When Submission Becomes Sinful

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.

Psalm 82
<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.
<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.”

12 Responses to When Submission Becomes Sinful

  1. Anita October 7, 2015 at 1:59 pm #

    Excellent post! Thank you for this!!

  2. David Gallie October 7, 2015 at 2:41 pm #

    Amen! Small minded and bullying men have hidden behind a distorted submission teaching for far too long.

  3. Kelly Keller October 7, 2015 at 10:20 pm #

    Rachael. Well done, friend.

  4. Anonymous October 7, 2015 at 11:56 pm #

    I enjoy hearing from women and believe you have done well in this, I would like to add and hope to complement your blog and give the example of Abigail in 1 Sam.25:1-42, and for us men how David received her and well Nabel whom the Lord stuck.

  5. Sassy Mommy of Four October 8, 2015 at 6:32 pm #

    If you were to offer wisdom to such a man, what would you say to him to motivate his change?

  6. David Gallie October 9, 2015 at 9:36 am #

    That would depend on how close we were as friends, the sincerity of his Christian walk, and the evidence of his bullying. Assuming we were friends I'd seek to discuss what we'd learnt and were learning as husbands and fathers, exploring what it means to love our wives sacrificially as Christ loved the Church and the difference between servant headship and authoritarianism. The aim would be to enlighten and encourage. If his bullying warranted rebuke, that would be more difficult. Sorry if this dodges the question.

  7. Michele Morin October 10, 2015 at 10:32 am #

    Love this example of Abigail the Wise, and, Rachael, I appreciate your treatment of the passage about Sapphira.

  8. Curious Thinker October 13, 2015 at 2:59 am #

    Great article. There shouldn't be blind submission and definitely not to anything sinful, immoral, illegal or that goes against your conscience. As someone else already mentioned the story of Abigail and Nabel as an example. Both men and women are first submitted to God, then to submit to one another out of reverence for God.

  9. Curious Thinker October 13, 2015 at 3:00 am #

    Great article. There shouldn't be blind submission and definitely not to anything sinful, immoral, illegal or that goes against your conscience. As someone else already mentioned the story of Abigail and Nabel as an example. Both men and women are first submitted to God, then to submit to one another out of reverence for God.

  10. Betty Minawaley October 21, 2015 at 11:25 pm #

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Betty Minawaley October 21, 2015 at 11:30 pm #

    Thank you for this life changing article. It has helped me a lot. Looking foward to learning more like this. I found this site yesterday while I was searching for something on how women should behave, etc,. I thank the good Lord for showing me this site. Looking foward to hearing more.


  1. Learning to Feed Yourself With Christ, (With Help From a New Friend) | What Food Is For - January 25, 2017

    […] studies on hold and go back to work. Then, new friendships and conversations drew my thinking in lots of other directions, so that I didn’t invest as much time here as I’d planned. But I’ve never, […]