What is submission not, according to 1 Peter 3:1–6? When I preached on this passage probably twenty years ago, women in my church found this question really helpful because we bring to the text presuppositions from our experience. You might hear submission means six or seven things, and five of those sound horrible to you, and two look okay.
If you bring to the Bible your preconceptions, you might just throw the baby out with the bathwater, and say, “If that’s what submission means, then I’m out of here.” That would be very sad. You may be right, you may be wrong, but it would be sad. I wrote down six things submission to a husband in marriage is not. I really want you to see them in the text.
Likewise, 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. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. (1 Peter 3:1–6)
1. Submission is not agreeing on everything.
Submission is not agreeing on everything, for instance, the Christian faith, because the husband in 1 Peter 3:1–6 is an unbeliever. If in that situation the husband said, “You can’t have that religion. In this family we worship ISIS (or whatever),” this wife says, “I’m sorry.” It’s possible to be submissive and refuse to think what your husband says you should think. This text doesn’t make sense without that. She has sworn allegiance to Jesus. Jesus is now her Lord and her King. She’s an alien and an exile in this marriage. This husband belongs to another god, and she’s called to live with him. Do not get divorced over issues of religion.
If he says, “I don’t want you to be a Christian,” what does she say? She says, “I love you. I want to be submissive to you. I intend to be submissive to you. But on this point, I have no choice. I belong to Jesus.” He may send her away. That happens in 1 Corinthians 7. The unbeliever splits, which would be a great tragedy.
Submission does not mean you must agree with the opinions of your husbands, even on things as fundamental and serious as the Christian faith. God has made you with a mind. You have to think. You are a person, not a body and not a machine. You’re a thinking being who is able to process whether the gospel is true. And if it’s true, you believe it. If he says, “You can’t believe that,” you humbly and submissively do not submit to that.
2. Submission does not mean leaving your brain at the altar.
Now, maybe this is the same point, but it needs to be said this way, too. Any man who says, “I do the thinking in this family,” is sick and has a sick view of his authority. I dealt with a couple one time. The wife said he demanded that she get permission to go to the bathroom. That really happened. I just looked at him and said, “You’re not well. You have an unbelievably distorted view of this fellow heir of the grace of life. You don’t understand the Bible. You’re taking a word like ‘authority’ or ‘leadership’ or ‘submission,’ and then you’re stepping away from the Bible and filling those words up with stuff you want to do. You’re not getting this from the Bible.”
Submission never leaves the brain at the altar. All throughout the marriage, a husband is reckoning with an independent mental center that has thoughts that are worth listening to. It’s the working out of a one-flesh union. Leadership does not mean you do not listen. Leadership doesn’t even mean always getting the last word. Good leadership often says, “You were right; I was wrong.”
Leadership is taking initiative. Sometimes I say, “Who says, ‘Let’s . . . ,’” more often in your relationship?
Who says it most often? If it’s the wife, you have a problem, and the problem is with the guy. If it’s the guy, she’s probably happy because she doesn’t want to be the one to say “let’s” over and over again. Wives don’t want to say “let’s” most often. In general — I know I’m generalizing — leadership means a bent toward initiative under which women thrive. Not dictation, never listening. Not even having the last word.
If you asked my wife, “What does submission look like for the Pipers?” one thing she would say is, “We settled the principle early that if we can’t agree, Johnny’s going to make the call.” That’s really basic. And it almost never happens. One of the reasons it almost never happens is that we’ve been together a long time, and we know what each other thinks. Another important reason is that I often yield to Noël. I don’t need to be right, or to have my way, or to have the last word.
3. Submission does not mean you do not try to influence your husband.
Submission does not mean avoiding the effort to influence or change the husband. The whole point of the text is, “Win him.” Her life is devoted to changing this husband from an unbeliever to a believer. Can you imagine if somebody said submission means, “Stop trying to change your husband”? Well, I get what they might be saying. But if your husband is living in sin or your wife is living in sin or unbelief, you want them to change, and you wouldn’t be a loving person if you didn’t — if you stopped wanting that. That may sound insubordinate to some. It’s not, biblically.
4. Submission is not putting the will of the husband before the will of Christ.
Submission is not putting the will of the husband before the will of Christ. Christ is her Lord now, and for the Lord’s sake, she will submit to the husband, but he is not her Lord. Therefore, wherever she must choose between the two, she chooses Jesus. If her husband says, “Let’s get involved in a scam,” or “Let’s have group sex,” her choice is clear. I go with Jesus on this. She would say it not with a haughty or arrogant attitude, but rather with a winsome, submissive, longing one. He will be able to discern in her a longing that he not do that so that she could enjoy him as her leader. Do you feel that? “I will not follow your lead on this, and I am not following you with a demeanor that tells you I want to follow your leadership but cannot in this moment, in this way.”
5. Submission does not mean getting all of her spiritual strength through her husband.
Submission does not mean getting all of her spiritual strength through her husband. He’s not giving her any spiritual strength in this text and she’s got lots of it. Her hope is in God.
She’s probably going to church on Sunday morning before he gets up, getting her strength elsewhere, getting her worldview elsewhere.
6. Submission does not mean living or acting in fear.
This God-fearing wife is fearless.
I love the Scriptures. I’m a complementarian. I believe that men are called to a unique kind of leadership in marriage. I believe that women are called to a unique kind of submission in marriage. And I think it’s a beautiful thing — the way those two roles complement and serve one another. If we probe the depths and keep digging into the Scriptures, even though they’re written in another time, they will shape a marriage today into a beautiful thing.
Therefore, in light of everything I have said submission is not, I would define submission in marriage like this: Submission is the defined calling of a wife to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership, and so help to carry it through according to her gifts.
This piece originally appeared at Desiring God, published with permission.