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A Wife’s Submission

March 1, 1997

David Instone Brewer, "Three Weddings And A Divorce,'' Tyndale Bulletin 47 (1996): 1-25


In recent years it has become increasingly common for scholars to set aside a biblical command by appealing to some alleged ancient background limiting application of this command to the original context. The latest instance of such a practice is one contribution that argues that the New Testament writers urged wifely submission merely as a temporary means to overcome pagan resistance to the gospel message. What follows is a thorough critique of this piece of scholarship.

In a recent article, David Instone Brewer, research librarian at the Tyndale House in Cambridge, England, traces the motif of God's marriage through the Old and New Testaments. Though not his main point, Brewer touches in a brief excursus (pp. 16-19) on the subject of wives' submission to their husbands. Considering passages such as Ephesians 5-6, Titus 2-3, and 1 Peter 2-3, he concludes that the submission of wives to husbands, though an ideal in Graeco-Roman society, was neither "part of the new Christian morality'' nor "perceived as a means of ful- filling the marriage contract.'' Brewer offers six loosely organized arguments to support this conclusion.

Defensive Authors?

(1) In every instance in the NT where wives are exhorted to submit to their husbands, reasons for their doing so are also given. Therefore, the NT writers may have "felt the same kind of unease and defensiveness about this teaching as many do today.'' Indeed, the fact that explanations had to be given indicates that "not many were too happy about'' the common moral expectation of wifely submission. (p. 18)

Brewer here assumes that the only reason an explanation is provided for a command is the unwillingness of its recipients to carry it out. This reasoning leads him to conclude that slaves were generally reluctant to submit to their masters because they are given similar explanations as wives for submission. But by extension, people must not have been "too happy'' about any other aspect of the moral code, for the commands for husbands to love their wives and for children to obey their parents in Ephesians, as well as the commands about modesty in Titus 2-3 and 1 Peter 2-3, are also accompanied by explanations.

In fact, the vast majority of commands in the New Testament letters are accompanied by reasons for the directive, but we would be wrong to conclude from this that the early Christians were reluctant to carry out apostolic commands or that their leaders felt uneasy requiring [imposing, issuing, giving, making?] them. Finally, even if the instructions regarding wifely submission had been met with resistance requiring an explicit explanation, this still does not imply that the commands were not expected to be obeyed.

A Weakened Command?

(2) In Ephesians 5, Paul "deliberately weakened'' the exhortation for the wife to submit by subsuming it under the command for mutual submission in 5:21 and by qualifying submission as respect for one's husband in 5:33. (p. 17)

This is obviously no argument against the expectation of wifely submission but rather a tacit admission of that expectation. Even if Paul chooses to qualify the command, he certainly expects it to be carried out; he merely places limits on its application.

Complementarians are not unaware of this. But even if mutual submission is commanded of marriage partners in Ephesians 5:21 (see, however, Wayne Grudem's recent essay on "The Myth of ‘Mutual Submission'" in CBMW NEWS 1, no. 4 [Oct. 1996]: 1-4), the command is clarified in context as meaning wives being subject to their husbands in everything and husbands loving their wives as Christ does the Church. The reason given for such a clarifi- cation is that the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is of the Church. Such language makes it unlikely that Paul is "deliberately'' trying to "weaken'' the exhortation to wifely submission; at best he is forestalling a husband's false notions of unrestrained dominance.

An Optional Means Of Evangelism?

(3) In 1 Peter 3, the reason given for a wife's submission to her husband is her desire to facilitate her husband's salvation, so that wifely submission was probably "not perceived as a means of fulfilling the marriage contract but as a means of impressing one's husband by going beyond what [was] necessary.'' (p. 18)

Here again Brewer's reasoning is improperly reductionistic: it seizes on one reason and makes it the only reason. That a particular rationale for wifely submission is cited in a given instance does not demand that it is therefore the only rationale possible. Peter's point that wifely submission advances the gospel in no way implies that submission is otherwise unnecessary. The command for husbands to love their wives in Ephesians 5 is not based on requirements of the "marriage covenant,'' but surely Brewer would not wish to infer from this that husbands were therefore not expected to love their wives.

What's more, Brewer fails to note Paul's theological rationale for wifely submission in Ephesians 5:23-the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church-or even the simple assertion in Colossians 3:18 that wifely submission is "fitting in the Lord.'' Finally, Brewer misreads 1 Peter 3: Peter does not say that only wives with unbelieving husbands should be submissive, but that all wives should be submissive and even if some husbands do not obey the word, they may be won by the wives' behavior. The phrase "even if " (Greek kai ei) suggests that this would be an uncommon occurrence.

Did The Corinthians Assume This Was Optional?

(4) "Submission was not part of the new Christian morality, as anyone in the church of Corinth knew too well." (p. 18)

This is a mere assertion. Since Brewer offers no argument to support his contention, and since his case is not self-evident, we may safely dismiss it.

Does Voluntary Marriage Exclude Submission?

(5) "Marriage was not forced on a Jewish girl, therefore she was not expected to submit to her husband." (p. 18)

This deduction is false, since it assumes that only forced marriages demand submission. Furthermore, historical evidence provided by Brewer himself demonstrates as much. At one point in his article he refers to traditional phraseology in ancient Jewish marriage contracts in which a bride "promises to be like other Jewish brides who ‘esteem, honour, attend and serve their husbands in purity and cleanness.'" Such language should surely be construed as an expectation of appropriate submission-one to which the Jewish bride freely agrees! Brewer's conclusion is therefore clearly erroneous.

Does Limited Submission Mean No Submission?

(6) "The three rights of Jewish wives" to "food, clothing, and love" imply a "limitation to the concept of submission." (p. 18)

Like (2) above, Brewer here tacitly admits submission, though perhaps for the sake of argument. Still, this does not support his main thesis, for the limitation of submission does not equal its denial. In fact, Brewer seems to have a very strange idea of submission, that it always must be involuntary and unlimited! Surely this is not the kind of submission the biblical writers had in mind.

Does An Appeal To The Culture Mean This Is Not God's Command?

(7) The submission of wives to husbands "was part of the ideal morals of Roman society" (p. 18). Christians needed to overcome the "natural mistrust'' (p. 19) of Roman society. The best way for Christians to overcome this mistrust would be to follow "a strict, culturally acceptable moral code" (p. 19).

Therefore Christian teaching included wifely submission. This is Brewer's main point. Christians needed to overcome the "natural mistrust" of Roman society, for the sake of evangelism and to avoid persecution. The best way to overcome the mistrust of unbelievers is by following a strict, culturally acceptable moral code.

But he may not logically reduce Christian teaching in such an instance merely to the imitation of the surrounding culture; he must demonstrate that the moral code of Christians would not otherwise have included any elements of the moral code of pagans. But this he does not do. Nor can he, for the Biblical evidence is against him.

As we have noted, Paul provided theological justification for the principle of male headship (in turn a basis for wifely submission), and this fact remains valid whether or not he or another New Testament writer could also appeal to the best of pagan morals.

Brewer possibly tips his hand as to the real motivation for his conclusions on submission in the introductory paragraph to this excursus. He seems less persuaded by sound reflection on the biblical evidence than by sociological concerns. He writes, "It would appear from some texts that a wife should be in total submission to her husband as one of the terms of the marriage contract, and that this model applies equally to the marriage of Christ and the church and to human marriages. Although submission is an attractive concept in worship, it might have different, sometimes tragic, consequences when the one to whom submission is given is a fallible and perhaps even a vindictive human."

Complementarians share Brewer's concern about the sinful application of a biblical principle, and CBMW has striven to clarify biblically the command for submission. Mere concern to prevent misuse of a command, however, cannot justify to complementarians the dismissal of a command in God's Word. Brewer's arguments likewise fail to provide that justification.

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