In this guest post, Rachael Starke works through Scripture on submission to show us the limits of submission according to the Bible. We undermine the value of submission in the home as the Bible teaches it if we don’t also embrace its Biblical limits.
In the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting and the growth of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, many Christian leaders doubled down on sermons and blog posts referencing Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. Resisting arrest or even questioning the way a state polices its citizens was tantamount to resisting the authority of God. But just last month, many in that same community responded with horror at a report in the New York Times that the U.S. military in Afghanistan was systematically turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse of boys by Afghan militia leaders. Soldiers were instructed to view the abuse they witnessed as within the bounds of local Afghan law, and those who tried to speak up or intervene were disciplined or discharged. Far from restraining evil, particularly evil committed against children, the U.S. Military was actively complicit in it, punishing as wrongdoers those who attempted to do good to prevent it. Suddenly, the danger of making a human institutional authority absolute was all too clear.
There has been a similar round of conversation lately about submission as it relates to gender. Instead of submission being attached to the specific context of marriage, submission is being attached to womanhood as a defining characteristic, as leadership is to men. In that view, a woman’s submission to her husband is absolute, so as to reflect the church’s submission to Christ. And in life, that view teaches that a woman is to avoid vocations, actions or even words that will in any way guide or correct a man, or in some way dilute his inherent ability and masculine need to lead her. God’s work through women who lead, and even lead in rebellion, such as the midwives of Egypt, or Deborah or, my personal favorite, Jael, is dismissed as a collection of anomalies from the Old Covenant era. But it’s a New Testament story of God’s punishment of a woman’s submission which exposes clearly the wrong teaching that submission is some kind of definitive aspect of general godly womanhood.
Acts 4 and 5 describes the joyful generosity of the early church as they sold what they had to share with those in need. In an act that was far more about sinful pride than avarice, one man in the church named Ananias sells some property just as others have done, keeping some of the profit but behaving as if he was giving all to God. Many presume that Ananias’ wife, Sapphira, was complicit in the decision to keep back some of the profit. But the text makes no such presumption. The decision to sell the property was Ananias’ and Sapphira’s together. But the decision to keep back some of the profit was his, albeit a decision Sapphira knew he had made. Ananias chose his course, and Sapphira submitted to his choice.
Had Peter viewed Sapphira as simply a woman under her husband’s authority, he may not have felt it even necessary to ask after her involvement in her husband’s decision. But instead, in an interesting moment of pastoral acuity, after Ananias’ duplicity has been exposed, Peter actively inquires after Sapphira’s role in the matter. When Sapphira hides behind her husband’s lie, she discovers that, rather than being covered by her husband, she has become complicit with him. Speaking out would have honored God, even as it exposed her husband as having acted dishonorably. But in hiding behind her husband’s lie, Sapphira revealed that she was looking to her husband as a higher authority than God. Sapphira’s submission to her husband was sinful, and God demonstrated His ultimate authority by taking her life for it.
This story should serve as a strong exhortation to women struggling for discernment in the midst of their husband’s sin against them or others, whether through consumption of pornography or abuse of alcohol or physical or sexual assault, and especially against their children. Just as Sapphira was called to heed Proverbs 19:9, women are called to heed Psalm 82:3-4, even when the wicked hand or voice raised in anger at their child belongs to their husband. When those charged with serving and protecting abandon that call and look away from evil, or actively participate in it, we are called not to submit, but to stand up, especially for those who are unable to stand up for themselves. In those moments, it is not submissive silence, but strong words rooted in a love for justice and mercy, that true womanhood is most eloquently expressed.
3 <sup class="crossreference" data-cr="#cen-ESV-15237H" data-link="(H)”>Give justice to <sup class="crossreference" data-cr="#cen-ESV-15237I" data-link="(I)”>the weak and the fatherless;
<sup class="crossreference" data-cr="#cen-ESV-15237J" data-link="(J)”>maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
4 <sup class="crossreference" data-cr="#cen-ESV-15238K" data-link="(K)”>Rescue the weak and the needy;
<sup class="crossreference" data-cr="#cen-ESV-15238L" data-link="(L)”>deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”