Submission Doesn’t Mean Putting Up with Sexual Misbehavior

Through the years I’ve received emails from wives who’ve described sexual misuse and even abuse from their husbands and went on to say that they were trying to be submissive. Many shared how they’d had scriptures cited at them—by husbands, church leaders, or other Christians—as evidence that they need to shut up and put up with it. They were raised or instructed to believe that the husband’s leadership should be followed no matter what.

Based on those beliefs, some wives (and husbands) have endured or gone along with pornography, adultery, marital rape, deviance, and abuse.

But wherever you land on the complementarian vs egalitarian debate, there’s no reasonable biblical interpretation that submission means putting up with harmful or degrading sexual behavior from your spouse.

Wherever you land on the complementarian vs egalitarian debate, there's no reasonable biblical interpretation that submission means putting up with harmful or degrading sexual behavior from your spouse. via@hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

An aside for my egalitarian friends.

Immediately a number of Christians yell, “See what awful results complementarianism evokes!” and then make arguments for egalitarianism. (If you’ve never heard these terms, I recommend reading this article for a good rundown on the different viewpoints.)

I hear you. I understand. I have studied the large spectrum of perspectives on the issue and have my own opinions, but I’m not taking up a debate here between complementarian and egalitarian roles:

  1. Because my ministry isn’t about that, but rather sex in marriage.
  2. Because all reasonable Christians along that spectrum should be able to agree on the biblical principles I address below.
  3. Because, from a purely practical standpoint, if you have to convince someone on one end of the spectrum to move all the way to the other end before they can address abuse, that’s a long journey and a hard sell.

Moreover, I’m well aware of a case in which a wife insisted her husband become the leader in their house through sexual “discipline.” She would have agreed entirely that the wife should be submissive to her husband and translated that into the dominance-submission framework of BDSM. Through this version of “submission,” the wife got her husband to do things he didn’t want to do in the bedroom and thus degraded him.

I’m not, therefore, going to entangle myself in the comp vs. egal dispute. It’s a worthwhile theological debate, but not the purpose of my ministry or this post. I’m taking a different approach.

Submission is a complex word.

There are about a gazillion treatises on what the word submission, as used in the Bible, means. Theological scholars, church leaders, and laypeople have delved deep and wide into this subject and come up with thorough evaluations of how to apply such passages as Ephesians 5:22-33. But that’s not what I mean here in saying that submission is a complex word.

Rather, what I mean is that Christians come to the word submit with preconceived notions, experiences, and histories regarding its meaning. We may have positive or negative views, but almost no one has a neutral view of the word.

Think about it: If I say the word remember or keep or give, you likely don’t have a strong visceral reaction, even though those are common command words in the Bible. You would want to hear the rest of the sentence before knowing what you think about those verbs.

Yet I could walk into a Bible class at nearly any church, say the word submit, and watch a wave of reactions ripple through the room. Depending on where I was and who I was with, I could predict whether that word would evoke positive or negative responses, but the responses wouldn’t be neutral.

And for some wives, the reaction can be both positive and negative. That is, they believe biblical submission is a positive and want to carry out the command of Ephesians 5:22-24 through submission to their husband. Yet, they have experienced the negative of what this means in their marriage bed—as their husband’s headship has been used to force, demand, or pressure them into acts they would otherwise decline.

Husbands can also experience this disconnect, as they attend to the mandate of Ephesians 5:21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” But in an attempt to accommodate their wife, they might ignore their own desires and ethics, engaging in acts they would never otherwise do.

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When must we submit?

If you want to do a personal study on what the word translated as submit in Ephesians 5:22 actually means, go for it. The Greek word is hupotasso, and it’s defined in the New Testament Greek Lexicon as:

A Greek military term meaning “to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader”. In non-military use, it was “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.”

Hupotasso Meaning in Bible – New Testament Greek Lexicon – New American Standard. (n.d.). Retrieved September 28, 2020, from https://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/hupotasso.html

But I want to talk about something else. Let’s look at other passages that command us to submit or even obey others.

We can find numerous passages telling us that we should submit to governing authorities, including Romans 13:1-6, Mark 12:13-17, Titus 3:1, and 1 Peter 2:13-17. Jesus even said to Pilate: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11), thus seeming to say that our governing authorities serve at the pleasure of the Ultimate Ruler. This is not the same as saying God supports these authorities or condones their behavior, but rather that He can oust or overrule them if it furthers His sovereign plan. And if He doesn’t, then we’re expected to comply, as Jesus did when arrested, charged, and sentenced.

Yet, there are a number of times when God’s people challenged authorities.

  • When the Hebrew midwives refused to kill baby boys, as ordered by the Pharaoh (Exodus 1:15-21).
  • When Jonathan refused his father’s/king’s order to kill David (1 Samuel 19:1-4).
  • When Nathan confronted King David about his adultery (2 Samuel 12:1-12).
  • When Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (aka Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) wouldn’t bow down to King Nebuchadnezzar’s idol (Daniel 3:1-18).
  • When Daniel ignored King Darius’s edict and continued to pray to God (Daniel 6:1-10).
  • When Mordecai refused to kneel to Haman, according to the king’s order (Esther 3:1-4).
  • When John the Baptist spoke publicly against Herod’s incestuous marriage (Mark 5:17-18).
  • When temple guards defied an order to arrest Jesus (John 7:32-46).
  • When Peter and John escaped from jail then protested the Sanhedrin’s command to stop spreading the gospel (Acts 4:18-21).
  • When Peter and the apostles again told the high priest they would defy the Sandrehin’s orders and continue to spread the news about Jesus (Acts 5:27-32).

I could cite more examples—even one in which a judge assassinated the king—but you get the point.

Moreover, Jesus challenged authorities repeatedly: the Pharisees, Sadducees, teachers of the law. He did not return violence or launch an insurrection, but He did not back down from stating the truth and standing up for what was right.

Is it different for wives?

All but one of the examples above are men challenging other men. What I hear from some Christians is that it’s different for wives with husbands. Specifically, they point to how Ephesians 5:22-24 instructs wives to submit to husbands “as you do unto the Lord” and “in everything.” As you do unto the Lord and everything sound rather all-encompassing.

So let’s look specifically at women in the Bible:

  • Abigail defied her husband Nabal, making peace with David instead (1 Samuel 25:1-38).
  • Esther violated her husband’s/king’s law by entering the inner court without being summoned (Esther 4:5-15).
  • Hannah took a vow that obligated not only herself but her husband to give their son into temple service, an unusual if not defiant action (1 Samuel 1:9-11; also see Numbers 30:10-15)
  • Jael violated her husband’s treaty when she killed Sisera, the general of the Israelites’ enemy (Judges 4:4-22).

And then there’s Sapphira, a wife who did submit to her husband “in everything.” Her story is told in Acts 5, and here are some verses we should note:

With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself [Ananias], but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet….

About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened [her husband’s death]. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

v. 2, 7-9

The apostle Peter doesn’t praise Sapphira’s support of her husband, but rather holds her responsible for her sin. And this is the same Peter who said: “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands” and praised Sarah for her submission to Abraham (1 Peter 3:1,5). What gives?

One piece of faith is not the whole.

There’s a great illustration that’s been used by pastors. I don’t know the original source, as it’s been passed around so much, but the tale goes something like this:

Once upon a time, a young man, longing to know God’s will for his life, decided he would seek the answer by letting his New Testament fall open and trusting that God would speak to him. With a prayer in his heart, he opened his Bible and read the first verse that caught his eye: “So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.”

That seemed odd, but determined to trust God and this process, the young man flipped pages until another verse seemed to jump out at him: “Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.'” With a knot in this throat, he decided to try one more time—to see what else God might want to convey. The young man flipped again and read, ” So Jesus told him, ‘What you are about to do, do quickly.'”

If this guy goes out and hangs himself, he’s obviously not aligned with God’s will!

By cherry-picking certain verses or commands, you can reach a conclusion that’s very far from where God actually wants you to be in your life. In the same way, if the primary piece of Scripture you’re following is about wives submitting to husbands, or submitting to one another, you’re likely missing a lot of the other stuff. As important as that command may be, it is not the whole of God’s message to His sons or daughters!

We should also know what God says about living out the Fruit of the Spirit, what agape love looks like, fleeing from sexual immorality, confronting someone’s sin, and our accountability before God.

You can set reasonable boundaries.

We are not called to participate with sin. In fact, we are called—both men and women—to resist sinful practices.

Let’s head back to Ephesians 5, and scroll up a few verses and you’ll see this, in a letter obviously written to both husbands and wives:

Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.

Ephesians 5:8-11

If your spouse says that you must participate in porn viewing, have sex with another man or woman, endure physical restraint or bodily harm, restrain or hit your spouse, engage in forced oral or anal sex, pretend to be someone else in the bedroom, have sex in public areas, videotape your sexual sessions, forgo foreplay you need or want for readiness, and/or provide daily or more than once daily sex, you do not have to submit to that. Regardless of your theological position regarding headship and submission, your higher calling is to honor God.

Let me repeat that. Your priority submission is not to any human being, no matter what authority God has granted to them on earth, but to God Himself. Go back and look at all those biblical examples, if you need the reminder.

Start setting reasonable boundaries. You can learn more about how from Cloud and Townsend’s Boundaries in Marriage book and studying more of Scripture itself.

If your husband or wife continues to force or demand, you may need to expose their deeds to the light—following the biblical approach—in hopes that they will repent.

If it is unsafe for you to speak up against egregious sin, then please get help. (See Are You in an Abusive or Destructive Marriage?)

Can you leave the marriage?

People ask this question from time to time, and I hate answering it because:

  • Whether you can leave and whether you should leave are two different questions;
  • The specific fact pattern and people involved play into that decision;
  • You’re likely to get a better answer from mentors or experts you personally consult; and
  • Frankly, I don’t want to get it wrong.

But over the years, I’ve heard a few truly appalling stories that made me want to yell, “Get out now!”

Even worse, perhaps, a wife recently shared that her husband had cherry-picked my posts, shared them with his wife, and thus argued that she should comply with his deviant sexual demands. That email cracked my heart, right down the middle. When I replied with what I’d actually said, she felt both encouraged and empowered to hear something even as simple as “You are not your husband’s sex toy.”

Look, I don’t know if you should leave your particular marriage. But I want to be oh-so clear in telling oppressed spouses that submission does not mean putting up with sexual misbehavior. God did not knit your body together so it could be used and abused by someone, even the someone you married.

God did not knit your body together so it could be used and abused by someone, even the someone you married. @viahotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

For more about whether divorce is permissible, see A Biblical Response to the Abused Wife.

9 thoughts on “Submission Doesn’t Mean Putting Up with Sexual Misbehavior”

  1. In the name of submission, I endured unspeakable abuse for 21 years of my marriage. And yes, sexual abuse was part of that. I was told I was not allowed to say “no”. I was told my body belonged to him, and he could do whatever he wanted with it. I was called vile, filthy names during sex. And I was forced to use language during sex, that I would never have done on my own.
    The worst part was that my church backed him up 100%.
    I eventually left and got divorced, and am now remarried. In a million years, I cannot imagine my husband now ever treating me in such a way. He is a believer, but does not believe in that type of twisted version of submission.

    1. I’m heartbroken that happened to you! That is absolutely awful, and the church should have intervened for your safety and wellbeing. That’s a moment when What Would Jesus Do? should make our actions clear: His calling included “to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18). I’m glad you got out and found a truly godly man. Thanks for sharing your story. May it inspire someone else. Blessings!

      1. I got out…thank God….but it cost me and my children. My church turned their back on me, and they supported our abuser. He still attends church there.
        And unfortunately, so many years of living that way…it damages you. I expect I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to recover from what he did to me.
        If I could….please, any woman living like this…GET OUT! It’s hard, it’s scary, you think God will punish you…but I promise you, it can be done!!!!

  2. J, my question relates specifically to emotional abuse (however, it could apply to any type of abuse):

    Do you believe that a spouse, husband or wife, should put up with and endure emotional abuse even if the abuse occurs just occasionally or even infrequently?

    1. “Put up with” — no. In the moment, when you are mistreated, it’s reasonable to speak up about how your spouse’s actions are hurtful, to set boundaries if needed, and to ask for better treatment going forward.

      But I sense that the deeper question you’re asking is whether periodic emotional abuse rises to the level of breaking the marital covenant. (If I’m wrong about that, let me know.) And again, I’d defer to the sense that I can’t answer for a specific situation. Instead, I typically tell spouses to consult with a trusted mentor and/or trained Christian counselor who can help them determine what their next best steps are.

      1. I wasn’t particularly focusing on whether abuse constitutes violation of the marital covenant (though that is an interesting question).
        The major question for a spouse who has been abused in the past and/or is being abused presently is whether it is truly healthy for them to stay in close physical proximity to the spouse who is abusing them. If they continue to be around them and there is no remedy for stemming the abuse, then the abused spouse runs the risk of being forever emotionally or physically damaged. Really, it can get to the point of emotional and sometimes even physical survival — rather than just a theological question or debate as to whether abuse severs the marital covenant. Long-standing abuse, especially, can emotionally warp people into a state of perpetual dysfunction.
        I’m not sure if typical Christian marriage advice can ever be useful to spouses in a relationship where abuse is going on. Only someone who has been abused themselves can truly understand how it can affect people. I’ll leave open the caveat that trained counselors have some tools in their toolbox to help spouses recognize it and deal with it. However, it’s not the same as the trained counselor experiencing spousal abuse themselves personally.
        And yes, I’ve experienced long term, intermittent emotional abuse from my wife (27 years) and just became totally aware of it recently. And yes, I love my wife 100% despite the abuse — but that fact is what makes things truly difficult and has had me looking for answers.

  3. Great post J. I always cringe when I hear comments from Christian marriage bloggers etc that tell women that they don’t have to “love everything” but that God calls them to love their spouse enough to try anything that doesn’t violate his rules. Um no. I am not required to try Anal sex to prove I love him. God does not require I put the body he lovingly created at risk of being damaged so my husband can feel “loved.” This is so awful and comes out in so many ways. From subtle comments to full on God commands you to’s…. I am not a bad wife if there are things that I believe are wrong. I also don’t have to explain them or have them approved. I have lived with this body for decades I can look at certain positions and be able to say “not happening that will hurt.” My heart aches for the women who have never enjoyed sexual intimacy the way God planned because their spouse treated them like a toy they owned. I pray that spouses in situations like you described read this and get a glimmer of hope that God has more planned for them and that sexual misbehavior against his child is NEVER okay.

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