A submissive Christian wife will put her trust in God versus her husband. But what about when her husband is wrong? How should they each respond? Read or listen to this chapter from Your Marriage God’s Way to learn, “What does biblical submission of a wife look like in practice?”
Table of Contents
- A Submissive Christian Wife Will Submit When She Fears
- A Submissive Christian Wife Keeps Her Strength Under Control
- Husbands Are Going to Make Wrong Decisions
- Responding Rightly to Wrong Decisions
When it comes to learning how we can grow as Christians, being told what to do can be instructive, but being shown what to do can be even better. This is why examples are so helpful. When I taught elementary school, I would tell my students what to do, then I would also try to give them an example of how to fulfill my request. The apostle Peter takes this approach in the New Testament. He finishes his instruction to women by lifting a woman out of the Old Testament—Abraham’s wife, Sarah—and using her as an example for church-age wives. Sarah demonstrated the submission and inner beauty Peter describes in 1 Peter 3:1-4. He writes, “In this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror” (1 Peter 3:5-6).
Two Reasons to Be Encouraged Sarah Was Chosen as the Example of a Submissive Christian Wife
First, Sarah Had to Submit to Abraham
Consider who Sarah submitted to: Abraham. It might be tempting for women to say, “I wouldn’t have any trouble submitting to my husband if I was married to Abraham!” While Abraham was indeed one of the greatest men of faith in Scripture, the truth is that being his wife was difficult. God’s call on Abraham’s life required him to leave a comfortable city life in Ur to become a wandering nomad (Genesis 12:1-5; Hebrews 11:8-10). How many places did Abraham and Sarah live? How many times did they have to move?
In addition, Abraham made some foolish decisions. Twice he told Sarah to say she was his sister instead of his wife because he was afraid someone coveting her beauty might murder him in order to seize Sarah. He was willing to endanger his wife to protect himself:
[Abraham] said to Sarai his wife, “Indeed I know that you are a woman of beautiful countenance. Therefore it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live. Please say you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you” (Genesis 12:11-13; see Genesis 20:2 for the second instance).
As a result, Sarah ended up in a pagan king’s harem twice, which must have been terrifying for her. Worse yet, Abraham didn’t do anything to save her. In contrast, when his nephew Lot was captured, he organized a war party to rescue him:
When Abram heard that [Lot] was taken captive, he armed his three hundred and eighteen trained servants…and he and his servants attacked them…and also brought back his brother Lot and his goods, as well as the women and the people (Genesis 14:14-16).
How would that make a wife feel? Far from being a strong, brave husband to whom it would be easy to submit and follow, at times Abraham was a cowardly, compromising husband. More than likely, Peter chose Sarah as an example for wives because of how difficult and terrifying it was at times for her to submit to Abraham.
Second, Sarah Didn’t Always Submit Perfectly
Sarah was not always a picture of submission and faith. If Sarah had been the perfect submissive Christian wife, it would be discouraging for women to think they needed to emulate her. But Sarah had her own struggles. We know that she failed to trust God when she convinced Abraham to fulfill God’s promise of a son and heir through her handmaid Hagar. Sarah sought to control her husband, and the result ended up being a disaster on several levels. She also failed when God visited Abraham to tell him she would have a child the following year at age 90. Sarah laughed because of her lack of faith, and then she lied when God confronted her about it (Genesis 18:12-15).
In light of these incidents, we could almost wonder why Sarah was chosen as an example of a submissive Christian wife, but Peter tells us the answer: “Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord” (1 Peter 3:6). Despite Sarah’s mistakes, for the most part, she was a woman who respected her husband and submitted to him. The title “lord” was used often in the Old Testament to show reverence for someone. The closest comparable English expression would be addressing a man as sir. This doesn’t mean today’s wives need to address their husband as “lord,” but the principle still applies that God calls wives to respect and submit to their husbands in the same way Sarah did to Abraham.
A Submissive Christian Wife Will Submit When She Fears
The final part of 1 Peter 3:6 offers wives a special title. They can be identified as “[Sarah’s] daughters” if they “do good and are not afraid with any terror.” The Greek word translated “terror” is ptoesis:
- In Luke 21:9, Jesus used the verb form when He told His disciples, “When you hear of wars and commotions, do not be terrified [ptoeo].”
- In Luke 24:37, the adjective form is used when Jesus appeared to the disciples after His resurrection and “they were terrified [ptoeo] and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit.”
Terror is stronger than ordinary worries, anxieties, or even fears. Terror is what people feel on a plane about to crash, or when a doctor announces they have cancer, or when they receive a call that one of their children has been in an accident. And apparently, terror is also what wives might feel when it comes to submitting to their husbands! A submissive Christian wife today probably won’t experience the same terror that Sarah experienced when she ended up in a king’s harem, but there are still plenty of legitimate terrors a woman may face when she submits to her husband. She may find herself asking,
- “What happens if this decision ruins our family?”
- “What happens if he is unable to pay these bills?”
- “What happens if we can’t afford to eat?”
- “What happens if he shouldn’t take this job?”
- “What happens if we move there and it ends up being a disaster?”
How can wives be “Sarah’s daughters” and handle the terror they experience when they submit to their husbands? They can consider Sarah’s example and how she handled the terror she felt while submitting to Abraham, and how the other holy women of God handled the terror they felt when they submitted to their husbands. We are told they “trusted in God…being submissive to their own husbands” (1 Peter 3:5). Sarah was able to submit to Abraham’s poor decisions because she trusted God and believed He was in control.
Godly Wives Submit Because They Trust God
It’s important to notice why Sarah and the other holy women of the Old Testament submitted to their husbands. It wasn’t because they trusted their husbands, thought they were perfect, or expected them to make the right decisions. They submitted because they “trusted God.” A wife’s submission to her husband has less to do with her relationship with her husband and more to do with her relationship with the Lord. A woman’s trust in God combats the fear—or terror— she experiences when she submits to her husband.
In marriage counseling sessions, I often hear women say, “It would be easier for me to submit to my husband if I could trust him,” or “I do trust God. I just don’t trust my husband.” A wife is not expected to submit to her husband because she trusts him. Rather, she is expected to submit because she trusts God. When a wife submits to her husband, she is showing she trusts God. Conversely, when a wife does not submit, she is showing she does not trust God. Why is this the case? God is the one who commands wives to submit to their husbands. When wives obey God in this way, they are showing that they trust the one who gave them the command.
Reading both accounts of Abraham asking Sarah to say that she was his sister should be a great encouragement for women because they reveal Sarah’s trust was well placed. God protected her and kept her captors from consummating a relationship with her:
- Genesis 12:17—“The Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.”
- Genesis 20:3—“God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, ‘Indeed you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.’”
In both instances, Sarah was rescued from captivity and her deliverance came from God’s direct intervention. In the end, Sarah’s submission produced blessing not just for her but for her husband as well:
Abimelek brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him. And Abimelek said, “My land is before you; live wherever you like.” To Sarah he said, “I am giving your brother a thousand shekels of silver. This is to cover the offense against you before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated” (Genesis 20:14-16 NIV).
Sarah experienced difficult circumstances because of her submission to Abraham, but God vindicated her, and blessed her and her husband as a result.
A Submissive Christian Wife Can Be Encouraged by Sarah’s Example of Trusting God
Wives should keep Sarah’s example in mind when they fear their husband is making a wrong decision. This isn’t to say that God will bless every wife’s submission the same way He blessed Sarah’s, but a wife can keep two things in mind: First, just as God was in control of Sarah’s circumstances, He is in control of the wife’s circumstances. Second, just as He worked through Sarah’s submission to bring about the best end, He will work through the wife’s submission to bring about the best end.
A Submissive Christian Wife Can Be Encouraged by Jesus’s Example of Trusting God
Wives should also be encouraged by Jesus’s example, because He, too, submitted by trusting God. In Hebrews 2:13, He said, “I will put My trust in Him,” and 1 Peter 2:23 (NIV) says Jesus “entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” Just as wives must put themselves in God’s hands, Jesus put Himself in His Father’s hands.
These verses reveal how much Jesus fully identified with us at the incarnation. The reality of His humanity was demonstrated by going so far as to also live by faith: “Although Jesus was Himself God and omnipotent, in His humiliation and in His human nature here on earth He depended on God in complete trust.”1 When wives struggle to trust God, they can find encouragement in Jesus as a role model because He, too, relied upon God during His earthly life.
A Submissive Christian Wife Keeps Her Strength Under Control
Submission involves trusting God and overcoming fear (and even terror). This reveals two things about women who submit: They’re spiritually strong, and they’re brave.
Contrary to what culture says, submission is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it’s a sign of strength. Submission isn’t a sign of faithlessness, but of faithfulness. The failure to submit to the husband—and ultimately, to the Lord—reveals weakness and fear. The willingness to submit reveals a strong, godly woman filled with faith.
Let me share a story that illustrates this point. The summer after I finished eighth grade, my parents flew me from California to upstate New York to work on my uncle’s dairy farm. Being 13 years old and having no friends in the area, I had to find things to do to entertain myself. My uncle had a bull that stood at the end of the barn staring straight ahead all day. One day I thought it would be fun to try to get him to move. As I stood before the bull, he brought his head up underneath me and launched me into the air. Think of a cowboy thrown off a bull during a rodeo, and you have the correct imagery. Fortunately, the barn’s ceiling was high, so I did not slam into it, but I did come crashing down onto the cement floor.
A man who worked on the farm saw what happened and ran to me. He screamed, “You could have gotten yourself killed! Do you see that little chain around the bull’s neck? That’s all that’s holding him there. He could break it at any moment!”
My first thought was, They need to put a bigger chain around the bull’s neck! My second thought was, That bull has so much strength, but he allows himself to be subdued by so little.
Submission is a choice; it is voluntary and deliberate. Husbands know a wife can choose to rebel rather than submit. A wife can “break” her husband’s headship, “launch him into the air,” and send him crashing back down to earth. When a wife chooses to willingly submit to her husband, she is exhibiting great strength that is subdued and kept under control.
The Premier Demonstration of Strength Under Control
Think of the immense strength Jesus had that allowed Him to control demons and nature: “With authority and power He commands the unclean spirits, and they come out…He commands even the winds and water, and they obey Him!” (Luke 4:36; 8:25). Compare that to what Jesus said when a mob came to arrest Him and Peter took out his sword to defend Him: “Put your sword [away]…do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:52-53). Jesus had immense power and authority at His disposal, but He subdued it so that He could “[lay] down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). Nobody took Jesus’s life from Him:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep…As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep…Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father…Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends (John 10:11,15,17-18; 15:13).
Nobody has ever had greater power, authority, and strength than Jesus, but He kept it under control so that He could die for our sins. When wives struggle to keep their strength under control, they should be encouraged by Jesus’s example.
Husbands Are Going to Make Wrong Decisions
The fear (or terror) a wife can experience when she submits to her husband comes from realizing the possible consequences if it turns out he has made a wrong decision. After reading up to this point, a wife might be tempted to ask, “If I am supposed to submit to my husband because God commands it and I should trust Him, then doesn’t this mean God will also make sure my husband makes the right decision?” Because we humans are fallen and imperfect creatures, the inevitable reality is that a husband will sometimes make a wrong decision even as his wife chooses to submit to him. Sarah is a good example. She submitted to Abraham when he made a wrong decision—on more than one occasion.
That brings us to our next questions: How should a husband respond when he realizes he has made a wrong decision? And how should a wife respond?
How Husbands Should Respond
A husband who makes a wrong decision should acknowledge his mistake without making excuses. If he wants to be his wife’s hero, he should admit, “You were right, and I was wrong.” If he deliberately did not listen to his wife because he was being prideful and stubborn, he should realize those are sinful attitudes and say, “I am sorry. Will you please forgive me? I was being prideful and stubborn.”
When a husband responds this way, these are the positive results:
- He blesses his wife.
- He encourages his wife to submit to him in the future.
- He sets a good example for his wife and children. Husbands need to lead not only by making decisions for the family, but also by the example they set.
Earlier in chapter 9, we looked at how a husband’s behavior can influence the way his wife and children act:
- If a husband makes excuses, justifies himself, or blames his wife or children, he will likely end up with a wife and children who follow his example and make excuses, justify themselves, and blame others.
- If a husband humbles himself, takes responsibility for his actions, admits when he is wrong, and asks for forgiveness, he will encourage his wife and children to accept responsibility for their actions, admit when they are wrong, and ask for forgiveness.
Telling Katie, “I am sorry. You were right, and I was wrong.”
Let me give a personal example. When Katie and I moved to Washington, I decided to rent our California house to a woman we knew. Katie told me, “Do not rent to that woman. She is not going to take care of our home.” I rented to her anyway, and soon she invited her boyfriend to move in with her. Even though we had stipulated they were not supposed to have pets, they ended up bringing eight dogs and four cats into the home. The neighbors on both sides called me in Washington to complain about the barking and garbage. I received letters from the city threatening to fine me if the messes outside were not cleaned up.
When the woman’s lease was up, Katie said, “Thankfully she’ll finally be out.” I, however, decided to try to recoup some of our losses by extending the woman’s rental agreement. Katie thought I was crazy. The realty company that was handling the property advised me to take legal action to have the woman’s wages garnished. I chose not to because the woman claimed to be a Christian and Scripture forbids taking fellow believers to court (1 Corinthians 6:5-7). Because a lack of rental payments meant no income for the realty company, they were upset with me too. By the time the woman, her children, her boyfriend, and their animals moved out, the house was trashed. I had lost thousands of dollars in rent, and I had to pay thousands of dollars in repairs so we could make the house inhabitable again.
There were several excuses I could have given Katie to justify my actions: “She was a family friend and single mother. I wanted to help her. There was no way of knowing this would happen.” (Even though Katie seemed to know!) Ultimately, though, there was only one correct response: “I am sorry. You were right, and I was wrong.”
How Wives Should Not Respond
A wife must resist two temptations when she willingly submits to her husband and he ends up being wrong. First, she may find herself thinking, I knew it was going to turn out this way. I should have kept arguing with him. If I hadn’t submitted to him, this never would’ve happened. I’m never going to submit to him again! Wives must instead remind themselves that they were still right for making the choice to submit.
Second, she will find herself tempted to say these four little words: “I told you so!” Whether these words come from a wife, husband, child, parent, pastor, friend, or anyone else, they are always fleshly, prideful, and obnoxious. A vindictive attitude will only do damage to a marriage relationship, whereas forgiveness will bring healing and hopefully motivate the husband to be more careful when he makes decisions.
Responding Rightly to Wrong Decisions
If a husband genuinely considers his wife’s feedback and is truly prayerful as he makes a decision he believes is best for his family, should he be made to feel bad if his decision turns out to be a mistake? No.
The reality is that when a husband has made an effort to be spiritually right before God and has the best of intentions for his family yet still makes a wrong decision, more than likely he already feels bad enough about what he has done. At this point, what a husband needs most is his wife’s encouragement and grace. When a husband has the humility to admit he was wrong, a submissive Christian wife should say, “Thank you for saying that. We all make mistakes. You did what you thought was best.”
Now, obviously, some husbands do not have the humility to admit they have made a wrong decision. Even then a submissive Christian wife should resist the urge to tell her husband, “I told you so.” Instead, she should pray for God to convict her husband of his stubbornness or pride and grant him humility and repentance.
Katie’s Wonderful Response When I Lost My Job
Let me illustrate this point with a situation from my own marriage. When I was teaching elementary school, I learned of another position that would allow me to take better financial care of my family. During the drive to the interview, I prayed God would let me receive the job if that was the best next step for me. Before I left the interview, the position was offered to me, which I took as confirmation that this was God’s will.
The one drawback of accepting the job was that I lost my secure, tenured position at my former district. Soon after, a recession hit, and school districts cut back on new teachers. As a result, even though I had already been teaching almost ten years, I was laid off. I had to go home and tell Katie, who was pregnant at the time, that I had lost not only my job, but our wonderful medical insurance. You can imagine I was feeling terrible about myself and my decision- making. I even felt frustrated with God for letting me take on a job that I would lose so quickly.
At this low point, Katie could have said, “You had a good, secure teaching position. Why didn’t you stick with that? You say that you prayed about this? Next time, pray a little harder! You’re supposed to be the spiritual leader of our family, and your prayers end up with you unemployed? You’re supposed to provide for our family, but you don’t have a job or insurance?”
Here is how Katie responded instead: “I am so excited to see what God is going to do!”
Katie was right. God did have a plan. This is when Grace Baptist, the church where I was working part-time, decided to hire me full-time. Even though they stepped out in faith because the budget was not sufficient to support me, the church grew, and the annual giving exceeded expenses. I will always remember the way God provided and Katie supported me. That was what I needed more than anything else. My wife not only did not make me feel worse about my decision but was a constant encouragement to me.
Conclusion for Husbands and Wives
If you’re a strong Christian husband, when you’re wrong (not if you’re wrong, but when you’re wrong), be humble and admit it. If you were being proud and stubborn, ask for forgiveness. We owe that much to our wives and especially to God.
If you’re a submissive Christian wife, when your husband is wrong, don’t say, “I told you so.” And don’t make him feel worse. Encourage him. Be the helper God designed you to be for him.