Contrary to the prevailing winds of our culture, our ministry has long emphasized the responsible headship of the husband in marriage, and the loyal submission of a wife to her husband. This is God’s pattern for marriage, and this is also quite enough to set some secularists to frothing. You would think they would chalk it up as just one more alternative sexual expression, but there is not much you can do with the soul of a wowser — always on the lookout for something ripe to denounce.
At the same time, while we unapologetically teach headship and submission in marriage as the Christian standard, we have also long emphasized that no human authority is absolute. While we believe that husbands have real authority, it is also a human authority, and therefore has set limits, beyond which it may not go.
The catch is here is that whenever human authority oversteps its boundaries, those responsible to call the foul are often those who are under that authority. It is the old problem of civil disobedience — how can those who are not scofflaws refuse to obey when an authority over them has overreached?
This is sadly a practical problem for too many godly wives. When a husband is out of line, what is a godly wife supposed to do? This can be a high stakes question, as when a husband is engaged in criminal or immoral activity, or it can be more of a garden variety problem, as when a couple desperately needs marriage counseling, and the husband refuses to allow it. Everybody at church thinks they have the perfect marriage, but once they get home and their front door closes behind them, the smell of death settles in.
So here are some basic principles for a wife to consider as she is meditating on whether to send up a flare. The situations below involve overlapping jurisdictions, and so she sends up a flare (depending on the situation) by notifying the cops, or the elders, or both. Because there are overlapping jurisdictions, no one under authority in a family should ever be completely stuck. At some point, there is always a legitimate way to appeal outside the situation.
That said . . .
1. A husband has no right to expect his wife to participate with him in immoral activity, or to support him in it indirectly by remaining silent about it (Acts 5:8-10). The principle is that when sinful men insist we make a choice, we must always obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
2. A husband has no right to expect his wife to participate with him in criminal activity, or to support him in it indirectly by remaining silent about it (Rom. 13:3-4). This is related to the first principle, and is an indirect application of it.
3. A husband has no right to expect his wife to participate with him in an insanely stupid activity, or to support him in it indirectly by remaining silent about it (1 Sam. 25:14-18). John Knox once used the illustration of a father who went into a frenzy and was going to burn his own house down. Knox noted that dutiful and submissive sons would rightly restrain him.
4. A husband has no right to expect his wife to participate with him in manifest religious hypocrisy, or to support him in it indirectly by remaining silent about it (1 Pet. 2:1). A wife is not given to a man in order to be his hypocrisy support group.
But wait . . . Prov. 18:17 really is a passage that every pastor should know and live by. The fact that a wife was the one who sent up a flare does not mean that she is automatically in the right, or that her charges should be automatically received. It simply means that sending up a flare in such circumstances is — if the concern is legitimate — not an unsubmissive thing to do. Let us say that a wife tells the pastor that she and her husband need marriage counseling desperately, but that all her assertions about her husband turn out to be untrue. It remains true that they need marriage counseling desperately, only with a different area to cover than she thought.
There are two errors to avoid then. A wife should not be expected to remain silent no matter what, and second, if she speaks up, her perspective should be judiciously handled — and not just automatically accepted or dismissed.