(This is something that I wrote in response to a personal question several years ago.  It doesn’t deal directly with narcissism, but discusses the limits and the purpose of the Bible’s teaching on submission.  I don’t believe that I have published it before and offer it here to those who bring this concern in the context of the rest of the teaching of this blog.)

What about submission?

The Scriptures are clear that a wife is to submit to her husband.  However, the same Scriptures are also clear that God’s people are to submit to each other.  (Eph. 5:21, Rom. 12:10; Phil 2:3; 1 Peter 5:5)  Submission is part of all Christian relationships.

One could ask whether a wife is to love her husband.  We would answer without hesitation that she should, yet there is no Scripture that says so (except indirectly in Titus 2:4).  Only the husband is told to love in the marriage relationship.  Of course, the wife should love her husband, if for no other reason, because all Christians are called to love one another.  (John 13:34; 1 John 4:7, et al.)

Some teachers suggest that these specific commands are given because of certain propensities in the husband and the wife.  The wife, they say, leans toward rebellion and will damage the family if she is out from under her husband’s authority.  The husband leans toward control and needs to be reminded to love gently.  Yet it is very obvious to anyone who observes that many men struggle with rebellion and many women should be reminded to love.  These teachers would simply reply that God chose to single out the wife for submission and the husband for love and that we are not to argue with His command.

Yet, they miss the point of the Scriptures!  We are all called to submit to each other and we are all called to love each other.  Just because the command is not repeated for each side of the relationship does not mean that it is not meant for each side.  In Titus 2:3 the older women are admonished not to be “given to much wine.”  However, there is no such admonition for the older men or for the younger women.  Are we to assume that alcoholism is okay for the others but not for the older women?  Of course not.  This simply doesn’t need to be repeated.

When we realize that we are all called to submit and love, it becomes obvious that the meaning of submission and the meaning of love have to be determined in the light of the kind of relationship.  We are not called to love others in exactly the same way a husband is called to love his wife.  There are a variety of levels and shades of love.  Should we love our neighbor the same way we are called to love God?  We are called to love our neighbor because the love of God is in us, but the meaning of the term is somewhat different.

In the same way, we are called to submit to the elders of the church, to the authorities of government, and to God.  Obviously there are different levels of submission.  The apostles made it clear that they were to submit to God before, or in a more serious way, than they were to submit to the government leaders.  A wife’s submission to her husband has the same limitations.  No wife should submit to her husband in the same way she submits to God.  Nor should she submit to another man in the same way she submits to her husband.

In a more general sense, submission is the same in all relationships.  Submission is deference, a willingness to put the needs or desires of others above our own.  We defer to others because of love, but if our relationship is distant, we may defer on the basis of order and authority.  If the government demands something, such as observing a maximum speed limit, we are to obey for the sake of civilization and order.  Yet, the proper motivation is still to be love.  We obey the speed limit, for example, because of the love we have for others and the desire to protect them.  We trust that the government sets such standards for mutual protection, in other words, for our own good and for the good of others.  Since this is quite consistent with our own motivations, we obey joyfully.

A marriage relationship is not a distant one.  Love is the foundation of marriage.  Paul said that marriage was a sort of picture of the relationship of Christ and His church.  We are to understand that as a love relationship, rather than a relationship based on structure or authority.  Any husband who commands his wife as a king would command a servant, or who abuses his wife, certainly does not portray the relationship Christ has with the Church.  Christ never suggests that His people are worthless slaves.  Instead, He loves us and even gave Himself for us.

Christian submission is always based on love, rather than authority.  Even obedience to Christ is commanded in the context of His incredible love.  We were His enemies until He loved us to Himself.  (Romans 5:10)  Our obedience to Him and our love for Him come as the result of His love. (1 John 4:19)  We know that it does not cause His love.

If marriage is a picture of the relationship of Christ and the Church, then the submission of a wife comes as a result of the love of a husband.  She defers to him because she is confident of his love for her.  She knows that he would do nothing to hurt her willingly, so she trusts him and allows him to lead.  Christians know of the great love of Christ and trust Him to lead in their lives.  He does not demand obedience; He loves and obedience flows as His people see that love and learn to trust Him.

What about a marriage that is broken, where the husband is abusive or adulterous?  Is the wife bound to submission even then?  This is a real question for many who find themselves in dangerous marriages.  If he demands that she stay with him even though he is a danger to her or the children, does she have to obey?

We have an example in Scripture that clearly answers this question.  When the apostles were told by the authorities not to preach the gospel, they answered that they must obey God rather than man. (Acts 5:29)  They understood that there was a point where obedience must stop – because of love.  If they loved the people of the city where they were preaching and if they loved the Lord who had saved them, then they must tell their story.  They disobeyed because there was a higher call on their lives.

When a husband is a danger to his wife or children, the wife must find a way to protect herself and the children – because of love.  Love for her children and love for her husband would demand that she find that protection.  If her husband is clearly wrong and is acting outside the will of God, she may be called by love to confront him and disagree with him.  When a wife blindly submits, like a dog or farm animal, she deprives the husband of an important challenge to wrong actions.  Too often the wife is the only one who knows the truth and she has a responsibility to either deal with it or reveal it to others.  (Matthew 18)

There are many situations where corrupt authority loses its right to submission.  We are not commanded to submit to evil governments that deny the right to worship God.  We are not bound to silent submission when others are hurt.  If an elder of the church commands an immoral action, he has no right to obedience.  If a police officer demands a bribe, we are not expected to obey.  A corrupt husband, who does not lead in love, should have no expectation of submission from his wife.

Fathers are commanded by God not to provoke their children, to do that which would move the hearts of their children against the Lord.  (Ephesians 6:4)  In fact, if they do that and the children turn their hearts away from the Lord who loves them, the fathers have committed a grievous sin.  (Matthew 18:2-7)  Should the mother stand by and watch while this sin is committed, just for the sake of being silent and submissive?  How does that promote the cause of Christ in the marriage relationship?  When children are abused or mistreated, the mother may have to step out of her silence and stand strongly against that which grieves the Lord.

A great deal is made of the sanctity of marriage as a holy institution of the Lord.  Obviously, this is true and God hates that which destroys a marriage.  This is why the Scriptures speak so clearly about adultery and divorce.  However, as much as marriage is a holy institution before God, so an abusive marriage is an unholy abomination before God.  To take a holy thing that belongs to God and use it to hurt or control others is to make it into an abomination.  Sex is a holy blessing from God; immoral sex is an abomination to Him because of the misuse of the holy thing.  Silver and gold are beautiful blessings from God, but an idol of silver or gold is an abomination to Him.  Bringing a child to the Lord is a wonderful thing, but burning a child as a sacrifice to Him is an abomination.  When marriage, which is meant to be joyful and loving, becomes a cover for cruelty and abuse, it has become a curse to the children and the Church, and a stench to the Lord.

Of course, the primary goal should always be to restore a marriage to the love it once had, or to the purpose of love God had for it.  A wife should pray for her husband while she does what it takes to protect herself and the children.  Many husbands have been won to the Lord when the trouble is exposed and dealt with.  A relationship can be restored only when the danger is removed.  A wife who decides that it is time to leave may have the responsibility to place protective boundaries around her and the children, even while she hopes or works to restore the relationship.  This is the way to restoration, not a barrier against it.

And what about the teachers who proclaim that the husband is to be obeyed no matter what?  It seems to be an axiom that those who desire to control others hate to be controlled themselves.  While they teach others to obey government, they often refuse to obey when government challenges their actions.  While they teach their followers to submit to the authorities of the church, they often set themselves above the authorities of their own churches.  They obey when it suits them.  Teaching submission apart from loving relationship is usually evidence of someone whose motives are less than holy.  Those teachers should simply be ignored.

22 responses to “Submission?

  1. Penny

    Amen. Bravo. Finally.

  2. UnForsaken

    Thank you for this post, Pastor Dave. ” Submission is deference, a willingness to put the needs or desires of others above our own.” I had never heard this before. I believed it and practiced it ( a little too well ) , but i had no words to express it, or to explain to myself why I believe that is what God mean .
    Thank You So Much!

  3. Repol

    Yes. This is right. This is what needs to be said and shared and lived by.
    Oh, how I wish my church had led this way, and how I wish I had had, as a young woman (hardly more than a child) this kind of understanding! Had I separated from my husband very early in our marriage, I truly believe he might have repented then, and I could have returned to him with full affection of the early love of our youth. But after so many years of ongoing abuse, in every area, which never relented until he had taken it as far as it could possibly go (me having a breakdown, losing the ability to be physical with him, wiping out all our finances and destroying his credit completely, and killing all sense of safety, security, oneness), I truly do wonder (and worry) that I may never be able to feel safety and genuine affection for him. That could have been saved if separation as an allowable response to abuse. Now it may be too late. I am still here, still trying, still waiting to see what God might do, both in him and in me, but there was a time when it was clearly still salvageable from an emotional standpoint.

    Please, please share this teaching somehow. There are so many conservative churches that are committed to the sanctity of marriage, but they don’t understand at all how the tool of separation can be used rightly, as a very effective gift, to save a marriage. They just see the short-term and fear that giving an inch means the victim will take a mile. They can’t see the big picture of what it actually takes to help or save a marriage in this bad shape.

    Thank you for this, Pastor Dave. I pray it will help many. I wish I had known it before. I have so much regret for my own naivete, rose-colored-glasses optimism, and determination to stick no matter what. I did not know my own frame. God does, and as you have pointed out, he never intended such a burden in the context of marriage to be endured and enabled for some external image of righteousness. Whatever is hidden in darkness must be brought to light.

  4. Finallyfree

    Repol, your response sounds like you are still blaming yourself for not knowing what to do. Please be gracious to yourself! I don’t think Dave was talking about Ns when he said some marriages have been saved by the exposure. That would be very unlikely. Shame is a very tricky thing. It loves to make you look back, loves to make you believe it was your fault…even when you clearly didn’t know the truth, loves to make you second guess your worthiness. I struggle so much with this, too. My parents made everything about shaming and my unworthiness….”how could you do something like this?, why did you do this to us? Don’t you realize how bad you are making us look?” Shame forces us to look back and loathe ourselves and decisions we can’t go back in time to change, but love always looks forward, even when we do legitimate wrong. Love says “next time, I hope you make better choices so you don’t have to face these consequences again.” the way we were trapped was not our fault. The way we handled being trapped was the only way we could have based on lies we were forced to believe. We are only responsible for finding our healing and asking Jesus for Truth and Love…..just believing that God really loves me is all the work I can handle! I don’t need to also face the ” if I had just done……..Things may have been better.” And I hope you will be free from that, too. I hope this also doesn’t sound like condemnation to you. I’m struggling to see Truth and Light and Love right now. Hold my hand and walk with me!

  5. E

    My husband and I are struggling internally with church personalities that have been abrasive and uncaring during a push for expansion and growth. The age old struggle lol. The change isn’t bad. It’s the My Way or the Highway remarks being made from the pulpit and at volunteer meetings that leave us feeling bullied and aloof from the entire process. Then, when things go wrong, the volunteers are blamed and lectured in front of the group for things beyond our control. We came to this church because it preached Grace, but this year they are showing none in the pursuit of their ambitious new vision we are struggling to achieve, no matter who is run over in the process.

    How can we be submissive in love without getting run over…and without being rebellious or unsupportive of the church vision? The abrasive staff is starting to make us question our place there. But we don’t want to pack up at the first sign of trouble. Sometimes they are asking the impossible and we cannot submit to unreasonable demands and expectations.

    What drew us to the church in the first place seems to have gotten lost over the last two years. A complaining congregation is the worst, so I’m trying to see how we can submit somehow to this before throwing in the towel. Any suggestions from anyone? Thanks!!

    • Mark

      E, In an abusive church, the people who bring up a problem ARE the problem. I was in an abusive church and whenever I asked questions, I was belittled in front of others by the leaders. God never calls us to mindless submission. In order to submit, we need to understand what we are submitting to.

      My feeling is that finances / building projects are a make-or-break issue for churches, and often the leaders have unrealistic expectations and then get caught off guard when the money doesn’t magically appear. When reality and their unrealistic expectations come head to head, some will be willing to admit that their expectations were unrealistic, but others will try to turn this into a legalistic battle – our expectations are not met, not because they’re unrealistic, but because you lack faith as a congregation. If you had more faith, you would give more towards God’s Kingdom (our church building project).

      My brother was in a church that had an ambitious building project. The pastor left over the lack of faith in the congregation. The congregation had over 300 members, for a $500,000 building project. However, about half the members were college students or children with little income. Another 50 or so were retirees on fixed incomes. Many of the remaining were married couples with single incomes. So, the end result was that my brother figured they were asking people like him to pay about $10,000 each towards the building project. Unrealistic expectations and trying to save face…

  6. UnForsaken

    Blessed by everyone’s comments here!

    E, if you are meant to stay at your church, perhaps the pressure will let up. It comes and goes at mine – yet Another grace based ministry that seems to forget it’s purpose.

    A thought on church visions: it will really irritate them at first, but you might consider opting out of the building fund support and even the conversations about it – If possible.( I’ve had to do this as a “useless” member, or they begin to get mean.) If you feel you have something to offer, perhaps you should do so only when the Joy of giving to God seems bigger/more important than their immediate goals.

    ( Example: My church is in a wealthy area and I know they can make the payments, so when I get a few extra Pennies, I try to give it to a really needy ministry. Gasp! )

    Bless you as you seek God’s face on this one. It’s not an easy decision. Remember , whatever you do, follow His Vision/goal for You!

    • E

      Thanks Mark and Unforsaken!
      I’m really feeling like a “useless” church member because of how the volunteer sign-up usually works. For example, I signed up to be in the worship team before all the expansion started and required extra rehearsals, two more services, etc. Not what I signed up for!!! Nor my husband! I had to step back for “family reasons.” I’m trying not to feel guilty about it. It’s like you sign up for a face-painting station and get promoted to “church artist emeritus” two months later LOL. Then they wonder why you drop out! The church needs more members to support the huge “improvements” they are making to attract more members…the cart before the horse?! A vicious cycle? I got some good advice to sit back and observe for a while, so that’s what I’m going to do. Even if I’m a “useless” church member! I totally understand that feeling; wanting to help but fearing getting caught up in ten more changes they made and didn’t mention, more financial commitment we can’t make (certainly not now!!! Long story…)

      • UnForsaken

        E, it sure is a long story. I could go on and on about my two bigger church experiences! But they have helped me re-examine why I do things and the reason there are these cultural expectations.

        I don’t think it’s about submission, so much as they would like us to believe that! Nobody is useless : prayer isn’t useless! Cruelty in the church ( organizations or individuals ) is Not Christian. How were they known? By their Love! Love for God first, love for each other, love for all. And it was God who gave that love, a special kind of love.

        Sending you some Big Hugs…don’t feel you have to stress over this!

        ( Note: My computer isn’t “working right” lately, making it possible for me to check and make corrections, actually See what I’m typing. Whoohoo!!!! Blessed in strange ways 😉 )

      • Mark

        E, I’ve really struggled with similar things, and I hope that you can be strong enough to get through this. I grew up in a family and church that taught that the church was our number one priority. We attended pretty much every event, went to all of the services, and volunteered a lot. Growing up, it wasn’t as much of a problem, but when I joined an abusive church it became a huge problem, not just for me, but for others. There was a core of members like me who were willing to make sacrifices of time and energy because that’s what we were taught. In addition to lots of time commitment, the leadership felt the need to micromanage every aspect of everyone’s work. Over a period of about two years, people got fed up and threw up their hands. Then we got lots of sermons on being a church that had lost its “first love”. Lost is not exactly correct — we were DRIVEN AWAY from our first love.

        Because I was “committed” and should always obey the leaders, I got asked to help the deacons, since two of the four had left. I served with them for about six years, where pretty much every idea I had to solve any problem was rejected outright. Of course, six months later when SOMEONE ELSE gave them the same idea, it was the greatest solution ever, but not when it came from me. My wife was so angry one time when she was told about a wonderful idea that she said, “Isn’t that what Mark told you a year ago?!”

        I didn’t realize what effect this had on me until I left the church over a different issue. It’s been nearly three years now and I still am sitting in the back of my new church hoping that I never get asked to do anything. I’m actually thinking of walking out and going somewhere else, not because the church has hurt me in any way, but they are still in the same denomination as the old one.

        So, let me try and circle around to where you are. You are NOT useless in the eyes of God based on what you do for your church, or what others in your church think about you. You’re valuable! God loves you whether or not you make time commitments to your church! In fact, God may be showing you, through your exhaustion, that you need to spend your time elsewhere. I’m beginning to enjoy my family more now that I spend more time with them. I don’t think God tells me that my family is second to my church.

        There’s a good book, called “Boundaries” by Cloud and Townsend. What I learned from that book is that TRUE friends want us to tell them the truth, even if that truth is NO. True friends accept and encourage us to be ourselves and to have our own ideas about what we want to do. If our church comes in and tries to guilt us into service, our church is not our friend. We should serve out of being filled by God and desiring to do it, not out of obligation and fear that we’ll be rejected by those around us. After ten years of guilt-ridden, dehumanizing service to the church, I was on EMPTY, and instead of filling me up, the church told me that my emptiness was because I was being selfish and holding back from God, and that maybe I wasn’t a Christian in the first place. If your church asks you to lie about where you are, or put on a false front, you need to be really, really careful. If you are being guilted into service because that’s what the “true Christians” do, be really, really careful.

      • UnForsaken

        Mark, I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for putting it so well!

        Blessings on your journey too. 🙂

  7. Thank you for such a succinct and Biblical response to this issue. You have put into words what I as a woman who left an abusive husband ‘knew’ in my spirit. God bless you!

  8. This is beautifully written, clear, and biblically sound. I particularly enjoyed the comment about SAHM and conservative Christians trying to revisit a way of life in an unhealthy manner. Nothing is more dangerous than an spiritually illiterate person with control issues.

  9. I read this blog on today. Thank you! I was devalued and discarded after 18 years of “praying and staying” with a narcissist. For the longest time, I struggled to understand how I could have been so blind to the abuse and yet so devote to Christ and Bible study.
    And then my psychologist (also a devote Christian) gave me a book: The Betrayal Bond.
    God used this book to open my eyes. Everything I did revolved around perseverance. I was always praying to overcome something abusive in my marriage. The pats I’d received on the head and reminders of my marriage vows only perpetuated the bondage.
    Today, I’m free.
    With your permission, I’d like to copy and share your post and link on my blog: Destination Reality.


    Wendy Redroad

    • Wendy, you are welcome to re-post. I am happy that this was a help to you and I trust it will be a help to others. I hope you can spend some time to read other posts here. We are Christians who see the reality of narcissism and abuse and want to reveal the true love of Jesus to any who come here. You are a person with a voice and rights and you are loved and accepted by God.

  10. Jesse Berriff

    I have always figured that submission can only be to the Holy Spirit in another Christian. If Christians are walking in the flesh and demand allegiance to their commands which are in the flesh and relate to fleshly indulgences (control, manipulation, demands for absolute unquestioning obedience etc) they should not be obeyed, otherwise you are turning the other person into an idol.

    I attended an abusive controlling church for many years where the women ended up obeying their husbands and the elders of the church literally as though they were Christ. They lost their own faith in God, stopped relating to Him as father, and instead made the men of their church into counterfeit gods. It is an abhomination to God and in fact doesn’t even really pass muster as a life-giving and mutually beneficial lifestyle. The controller becomes a tyrant and the controlled becomes a puppet.

  11. The source of most church problems is the unscriptural belief that there are any such things as church leaders. The only Biblically-based leadership and source of authority within the church is the Holy Spirit who resides in all believers. All so-called church leaders are supposed to be servants who have laid down their lives for His sheep and are fully submitted to the leadership of the Holy spirit. There is no such thing as positional authority in the kingdom of God; in fact, it has been said that the ground is level at the foot of the cross. A “church leader” cannot require your submission, because submission is a voluntary, free will act by definition. If the act is coerced, forced or demanded, it is one of subjugation, not submission, and it does not come from the Holy Spirit. Love and submission walk hand-in-hand. Jesus, who is born of the Spirit of God and human flesh, could not be killed or subjugated, but willingly, out of love for us, submitted to the cross, even choosing the moment that He died saying, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit.” Submission is always from a place of freedom and love and under the direction of the Holy Spirit, resulting in the joy and peace of the Lord within the heart of the person who chooses to submit. All else is counterfeit, leading to bondage and bringing us back under the curse of the law. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

  12. Mark

    Tracy, I agree with a lot of what you say here, but I’m not sure I can go far enough to say that there is no such thing as church leaders. Jesus talks about shepherds, and his command to Peter is “feed my sheep”. In Acts 6, the men chosen were appointed “over this matter”, which included resolving charges of racism within the church body.

    That said, while I think there are church leaders, I think that the church focuses too much on positional leadership (e.g. “I am your elder and here is what you need to believe about x”) and less on spiritual leadership (e.g. “here is my belief about x and I hope the Holy Spirit leads you to the truth about that”).

    I think there is a need for spiritual leadership because the sheep need to be protected from the wolves. There needs to be a way for the sheep to identify the wolves and protect each other, but my experience is that wolves find their way into positional leadership and then use their positional authority rather than spiritual authority to devour the sheep. The church leaders then choose to uphold the positional authority which makes the sheep suffer all the more. Churches seem to think they can manipulate the Holy Spirit by ordaining leaders who don’t meet the qualifications, then it becomes a huge problem because admitting the leader isn’t qualified then puts the election/appointment process into question, plus the leaders who pushed the unqualified leader on the flock. Had way too much experience with this, but not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater yet.

  13. Angela


    I have just discovered this blog and I am already gained much insight.
    In light of this discussion on submission, love and authority, I have a question regarding 1 Corinthians 11 and woman covering their heads?
    I was recently in discussion with a street preacher (not a grace preacher by any means) who emphasized this very strongly.
    I have read so many different views on this, I think only someone who has the proper understanding of Grace and the Love of Jesus can give the truth on what Paul is teaching and how it applies to woman believers today.
    Thank you,

    • Mark

      What I’ve been taught is that there are two camps. The cloth camp and the long hair camp. The cloth camp believes that women need some sort of cloth head covering as a symbol of authority. Within that camp, some believe that it is married women only that need that sign of authority. The other camp, of which I’m a member, believes that hair is given as a cover. For example, Paul says, “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.” (1 Cor 11: 14-15) The other question I have never gotten a satisfactory answer from the cloth camp is… “Did Eve wear a cloth head covering?” Genesis says they were “naked and unashamed”, and we know that they talked with God in the Garden of Eden.

      But, this is from my legalistic and authoritarian upbringing. I believe that we naturally want to check the boxes to say we’re good or not good based on trying to turn the bible into a legalistic set of checkboxes. That is law, not grace! I think it is too tempting to tithe the mint and cumin and neglect mercy and justice. I believe that hair covering is one such thing. Why is it that the most faithless, legalistic and uncaring churches are the ones that emphasize things like head coverings, long dresses, and all of the “do not touch” regulations?

  14. Sara Hughes

    Thank you. Your words are covered in peace.

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