When Pastor John was in Edinburgh, Scotland, he answered questions from the audience in one setting, and one of those questions is from a wife who is a Christian but is married to an unbelieving husband. She asks, “Where do I draw the boundary lines in my submission to him?” Here’s the interchange, moderated by local pastor and church planter for 20 Schemes, Andy Prime.
Andy Prime: Someone has asked, “I was saved after I got married. I accept the biblical teaching that my husband is the head of the house and family. What advice do you give to a woman in this situation?” So I’m presuming the husband is an unbeliever.
Won Without a Word
John Piper: Well, there’s a text written for you. First Peter 3:1–6 is written to women who are married to unbelievers. So my first advice would be to memorize those verses. And they are most remarkable. I love those verses. I love them for myself, frankly. Most of the texts that are written for women in the Bible, I find very helpful for me. But that’s the place.
The burden of that text is that your life is essential to your words. I mean, it says that he “may be won without a word” (1 Peter 3:1). I don’t think that is an absolute, meaning, “You can’t ever talk about Jesus with your husband” — because he’s got to know you’re a believer, or he can’t be converted. And it says he will be converted. So he’s got to know the gospel.
“The absoluteness of Jesus relativizes the subordination of a child, a wife, a citizen, and a church member.”
And so, I think it means, “Don’t harangue him. Don’t nag him. Don’t preach at him. But in all humility and all lowliness, somewhere along the way, lay your heart bare before this man, as to where you stand and why you’re there.” Not in a preachy way, but in a testimonial way: “This is why I love Jesus. I believe that loving Jesus will help me love you better. So please don’t think that when I put him first, I’m loving you worse. It doesn’t work that way, honey. It doesn’t. It doesn’t. I will love you better for loving him more.” Now he may find that unintelligible, but you need to then show that; you need to prove that.
What Jesus Says Goes
It’s very complex in a day like ours, when spousal abuse is the first thing people think of, often, when you talk about submission. But there is a real kind of submission that does not make your husband your absolute Lord. That text makes no sense unless Jesus is your Lord above your husband, because you’re aiming to convert the husband to the Lord that’s above you both. And if you’re aiming to convert your husband, clearly you have not submitted to his wrong ideas.
Think through the implications of this text for what submission does and doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that your brain has been surrendered to the unbeliever’s brain, because if it were, you’d become an unbeliever. And the text clearly says, “Stand your ground, woman. Stand your ground.” You have an independent relationship with the Lord that’s authentic and unshakable. No matter what he says, no matter what he does, this is real. Jesus is your Lord, and you want him included in that. That’s remarkably independent — in a sense, you might say non-submissive.
So at the level of intellectual commitment, you’re committed to Jesus, not to what the husband believes, which means that submission has a flavor about it that is not absolutistic in the sense of “This man is my Lord — whatever he says goes.” It doesn’t. Whatever Jesus says goes. But oh my, once you have rested in Jesus and longed to show this man as a leader — that is, honor his leadership, though he may not even be a leader — you’re going to do everything you can to honor that leadership and call out of him all the initiatives, all the protection, all the provision.
“There is a real kind of submission that does not make your husband your absolute Lord.”
Those are the three words that I think headship implies. Protecting this woman means I’m going to die for her if I have to. She is my woman. Nobody can have her but me, and I’m protecting her against everything that might hurt her. Number two, I’m going to do everything I can to provide for her. Even if I’ve got a disability and she has to work for me, I’m going to do everything I can to be the provider. And I’m going to take initiatives. I’m talking to men now really, but that’s what she wants to awaken and win from him.
I think there are submissive ways to say no to an unbelieving husband. If he wants you to do group sex, you’re going to say, “I can’t. I love you, but I think this is bad for you, bad for us. I can’t do that because of Jesus.”
With all the texts in the Bible that talk about subordination — children to parents, wives to husbands, citizens to governments, and church members to elders, those four groups — all of them are qualified. They’re not absolute, right? You don’t do everything the government says. You don’t do everything a wacko elder says who’s left the faith. You don’t do everything parents tell you to do if they try to get you to join them in sinning in some way. The absoluteness of Jesus relativizes, qualifies, the subordination of a child, a wife, a citizen, and a church member.