It is not uncommon for me to conduct wedding ceremonies, and one of the questions I usually ask the couple during the premarital counseling is what the composition of the assembly is likely to be. When I preach, everybody is there more or less voluntarily, and they know what they are likely to be getting. But when families travel across the countries for a nephew’s wedding, they don’t always know. Ever mindful of Oscar Wilde’ dictum that a gentleman is one who never insults someone else accidentally, I generally want to know beforehand if a radical lesbian aunt is going to be there—if there is going to be awkwardness at the reception, you might as well be prepared for it. After all, in the services I do, the word obey is included in the bride’s vows, and the homilies will from time to time address the subject of headship and submission. I walk carefully because submission is too often considered a dirty word—a dirty word to those who despise it, or an embarrassing word to those who feel stuck with it.
So why should believers not be embarrassed by the doctrine of headship and submission in marriage? Walking carefully is not the same thing as walking ashamedly. Here are some thoughts, seven reasons why Christians should not consider submission a dirty word.
In the first place, Scripture teaches the doctrine, and teaches it plainly. This means that Christians who are embarrassed by any mention of “submission” are actually embarrassed by something else—the authority of God. That is a much more dicey proposition. “For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father’s, and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:26). God and His words go together.
And that Scripture teaches this is plain enough. A woman should submit to her husband as to the Lord (Eph. 5:22). For a woman to submit to her own husband is fitting (Col. 3:18). Wives are to be submissive to their husbands, even those who do not obey the Word (1 Pet. 3:1). Older women are instructed to teach the younger women how to be obedient to their husbands (Tit. 2:4). In the church, a woman should learn in silence with all submission (1 Tim. 2:11). In the church, the women are to be “under obedience” as the law requires (1 Cor. 14:34). If she has a question, she can ask her husband at home (1 Cor. 14:35).
All our discussion of this point should therefore begin with the exegesis, with what God has clearly said. Too often, to the extent it is even addressed at all anymore, the preacher spends all his time explaining what it is not saying. But that leads to our second point.
Second, submission done right highlights and reveals the problems with submission done wrong. Anything valuable will always have to deal with fakes, knock-offs, slanders, caricatures, and misrepresentations. Biblical submission is not represented by the Stones. “Under my thumb/A girl who has just changed her ways/It’s down to me, yes it is/The way she does just what she’s told.” Nor is it what we find in those vintage lame ads as you see off to the right. Nor is it the Muslim ideal, where the glory of the man is wrapped up in a sheet. It is quite right for us to emphasize that biblical submission is not represented accurately by any of the children of this world. That is entirely right to say. But we have to protest the tendency of embarrassed Christians to simply assert what submission does not mean, and to then fall silent. Biblical headship and submission is not just the absence of abuse, although it certainly includes that. The right order of marriage is something positive and glorious, and no more to be hidden than the glory of the sun, moon and stars.The right order of marriage is something positive and glorious, and no more to be hidden than the glory of the sun, moon and stars
Third, unsubmissive women are a truly destructive force. When married women walk away from God’s vocation and calling for them, the results are not just an absence of good. We are not just talking about a missed opportunity. Those who do not gather, scatter (Luke 11:23). The teaching of the Bible is not that the women are to be submissive because they don’t matter much anyway. Rather, the Bible teaches that when a wife is unsubmissive, one of the elemental forces in the home has come unmoored, and is about to wreck havoc. “The wisest of women builds her house, but folly with her own hands tears it down” (Proverbs 14:1, ESV). Unsubmissive wives are a wrecking ball. She can destroy with her tongue (Prov. 27:15), she can do it through wantonness (Prov. 7:10-12), or she can do it through laziness (Prov. 19:14-15; 1 Tim. 5:13-14). And because sin is creative, there are other ways also. Now because we live in an era when pastors are afraid to admonish Christian women about anything, we appear to have all silently agreed to ignore the consequences of feminine disobedience.
In the fourth place, Scripture teaches us the consequences of obedience, and not just the requirement of obedience. This is yet one more area where we attempt to be wiser than God. We say that we have to background our commitment to headship and submission in marriage because if we don’t unbelievers will get the wrong idea. But God says that we must foreground our commitment to these things, and why? “That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed” (Titus 2:4–5). “I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully” (1 Tim. 5:14). But instead of heading off the blasphemy of the world the way God says to do it, we try to avoid the blasphemy of the world by encouraging the exact opposite of what God says to do.
Fifth, addressing the consequences of feminine disobedience gives us the ethos to address the consequences of masculine disobedience. Make no mistake about it, men can also be a wrecking ball. Nothing said above has anything to do with “taking sides” in the purported war between the sexes. Sometimes a man tears down his family. Sometimes the woman does. Other times they both do. But if the interaction with that home is political and not pastoral, then the men involved will know it soon enough. Sin must be defined by the Word of God as applied to the facts on the ground, i.e. what actually happened. There is a vast difference between holding men responsible for their actions, and using men as a convenient whipping boy. There are those who think they are applying the standards of federal headship when what they are actually doing is applying the standards of an “evangelical” and deracinated feminism.
The doctrine of headship and submission means that men are responsible for the state of their marriages and homes. Apart from a right understanding of headship and submission, men have no point. There is no reason for them to be there, and after a while, after they figure that out, they aren’t there anymore. One of the things our culture needs to learn how to distinguish is men who are abdicating and men who are on strike.
Sixth, the Scriptures require women to be submissive to their own husbands (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18). It is not remarked on often enough that this excludes submission to all other men. When women reject the protective shield of their own husbands, they have to come up with makeshift shields—because all those other men are still out there. So she resorts to a therapist maybe, or vagina hat marches, or the sisterhood, or a federal agency, or something else equally lame. Why not seek protection from just one man, a man who has promised before God and these witnesses to lay down his life for you? His model, assigned by the apostle, is to imitate the Lord Jesus Himself. It seems like a good system to me.
And last, a right understanding of submission helps people with reading comprehension skills. If a woman wants to be ordained to the ministry, part of her ordination exam should include the exegesis of any of the passages cited above. She has three basic options. She can dismiss the authority of the passages, which means that she should fail the ordination exam. Or she can mangle the passages themselves, which means that she should fail the ordination exam. Or she can exegete the passages accurately and winsomely, and when ordination is offered to her, sweetly decline on the basis of Q.E.D.
And once reading comprehension of the Scriptures has been restored, reading comprehension of lesser lights is also improved. This would be a great blessing to me personally, when people finally discover that I don’t condone rape, that I believe that women are created in the image of God, and that I don’t believe that submission means that my wife and daughters should quit writing books.