Q. What counsel would you have for a woman who wants to honor the Lord in the area of submission, but is unsure what it means to submit to a husband who isn’t a believer? How does she seek to cultivate respect and appreciation for him when he is not following the Lord? What does it look like for her to follow, when her husband is not following the Lord?
A. To attempt to answer this question, I want to draw from the chapter entitled “The Beauty of Submission” found in my book Feminine Appeal.
First let me preface my remarks with this important point: The edict for wives to submit (Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1-6) originated in the gracious heart of God. This command is not punishment for our sin. Neither is it optional or devised by man. Rather, it is God who determined that we are to voluntarily place ourselves under our husbands’ authority. He designed submission for His glory. (If you are interested in further study, I recommend Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem and published by Crossway Books. In my opinion this collection of essays is the most biblical and comprehensive resource available on the topic today.)
Not surprisingly, Scripture anticipates the very question our reader asked. The answer is found in 1 Peter 3:1-6:
“Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives— (2) when they see your respectful and pure conduct. (3) Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing— (4) but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. (5) For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their husbands, (6) as Sarah obey Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.”
While this passage certainly offers hope to women in difficult marriages, verse one clearly stipulates that wives are to submit to their husbands “even if some do not obey the word.” Unless a moral issue is at stake, we are obliged by Scripture to submit to our husbands. As Elisabeth Elliot bluntly states, God’s Word does not “give any footnotes.”
Of course, we must never follow our husbands’ leadership into sin. For while their authority is genuine, it is by no means absolute. Our preeminent authority is God Himself, and at no time should our submission violate any of His expressed commands (Acts 5:29).
In addition, a wife—whether or not she is married to a believer—is called to respect her husband. In verse six of 1 Peter 3, we see that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, called him “lord.” The implication in this verse is clear: Wives are to show respect to their husbands. Ephesians 5:33 is even more straightforward: “Let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
A wife should vigilantly study her husband and perceive character traits worthy of respect. When she does, amazing results will often follow. Husbands will strive to be worthy of that respect.
So even if we do not feel particularly respectful; or though we may not think our husbands have done anything worthy of respect lately; or even if we reckon ourselves to be more capable, intelligent, or godly than our husbands—none of these are reasons to exempt us. Respect is a decision we make to obey God’s Word. He has set the husband as the head (1 Cor. 11:3), and we must honor that position regardless.
However, submission and respect are not static character qualities. Together, they are a powerful, dynamic force that brilliantly display the gospel. Look again at, 1 Peter 3:1: “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives” (emphasis mine). How remarkable to think that the virtue of submission can actually prompt change in an unbelieving husband and even be the means God uses to draw him to Himself!
As Elizabeth George eloquently expresses it: “Our submission to our husband—whether or not he is a Christian, whether or not he is obeying God—preaches a lovelier and more powerful sermon than our mouth ever could!”
Tomorrow, in order to answer the question: “What does it look like for [a wife] to follow, when her husband is not following the Lord?” we will illustrate with a story of a woman whose submission to her unbelieving husband was instrumental in his salvation.