The King's Gardeners Ministries

Reverend S. L. Gardner

Spokane Valley, Washington U.S.

- The Issue of Abuse -

Submission

What Does It Mean for the Abused Woman?


By Ginny Hunt

Doctrinally, there is quite a diversity in opinion and interpretation regarding the submission of Christian wives to their husbands. What I'm presenting here is how I have, after fairly extensive study into the matter, perceived what Biblical submission means. By no means is my understanding the only possible interpretation of Scripture. However, it remains a sad fact that many battered wives, upon seeking pastoral counsel, are told to simply go home and submit. It is more than sad; it is the church partnering with the abuser in the sin of abuse. Still, the verses on wifely submission glared at me from the pages of the Bible. Certainly there was domestic violence in Biblical times, and given the low status of women in that day it was given little to no attention by society, but one can see by reading Malachai 16 that God Himself abhorred men treating their wives harshly. So what is the deal with telling wives to submit to their husbands, even unbelieving husbands who did not look at women as equal heirs with themselves in Christ?

The problems we have in understanding Biblical submission lie partially in the common modern definitions of submission and the misapplications of them. The world defines submission more as being a weak-willed milquetoast type person, and in an abusive marriage, even Christian marriages, in which a woman's will is forcibly dominated. In such a marriage even that woman's cooperation is not truly submitting as unto the Lord. Domination nullifies choices. I learned by studying the definitions in the original Greek language that true, Biblical submission is a yielding surrender. It is an act of one's own accord. Biblical submission submits to another from a position of strength, not weakness. Submission can be frightening to women whose yielding in the past has produced only domination. However, if we endeavor to yield to the Lord, trusting Him, He can, in time, enable us to yield to those He places in relationship with us.

In the Greek, the word for submission is hupotasso. In the active voice, it refers to a military term as one would submit to a commanding officer or as a conquered enemy would submit to a victor. I've heard sermons preached using this definition in the active voice. The only problem with preaching such a sermon is that where the word hupotasso is used in Scripture pertaining to wives submitting to their own husbands it is spoken in the middle or passive voice and it has a much less severe connotation: to subject oneself, to obey. It signifies a choice on the part of the one submitting. Unlike a conquered king or army, the woman willingly brings herself under the authority of her husband. If the husband begins to behave as a military commander and demands submission, the woman is no longer fulfilling the Biblical meaning if she submits in fear of reprisal. She can still choose to submit, but she ought to question her motives at this point. Is she submitting out of respect for her husband and out of obedience to the Lord? Or is she submitting simply because she is afraid either of what her husband will do if she doesn't submit or, sadly, what the Lord will do to her if she doesn't. Neither of those latter choices represents Biblical submission. To submit Biblically is a choice one makes of one's own accord.

It is ennobling for a woman to be in control of her own choices. In Paul's time, in the Jewish culture as well as both the Greek and Roman cultures, a woman had virtually no rights whatsoever. They were the property of their husbands. Actually, the Jewish culture was more favorable to women, but still looked upon them as a lower form of human life. When a woman from any of these cultures became a Christian and realized her true identity in Christ, her standing before God as equal to the males in her society, her freedom in Christ, she was elevated to a place in her society that she had never been before. Christianity ennobles women. It does not denigrate them. We become daughters of the most high God, sisters of Christ, heirs with Him. Therefore, submission becomes for us a picture of Christ. With Him as our example, we can lay aside our rightful status as He did, and become servants. It's one thing to submit because we have to. It's quite another to submit because we willingly choose to. It's a more pure and holy service then, one that proceeds from the heart, not out of sheer will or duty. God respects women fully and understands that the choice to submit is not one taken lightly, especially for those who have suffered abusive treatment from their mates or others in authority over them. However, submission is a Biblical mandate for all Christians that we must comprehend, even in the midst of abuse, if we are to live in the fullness that the Lord would have us know. In order to obey the Scriptural injunctions of submission from the right motivation, which is love for the Lord, we need to begin to comprehend how great His love is towards us. We need to see that submission is not an Olympic feat of will, but a gentle expression of our faith and trust and love of God. Without this comprehension, obedience is ok, but does not draw us any nearer to the Lord. In fact, obedience minus love can lead a person to great disappointment with God and has led some to a shipwrecked faith.

When a wife submits to her husband she willingly places herself in a position of supportiveness. She does this not on the basis of whether he deserves her support, but on the basis of her faith in God. Faith enables a woman to trust God's benevolence for her husband and herself. The exercising of such faith removes the struggle over power that can sometimes occur within a marital relationship, and the power that is obtained is not gained by force or even earned. It is a unique gift of grace a wife bestows upon her spouse. There is a Hebrew phrase for submission that literally means, "to give one's hand under" which connotes supportiveness in the submissive relationship. For many men, this can be a very humbling gift that inspires them to seek God concerning their own behavior toward their partners. Sadly and tragically, still others may continue to victimize their wives. If that is the case, submission does not rule out creating a safe distance between oneself and the abuser. Submission is love, and love seeks the best for the beloved. It is not in the abuser's best interest to continue to allow oneself to be the recipient of his sinful behaviors. The Bible does tell us to flee from evil. Abuse is evil.

The sin of abuse has its roots in the gratification of selfish desires. It is, obviously, sinning in anger. What is not so obvious is that fear is also a primary motivation for abuse. A man who abuses his wife is essentially very fearful of her. He fears that if he does not exercise rigid control over her, she will have too much control and power over him in the relationship. Abuse is all about power and control and who is holding the reins. A Biblical marriage relationship is to be one of mutual submission, each partner serving the other and viewing the other as greater than himself or herself. (Ephesians 5:21 and Romans 12:10) The primary relationship in a Christian's life is the one between himself and his God. I am first a daughter of God, and my husband a son of God. Therefore, our first relationship to each other is as a sister and brother in Christ. Therefore, the verses that apply to how we are to relate to other members of the Body most assuredly apply to the marital relationship. Secondly, that wives are given a specific instruction to submit to their husbands is important. They are also given specific instructions to respect their husbands. These two elements are crucial for the wife. The Lord knows that a woman finds it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to love a man she cannot respect, nor submit to a man she does not love. We cannot simply will these things on our own accord, just as a husband is not able, of his own accord, to love his wife as Christ loved the Church. It is only accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit who indwells us. A Biblical marriage becomes unbiblical and lopsided and quite unhealthy when the pursuit of power and control enters in. The Bible admonishes husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her. (Ephesians 5:24) It is to be a sacrificial love, one that humbles itself and forsakes its power and control. Ephesians 5:22 specifically addresses wives, in this context of mutual submission and sacrificial love from their husbands, to submit to their own husbands (not all men, mind you, just their own husbands). Submission is not meant to be a form of masochism. Submission is an expression of love. Abuse, being sin and therefore being evil, twists what was meant for good into a hideous characature of what was supposed to be. Submission to sin is not at all what the Lord intended wives to do. If a man is abusing his wife it is sin. For a woman to submit herself to that abuse without confronting it is submitting to sin. It isn't righteous and it isn't Godly persecution. It's abuse.

There's also the question raised regarding the verses that say that the man is the "head" of woman. (1Cor 11:3) Biblical scholars have found that the meaning of kephale ("head") in ancient Greek usually did not mean "superior to" or "one having authority." One of the most complete Greek lexicons, based on examinations of thousands of Greek writings from the period of Homer (about 1000 BC) to about AD 600, which, of course, includes New Testament times, does not include "final authority", "superior rank," or anything similar. Rather, what emerges is an understanding of kephale as "source" or "beginning." Verse 3 in 1 Cor 11, then, does not seem to teach a chain of command. Christ, head of man; man, head of woman; God, head of Christ. In fact, in verse 11, Paul seems to show that he was not imputing authority to males when he says, "For as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman." Also, this definition seems to better fit the topic of discussion in 1 Cor 11, which is about women speaking in church and proper public behavior. If their husbands are to be their source then it makes sense that Paul tells women not to speak out in church but to ask their husbands. Also, it is true as well, as Paul clearly shows that in the beginning, Eve was made from Adam's rib and so he was her literal beginning. Some scholars believe that Paul was actually debunking some pre-Gnostic and pagan arguments that were beginning to creep into the Church. Some of these early beliefs asserted that woman was actually made first and man was made through her. Paul points us back to the Biblical creation account to correct the false teaching.

Submission is not the way to save a troubled or abusive marriage. After learning about Biblical submission, some women may begin to view it as the answer they've been searching for to cure all their marital woes. Submission isn't a magical formula that one can apply to a troubled marriage and save it. The responsibility for the fate of our marriages does not lie solely with us women. Yes, we are responsible to do whatever we can to help mend and heal any marital wounds, but we ought not to view submission as a cure-all. Many women have found that, submit all they want, their husbands hearts are simply hard. Submission, in obedience to the Lord, is to be done with only a desire to please the Lord and serve Him through serving one's husband. This kind of motivation does not look to results or what God will do in return it simply looks to Christ. It may help unlock doors of communication between the couple and open things up a bit, but the goal of submission should never be to heal one's faltering marriage. The goal is and should always be Christ -- to be like Him, to be conformed to His image, to obey Him and follow Him. Any time we take our eyes off of Him and place them on to another goal, no matter how godly or inspired, we are missing the mark. Jesus said, "I am the Way." The way is a Person, not a formula, a rule, a lifestyle, and not even a Biblical principle. Jesus Himself is the way. A marriage consists of two individuals who each must decide whether they will follow Christ or not. Wives submitted or no, have no control over their husbands' responses or his spiritual relationship with the Lord. Submission isn't magic. Submission expresses our love for our spouses and it was intended by our Creator to be expressed mutually by both husband and wife. Since we can only control our own choices and not those of our mates, God has left it to us to choose submission in obedience to our First Love, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

I would never presume to tell any woman what she must do in regards to submission, especially if her husband is a difficult, cruel or abusive man. I merely sought to define Biblical submission so that anyone struggling with it may take that information and research it to verify it for themselves and also, hopefully, take it to the Lord in prayer to see what He would direct her to do in her particular situation. No two marriages are identical. The Lord applies His Word uniquely to our particular situations. He knows the secret sins of both the husband and the wife. Only He knows their particular personalities and quirks and strengths and weaknesses. He knows the condition of their hearts, whether they are hard or tender towards Him and each other. I would suggest only that a woman examine her motives towards submission, asking herself why she is submitting (if she is). I have a problem with demanding that anyone simply obey without understanding or conviction. I am not saying they should disobey either, but I leave that to their conscience. That is between them and the Lord. The Word does not say that if wives submit to their husbands that their husbands will change. It says they may be won over...it does not say they will. This is not an "If/Then" formula. This is an outworking of faith and love with no guarantees. If the husband chooses to continue in his sin, love requires us to do what is best for him, for the children and for ourselves and that often means leaving or requiring him to vacate the home.

I have paid special attention to the motivation behind submission because there is an inherent danger to it becoming an empty work that yields no fruit whatsoever leading only to bondage if we do not understand what is behind it. When we strive to do something "for the Lord" or in obedience to His Word because we are looking for His blessings and not for Him, we are bound to be disappointed. He is merciful and even grants blessing to those who approach Him in this way, but when He doesn't, such people often lose hope and even faith. To fall away from God is a far worse consequence than a failed marriage, as awful as that is. We really need to remember that apart from Him, we can do nothing. I also want to remind the reader that what I have written here are general principles on Biblical submission and may not be specific to your individual situation. Domestic violence is dangerous and safety is and should be your first concern. Paul's admonition to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ was so that we may avoid selfishness and pride and stubbornness in relationships.

It is not selfish to seek out a safe place where you and your children are free from the threat of injury. It is wisdom. What we must remember when looking at Scripture is to take the Word as a whole and not attempt to take one or two sentences out and build a theology on them. As a whole God is shown to be the protector of innocents, the Father to the fatherless, the husband of the widow. He is your loving Father, your strong tower of refuge, and your hiding place. He does not require human sacrifice for He has already sacrificed His only begotten Son on our behalf. It is finished. He does not ask that we lay down our lives to pay for the sins of our husbands. Remember His love toward you.

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