WHAT SUBMISSION MEANS
By Nancy Leigh Demoss
Leslie Basham: First Peter gives us the picture of a woman married to an unbelieving husband. Dr. John Piper draws on this portrait to make an important point about submission.
Dr. John Piper: Submission does not mean leaving your brain and your will at the wedding altar. It’s not the inability or the unwillingness to think for yourself. Here is a woman who had heard the gospel. She thought about the gospel. She assessed the truth claims of the gospel. She apprehended the spiritual beauty of Christ, and she made a choice: “I submit to Jesus. I’m a Christian. I believe.”
Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Friday, January 18.
Nancy Leigh DeMoss: Yesterday we heard the first part of a message by Pastor John Piper entitled, The Beautiful Faith of Fearless Submission. This message ministered in such a special way to my own heart that I wanted to share it with our Revive Our Hearts listeners.
Dr. Piper’s been speaking from 1 Peter 3 verses 1-7. You may want to open your Bible to that text and take a moment to review it as he continues in this message. Yesterday he gave us a beautiful picture of biblical womanhood and explained why embracing God’s role for us as women reflects the gospel.
If you missed any of yesterday’s program, you’ll want to make sure and hear that. You can listen to the audio or read it at ReviveOurHearts.com.
Today Dr. Piper will continue explaining what submission does and does not mean. There’s a lot of confusion and a lot of fear over this topic. I think you’ll be encouraged and helped as I was by his practical, biblical insights. Let’s join Dr. Piper.
Dr. John Piper: Number one: Submission does not mean agreeing with everything your husband says. And you can see that in verse 1 clearly. She’s a Christian, and he’s not. He has one set of ideas about the ultimate meaning of the universe, and she has another set of ideas about the ultimate meaning of reality.
Peter calls her to be submissive, assuming she will not submit to his unbelief by joining him in unbelief. In other words, at the most important level, she won’t submit to his ideas. “I’m not joining you in unbelief. Kill me.” And that’s not a contradiction of biblical submission, Peter says.
Number two: Submission does not mean leaving your brain and your will at the wedding altar. It’s not the inability or the unwillingness to think for yourself. Here is a woman who had heard the gospel. She thought about the gospel. She assessed the truth claims of the gospel. She apprehended the spiritual beauty of Christ, and she made a choice: “I submit to Jesus. I’m a Christian. I believe.”
Her husband also heard the gospel. The reason I believe that is because of the little phrase “disobedient to the word” (verse 1, NASB). That Peter chose that phrase to describe the husband’s unbelief means he’s heard the Word. And she can win him without a word because he’s heard the Word.
He thought about it, and he decided, “That’s not for me.” Her thinking was not governed by his thinking on this issue. And it’s not a contradiction to biblical submission.
Number three: Submission does not mean avoiding every effort to change a husband. The whole point of this text is how to change a husband! Isn’t it? You can win him—which means change the most important thing about him.
“Be subject to your own husbands, so that”—this is verse 1—“even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives.”
If you don’t care about the Bible, you might say submission has to mean taking the husband the way he is with no effort to change him. If you don’t care about the Bible, you might say submission has to mean that: “That’s what the word means. Take him as he is; no effort to change.”
But if you believe what the Bible says, you conclude paradoxically, “This text calls for submission as a means of changing him.”
Number four: Submission does not mean putting the will of the husband before the will of Christ. Now, the text clearly teaches that the wife is a follower of Jesus before and above being a follower of her husband. Submission to Jesus relativizes all other submission. Submission to government is relativized, submission to employers is relativized, submission to parents is relativized, submission to a husband is relativized—meaning Christ is supreme.
When I submit to Him, that may bring me into conflict with submission down here. This one is absolute; these are not. They are relative to that one. Christ I always submit to; these four overseers of life I usually submit to, but may not if they conflict with my King.
When it says that Sarah, in verse 6, called Abraham “lord”—it’s very interesting. I wish we had time to go into this. It’s “lord” with a little “l,” as in the phrase, “My lord.” It’s a throwaway phrase. You go back and read it. Just look in your little margin. You go back and read it in Genesis (18:12). It’s a throwaway phrase. There’s no big theological thing hanging on it at all.
Peter picks out the most insignificant little throwaway phrase: “my lord.” But when Sarah is described in Hebrews 11 as a woman of faith, it’s because she’s obeying her Lord with a capital “L” (verse 11).
There is no question where Abraham fits into her scheme, and there should be no question for any Christian woman where her husband fits in: like 10,000 miles below Jesus. And it’s for Jesus’ sake that she submits to him. That’s number four.
Number five: Submission does not mean that a wife gets her personal spiritual strength primarily through her husband. Now, don’t mistake. I believe I am called, and it is my vocation, to strengthen my wife and to be strong for her. She should draw down strength from me every day. I should stand for her, pray for her, live for her, be there for her. She should feel safe and helped by my existence, not depleted by my whining.
However, there’s going to be a day when John Piper’s not going to be there, probably. We both think I’m dying first. In that day, her primary source of strength will not have been lost. Agreed?
In this text, that is clear because this woman is being told, “Find your hope in God. Find your fearlessness in that hope. Find your personhood in that fearlessness, in that hope. And out of that strength, win this man!” That’s just the opposite of leaning on him. She hopes for the day when she can lean on him.
Number six: Submission does not mean a wife is to act out of fear toward her husband. Verse 6, second half of the verse, “You are her [Sarah’s] children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.”
In other words, your submission is free, not coerced. You give it because King Jesus summons you into this relationship to give it, not because you’re cowering before this man. When she submits, she submits as a free woman. She’s a Christ-freed woman.
That’s what submission is not. Those six things. What is it?
Submission is the divine calling of a wife to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts. I’ll say it another way. It’s a disposition to follow a husband’s authority and an inclination—notice these are heart words here, not behavior words only—a disposition to follow a husband’s authority and an inclination to yield to his leadership.
It’s an attitude that says things like this—let me put some words in your mouths, women, and see if you feel, “Okay, I want to talk like that.” Wife to husband: “I delight for you to take the initiative in our family. I am glad when you take responsibility for things and lead with love. I don’t flourish in this relationship when you’re passive and I have to make the family work.” Frankly, I think almost all married women want to talk like that.
Submission does not follow the husband into sin, I’ve said. So what if he asks you to do something you believe King Jesus would forbid? What do you say to him? Can submission function at that point in saying no? How would submission say no to an authoritative “join me,” in an act she cannot with a conscience join him in?
I’ll give you the words I think should come out of your mouth: “It grieves me when you venture into sinful acts and want to take me with you. You know that. You know who I am. You know I’m a Christian. It grieves me when you ask me to follow you into this. You know I can’t do that. I have no desire to resist you.” (You can add whatever word you use: honey, sweetheart, darling, Johnny—I hope not!)
“I have no desire to resist you. On the contrary, I flourish most when I can respond joyfully to your lead. But I can’t follow you into sin. As much as I love to honor your leadership in our marriage, Christ is my King.”
I think that’s the way submission says no. Submission says no. It has to say something like that for 1 Peter 3:1-6 to say what it says.
The reason I said a few moments ago, as I tried to unpack that definition, that submission is a disposition to follow a husband’s authority and an inclination to yield is that those dispositions and those inclinations can be there, and a wife can disagree with the direction a husband is about to go. Can you make that distinction?
Her heart is really inclined to follow. Her heart is really eager for him to be the leader. And he’s about to make a decision that she thinks is really bad. Now, I’m talking about a Christian. I’m talking about Noel and John.
So I’ll try to put words into Noel’s mouth. Suppose John, having talked with his wife a long time, is still about to make a very stupid decision, as Noel considers stupidity. He obviously doesn’t think it’s stupid, or he wouldn’t be doing it. But she thinks it’s a foolish decision. I don’t know—it could be financial, it could be something around the house, or whatever. It’s not sin. We’re not talking about sin here, just, “Why would you do that?”
What should she do? Here’s what I think she should say: “Johnny, I know you’ve thought a lot about this, and I love it when you take the initiative and think a lot about things and plan for us and take the responsibility like this. But really, I don’t have peace about this decision, and I think we need to talk about it some more. So could we maybe tonight, or at lunch on Monday?” Case closed.
Now, there are four reasons why I think that is submission. Here they are:
- Number one: Because husbands, unlike Christ, are fallible and should admit that they need wisdom from their wives, especially in regard to family things.
- Number two—this is probably the most important: Because husbands ought to want their wives to be excited about family decisions since Christ wants the church to be excited about His decisions. He does not want begrudging obedience from the church: “I think this is a stupid decision, but You are God, and I’ll follow You.” He does not want that! That is not honoring to King Jesus, and husbands don’t want that kind of following.
- Number three: Because of the way she spoke to me. She found a way, verbally, to endorse my leadership and express delight in my usual patterns of behavior. Just not this one.
- And number four—this is the most controversial, probably: Since 1966, two years before we were married, she has made it clear to me and reaffirmed it year after year along the way—sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly—that if we have talked about this as long as we can talk, and you, John Piper, still think you should do that, your decision holds, and I’m backing it. In a good marriage it almost never comes to that. But the fact that she’s willing to say it is huge for a man and for Christ.
So I end with a reminder that marriage is not mainly about staying in love. Marriage is mainly about covenant keeping. And the reason it is mainly about covenant keeping is because it’s mainly about the relationship between Christ and His covenant people, the church. And defining that relationship of Christ and the church is leadership and following.
Therefore, if in a marriage we say it doesn’t matter whether we deal with a wife’s submission and a husband’s headship, we are preparing our marriages to lie to the world. Marriage is created in this world to display Christ and the church, and in this loving relationship a magnificent bond is formed that, when it is lived out, is beautiful to watch.
And perhaps I should end on this note: Christ came for His church and died for her in order to bring about her everlasting, holy joy. Therefore, it cannot be bad news in a Christian marriage when that is happening. When a wife is following that kind of sacrificial lead, it is beautiful to behold.
Nancy: Amen. And what a beautiful picture Dr. John Piper has given us of marriage the way that God intended it to be. Dr. Piper will be back to pray in a few moments. But before he comes, I think it would be appropriate for us to take an Old Testament selah. That means “pause.” Stop and think about what you just heard. And if you’re married, I’m going to ask to you to consider this question: Does your marriage tell the truth about Christ and His church?
I so appreciate the way that Dr. Piper has helped us understand what biblical submission is and what it is not in the context of marriage. When it comes down to it, the ultimate issue is: “Is my heart submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ?” If it is, then a reflection of that submission will be seen in my willingness to come under God-ordained human authorities.
So I just want to encourage you to say, “Yes, Lord” to whatever God has said to you today. Maybe there’s even a need for repentance, saying, “Lord, I’ve resisted the authority and the leadership of my husband. I’ve not modeled what it means for the church to submit to Jesus Christ.”
And oh, how I pray that our lives as women will model to the world the beautiful faith of fearless submission.
Now, let’s pray with Pastor John Piper.
Dr. John Piper: Father in heaven, I so long for the husbands and wives of our church to grow up into this calling of headship and submission, biblically understood. I long for single people to embrace their singleness, while they have it, as Your calling on their lives and to embrace this vision as You summon them to it.
And I pray for children to get it and to want it, to dream about it someday, and to mature into it sooner than many of our young people do today because they’ve been so ill-taught on the maturities of manhood and womanhood.
And I pray for those who are 60, 70, 80, maybe alone, that they would embrace this vision, pray this vision, teach this vision, command this vision. And God, grant that the world would see Your Son and His covenant-keeping love, and His church modeled in wives in her covenant-keeping love. I pray this now in Jesus’ name, amen.