Does biblical submission of a wife position her to be abused by her husband?
The answer is no.
Because of the political winds today, Bible-believing Christians are being confused by and even wrongly influenced by the “Me Too” and “Feminist” movements. It seems that tried and true complementarian views are coming under unbiblical scrutiny with false and misleading attacks on all sides. By complementarian I mean that a wife is to be a “complement” to her husband (not a compliment). In other words, she is to be a helper to her husband and submit to him unless he asks her to sin.
Now we know that since the fall of Adam and Eve, there has been a power struggle between everyone on the planet! But it seems, at times, to be especially difficult between husbands and wives. After all, who would not want to have their own way? As a result of sin, many Christian husbands do not love their wives as Christ loved the church and many Christian wives resent their husbands having God-given authority over them (Ephesians 5:22-33).
God’s Good Design
Husbands are to treat their wives as Christ loves the church. This is agape love that is sacrificial (Ephesians 5:25). It is patient, kind, not jealous, and not selfish (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). They are also to live with their wives in an understanding way (1 Peter 3:7). Wives are to show respect to their husbands, love them, and biblically submit to them (Ephesians 5:33; Titus 2:4; Ephesians 5:22-24). The Greek word for submission means to be “ranked under.” It is an ordering similar to military ranking. It is an authority structure for the home that God has mandated since the beginning of creation. It never meant in ancient days, nor does it mean today, that the wife is inferior to her husband. In fact, she may be superior in many ways, such as intelligence and self-control.
Lest you think the wife’s submission to her husband is an incidental idea in the Bible, it is clearly stated four times in the New Testament—three times in Paul’s epistles and once in Peter’s. Each time there is a different emphasis. We’re told to be submissive: “in all things” (Ephesians 5:22-24), “as is fitting in the Lord” (Colossians 3:18), “so that the Word of God will not be dishonored” (Titus 2:5), and “without being frightened by any fear” (1 Peter 3:6). It seems to me that biblical submission of a wife to her husband is central in the role that God has planned for her. However, this is not blind obedience. It is gracious, respectful obedience including times when she gives wise counsel or makes an appeal for things to be done differently.
A Loving Reproof
Both the husband and wife are to love God by obeying Him. One example is loving others by reproving them when they sin. It is to be done gently and only with a motive to restore the other person to a right relationship with God (Galatians 6:1-2; Matthew 18:15). In fact, all of the “one-anothers” in Scripture apply to both husbands and wives.
Part of the wife showing love to her husband is for her to learn to reprove him if he is sinning. A reproof is when you tell someone what they are doing wrong. If he is a Christian (or says he is), she should show him what he has done wrong and use Scripture to back up what she is saying. If he is not a Christian, she should not use Scripture, but instead appeal to his conscience to do what is right. Part of maturing in the Lord as a wife is, as uncomfortable as it might be, speaking the truth in love as “love rejoices in the truth, it does not rejoice in unrighteousness” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
If the husband asks her to sin, she must refuse. Examples of a husband asking his wife to sin would be asking her to commit immoral sexual acts such as watch pornography. Another example is if the husband forbids his wife to reprove him. One last example is if he asks or demands her to sign a fraudulent income tax return. To agree or submit to any of those examples, the wife would have to disobey God in order to obey her husband. The bottom line is God is always the higher authority.
But what if her husband is angry, selfish, mean, jealous, physically violent, and makes terrifying threats? This happens because some men are cruel and punish their wives for anything they don’t like. In other words, they are wicked and abusive. They may even use Scripture in false ways to brow-beat and manipulate her into submission by screaming at her, “You have to be submissive! That’s what the Bible says!”
In cases like these, the wife needs to pray for wisdom and fight back with overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:17-21). She will do this when she takes full advantage of the biblical resources that God has given to protect her, such as counsel from the elders in her church, church discipline of the husband if he is a member of the church and will not repent, and reporting what he has done to the police if he is breaking the law such as battery of his wife or children. [For a much more detailed explanation, see Chapter 14 in The Excellent Wife by Martha Peace.]
If a husband is asking his wife to sin (that includes her covering up for his sin), she is to tell him, “No, that is not something I can do.” If he is abusive and she is in danger, she should take advantage of the biblical resources God has given to protect her such as calling 911 and/or seeking shelter.
Submission is only part of the heart of God for the Christian wife, but as she submits rightly to her husband if he is not asking her to sin, she is glorifying God by obeying Him and fulfilling the role that He has given her to faithfully live out. For a godly wife, His commands are not a burden (1 John 5:3). She will be faithful in the “least” little things as well as the “much” big things.
If she is in a particularly difficult marriage, she can and should obey God by rightly coming forward as a witness, speaking the truth in love, and taking advantage of the biblical resources that God has given to protect her. The wife can be encouraged by the sweet fact that she can honor God and remain faithful to Him no matter what her husband does.
Submission does not position a wife to be abused by her husband. Instead, it positions a wife to obey God and show love to her husband. There is absolutely no better position that a wife can be in.