Thinking and Living Biblically in a Gender-neutral Society
Biblical Manhood and Womanhood series
First Presbyterian Church
Jackson, MS
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan

1 Peter 3:1-7
The “S”ubmission Word–What is it, what it isn't.
Biblical Submission for Christian Wives

I invite you to turn with me to 1 Peter 3, verses 1-7. Tonight we're talking about the dreaded “S” word, the word “submission,” the issue of submission–what it is and what is isn't. Just to reiterate, we have said from the beginning of this study of thinking and living biblically in a gender-neutral society, that this is an issue that is at the forefront of the cultural changes that are going on. We've even seen reports in the last few weeks of a Canadian court approving same-sex marriages. Before the Supreme Court of the state of Massachusetts right now is a case, and if they rule in a certain way, this will legalize same-sex marriages in the state of Massachusetts. It will be the first time this has ever been done by a state. This would go even further than the state of Vermont went when it passed its legislative ruling, which was eventually overturned a year later, and it will have ramifications for every state in the United States. The Supreme Court of the United States of America, just a few weeks ago, struck down sodomy laws in the state of Texas, which has radical implications for the definition of marriage in our own society. And we are seeing in many, many ways how this sort of issue of gender relations, the definition of marriage, what it is to be a man, what it is to be a woman, how these things are at the core of a cultural transition which we're watching right before our very eyes.

Let me just give you a couple of quotes to illustrate this. Gary Bauer, just a couple of days ago, in his daily e-mail says this: “For those who still don't understand the threat to our society posed by the drive for same-sex marriage, the latest edition of the Weekly Standard has two great essays on the topic. The first by author, Maggie Gallagher, explains that marriage was designed to bridge the male-female divide and sustain the idea that children need mothers and fathers.” The second piece by Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institution outlines the shocking details of movements already underway and gaining strength to legalize polygamy, and polyamory–that is, group marriages. Well, why not? If you’re going to do same-sex marriages, why not polygamy? Why not polyamory? Why not pederasty? Why not a 52 year-old man and a 14 year-old boy? Why not? All of these trends will fatally undermine monogamy and the nuclear family as societal norms. The effects of which will be devastating to generations of children and to our entire nation. Then, out of New York just this week, comes this report. The City of New York is opening a full-fledged high school for gay and lesbian, bi-sexual and trans-gender students. The first of its kind in the nation. Operating for two decades as a small alternative program with just two classrooms, the new Harvey Milk High School, you remember Harvey Milk of San Francisco fame, officially opens as a stand-alone public school with 100 students in September. The school, located at 2 Astor Place is undergoing a $3.2 million dollar city-funded renovation approved by the Board of Education in June of last year. It will eventually take 170 students. By 2004, tripling last year's enrollment, the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a gay-rights youth advocacy group that manages and helps finance the school in conjunction with the Department of Education, has hired the school's first principal. “The school will be a model for the country and possibly the world,” principal William Salzman said in an interview at the facility. Salzman is a former Wall Street executive and was recently an Assistant Principal of Guidance and Business Information Technology at Brooklyn's Automotive High School.

These are just two illustrations of many that we could give of how the whole issue of male-female role relationships, gender norms, marriage, and so on, is very much at the heart of some of the cultural trends that are being played out before us today.

Now, that having been said, our goal doesn't quite stretch that far. Our goal tonight is to do just five things. I want to define for us what submission means, in the marital context; show where it comes from in Scripture; say what it is not; say what it is; and then answer some objections to it.

Submission sounds like an antiquated or fairly humble discussion in the backdrop of these larger changes in sexuality, but I want to suggest to you that there's actually a connection because to deny the distinctive roles for men and women in a marital relationship is part and parcel of a denial that there are distinctive roles and capacities for men and women in life. In other words, if you deny that there are distinctive role relations in marriage, which is the most obvious place where the differences between masculinity and femininity are played out, then what happens to masculine virtues and what happens to feminine virtues? How can those be cultivated if they are denied in the very cradle of their cultivation? There are even liberals now who are hand wringing about what's happening to male students in the schools today. Their masculinity is being suppressed and is being hindered because of fears that masculinity is inherently a bad thing. So I want to suggest that there's actually a connection between these larger sort of dramatic issues and this fairly humble issue which may seem quaint to some. It's actually a very significant thing.

That having been said by way of introduction, let's look at God's word in 1 Peter 3:1-7. This is God's word; let's hear it.

“In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. Your adornment must not be merely external–braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry; or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. 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. You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.”
Amen. This is God's word. May He bless it. Let's pray.

Lord, we need Your help as we study these kinds of passages. For some of us, there's an innate recoil from just hearing words like this read. They are so out of step with the way we think in our day and time. They seem out of touch; they seem, not just irrelevant; they seem wrong to some. Help us to see that this is Your word; You made people; You know how they work; You know how they’re supposed to work and You've given these instructions not only for Your glory, but for our good; for the good of your people. Help us also, O Lord, to submit our will so we will hear first what Your word says before we would dare to presume to articulate what we think ought to be the right way. Help Your word to set the stage, and then help our thinking to come into line with Your word. Help us as we deal with this difficult subject, especially in the application of it. We ask all of these things in Jesus' name. Amen.

I. What do we mean by submission?
Now, tonight we have our hands full. This is a controversial and practical subject and it is as controversial and practical a subject we have addressed so far. Submission, specifically of Christian wives to their Christian husbands. The very mention of that word “submission” makes many women bristle. In the short time we have, our is to say very briefly what we mean by submission generally, then show where it comes from in Scripture; say what it is not; say what it is; and then answer some objections to it. I've given you in the outline a brief definition of submission from John Piper and Wayne Grudem's book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. I recommend that book to you. Let's look at that definition.

“Submission refers to a wife's divine calling to honor and affirm her husband's leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts. It is not an absolute surrender of her will. Rather, we speak of her disposition to yield to her husband's guidance and her inclination to follow his leadership.”

It's an excellent starting point for a definition of what we're talking about. We’re not talking about domination or oppression; we're talking about something very different. The next statement comes from the Baptist Faith and Message. Now, if you had not read this statement from the Baptist Faith and Message and had only heard the rantings and railings against our Baptist friends from the liberal media, you might have thought that they had put in there something about wife beating being a really good idea and it ought to be done at least twice a day, or something like this. But here's the statement that the media was ranting and railing about. It's a very good statement about husband and wife relations in the marriage. This comes from the most recent revision of the Baptist Faith and Message.

“The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God's image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband, even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God, as is her husband, and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.”

Now, that statement brought recoils of horror from the secular press and from many liberal evangelicals, but it's a very nice statement of just what we're talking about in terms of male-female role relationships. Well, that's a brief general definition of submission. Where does this idea come from in Scripture? Is this a Scriptural idea? Many people say, “No, this is not a scriptural idea; this is a man-made idea. It comes from Victorian times, or it comes from Puritan times, or it comes from Neanderthal times, or something like that–but it's not from the Bible.”

II. Where does this idea of a wife “submitting to her husband” come from in Scripture?
Well, turn to your second page on the outline and let me just highlight a few passages. This is not something that's mentioned just once in a dark corner and then skipped. This is something that is repeated over and over in the New Testament. I'm not even going to go into the Old Testament foundations, and we could. I'm just going to go to the New Testament for a moment lest somebody say, “Well, that was Old Testament, not the New.” First of all, in 1 Corinthians 14:35, isn't it interesting that in a context about the proper function of women in teaching in the gathered church for worship, Paul will say this, “If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home for it is improper for a woman to speak in the church.” Now, we’ll get to the whole issue of women preaching next week, but the interesting thing to me is his instruction that the norm being women are to learn from their husbands as spiritual leaders at home. Now frankly, that's a rebuke to us husbands, isn't it? We need to be better equipped to serve in that way. But Paul assumes that a woman can go home and talk to her husband and get a theological answer. Now, doesn't that say something about his expectations of role relationships?

Look again at 1 Corinthians 11:3. Notice here where he says, “I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man and man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” So, he sets up this order of role relationship. Man is the head of woman in marriage.

Then in Ephesians 5, a very familiar passage often quoted at marriages, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands as to the Lord.” Now, by the way, you’ll notice in the way I've quoted it there that “be subject” is in italics. In the New American Standard that means that that word is not in the text. It's being supplied. The verb which is supplied there in verse 22, but is actually found in verse 21. In this case, I just wanted you to know that for full disclosure, so that you would understand where they’re drawing the verb from. “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 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, but as the church is subject to Christ, so wives also ought to be to their husbands in everything.” And then the end of verse 33 says, “The wife must see to it that she respects her husband.” So, there again, in Ephesians Paul calls upon women to be subject to their husbands, to acknowledge their husbands headship, to be subject to their husbands as the church is to Christ, and to respect their husbands.”

Then, in Colossians 3:18, the shortened version of that longer Pauline passage from Ephesians 5, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting to the Lord.” This is the same kind of language that is used in 1 Peter 3:1. “In the same way, wives be submissive to your husbands…” Then in Titus 2:4, notice what it says that older women are to do as they mentor younger women are to do as they mentor younger women, “They may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that they word of God will not be dishonored.” And in 1 Timothy 3:4 and 5, and in verse 12, elders and deacons in their job descriptions are required by Paul to be those who manage their own households well. Now, if you’re not the head of your household, how can you be judged as part of your qualifications for these offices to be a good manager of a good household of which you are not the head? So, those are a sampling of scriptural passages which indicate the idea of the wife submitting to her husband.

Now, what do we not mean by submission? I've given you a quick outline. Look at the bottom of the page. Seven things that we don't mean when we talk about submission.

III. What submission is not.
Submission is not putting the husband in the place of Christ as if the husband is some sort of absolute authority
. In fact, the passage we've just read in 1 Peter 3, gives us a classic example of a case where a wife is not to follow her husband. In 1 Peter 3: 1 and 2, what is one of the things that Peter is saying to godly Christian women in the church? What would the circumstance be? Two unbelievers have been married, and the wife becomes a believer; she's a part of the local congregation. What happens? You remember Paul had to deal with this problem in 1 Corinthians 7. What do you do when you have a wife who has been converted and a husband who has not been converted? What do you do in terms of the marital relationship? Well, in this passage, Peter says, “Look, you don't obey your husband in the sense of becoming a pagan or rejecting Christ or following him in unbelief. No, you try and win him. Now you try and win him without a word; you try and win him gently and respectfully, and honoring his place as the head of your household, but your submission is not putting him ahead of Christ. In fact, all Christian relationships at the human horizontal level, are lived under the Lordship of Christ who takes priority over all of those relationships. And so, if a parent were to say to a child, “Go steal.” The proper biblical response of that child is, “No, sir. Father, I honor you; I will not steal. Jesus tells me not to.” Case closed. That's a proper Christian response to human authority of any sort, whether it's the government or whether it's dad or somebody else who is saying, “Go do something that is wrong.” Jesus is in charge, and submission is not about putting a husband in the place of Christ.

Submission does not mean giving up independent thought. Isn't it interesting here that Paul does not say, “Husbands, I want you to go back home and tell those women they better submit.” Peter says, “Sisters, dear sisters in Christ, I'm speaking to you directly. I'm not asking your parents to pass this along to you. I'm not asking your husbands to pass it along to you. I'm speaking to you directly. Here's how I want you to relate to your husbands.” And so, he expects them to be able to think for themselves, to understand what he's saying. He treats them like disciples. He's not saying that you've got to shut your mind off and let your husband think for you. He goes directly to the wives and says, “Now here's how I want you to relate to your husbands.” He is expecting independent thinking from these women.

Submission does not mean that a wife should give up her efforts to influence and guide her husband. That, of course, can be used in a manipulative and inappropriate way, but in this passage, Paul says that he wants these Christian wives to influence their pagan husbands. He wants them to give care about how they go about doing that. He doesn't want them to nag their husbands into Christianity; he wants them to woo their husbands into Christianity through their behavior, but he's not saying that the wife should never have any influence over her husband. In fact, he's fostering the wife in having influence over her husband in this passage.

Submission does not mean that a wife should give into every demand of her husband. Again, if the pagan husband in 1 Peter 3:2 had said, “Stop being a Christian and be like me.” The answer of the wife is, “No sir. Jesus is my Lord and I've got a couple of options here. You can kill me, or we can figure out how to get along, but I'm not giving up on Jesus.” And so, there is no absolute abdication, and there's no giving in to every demand of the husband.

Submission is not based on a woman having less intelligence or competence. In fact, Paul assumes in this passage that by the very fact that this woman is a Christian, that she has greater spiritual insight than her husband does. She's seen the truth of Christianity and the Lord Jesus Christ, and he hasn't.

Submission does not mean being fearful and timid and cowering for a husband who can strike out in an arbitrary fashion at any point. Isn't it interesting that in 1 Peter 3:6, that Peter tells wives not to give way to fear. And so the reference to the wife as the weaker partner or weaker vessel, is not due to any lack of inner strength or courage in the face of danger and threat. It's an obvious common-sense comment about men and women physiologically speaking, for one thing.

I remember just about falling over about six weeks ago when all the hoopla was going on about Annika Sorenstam playing on the PGA Tour. They were interviewing one of the lead golfers from the LPGA, and they were asking her, “Is this going to be a new wave where more and more LPGA golfers attempt to go on the PGA tour?” And her response was, “Of course not, men are stronger than us.” And I thought, “Good grief, the walls didn't fall in.” You know, here is an obviously very accomplished, athletic woman who makes gazillions of bucks playing golf every week, making the common-sense observation that the male golfers were stronger than them. Generally, the men really could hit the ball further than they could, and they had certain athletic gifts that the women didn't have. No, that this wasn't going to be a new trend. Babe Zaharis did it back in 1945, another lady tried it this week and sure, we’ll have it happen from time to time, but there's a physiological factor to deal with here–and that's all that Peter is acknowledging.

Submission is not inconsistent with equality in Christ. This is not an argument that women are less important or have less dignity or honor, it is an argument about the role relationships which God has established for men and the women in the Scripture.

IV. What submission is.
So, what is submission? That's what it's not; what is it? There are two things I want to point out. Submission is an inner quality of gentleness that affirms the leadership of a husband. Listen to this excellent quote from Wayne Grudem.

“Being submissive to your husband” means that a wife will willingly submit to her husband's authority and leadership in the marriage. It means making a choice to affirm her husband as leader within the limits of obedience to Christ. It includes a demeanor that honors him as a leader even when she dissents. Of course, it's an attitude that goes much deeper than mere obedience, but the idea of willing obedience to a husband's authority is certainly a part of submission which is clear from verses 5-6.”

So, it's an inner quality; it's a disposition; it's an attitude. Now let me flesh that out a little more. Secondly, submission means three things. It means the recognition of a divinely given household order. Here's a woman who recognizes that God has given certain responsibilities to men and certain responsibilities to women in the marital relationship. First of all, she recognizes that. Secondly, she respects her husband's spiritual authority. She recognizes that God has established a certain order. Men are supposed to do certain things; women are supposed to do other things in marriage, and she respects her husband spiritually. She respects the things that God has given to her husband to do; she respects his authority; she respects his responsibility in role that he has. Thirdly, she makes an active effort to foster and appropriately respond to that authority. So, it's an attitude, you see, that fundamentally recognizes that God made men and women differently, and he made them to function differently in marriage and that there are certain things as masculine virtues and feminine virtues which need to be cultivated distinctly. When he is cultivating and growing in masculine virtues, her response is, “Atta boy.”

Honeymooners, you've been married for seven hours and you get caught in a snowdrift in Colorado. First thing you’re gonna do is what? Send her down the road to find gas, right? “Honey, I’ll just stay in the warm car and wait for you to get back. I figure you can be back in a couple of hours.” Why do you laugh at that? Because you inherently know that that is not how God planned it to be. There are certain roles. The woman who acknowledges that is going to be saying, “Atta boy” to a husband who is taking proper spiritual, husbandly responsibilities.

Let me just quote to you from one of my favorite writers on this subject–not actually talking about marriage but this distinction in manhood. Many of you read Peggy Noonan, who was a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, and you've read some of the beautiful things that she's written since September 11th. You’ll remember one article that she wrote called God is Back. In fact, in that article she mentioned some of the preaching messages of Tim Keller, our PCA minister in Manhattan, NY. With great admiration, Peggy Noonan is a conservative Roman Catholic, and it comes through in her traditional view of male-female role relationships and such, but that's not always a view that she held. She tells about it in an article that she wrote in October of 2001 called “Welcome Back, Duke.” Duke referring to “the Duke”–John Wayne. Her subtitle is From the Ashes of September 11th Arise the Manly Virtues. She says:

“Men are back. A certain style of manliness is once again being honored and celebrated in our country, since September 11. You might say it suddenly emerged from the rubble of the past quarter century and emerged when a certain kind of men come forth to get our great country out of the fix that it was in. I'm speaking of the masculine men, men who push things, and haul things, and pull things, and haul things, and build things; men who charge up the stairs in hundreds of pounds of gear and tell everyone else where to go to be safe. Men who are welders, who do construction, who are cops, and firemen. They are, all of them, one way or the other, the men who put the fire out, the men who are digging the rubble out, and the men who build whatever takes its place. And their style is back in style. We are experiencing a new respect for their old-fashioned masculinity; a new respect for physical courage, for strength and for the willingness to use both for the good of others. You didn't have to be a fireman to be one of the manly men on September the 11th. Those businessmen on flight 93, which was supposed to hit Washington. The businessmen who didn't live by their hands or backs, but who found out what was happening to their country when they said goodbye to the people they loved; they snapped the cell phones shut and said, “Let's roll!” These were tough men, the ones who forced that plane down in Pennsylvania. They were tough, brave guys.”

And then she goes on to say when she first realized it as they were watching men clear away the rubble around the site of the Towers of the World Trade Center, and she said:

“I turned to my friend and said, ‘I have seen the grunts of New York become kings and queens of the city.’ I was so moved, and oddly I guess, grateful, because they had always been the people who ran the place, who kept it going; they’d just never been given their due, but now ‘and the last shall be first.’ We were making up for it. It may seem that I'm really talking about class; professional classes having a new appreciation of Lodey, NJ, or Astoria, Queens, but what I'm attempting to talk about is actually manliness which often seems tied up with class issues, as they say, but isn't always by any means the same thing. Here's what I'm trying to say.

Once about ten years ago, there was a story. You might have read about it in your local tabloid or supermarket tabloid like The National Inquirer, about an American man and woman who were on their honeymoon in Australia or New Zealand. They were swimming in the ocean, water chest high. From nowhere came a shark. The shark went straight for the woman, opened its jaws. Do you know what the man did? He punched the shark in the head. He punched it and punched it again. He did not do brilliant commentary on the shark. He did not share his sensitive feelings about the shark. He did not make rye observations about the shark. He punched the shark in the head. So the shark let go of his wife and went straight for him, and killed him. The wife survived to tell the story of what her husband had done. He had tried to “deck” a shark. I told my friends, ‘That's what a wonderful man is. A man who will try and deck a shark.’ I don't know what that guy did for a living, but he had a very old-fashioned sense of what it is to be a man.

It's hard to be a man; I'm certain of it. To be a man in this world is not easy. I know what you’re thinking, but it's not easy to be a woman–and you’re so right. But women get to complain and make others feel bad about their plight. Men have to suck it up. Good men suck it up and remain good natured, constructive, and helpful. Less good men become the kind of men who are spoofed on the “Man Show”– babe-watching, dope-smoking, nihilists.

I should discuss how manliness and its brother, gentle manliness, went out of style. I know because I was there. In fact, I may have done it. I know exactly when. It was the mid-seventies and I was in my mid-twenties, and a big, nice, middle-aged man got up from his seat to help me haul a big piece of luggage into the overhead luggage space on an airplane. And I was a feminist, and I knew our rules and rants. “I can do it myself,” I snapped. It was important that he know that women are strong. It was even more important, as it turns out, that I know that I was a jackass, but I didn't. I embarrassed a nice man who was attempting to help a lady, and I wasn't lady enough to let him. I bet he never offered to help a lady again. I bet he became an intellectual, or a writer, and not a good man like a fireman, or a businessman who says, “Let's roll.” But perhaps it wasn't just me. I was there in America as a child when John Wayne was a hero, and a symbol of American manliness. He was strong and silent. And I was there in America when they killed John Wayne by a thousand cuts. A lot of people killed him. Not only feminists, but peaceniks, intellectuals, and others. You could even say it was Woody Allen who did it through laughter and an endearing admission of his own nervousness and fear. He made nervousness and fearfulness the admired style. He made not being able to “deck the shark,” but doing the funniest commentary about not decking the shark seem cool. But when we killed John Wayne, you know what we were left with? We were left with John Wayne's friendly antagonist sidekick in the old John Ford movies, Barry Fitzgerald; the small, nervous, gossiping neighborhood commentator Barry Fitzgerald, who wanted to talk about everything and do nothing. That was not progress; it was not improvement. I missed John Wayne.

But now I think he's back. I think he returned on September 11th. I think he ran up the stairs, threw the kid over his back like a sack of potatoes, and he came down, and then shoveled rubble. And I think he's in Afghanistan and Iraq now saying, with his slow swagger and simmering silence, “You’re in a whole lotta trouble, now, Osama, boy.” I think he's back in style, and none too soon. “Welcome back, Duke!” And once again, thank you, men of September 11th.”

Now that's an interesting commentary and it travels far afield, but you know what she's recognizing? She's recognizing that there is supposed to be a difference between men and women.

And if you deny that there's supposed to be a difference between men and women in marriage, then you've got to go the whole nine yards, and you've got to say, “Nope, what we're looking for is androgyny. What we want is men who are like women. That's what we really want. We want sort of a blend; we don't want manly virtue, we want generic virtue.” And when we do that, we lose something that can't be gotten anywhere else.