How Should Christian Women Who Value Submission Think of Vashti and Esther?

I’ve spoken in times past of my concerns about the things some complementarians say that I think actually undermine the position. As a Christian woman, I have learned to strongly value the words help, submit, and respect—at least when those terms are used the way God intended when He used them first in His Word. The more I embrace these words in my home, the more annoyed I get with teachers who are sloppy with the terms and sloppy with Scripture when trying to defend these concepts. And one place we do that is with the story of Vashti and Esther in the Old Testament.

So I ask the simple question, how SHOULD women who are IN Christ and IMAGE BEARERS of God read the book of Esther? Well, first, the way I’ve worded the question sets me up as an authority that I am not. Second, it sounds like you are obligated to agree with my analysis, but that’s not true either. As I often say, this blog is just a lecture to myself, so I’m really only answering the question how should this Christian woman (me) who values submission think of Vashti and Esther. Maybe I’ll say something here that the Spirit causes to resonate with you, and that’s good too.

There are a few principles that help me navigate the story of Esther. First, I must remember with any story in Scripture the very great difference in DESCRIPTIVE and PRESCRIPTIVE passages. Many, many times in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, we are given stories without commentary that we are not ever intended to embrace as examples to us. Don’t cut up your concubine and spread her remains around the camp of those who murdered her. And please don’t kill your daughter as a sacrifice just because she’s the first one to walk out a tent after you make a vow to God. It’s not a good idea to lay down in the middle of the night at the foot of the bed of a man whose attention you are hoping to land. And we don’t prescribe that all widows move in with their mother in law and marry their husband’s cousin just because the book of Ruth describes that scenario.

Second, Scripture is the best commentary on itself. We know from Genesis 2 that woman was created to be a strong helper in the image of God. That certainly reflects on Esther—she was strong for the children of God, helping to protect them by potentially sacrificing her own life to get the ear of the king. We also know from Genesis 3 that the curse among other things is that man oppresses woman (see here and here). Well, boy howdy, that certainly reflects on the story of Vashti and Esther. There is no indication of any virtue in the king towards women in that story. God’s people are basically in captivity and the king demonstrates no faith in God. He’s not the worst of kings, evidenced by the fact he didn’t kill Vashti. But he’s obviously feared—Esther keeps the fact she is Jewish secret from him at the start. And he is willing to wipe out an entire people, male and female, based on Haman’s flimsy reasoning of their threat to his kingship. The king has a harem and concubines. There is nothing about him that reflects virtue or goodness.

In terms of Ephesians 5 and wifely submission, Esther does submit, but not to the king. She submits to Mordecai, who is neither her husband or father—when he says don’t tell the king you’re Jewish, she doesn’t. When Mordecai encouraged her to defy the king’s orders by approaching him about sparing the Jews, she does. In the end, there is nothing about Esther’s story that can be reasonably construed as having anything to do with wifely submission in terms of Ephesians 5.

Here is what Esther teaches us as Christian women who value submission.

1) Nothing about submission.
2) Everything about the sovereignty of God.

Esther is a beautiful book, much like Ruth, on God’s supernatural moving behind the scenes to preserve His people, particularly the line of the Messiah. To this end, Vashti’s refusal is as much a part of God’s sovereign plan to move Esther into the place where she could advocate for God’s people as Esther’s promotion to queen.

If you want to understand what God prescribes about help, submission, headship, and respect, don’t read Esther for advice or example. However, the book of Esther has much to teach us about our sovereign Father in heaven who wrote a story before time began and declared it FINISHED on the cross. When we face uncertainties in life, the same God who is never mentioned in Esther is the same one flying under the radar at times in our life. He holds it all together though, and His plan will be accomplished.

Colossians 1 16 For by him (Jesus) all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

10 Responses to How Should Christian Women Who Value Submission Think of Vashti and Esther?

  1. Rachael January 13, 2012 at 12:24 am #

    Thanks for these thoughts. They are helpful reminders about God's sovereign care for his people. I especially appreciated your paragraph starting “Esther is a beautiful book…”

    Might I suggest, though, that Esther submits to Mordecai as to a father (even though he was a cousin) because he had taken her as his own daughter and brought her up because she had neither mother or father (Esther 2:7). I think it is fair to say that he is her 'adopted' father.

    It doesn't change anything that you have said about wifely submission but explains why she so willingly and readily submits to Mordecai.

  2. gina January 13, 2012 at 1:07 am #

    Thanks for preaching to yourself and then sharing it! Such truth here.

  3. Wendy January 13, 2012 at 1:29 am #

    Rachael, I agree with you about Esther's relationship with Mordecai. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Jessica January 13, 2012 at 8:58 pm #

    I'm glad this article turned out the way it did. When I first read the title, I thought, “Oh, no, not another 'Be Like Esther' message! I'm SO grateful that you focused on God's sovereign and faithful care of His people. Refreshing.

  5. Luma January 13, 2012 at 11:38 pm #

    I really need to be reminded of God's sovereignty right now. I look at some things in our lives and say, “Lord, where are you? Why aren't you stepping in doing something about this situation, you're the only one who has the power to do anything about it?” Trust, trust, trust, the Lord is sovereign. Thanks Wendy!

  6. Amy Scott January 14, 2012 at 6:54 pm #

    Further, regarding Ephesians 5 and complementarianism, the Bible never tells women to submit to men, but rather, a wife to submit to her own husband. Sometimes, I think comps like to make this Scripture bleed. Meaning, if it's true that a wife ought to submit to her husband, then it follows that I ought to defer to the other nice men in my life. And that's just not in the BIble.

  7. Wendy January 14, 2012 at 9:06 pm #

    Definitely, Amy. Though I would say it is good to defer to others, including the nice men in our lives, in the same way they are called to defer to us in Eph. 5:21. Everyone in the Body of Christ is called to defer, love, lay down their rights, and so forth. But the particular call of Eph. 5:22 is only between the wife and her particular husband.

  8. Tamie January 15, 2012 at 2:55 am #

    Hi Wendy

    I reckon your comments about what the book of Esther teaches us about wifely submission are spot on – not much!

    I heard an interesting talk last year that caused me to re-assess how I read Esther. I think previously I'd read Xerxes positively and Vashti negatively but this talk argued that the focus is far more on Xerxes than Vashti and that he is presented negatively, as an inadequate king. Take the first chapter, for example – his large feast (what's he compensating for?); his overreaction to Vashti (why is he so insulted by her behaviour?). This talk suggested he's presented as a foolish character, so foolish that he treats his wife as a possession to fortify his own ego rather than a woman to be cherished.

    That sort of foolishness seemed to me to be consistent with how Xerxes continues to act in the rest of the book. I think that perspective adds another dimension to the sovereignty of God!

  9. April January 16, 2012 at 5:22 am #

    Love your perspective on this. Also, Tamie, some commentators also think that Xerxes asked Vashti to come only in her royal crown (aka naked), and that is why she refused to come. But, of course, that should be taken with a grain of salt-it may be reading too much into the passage. Just because it says he requested her to come in her royal headdress doesn't mean he wanted her to leave her clothes behind because the passage doesn't mention them!

  10. Bobbi Brown January 18, 2012 at 7:09 pm #

    Have you written anything on Abigail's submission in I Samuel 25:10-38?