An abuser will often tell his Christian wife that she must “submit to” or “obey” him when he treats her with disrespect or abuse. But what does the bible say?
Ephesians 5:21 – 33 is one of the places in the bible that has the most to say about marital submission. This passage begins with Ephesians 5:21, where it calls for all Christians “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ ”. (Emphasis mine).
It then continues with additional instruction: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.“
An abuser might focus on the above three verses, but not think about applying the next seven verses to himself. Note as you read this passage that it is calling for mutual submission:
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.“ (emphasis mine).
A husband who follows these seven verses is submitting his life and will to the Lord, but also, to his wife. If he gives himself up for her, and cares for her as he does his own body, he is submitting his needs to hers. The apostle Paul sums up his discussion of Christian submission in marriage by saying:
“However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.“
John Piper, a renowned preacher, says that the husband’s position as the leader in the home does not give him the right to command and control his wife. It’s a responsibility of the husband to love like Christ: to lay down his life for his wife’s in servant leadership. And the submission of the wife is not meant to be slavish or coerced or cowering. That’s not the way Christ wants the church to respond to his leadership: He wants it to be free and willing and glad and refining and strengthening.
In other words, Ephesians 5 is meant to do two things: to guard against the abuses of the husband’s leadership by telling husbands to love like Jesus; and to guard against the debasing of submission by telling wives to respond to their husbands the way the church does to Christ. See this link for John Piper’s sermon on June 11, 1989 about submission.
So, men and women, we are to submit to each other, in love, following Christ’s example. Men, you are not to disrespect and abuse your wives, any more than your wives are to disrespect and abuse you.
That is what the bible says.
I will caution wives of abusive men at this point. It would not be wise to take this information and confront your husbands with it. An abuser’s main objective is to have power and control over you. He may have succeeded at this quite nicely by telling you God commands you to submit to him, no matter how he behaves. We call this spiritual abuse. Please use wisdom and caution before sharing this information with him. However, now that you know, you can be free in your heart from this particular form of control.
May you feel God’s presence as you walk this difficult journey.