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Submission: Voluntary Selflessness

by Stephen Davey

Much of New Testament biblical teaching on marriage comes from 1 Peter 3. Many believers who read through his third chapter are immediately struck by the fact that Peter writes six verses instructing wives and one verse instructing husbands.

You can just hear the snide remarks coming:

  • women need six times more instruction than their husbands;
  • women love information six times more than men;
  • men don’t read directions anyway!

In all seriousness, I believe there’s a compelling answer to why Peter emphasized the role of wives in this chapter. Church history suggests that the congregations to whom Peter wrote were comprised of many wives whose husbands were unsaved and opposed to the gospel their wives cherished.

Putting these words into context, what Peter encouraged women to do was respectfully submit to their husbands, even if their husbands are disobedient to God.

Throughout my pastoral ministry, I have witnessed the difficulty and struggles of Christian women married to unbelieving husbands. In my experience, their struggle is much more common than Christian husbands struggling with unbelieving wives.

Peter writes with a genuine concern felt by many believing women—then and now. They wondered, “How do we respect our husbands when they don’t care about our spiritual lives or the truth of the gospel?”

Maybe you are a woman reading this and you find yourself in that same dilemma today. You are hungry for the Word, hungry to grow in the Lord, hungry to share your faith, but you’re married to a man who either doesn’t share your spiritual passion or is blatantly hostile to God.

Imagine the hurting and helpless hearts to which Peter now delivers hope as he writes, “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 they see your respectful and pure conduct” (1 Peter 3:1-2).

In order to understand Peter’s charge, let’s begin with the phrase, be subject, which can be translated submit. How can a woman be subject to a man who is not leading her in a godly manner?

Let’s explore this concept of submission by identifying what biblical submission is, and what it is not.

Biblical submission is not a view that women are inferior.

The Bible does not present women as inferior morally, intellectually, emotionally or spiritually. Peter’s command for submission is not based on any of these false beliefs, and true believers need to unequivocally reject it. Peter will eventually reveal that Christian women are equal to Christian men as co-heirs in the coming kingdom. While there is subordination in function and roles within the home and church, there is no such thing as inequality of essence and value to Christ.

An unbiblical view of women can lead to treating them as doormats, unable to make decisions for themselves as an uncaring husband claims some twisted view of a dictatorial rule. Even more seriously, this twisted view of women justifies marital abuse—verbally, emotionally, and even physically.

Any marital dynamic that feels like a “battle between the sexes,” where husbands and wives are pitted against each other rather than supporting each other is simply the result of sin. In fact, the original sin in the Garden of Eden is, at its core, a rejection of the true biblical roles of marriage. Eve will forsake biblical submission by acting on her own authority, and Adam abandons biblical headship by submitting to Eve’s sinful offer to eat the fruit, then turns and accuses her before God.

With an understanding of what biblical submission is not, let’s consider what it is.

Biblical submission is voluntary selflessness.

In the Genesis account of creation, after God crafted Adam from the dust of the earth, do you remember that startling observation when—for the first time—God said, “It is not good.” After each of the six days, God had declared His creation “good,” but now God announces that something is missing—Adam’s partner in life. So, God made, as he described it, Adam’s “helper,” Eve.

The idea of submission, or for the woman to “help” or “assist” her husband, dates back to God’s original design for marriage in the perfect creation.

The implication of this creation is that by giving Adam a helper, Adam would be better able to fulfill God’s purpose for his life, ultimately bringing God more glory as they, together, tended the Garden and worshipped the Lord. The implication is obvious—Adam would never have been able to fulfill God’s purposes without Eve’s assistance.

Now don’t misunderstand; that does not mean that single adults are without God’s fullest delight and purpose in life. His design for their life will be different than for those who marry. But for those who marry, God’s design is for the husband and wife to cooperate in fulfilling His purpose for them; not compete for dominance and selfish desire.

A wise husband realizes that God has given him an amazing, insightful helpmeet. Which means he shouldn’t shut her up to do whatever he demands. Like any good assistant, the wife should offer ideas, ask suggestions, make corrections, and provide reminders. She will have insights and abilities that multiply their efforts together, and a wise husband will understand her value. Biblical submission is the divine calling of a wife to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership, yet assist him with her unique, complementary gifts.

Unfortunately, the world sees submission differently. The world views the idea of submission as second-class, inferior, compliant service with no initiative or backbone. This view could not be further from the truth of Scripture.

Ladies, as you desire to submit to your husband in a way that honors God, look for these characteristics in your life: loyalty, helpfulness, faithfulness, completing and assisting.

And if you are married to someone who does not share your spiritual intentionality or conviction, remember this: your faithful submission to your husband along with your respect and honor for him—wherever possible—are evidence of God’s work in you. Your love reflects God’s love for sinful, fallen people, and the grace you give to your unbelieving husband mirrors His grace, which he has lavishly bestowed upon you.

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