No Takers For Sarah’s Example?

Philip P. Eapen

Should a wife obey her husband? Evangelical Christians who claim to be devoted to the Bible, and to doing God’s will, are divided on this issue. What does Scripture teach us?

The most hyped wedding of recent times – that of Prince William and Catherine Middleton – was watched by 2 billion people worldwide. All the pomp and splendour aside, it was the wedding proper, led by the Dean of Westminster and solemnised by the Archbishop of Canterbury, that caught my attention.

The simple, short and profound liturgy and the ceremony were beautiful. It highlighted Scriptural truth about the divine origin of marriage, its purpose, and permanence. Besides, the Lordship of Jesus Christ was highlighted in the liturgy as well as in the sermon. The sight of a future King of the United Kingdom and his bride kneeling in prayer before Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, carried a key message to a global audience.

Brushing aside such spiritual undertones, global media houses picked up various titbits that they thought would amuse their viewers or readers. One such thing they highlighted was the bride’s preferences regarding her marriage vow. They said that Ms. Middleton had refused to vow her obedience to her husband in line with modern definitions of husband-wife relationship. Ms. Middleton vowed to “honour”, “love” and to be faithful to her husband. It seems the late Princess Diana too had preferred a vow without the words “to obey.”

At the end of the gala wedding and celebrations, we saw the creation of a new royal family in which the husband would not dare to expect his wife’s obedience in any matter. The wife too does not expect her husband to give her any orders or directions for she did not promise to obey him. If a Christian marriage ought to reflect the relationship between Christ and His church, the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will portray a strange Christ and an even stranger Church that has no commitment to obey her Lord!

Should a wife obey her husband? Evangelical Christians who claim to be devoted to the Bible, and to doing God’s will, are divided on this issue. Many believe that the New Testament does not command a wife to obey her husband. They are quick to point out St. Paul’s injunction to all Christians to “submit to each other” (Eph 5:21). Of course, they say, the New Testament, in the following verse, commands wives to “submit” to their husbands, whom they must honour and love. But, citing verse 21, these Evangelicals say that husbands too should submit to their wives! Their “strongest” argument is that Paul exhorted children to obey their parents in the Lord (Ephesians 6:1); yet, he did not command wives to “obey” their husbands.

My intention is not to convince women that they should obey their husbands. Let those unwilling to “obey,” refrain from it; ultimately, each person has freedom of choice. But I insist Christian women who do not want to obey their husbands, and women who eagerly wish that they be freed from such demands, should cease from misinterpreting the Holy Scriptures to suit their ends.

I am tired of seeing Ephesians 5:21 misinterpreted even by people who claim to be theologically trained. They use the injunction in 5:21 (“… and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ”) to sabotage 5:22-24 which says,

22 Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.
23 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.
24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. (New American Standard Bible)

Ephesians 5:21 serves as a summary of St. Paul’s teaching found in the passage 5:22 to 6:9. Those in the body of Christ must submit to one another. But how do we submit to one another? There is a certain way to do it. That is explained in the passage 5:22 to 6:9. Wives “ought to” submit to their husbands “in everything” “as the church is subject to Christ.” Similarly, children must obey their parents (6:1); slaves must obey their masters (6:5). If we say that husbands ought to submit to their wives, in the light of Eph 5:21, we must extend that principle of mutuality to parent-child relationship and to master-slave relationships. In other words, we will end up teaching that parents and their children must obey each other; and that masters and their slaves must obey each other! We may not be willing to go that far! Let us therefore refrain from sabotaging the command in Ephesians 5:22 with the introductory remark in 5:21.

It is true that the apostle uses the word “obey” in Eph 6:1 and 6:5 but not in Eph 5:22-24. However, he uses other words and word-pictures to say, in a quiet elaborate way, that wives ought to obey their husbands. Interestingly, the apostle uses the illustration of “head” and “body.” He says that the husband is the wife’s head just as Christ is the head of the Church. We cannot dilute the meaning of “head” without at the same time diluting the authority of Jesus Christ over his Church. When we speak of a “head” and a “body”, we are not speaking of two different entities in opposition to each other but of parts of a whole. Such is the union between a man and his wife. What would you call a “body” that does not obey its “head?”

Christian women have cited numerous questions to prove that the Bible’s command (that wives submit to their husbands in “everything”) is impractical and unwise. All these questions may be rephrased as: “What if the husband asks the wife to commit a sin?” It is obvious that our duty to God has a priority over every other duty. Just as we would defy a state edict that would force us to sin against God, a Christian woman’s decision to obey God rather than her husband’s sinful demands is justified.

Finally, Peter’s instructions to families are noteworthy. While elaborating on how godly women ought to decorate their lives with good works in order to lead their unbelieving husbands to Christ, Peter says, “For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands; just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.” (1 Pet 3:5-6)

If Paul did not use the word “obey” while exhorting Christian wives, Peter makes up for that. For Peter, “submission” is obedience. Therefore, he cites the example of Sarah who obeyed her husband Abraham. The kind of submission that Sarah displayed may be abhorrent to a modern ‘enlightened’ woman.

Which 21st century Christian woman would want to call her husband “lord” (meaning “master”) or “Sir?” I don’t think the women of Peter's time were made of a different fiber. Peter, however, was not bothered about how well Christian women of his time would receive his instructions. He wrote what the Holy Spirit wanted him to write. We are not talking about what’s politically correct but about what’s correct in God’s sight.

The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, rightly said in his Royal Wedding Sermon: “In a sense every wedding is a royal wedding with the bride and the groom as king and queen of creation, making a new life together so that life can flow through them into the future.” Every bride and her groom are king and queen in their own right. The elevation of a husband as the King over his household does not belittle the wife. Instead, it elevates her as the queen of the household. The opposite is also sadly true! A live dog is better than a dead lion! A poor man who’s the king over his household is better off than a Royal who isn’t treated as a king by his own family.

God is serious about the images and symbols he wishes to create or maintain through our life. God wants marriage to mirror His relationship with His people. Men, therefore, are commanded to love their wives just as Christ loved the Church. Wives are for the same reason commanded to obey and submit to their own husbands just the Church ought to submit to her Lord Jesus Christ.

Originally published in the newspaper ‘Praise The Almighty’ in May 2011.

About the Author:

Philip Eapen, an environmental scientist by training, devoted his life to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ ever since he realised that the world needs Jesus Christ more than anyone or anything else. Apart from sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, Philip also teaches Christians in order to equip them for service.