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Biblical Subjection of Christian Women

By William Russell Summers

religion, articles, christianity

Biblical teaching on the topic of women's subjection to men in the home and in the worship assembly is under relentless pressure from the mores of contemporary American culture. Consequently, when this topic is considered at all, the teacher sometimes gives in to the temptation to dilute Scripture to such an extent that all itching ears feel satisfied by smooth words. The sound approach is to present in a straightforward manner the simple New Testament teachings in the context of balanced biblical inquiry.

Recent experience in a Sunday morning Bible class illustrates both the quandary and at least one solution. The class was for young­married couples. A book authored by a well­known family therapist initiated a discussion of Ephesians 5:22­33. The therapist's discussion proceeded to tie in 1 Peter 5:5 and Ephesians 5:21 and even go so far as to allude to the latter in bold headlines, creating the impression that the unambiguous authority assigned by God to the husband is diminished elsewhere. Perhaps the layout was not conceived with this effect in mind, but violence was done to scripture nonetheless. If the therapist was striving to hedge a tenuous position against specious charges of gender bias, he could not have done so more admirably.

This concept of drawing a distinction between the God-given roles of Christian men and women can be emotionally charged. Historic inequities in the workplace and law courts have been redressed in recent decades, and some of this fervor occasionally finds its way into the Lord's church; however, this need not be a battleground into which only the brave of heart dare venture. A holistic approach to the teachings of the New Testament on authority is both necessary and sufficient to instruct all Christians who, in meekness of heart, are willing to accept the word of God as the sole authority in these matters.

For purposes of this discussion, biblical mandates on submission can be categorized as either general submission or special submission. General submission is addressed in Ephesians 5:21 ([S]ubmitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God ) and 1 Peter 5:5 ([Y]ea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble). These admonitions were made to no one other than the entire group to whom the epistle is addressed. For lack of a better term, therefore, the submission commanded in these passages can be referred to as general. The "Bible is its own best commentary." The all­encompassing scope of these passages and their parallelism argue convincingly for equating " subjection " with " humility " in both instances.

A few other passages impact on the study of Biblical submission but are markedly different from the aforementioned scriptures commanding general submission. One facet of a more specialized submission is evidenced in scriptures pertaining to the leadership role of elders. Consider 1 Peter 5:1­3:

The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.

And also 1 Timothy 5:17:

Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.

That elders take oversight and rule is beyond debate. Truly, there are caveats directed towards the attitude with which they execute their duties, but rule they do and submit we must. Interestingly, not only women-but also men-fall under the oversight of the elders, who are themselves exclusively men (1 Tim. 3:1­7; Titus 1:5­9). The command to submit to fallible saints therefore does not fall solely on women.

A second example of special submission pertains to the role of women in the worship assembly. Consider 1 Corinthians 14:34­35:

34. Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.

35. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.

And 1 Timothy 2:11­15:

11. Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.

12. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.

13. For Adam was first formed, then Eve.

14. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.

15. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.

These passages institute a stricture incumbent upon women within the framework of the worship service that is not bound upon men. It is specialized. Additionally, it is for cause and therefore not merely reflective of alleged New Testament misogyny.

Finally, in the confines of the Christian marriage, a most specialized form of submission is commanded in Holy Scripture: that of the wife to the husband. It is written in Ephesians 5:22­33:

22. Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.

23. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.

24. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.

25. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;

26. That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word

27. That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.

28. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself

29. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church:

30. For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones

31. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.

32. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.

33. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.

And again it is written in 1 Peter 3:1­7:

1. Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives;

2. While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear.

3. Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel;

4. But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.

5. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands:

6. Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.

7. Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.

These passages are straightforward and much has been written regarding their interpretation. Too much, perhaps. In my opinion, the more ink devoted to dissecting a topic that is intellectually reachable to all, the greater the likelihood that the result will mean everything and therefore nothing. Presenting a holistic discussion of God­given authority ranging from a general, all encompassing mandate for humility, to more specific commands for submission of a congregation to its elders and for the submission of women to men in worship and their husbands always represents an eminently workable approach to this biblical topic.

When two or more are in agreement, subjection is easy. Those instances where our individual will is divergent from those in authority pose the greater challenge. It is then that "sin lieth at the door." It is then that our individualism demands its own way. It is then that we must consciously yield for Christ's sake to all of the ordinances of God concerning submission.

The leadership role of the Christian man is not a thing to be coveted or abused; neither is it something to be apologized for or set aside. It is simply the God­given order of things for those dwelling within his kingdom. The status of women has benefited significantly from legislative changes in contemporary American culture. However, the Word of God has changed not at all. As we make our way through this world, let us remain vigilant to keep the philosophy of man, whatever benefits may accrue therefrom, outside the walls of the heavenly kingdom.

(Editor's note: We are indebted to brother Summers for this excellent article, which consists mostly of calling attention to relevant passages from the Bible. By the way, the King James Version is used in the piece. Brother Summers holds a doctorate degree and is employed as a scientist by a chemical company in Memphis. He is not an evangelist, but he is a good Bible student and effective writer. In his cover letter he said, "The premise of the submitted manuscript is simply that the New Testament establishes distinct roles for men and women that are easily understood. The challenge is to teach this aspect of Biblical truth to audiences where its acceptance can no longer be assumed. The blurring of gender distinctions in modern society presses on seemingly with a life of its own. Continual vigilance is necessary in our congregations to keep this heresy at bay." We say, Amen! Men who lead and women who hold themselves in an attitude of respectful submission is the divine order. When it is followed, both genders are content; when it is violated. antagonism and quarreling results. - H. A. (Buster) Dobbs)

Published August 1997