,” something that I am under no obligation to submit to.

Similarly, if the purpose of a husband’s authority in marriage is to love his wife as Christ loved the church, yet wants to use that authority in ways that are foreign to that purpose, this is a jurisdictional transgression. The husband is attempting to use the key of his authority to open and close doors it was never designed for.

Practically Speaking

In between these two poles is the “questionable” area in which it may be hard to determine whether or not a husband is appropriately using his authority–is the husband who insists that the family needs to buy a new boat a legitimate application of his authority? It could be. Context and details would be needed to make a clearer judgment. I will write more on the “questionable” area of headship and submission later, but for now let’s consider five different scenarios between a husband and a wife and apply this understanding of headship and submission:

  1. A husband and wife have a newborn baby. The wife is exhausted and overwhelmed. The husband is also stretched thin between his disrupted sleep and needing to wake early to go to work, but is still getting far more sleep than his wife. He asks if he can stay up later with the baby to feed him a bottle late every night so that the wife can get some more sleep. She feels guilty taking this help because she knows he still needs to go to work the next morning and feels it is her responsibility, but he gently insists: “Please dear, let me serve you.” What should a wife do? The husband is denying himself for the good of his bride (Eph 5:25). She should obey Paul’s command: wives, submit to your husbands.
  2. A husband wants the family to spend more time in God’s Word together. The wife agrees, but feels often too frazzled in the mornings and is worried about getting out the door on time. The husband asks what he can do to help and again insists on wanting the family to have a time of devotions together. What should a wife do? The husband is striving to wash his wife and children with the water of the word (Eph 5:26-27). She should submit to her husband.
  3. A husband wants to take the family on a vacation, but is generally unreliable with money and doesn’t think through how much things will cost. The wife is much more financially savvy and is hesitant to go along with this. What should a wife do? Well, this is a “questionable” area. This depends: what kind of vacation does the husband want to take? Is this a camping trip or a cruise on the Mediterranean? What are the family finances looking like? Does the family have any savings towards vacations, or is the husband intending on putting the entire trip on a credit card? If the family takes on debt, will this pose a serious risk to the livelihood and well-being of the family? Why does the husband want to take the vacation? Is he motivated by a desire for the well-being of the family, or is he motivated by selfish ends? All of the circumstances, reasons, and details are needed to know how a wife is to respond. The wife should respectfully voice her concerns and listen to her husband’s reasoning. If the vacation is within their budget and the wife agrees that it will not jeopardize their family’s well-being or future, and the husband has demonstrated his aim is to serve his family through this, she should submit to her husband–even if she still has some reservations. If the vacation will sink the family financially, or if the husband is primarily interested in serving himself through the trip, or if he refuses to listen to his wife or take her concerns seriously, then the husband’s authority may be teetering towards the blue-rim of the circle. The wife would be warranted to dig her heels in and say, “Dear, I love you, I want to follow you, but this isn’t what’s best for our family.” Situations like these require wisdom, humility, and a desire to put the needs of others over ourselves (Philippians 2:3-4).
  4. A husband has been indulging in a pornography addiction for years and his wife has found out. Ashamed and angry at his exposure, the husband accuses his wife of being at fault for his sin and says that if she were more sexually available, this wouldn’t have happened. He then insinuates that unless she “does something about it” he will keep on with his addiction. What should a wife do? While the Bible does command spouses to not deprive one another sexually (1 Corinthians 7:1-5), a husband who attempts to blame his wife for his sin, manipulate and coerce her into giving sex, and doubles-down on continuing in sin, has wandered greatly from the Christ-like model of servant-hearted leadership. A wife should contact other brothers or a pastor in the church who can confront her husband, and then seek marital counseling with their pastor.
  5. A husband has gradually become more menacing and threatening towards his wife. What started out as screaming has turned into shoving and now the wife has a black eye. The husband has forbidden her from telling anyone about it and has begun to isolate them from church, friends, and family. The wife runs into a friend from church who sees her eye and asks her what happened. What should a wife do? Her husband has explicitly told her to sin by lying about what happened, therefore she must obey God rather than man. Further, her husband’s pattern of intimidation and violence has veered so far away from the purpose of the authority he has been given that she is no longer obligated to submit to his requests. She should leave the home and contact a pastor or friend who can help keep her safe. She also should contact the authorities and report her husband’s crime so that God’s minister of justice can do what it has been ordained to do (Romans 13:4).

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