Spiritual Abuse: Misquoted, Distorted and Abuse Scriptures
Let’s take a look at these various terms from 1 Peter and Ephesians:
“obey” – In the first six verses of 1 Peter 3 the discussion centers not on all women, all wives and not even on all Christian wives. It is addressed to Christian wives who had unsaved spouses. These verses focus on Christian wives living a holy life in front of an unsaved husband in such a way as to win him to Christ (v.1).
To illustrate his advice on how to wisely and successfully win a recalcitrant spouse to Christ, Peter brings up the “women of old” (v.5), who lived in a sensitive and exemplary way. Peter, the Big Fisherman from Galilee, picks Sarah as a representative of this group. As he describes her, he refers to how Sarah “obeyed” (v.6) her husband Abraham. This well-known reference to “obeying” is only an illustrative point being made by Peter in the context of witnessing to an unsaved husband. It is not a normative principle for all marriage situations. Even the idea of being like “the holy women of old” is not the main point of the passage.
To illustrate the type of submission he has in mind in verse 5, Peter refers to Sarah’s example. Only in this illustration does the word “obey” come up. The point it is used to illustrate is appropriate submission that accomplishes the salvation of an unsaved husband.
The use of Sarah as an example of obedience shows that Peter was not devoid of a sense of humor. In Genesis, Abraham is shown as obeying Sarah as often as Sarah obeyed Abraham – once at God’s behest as he was told, “Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you” (Gen. 16:2, 6; 21:11-12). Moreover, Sarah referred to Abraham as “lord” in a monologue to herself, when he was out of earshot (18:12 “lord” or “master” in the Hebrew text). If the designation of “lord” was intended as a compliment, Sarah’s assessment of Abraham in the same verse was hardly calculated to boost his self-confidence.
“submit yourselves” – In 1 Peter the verb “to submit oneself” is used at first in the normal sense of the word: an inferior person submits to one of superior rank. Peter doesn’t address himself to the “superiors” in chapter 2 saying, “Kings, governors and masters – make sure you keep your subjects in their place.” But he does speak to those who are to do the submitting, and says “submit yourselves.” This is to be done with a specific purpose in mind. 1 Peter 2:15 explains the purpose, “…that with well doing you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” Winning those foolish people is not addressed, but glorifying and pleasing God is (vv. 2:12, 20).
Then Peter shifts to those in “mixed” marriages (where one spouse is a believer and the other is not). Gone are the servant/master overtones. He speaks first to the wives in verses 1-6 and then “Likewise” to the husbands in verse 7. Continuing his shift away from the traditional meaning of submission in verses 8-11, he then speaks to all Christians and uses synonyms for this in-the-family type of submission. The NIV translates 1 Peter 3:8 as follows: “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.” He still has witness to the unsaved in the back of his mind, as he refers to it again in verse 15.
By contrast, in Paul’s chapter in Ephesians 5, this element of witnessing to the unsaved is absent. Here is a different context for the use of the word “submit.” Not only is the context different (in Ephesians 5 life within the body of Christ, as members of that body, is considered), but the verb itself is grammatically structured in a different way. In Paul’s Epistle the normal idea of an inferior submitting to a superior is radically changed. It is impossible to read Ephesians 5:21 and 22 in any other way than as a description of how equals are to get along among themselves. Any hierarchical interpretation is rendered impossible when Paul uses the reflexive participle (mutually submitting) and adds the reciprocal pronoun (to one another). He wants members of the church “to be submitting themselves to one another.” He then adds a third modifier. They are to submit to one another as fellow members in the body of Christ, or in the fear of Christ. The parallel passage in Colossians uses only this third modifier to express this same type of Christian submission: [only] as is fitting in the Lord.”
In verse 22, which serves to illustrate how such a type of submitting to one another can be done, Paul refers to the married couple. The verb for submission in verse 22 is only implied in the Greek text from the previous verse. It is not changed in any way from verse 21 except that this time it is situated in a marriage where the equal believers are also married to one another.
“lord” – in 1 Peter 3:6, Peter refers to Sarah calling her husband “lord.” In the society of Abraham’s day this was one of the habitually used terms for “husband.” In Ephesians 5:15-6:9, Paul does not use “lord” in that way. He uses “Lord” to mean the Savior, Christ Jesus. He does so in this particular passage nine times. Twice, in Chapter 6, Paul uses “lord” or “lords” to refer to the master(s) of a slave. Paul does not use the term “lord” for “husband.” When Peter does, it is necessary to remember that in his illustration drawn from the Old Testament he uses the term in a way Paul does not. Paul’s clear use of the term should not be obscured by importing and combining the ideas of “husband” and “lord” in Ephesians.
“children” – Juxtaposed immediately after reference to Sarah’s obedience in 1 Peter 3:6, “children” are mentioned. Peter’s use of these two words does not imply any equation of a woman’s status with that of the status of her children in the family.13 In 1 Peter, adult believing descendants of Abraham are referred to as “children.”14Paul addresses wives in Ephesians 5:33 and in the very next verses he mentions children. The close juxtaposition of wives and children in Paul in Ephesians 5:33 and 6:1 teaches nothing which indicates that wives are to obey like children are to obey, for in those verses (6:1-3) he tells children to obey their parents, their mothers and fathers. And yet, often wives and husbands are taught by modern day expositors and theologians,15 that wifely obedience is enjoined by Paul. It is not.16
“fear” – Another example of a shared word from 1 Peter 3:6 is the word “fear.” In Ephesians, Paul uses the term “fear” in two ways. One way, in Ephesians 5, has more to do with relational “respect.” The other way is positional, in reference to children17 and to slaves (6:5).18Peter refers to “fear” in 1 Peter 3:2 as well as verse 6. The NIV translates the occurrence in 3:2 as “reverence” (“the purity and reverence of your lives”). The “reverence/fear” intended in this verse is the “fear” of God, not any fear or reverence of a husband or another human being.
…Peter reminds us that the lives of subservient people can be dominated by fear. It is a frightful thing to be at the mercy of the unmerciful powerful. Peter forbids Christian wives to submit out of fear. His last word to them is “let nothing terrify you” (literally, “fearing no terror” v.6).
In Ephesians 5:21, Paul encourages submission to one another precisely because of “fear” (“in the fear of Christ”). Obviously Paul and Peter in this case, as with many of these inappropriate and misleading comparisons, are dealing with “apples and oranges.” Peter says do not submit to one’s own husband out of fear of him. Paul says do subject yourselves to one another out of fear of Christ. To compare the parts of these passages without close regard for their context can lead to significant misinterpretation.
There are six kinds of submission mentioned in 1st Peter:
- love the brotherhood of believers (2:17)
- fear God who saved us (2:17, and 3:2)
- honor the king (2:17)
- respect your masters (2:18) [Jesus delivered himself up to the righteous Judge, 2:23]
- be considerate of your spouse (3:1,7)
- be humble among the believers (3:8; cf. 5:5-6)
In both the Old and New Testaments, the Bible uses the marriage relationship to picture the relationship between God and His people. Paul shows here that Christian marriage is an earthly picture of Christ and the church (Eph. 5:32): “This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” God created man as male and female to reflect His image (Gen. 1:27). In the Trinity, all three Persons are equally God; but to carry out the divine plan, the Son submits to the Father and the Spirit submits to the Father and the Son. There is perfect love and harmony among the members of the Trinity. There is no rivalry or competition. Even so in marriage, the husband and wife are equal as persons before God, sharing in the grace of salvation (Gal. 3:28; 1 Pet. 3:7). But there is an order of authority and submission to reflect the divine image.
If a husband puts his wife down or is abusive toward her, he is proclaiming the heresy that Christ puts down and abuses His bride. If he is a self-centered dictator over his wife, he tells the world that the gentle, loving Christ is a cruel, self-centered tyrant. When a man abdicates his headship and lets his wife lead, he preaches that Christ does not lovingly shepherd His church and that the church is free to live out from under submission to Christ, again heretical lies. If a husband is unfaithful to his wife or neglects her by being married to his career or hobbies, he preaches that Christ is unfaithful or indifferent to His church, another falsehood. So as married Christians, our witness to a watching world is very much entwined with how we relate as husbands and wives.
To Poperly Explain Our Text Consider These Four Implications:
1. To submit biblically to your husband, you must be in submission to the Lord.
Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” The verb is in italics because it is not in the Greek text, but is carried over from verse 21. In the context, being subject to one another in the fear of Christ is a result of being filled with or controlled by the Holy Spirit. “As to the Lord” does not mean that a wife must submit to her husband in exactly the same way that she submits to the Lord. The Lord is perfect, whereas every husband is far from perfect (all the wives say, Amen!). Rather, Paul means that submission to your husband is a part of obedience to the Lord. If you are fighting against the idea of being subject to your husband, your attitude reflects that you are really fighting against the Lord, who ordained this order in marriage. So you must begin by yielding to the Lord and His inspired Word.
2. To submit biblically to your husband, you must recognize that he is in fact your head.
Verse 23 explains (“for”) verse 22: “For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body.” Note that Paul does not say that the husband ought to be the head of his wife, but rather, “the husband is the head of his wife.” It’s a stated fact, not a command. Some husbands are weak, ineffective, and just plain lousy heads of their wives, but they are still in that position of authority.
The fact of the husband’s headship, which is analogous to Christ’s headship over the church, has at least two implications:
A. The fact of the husband’s headship means that there are gender-based roles in marriage as ordained by God.
While there is a sense in which all believers submit to one another (Eph. 5:21), there is another sense in which wives submit to their husbands, but husbands do not submit to their wives. It is significant that whenever the New Testament addresses the subject of Christian marriage, it always commands the wife to be subject to her husband, using the same verb as here. But it never commands the husband to be subject to his wife (Col. 3:18; Titus 2:4; 1 Pet. 3:1). The verb means to put oneself in rank under another.
Also, all of the New Testament commands for wives to submit to their husbands are addressed to the wives, not to the husbands. The Bible never commands a husband to command his wife to submit. Rather, the headship of the husband is a fact and the wife is to respond to the Lord, who designed marriage in this way, by willingly submitting to her husband.
This is not a culturally-determined role that we are free to discard, since it doesn’t fit our culture. God could have created Adam and Eve at the same instant by speaking the word, but He did not. He created Eve out of Adam. From that fact, Paul concludes (1 Cor. 11:9), “for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake.” She was to be a helper suitable for him, to assist him in his God-given tasks. So the roles in marriage are not culturally determined, but rather ordained by God at creation. Specific duties in a household are flexible and can be worked out in a marriage for the mutual good of the couple. But the role of the husband as head and the wife as subject to him are fixed.
B. Just as Christ’s headship over the church means that He is in authority over the church for her good, so the husband has authority over his wife for her good.
Headship here means “authority” (Eph. 1:22). Referring to an order of authority, Paul writes (1 Cor. 11:3), “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” Biblical authority is never given for the advantage of the one in authority or so that he can dominate those under authority. Rather, God delegates authority for the blessing and protection of those under authority, so that they will become all that God wants them to be. Also, the one in authority is accountable to God for those under his authority. This does not mean that a husband must make every decision, but he is responsible for every decision made. If he is negligent with that responsibility or if he abuses it for his own advantage, he will answer to God!
After explaining the analogy, “as Christ also is the head of the church,” Paul adds (Eph. 5:23), “He Himself being the Savior of the body.” Commentators puzzle over why he adds this here, but it seems to me that he is both assuring the wives and exhorting the husbands. Christ’s headship over the church meant that He gave Himself on the cross to save His people from their sins. While Christ’s role as Savior is unique, there is an analogy: husbands must sacrificially give themselves in love for their wives (Eph. 5:25). They must use their headship to protect and bless their wives, never to abuse them. Wives can be assured that they will not be harmed, but rather cared for and loved, when they submit to such godly husbands. Husbands who abdicate their God-given authority in the home leave their wives spiritually unprotected.
Thus to submit biblically to your husband, you must be in submission to the Lord. And, you must recognize that your husband is in fact your head, or authority.
3. To submit biblically to your husband, you must understand what biblical submission is (and is not).
First I will offer a definition and then I will describe seven characteristics of biblical submission.
A. Definition: Biblical submission is the attitude and action of willingly and wholeheartedly respecting, yielding to, and obeying the authority of another.
That definition applies to all of the spheres of authority: to God Himself; human government; church government; wives to husbands; children to parents; and workers to employers. It includes our attitude, because it is not to be forced, but willing and wholehearted. Applied to wives, it includes the following:
B. Description: Submission in marriage looks like this.
(1) SUBMISSION INVOLVES RESPECTING YOUR HUSBAND.
When Paul sums up his counsel (Eph. 5:33), he repeats (from verse 25) that the husband is to love his wife. But rather than saying that the wife must submit to her husband, he says that she must respect (lit. fear) him. A large part of submission involves respect. While books have been written on this (e.g., Emerson Eggerichs, Love and Respect, [Integrity Publishers]), at the very least it means that a wife not attack her husband or put him down. Rather, she should get on her husband’s team and cheer him on. If he makes a mistake, she can gently correct, but she should assure him of her loyalty and love.
(2) SUBMISSION INCLUDES THE DESIRE TO PLEASE THE ONE OVER YOU.
When I counsel couples whose marriages are in trouble, invariably they are competing with one another. Rather than seeking to please her husband, the wife is trying to win. She wants to make him pay for what he has done to hurt her. But submission means that you want him to be happy. You want to please him. If he likes a particular meal, you fix it often. If he likes the house to be neat, you try to keep it that way. You don’t punish him by making him unhappy. You please him in every way possible.
(3) SUBMISSION MEANS NOT SUBVERTING YOUR HUSBAND’S WILL AND DESIRES THROUGH DECEPTION, MANIPULATION, OR WHINING.
I’ve seen wives who put on a veneer of submission to their husband’s face, but then they go behind his back and use subversive tactics to get what they want. Or, they whine or nag him until to get some peace, he capitulates. That is not submission!
(4) SUBMISSION MEANS RESPONDING TO YOUR HUSBAND AS LEADER AND LOVER.
Many husbands feel threatened and incompetent when it comes to leading their wives. If their feeble attempts to lead meet with criticism or apathy, they won’t try again. If your husband takes a stab at giving leadership in your marriage, even if it’s inept, encourage him! If he makes a suggestion for a romantic evening together, don’t criticize his idea! If he dares to share something on his heart with you or a fear that is nagging him, listen sensitively and thank him for it. Be responsive, not resistant!
(5) SUBMISSION DOES NOT IMPLY THE INFERIORITY OF THE WIFE TO HER HUSBAND.
As I said, this would be heretical, because it would imply the inferiority of the Son to the Father, because the Son submits to the Father (even in eternity, 1 Cor. 15:28). A godly husband is to be a good manager of his household (1 Tim. 3:4, 12). A good manager utilizes and praises the strengths of those he manages. If a wife is better at something than the husband is, a wise husband will recognize that gift and let her use it for their common good.
(6) SUBMISSION DOES NOT IMPLY PASSIVITY.
A wife can be submissive and still actively try to influence her husband for God (as 1 Peter 3:1-6 implies). The wife whose husband is disobedient to the Lord is not told to be passive and not influence him. Rather, she is told how to influence him by her quiet and gentle spirit. All Scripture, including the command to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), applies to wives as well as husbands. A submissive wife needs lovingly to admonish her husband if he is in sin (Rom. 15:14; Gal. 6:1). She needs truthfully to communicate her dissatisfaction with her husband’s insensitivity or aloofness. She may need to express her opinions vigorously, so that her husband knows exactly what she thinks. Without honest communication, a marriage cannot grow in intimacy.
Submission means that after a thorough, honest sharing of opinions and feelings, if there is still disagreement, the wife must go along with the husband’s decision, as long as it is not sinful. But, please note: he will answer to God for that decision, and so he should only override his wife’s objections after much prayer and with fear and trembling! In our now 43 years of marriage, Marla and I cannot come up with a single example of where I have had to overrule her. We’ve always come to mutual agreement as we’ve talked and prayed through decisions.
(7) SUBMISSION DOES NOT REQUIRE A WIFE TO BURY HER SPIRITUAL GIFTS.
There are many gifted women in the Bible and in church history who have been greatly used of God. Priscilla is often mentioned before her husband, Aquila. She was probably the prominent one in helping Apollos straighten out his theology (Acts 18:24-26). Timothy’s grandmother and mother, played key roles in training him in the Scriptures (2 Tim. 1:5, 3:15). Women have a huge ministry in influencing their children to follow the Lord (Titus 2:4). Paul refers to the mother of Rufus as “his mother and mine” (Rom. 16:13). Apparently she had ministered to Paul as a mother.
So Paul is saying that as the church is subject to Christ, so wives should be to their husbands. But, he adds one more thing:
4 Since genuine submission to Christ must be total, genuine submission to your husband must be total.
Paul adds two little words at the end of verse 24, “in everything.” Why did he add those words? What does he mean?
A. “In everything” means that you cannot create loopholes to dodge the commandment.
Paul knew that we’re all prone to try to dodge the difficult commands of the Bible. Many wives will say, “I would submit to my husband if he would just love me as you’ve described. But how can I submit when he is so selfish and insensitive?” In marriage counseling, this is always the biggest hurdle for couples to overcome. When they stop blaming the faults of their mate and start focusing on their own responsibilities, there is hope!
B. “In everything” includes submission in thoughts, words, and deeds.
Submission and respect begin in your thought life: Do you run down your husband and complain about his shortcomings or do you thankfully focus on his strengths? Are your words encouraging and affirming? Are your deeds supportive and responsive?
C. “In everything” does not include submission to sin.
If your husband asks you to do something that Scripture forbids, you must respectfully decline. If he asks you to view pornography, you must say no. If he asks you to lie for him or cheat on your taxes or stop going to church, you would sin against God to go along with your husband’s request. You should resist his sinful wishes respectfully, but you must resist.
D. “In everything” does not mean that you say yes to every demand, if by so doing you are fostering your husband’s laziness and irresponsibility.
If your husband is dumping his responsibilities on you or using you as his slave to cater to his laziness, you need to talk to him. He needs to be confronted with his faults in a gracious, but firm manner. To allow him to go on in his sin is not to love him as Christ commands you to do (Eph. 5:2).
E. “In everything” does not mean yielding to criminal behavior, including threats or physical abuse.
If a husband is getting drunk, using illegal drugs, or is abusing his wife or children, he is violating both God’s law and the law of the state. Submission does not mean passively tolerating such sin. A wife should call the police and the husband should go to jail. If he professes to be a Christian, she should call the church leaders.
A godly wife may need to endure some sinful verbal abuse, such as put-downs, name-calling, or cursing, if her husband is not a Christian (this is the clear implication of 1 Pet. 3:1-6). She should talk with him and explain that she would like to be close to him, but his abusive language is damaging their marriage. But if he is threatening her with physical abuse or death, she needs to move with any children to a place of safety and get some godly counsel.
I realize that this is not an easy subject to apply and obey, but I would encourage each of you to grapple with it especially in areas where you may be resisting the Lord. If you’re having trouble in your marriage, don’t blame your husband or wait for him to start loving you as he should. Instead, do something radical: Submit to your husband in every area, even as the church is to submit to Christ. If you’re fighting this portion of Scripture, you’re not submitting. And if you’re not submitting, the world won’t see Christ in your marriage.
Application Questions: I would love to hear your answers to the following questions along with any opinions and comments. I look forward to interacting with you. Feel free to ask questions.
1. How can a wife respect a husband who doesn’t deserve it? What does respect mean, practically, in this situation?
- Does the submission of the wife imply that a husband makes all the decisions unilaterally? Would he be a good manager of his household to do this?
- Are specific tasks in marriage gender-related (earning a paycheck, housework, caring for the children, etc.)? Give biblical support.
- What if a wife is a better natural leader than her husband is? Must she still submit, even if he agrees to let her lead?
We can simplify these verses by remembering that both parties are called to serve one another and to consider the other person above themselves. God is not a dictator and we must be very careful about throwing Bible verses at people in an attempt to control or overpower them. Christ gave Himself up for the church and so there is usually only a problem with submission when one isn’t abiding in Christ and understanding that even Our Perfect God doesn’t order us around. If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, please contact Dr. Baldwin for a free consultation. It would be my honor to see how I can best help you. You may email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call at 417-731-8354.