What Biblical Submission Does and Does Not Mean
I recently reread this sermon from John Piper on what biblical “submission” does and does not mean. The overarching context is that Piper is addressing women whose husbands are not following the Lord or practicing biblical leadership. His text was 1 Peter 3:1-7.
1. Submission does not mean agreeing with everything your husband says. You can see that in verse one: she is a Christian and he is not. He has one set of ideas about ultimate reality. She has another. Peter calls her to be submissive while assuming she will not submit to his view of the most important thing in the world—God. So submission can’t mean submitting to agree with all her husband thinks.
2. Submission does not mean leaving your brain or your will at the wedding altar. It is not the inability or the unwillingness to think for yourself. Here is a woman who heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. She thought about it. She assessed the truth claims of Jesus. She apprehended in her heart the beauty and worth Christ and his work, and she chose him. Her husband heard it also. Other wise Peter probably wouldn’t say he “disobeyed the word.” He has heard the word and he has thought about it. And he has not chosen Christ. She thought for herself and she acted. And Peter does not tell her to retreat from that commitment.
3. Submission does not mean avoiding every effort to change a husband. The whole point of this text is to tell a wife how to “win” her husband. Verse one says, “Be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won.” If you didn’t care about the Biblical context you might say, “Submission has to mean, taking a husband the way he is and not trying to change him.” But if you care about the context, you conclude that submission, paradoxically, is a strategy for changing him.
The goal of this text is to help wives bring about the most profound change in their husbands that can be imagined—the transformation from being a spiritually dead unbeliever to a spiritually alive believer. Submission does not say, “I renounce all efforts to change my husband.” What it does say we’ll see in a moment.
4. Submission does not mean putting the will of the husband before the will of Christ. The text clearly teaches that the wife is a follower of Jesus before and above being a follower of her husband. He is going on the path of unbelief. She does not follow him in that, because she has been called to be a disciple of Jesus. Submission to Jesus relativizes submission to husbands—and governments and employers and parents. When Sara calls Abraham “lord” in verse 6, it is lord with a little “l”. It’s like “sir.” And the obedience she renders is secondary obedience, under, and because of, and filtered through obedience to the LORD with a capital “L”.
5. Submission does not mean that a wife gets her personal, spiritual strength from her husband. A good husband should indeed strengthen and build up and sustain his wife. He should be a source of strength. There are ways in which a wife is the “weaker vessel” as verse 7 says. But what this text shows is that when a husbands spiritual nurturing and leadership is lacking, a Christian wife is not bereft of strength. Submission does not mean she is dependent on him to supply her strength of faith and virtue and character. The text assumes just the opposite. She is summoned to develop depth and strength and character not from her husband but for her husband. Verse five says that her hope is in God, not the husband.
6. Finally submission does not mean that a wife is to act out of fear. Verse 6b says, “You have become [Sarah's] children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.” In other words submission is free, not coerced by fear. The Christian woman is a free woman. When she submits to her husband—whether he is a believer or unbeliever—she does it in freedom, not out of fear.
Piper next asks: What then is submission? He answers:
It is the disposition to follow a husband’s authority and an inclination to yield to his leadership. It is an attitude that says, “I delight for you to take the initiative in our family. I am glad when you take responsibility for things and lead with love. I don’t flourish when you are passive and I have to make sure the family works.” But the attitude of Christian submission also says, “It grieves me when you venture into sinful acts and want to take me with you. You know I can’t do that. I have no desire to resist you. On the contrary, I flourish most when I can respond creatively and joyfully to your lead; but I can’t follow you into sin, as much as I love to honor your leadership in our marriage. Christ is my King.”