It’s uncommon for the Christian teaching of submission to become a matter of national conversation, but that changed last week with the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Pay careful attention to this opening paragraph from an article in the Los Angeles Times, “Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett has close ties to a charismatic Christian religious group that holds that men are divinely ordained as the “head” of the family and faith. Former members of the group, called People of Praise, say it teaches that wives must submit to the will of their husbands.”[i]
Now I am no expert on Judge Barrett, or the religious group the “People of Praise,” but I do know enough to know enough about the Los Angeles Times to know its editors are absolutely mortified that anyone anywhere in the 21st century would have the audacity to teach that wives submit to their husbands. People who believe in this sort of thing are likened to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
But what do we mean at PBC when we say a beautiful wife is a submissive wife? More importantly what does the Bible mean when it talks about submission? Because biblical submission is so often misconstrued, misapplied, and misunderstood, let me begin by explaining what it doesn’t mean. And by the way, if you’re not a wife, please don’t tune me out here. These principles of submission also apply to you in your relationship with your government, with your employer, with your pastors, and young people for your relationship with your mom and dad.
Biblical Submission Doesn’t Mean Inferiority.
1 Peter 3:1 begins with the word “likewise.” Peter is saying, just like citizens submit to their governing authorities, just like slaves submitted to their masters, wives also must submit to their husbands. Did Peter believe governors were superior to their citizens? Or slaves to their masters? Absolutely not! Submission doesn’t mean inferiority.
If submission meant inferiority, then Jesus Christ would be inferior to God the Father. The Bible is clear that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, is equal to God the Father. And yet, He willingly submitted Himself to the Father’s will. Which is why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:3—But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.
In her book Spiritual Mothering, Susan Hunt puts it this way: “Submission has nothing to do with equality. Men and women are equal, but we have been assigned different roles. Neither role is superior. The Trinity models this concept. The Persons in the Godhead are equal in power and in substance, but each has a different function.”[ii]
Biblical Submission Doesn’t Mean Women Submit to All Men.
1 Peter 3:1 continues “wives, be subject to your own husbands.” Peter is careful to say that wives must submit to their own husbands, not to all men. Nowhere in the Bible are women called to submit to men generally.
Years ago, my wife and I had friends who taught their daughters to submit to their sons as “training” for when they grew up and got married. Church: that is not what Scripture teaches.
Single ladies, don't submit to men. Submit to your parents if you’re still living under their authority. Submit to your pastors if you’re a member of a local church. Submit to your bosses if you have a job. Submit to the government. But don’t submit to men generally. Not even to that boyfriend or fiancée.
Biblical Submission Isn’t Contingent on Spiritual Health.
In other words, the wife is called to submit to her husband even if she is more spiritually mature than he is. Look at 1 Peter 3: 1 again “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives.” When Peter says some husbands “do not obey the word” he means that these men are unbelievers. When Peter talks about disobedience in this letter he means disobedience to the Gospel.
These husbands have heard the Good News that God saves sinners through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus. But they have not responded to this Good News by personally repenting and believing in Jesus. They’re not Christians. And yet, what does Peter say to the wives: submit to them.
Some of you ladies are married to an unbelieving husband. Should you submit to him? Yes! Single ladies: this is not an excuse to pursue a romantic relationship with a man who isn’t a Christian. Don’t do that. There are several ladies in this church who would love to talk to you from experience about why that’s a painfully bad idea. But if you find yourself in that situation, you must submit.
What about the ladies who are married to a believing husband that is less spiritually mature? Should you submit to him? Yes! Because Biblical submission doesn’t isn’t contingent on spiritual health.
But wait, . . . there’s more! Detangling all the knotty problems we’ve created about the biblical teaching on submission takes time. So if you want to learn more, be sure to come back here tomorrow for part two of this teaching on the meaning of submission.
[i] Associated Press, “Barrett Tied to Religious Group That Ex-Members Say Subordinates Women,” Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-09-29/amy-coney-barrett-religious-group-people-of-praise.
[ii] Susan Hunt, Spiritual Mothering: The Titus 2 Model for Women Mentoring Women (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), 62.