...that some action, inaction, thought, or activity is right or wrong solely because it isn't expressly mentioned by name in the Bible. What do I mean?
Yesterday in church, a male friend of mine made the point that, "Nowhere in the Bible does it tell husbands to hold their wives accountable to submit," the implication being that husbands are not permitted to hold their wives accountable for their duty to submit. This gentleman agreed that wives have a duty to submit, but he argued that it is the Lord's place alone to hold the wife accountable.
This issue, of submission, is but one example of the dangers associated with my friend's flawed method of interpreting the scriptures. Guess what else the Bible does not expressly say:
- The Bible does not say that “abortion is wrong” (it does, however, say that murder is wrong);
- The Bible does not say that “a pastor may discipline his flock” (it does however provide for church leaders holding the members accountable and for church resolution of conflicts between believers – see Matt 18);
- The Bible does not say that women must “separate and cleave” from their families (though this is implied by that same message to men);
- The Bible does not say “thou shalt not lie” (but it does say not to “bear false witness/give false testimony”);
- The Bible does not say that men and women must “obtain a legal certificate of marriage from the secular government” (but it does say that believers must subject themselves to the secular authorities – see Rom 13:1).
The Bible identifies the nature of sin and the opposing nature of righteousness. Certainly, examples were included to help our understanding, but the Ten Commandments were never intended to be the end to all moral judgments. They were the beginning – the genesis of our understanding of sin and righteousness.
We must take what we have learned from the Bible and apply it, logically, in our own decision-making. To simply state that, “The Bible doesn’t say…” as evidence for any conclusion, is insufficient. That can never be the end to our thinking process. Otherwise, we will commit a host of sins with the flimsiest of excuses, “The Bible didn’t say I couldn’t leave that man to die in the streets – I didn’t kill him.” What of the Good Samaritan? Do the principles in that story not require us to aid those in need?
We are under a duty to ask the question, “Does this activity or thing we are contemplating align more with our understanding of sin or our understanding of righteousness as taught by the Bible?” Applying this logic to my friend’s argument, we must seek God’s intention regarding the roles of husbands and wives in marriage. Saying that the Bible does not command husbands to hold their wives accountable for submitting does nothing to aid in the evaluation of whether husband should or should not be holding their wives accountable in this fashion.
In reaching my own conclusions, I cannot ignore that the Bible has given husbands authority over their wives, albeit with specific instructions and restrictions for how to exercise that authority. Often, I wish that I could ignore this reality. The world would be simpler for me, if I did not have authority as a husband: it comes with a never-ending array of duties and responsibilities. One of those duties, I believe, is being a spiritual leader in my home by holding my wife, family, and myself accountable for our Biblical duties. As Joshua said centuries before me, I am proclaiming that, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). As a husband and father, men have the duty to make that proclamation a reality (more than words).
The Bible enumerates specific commands to husbands concerning how they treat their wives, and husbands must fulfill these duties. The Bible also enumerates specific commands to wives concerning how they treat their husbands, and wives must fulfill those duties. Along these lines, I will now explain my understanding of the scripture as it relates to submission between husbands and wives (with the understanding that all Christians are to have a submissive spirit, generally).
Simply put, the word "submit," as used in Ephesians 5 (just picking a relevant passage here), means to subject one's own will to that of another. When Christ submitted himself to the Lord, he subjected his decisions, judgments, and desires to the authority and will of the Lord. Certainly, Christ had reservations and concerns about going to the cross (e.g. “Lord … take this cup from me…”), but there was no sin, as Christ subjected his judgment and will to that of the Lord. Christ was crucified as a result of submission.
No one considers this to be a negative thing, likely due to the perfect nature of the parties involved (God the Father and Jesus Christ, the Son). However, the Word of God requires wives to submit to their husbands as to (in the same fashion as) the Lord:
"Wives, submit [ne subject] to your own [not necessarily other] husbands, as to [in the same way you submit to] the Lord. For the husband is the head [leader] of the wife even as Christ is the head [leader] of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything [not just some things] to their husbands" (Eph 5:22-23) (emphasis supplied).
This passage is extremely difficult for me. I have struggled with it for years, trying to interpret it with the mind of a man who grew up in a post-modern, secular society that believes “equal value” requires “identical roles” and options. How can a man and woman be equal when one is the leader and the other the follower? Of course, I ask myself whether the president of the United States has more constitutionally prescribed civil liberties than do I as an ordinary citizen? Of course, not: the president is subject to the same Bill of Rights as the rest of us, but he is still our leader. Why would it be different with husbands and wives?
Now the friend I mentioned earlier, he is a man I respect and admire. Like me, however, he is not perfect. This man’s flawed logic has resulted in what I believe to be an incorrect interpretation of the Bible in this specific instance. I have been guilty myself of using this same flawed logic in times past. “The Bible doesn’t say something is a sin, so I can do it right?” I used to (and sometimes still do) rationalize in this way.
My friend argues that, because the Bible does not tell husbands to hold their wives accountable to submit, that husbands are therefore prohibited from holding their wives accountable. The Bible also does not tell men to refrain from tossing their children out into the streets, but it says a man who does not take care of his family is a scoundrel (1 Tim 5:8). The flaw in his reasoning is taking the mere absence of an express scriptural provision in the Word of God as a prohibition or as a permission.
Let me explain with an illustration. Many of us know the children’s hymn, "I'm in the Lord's Army." How would this dispute concerning submission play out in the context of an army?
Let us imagine, for a moment, that there is a certain general. This general commands an army, and he decides to establish some written rules and procedures to be followed by the officers and troops under his command. He provides every officer and soldier with access to these written rules and procedures. One of the rules he establishes is that all troops are to submit to the commands of the officers in the same way that those officers submit to the general himself – in everything.
Now let us suppose that there is a battle to be fought over a certain bridge in the jungle that is critical to controlling the surrounding region. Suppose also that one of the officers orders the troops to take the bridge despite strong opposition from the enemy. Now suppose that, out of fear, the troops hesitate to charge the bridge and that they begin second-guessing the officer. Suppose that the officer listens to the concerns of the troops but, after considering their concerns and the need to take that bridge, he orders them to charge forward anyway.
Suppose also the soldiers refuse to submit to the order to charge the bridge. Lastly, suppose that nothing in the general's written rules and procedures says, specifically, that the officer is authorized to demand that the troops submit to or to hold the men accountable for failing to submit.
Does the officer need the express, written permission of the general to demand that the troops charge the bridge, or does the written authority granted to him by the general imply that the officer has the authority to hold the soldiers accountable for refusing to submit to the officer’s commands? Remember, the general’s written, standing order is that the troops submit to the officer in everything.
Of course, in the military, the troops would be required to follow their orders of the officers with the understanding that they could approach the general (or another superior) to discuss any strongly held objections. The general has the authority to countermand the orders of any officer or to affirm those orders. Of course, husbands and wives are not (always) military personnel, but the analogy holds just as true in God’s army.
As I see it, God does not have to expressly provide that husbands may hold their wives accountable to submit. God has placed the husband in a position of leadership and authority over the wife. That's not a popular belief or position, but I believe it is an accurate portrayal of the Biblical design ("wives should submit in everything to their husbands"). That position and authority confers upon the husband, as a leader, not only a right but a responsibility to hold his wife accountable, as his supporter and follower.
Leaders who do not exercise their authority are useless as leaders. However, it is important for a leader to know when and how to exercise authority responsibly and for the benefit of others.
God has placed restrictions on how husbands are to exercise that authority, always with a view to protecting their wives, and God has also ordered the husband to love his wife in the most complete way imaginable. If the wife has an objection to the husband's use of authority, then she has the option to approach the Lord and pray for an intervention, just as the troops in our example had the option to petition the general to intervene on their behalf with the officers. Ultimately, the Lord, just like our hypothetical general, has the authority to countermand the husband's leadership, or to affirm it. The husband cannot be a leader, logically, without exercising some authority and holding his wife accountable for respecting that authority.
The question is, when the wife prays to the Lord for intervention, and when the Lord does not choose to intervene (whether overtly or by convicting the husband to alter his judgment), will the wife submit to the Lord? Silence from the Lord is not abandonment or neglect. The Lord’s silence means that the Lord’s instructions stand: wives submit to your husband. Rather than changing this Biblical command, I believe the Lord answers the prayers of wives in this sometimes difficult position of being at odds with her husband by convicting the husband to reconsider his decisions. Other times, I believe the Lord convicts the wife to follow. Regardless, I believe that both husbands and wives occasionally ignore the convictions of the Holy Spirit when experiencing a spousal dispute. However, this is not cause for the aggrieved spouse to abandon his/her duty to the Lord. Wives should continue to submit, and husbands should continue to lead in love.
The Lord knows best, and when he does not seem to answer a prayer, his silence is the answer. That is not a technicality: the Lord knows when to intervene and when to let things play out. That is why the Lord is the general in our littler metaphor. If the husband or wife does not comply when the Lord convicts him/her, then I believe there will be consequences for defying a Holy God. The Bible tells us there is at least one negative consequence when a husband abuses his authority or mistreats his wife:
"Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding [i.e. patience, love, and grace] way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered" (1 Peter 3:7) (emphasis supplied).
Wives, this is a scripture to share respectfully with your husbands. Submit to your husband, if not out of respect and love for him (which you are Biblically required to do), then for the Lord who has asked you to submit in this way. However, do be honest with your husband and remind him (holding him accountable) that he is commanded to love you as Christ loved the Church. Respectfully and lovingly, as a supporter, remind him that there are consequences to mistreating you, and that the Lord has decreed this: show him 1 Peter 3:7.
Difference in authority is not a difference in value. This is where many Christians miss the mark: the fact that a wife must submit does not mean she is less valuable to the Lord. That she, as the "weaker vessel," requires a strong leader does not mean the Lord loves or values her less than her husband. In fact, by providing her with a strong leader in her husband, the Lord has made additional provisions for her well-being beyond what has been provided for the husband. The Lord values all His children equally:
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28).
God loves and values us all equally, and we are all one in His eyes. However, He has called us to different tasks and purposes. Husbands are called to lead. Wives are called to support and follow. Husbands are to love and protect, while wives are to respect and support. This does not mean women are less valuable. Leaders are worthless without their followers and supporters, unable to accomplish anything.
My friend's logic may have been flawed in concluding that a husband, as a leader, cannot hold his wife accountable to abide by her Biblical duty to submit, but he would be right to say that there are limits to how a husband may go about holding his wife accountable. 1 Peter 3:7 tells us, without reservation, that God will not hear a husband's prayers if he is failing to be understanding with his wife, to recognize her tender fragility, and to honor her accordingly.
This means that husbands may NOT use their authority as grounds to abuse their wives in any way. Certainly, a man should NEVER strike his wife, not with fists and not with words. This is not Biblical.
Just as the Bible does not say that “husbands are permitted to hold their wives accountable for refusing to submit,” the Bible does not say that “husbands are prohibited from screaming at their wives in anger.” I believe, however, that the Bible prohibits men from screaming at their wives in anger (unlike screaming "look out for that bus," which is necessarily different). Husbands are called to, calmly and lovingly, be the spiritual leaders in their homes. We are called lead, first and foremost, by example. When our wives are failing in their duty to submit, we also have a responsibility to the Lord to see order restored in our home. We must hold our wives (and ourselves) accountable to abiding by the Lord’s design for family.
When leading by example is insufficient (and this is far less common than many husbands would care to admit), it is our duty to: (1) break out the scripture and discuss the matter, calmly and lovingly; (2) if our wives will not listen, then we must find and ask another believer, wise in the Word, to intervene; and (3) if that does not work, then we must take it before the church leadership (Matt 18). We do NOT harm, abuse, or take our wives to court seeking a divorce.
Christian counseling, mediation, or even arbitration may be necessary in extreme cases. The husband must remember to submit to the authority of a pastor, Christian arbitrator, or church leader who espouses a Biblical worldview and provides Biblical counsel/commands.
I hope this helps my friend and others with this difficult passage of scripture. It really isn’t all that complicated, but sometimes simple concepts are the hardest to swallow. After all, the terms “simple” and “easy” are no more synonymous than the terms “equality” and “authority.” Something can be simple and hard. Someone can have or lack authority and still be equal to another that has or lacks authority.
If nothing else, I hope those of you who read this will cease to argue what the Bible doesn’t say and start prayerfully considering and discussing what it does say, without preconceptions or agendas derived from social norms. Only then will we get to the Truth.