Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

Happy Friday, everyone. Welcome back to the podcast. As many of you can imagine, when one spouse gets saved and the other spouse does not, it leads to new tensions inside the home. Maybe you don’t need to imagine such tensions. Maybe this is your reality. At least five times, we have addressed these tensions on the podcast. (See APJs 397, 680, 1029, 1560, and 1690.) And this now includes today’s episode. It’s a question from a woman who listens to the podcast. Here’s her question: “Dear Pastor John, hello! Although I have always identified as a Christian, I just recently experienced the new birth as a married woman with children at age 34.” Praise God! “My husband, however, is not a Christian. Jesus has transformed my life. And though my husband has been supportive of me until now, he does not want me to be baptized. I feel the time has come for me to be baptized. But I don’t want to go against my husband’s expressed wishes either. Ephesians 5:22–24 says I should submit to my husband. First Peter 3:1 speaks of the influence of a wife’s conduct on her nonbelieving husband. But I am called by Jesus to be baptized. So should I go against my husband’s wishes?”

When all is said and done, my bottom-line answer is going to be yes. But for that act to be pleasing to the Lord, there is more that needs to be said, so let’s take a few minutes and think about this.

The uniform teaching of the New Testament, whether it’s Ephesians 5 or 1 Corinthians 11 or Colossians 3 or 1 Peter 3, is that husbands are to be the head of their wives the way Christ is the head of the church, and that wives should be in glad support of that leadership, that headship, which the New Testament calls submission.

So, I would define submission like this: the disposition of a wife’s heart and mind, for the sake of Christ, to give glad support to her husband’s leadership. And the reason I use that kind of definition — namely, a disposition of heart and mind to comply gladly with the husband’s initiatives and leadership for the Lord’s sake — is that those two aspects of the definition, the disposition and for the Lord’s sake, provide limitations on the absoluteness of obedience to the husband.

Two Limits to Submission

The first limitation is implied in the words “a disposition of heart and mind,” because you can have a disposition to comply even if sometimes, for godly, biblical reasons, you may not comply. In other words, there is a huge difference between a biblically submissive wife, who occasionally sees biblical reasons not to comply with something her husband expects, and a defiant wife, or just an egalitarian wife, who is resistant to the very notion that her husband has a God-given responsibility to exercise initiative and authority in their relationship. There’s a big difference.

“She is first and foremost under the lordship of Christ. That’s what it means to be a Christian.”

And the other limitation that my definition puts on absolute obedience to the husband is when it says that her glad support for the husband’s leadership is “for the Lord’s sake.” That’s really significant. What I mean by that is that she is first and foremost under the lordship of Christ as a Christian. That’s what it means to be a Christian. And then derivatively, not absolutely, she is under the leadership of her husband.

So Paul says in Colossians 3:18, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” And Ephesians 5:22 says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Now both of those statements that connect submission with the Lord imply that submission to the husband is flowing from a prior reality that’s higher and more authoritative — namely, being in the Lord or having Jesus as your Lord.

Then Peter makes this connection most clear when he begins his section on submission — to state, masters, husbands — in 1 Peter 2:13. He says, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” Now that’s huge. All obedience to humans is subordinated to obedience to Jesus, the absolute Lord. We do things for his sake, in submission to him, under his lordship.

Obedience to Jesus sends us into earthly relationships with the disposition to serve and acknowledge God-given authority. But that same obedience to Jesus limits our obedience because Jesus does not send us to be obediently disobedient to him. The words of Peter in Acts 5:29 fly like a banner over all Christian relationships: “We must obey God rather than men,” they said.

Obedience and Opportunity

So now, in regard to the decision of this wife to be baptized while her husband disapproves, here are several implications I would draw out.

Christ’s Command

First, when it comes to the command of Christ versus the command of a husband, the command of Christ will take precedence over the command of the husband when they’re in conflict, as they are here, it seems. This is what it means to have Jesus as your Lord. Baptism is a command of the Lord Jesus. In the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19–20, he said that making disciples of all nations included baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

“Obedience to Jesus limits our obedience because Jesus does not send us to be obediently disobedient to him.”

Baptism never became merely optional in the ministry of the apostles. There’s no evidence of any Christians in the early church who were not baptized. The assumption in all the Epistles is that Christians have been baptized. It belongs together with faith as an outward expression of our death with Christ and our resurrection in him to newness of life. That’s the first thing.

Her Disposition

Second, choosing to be baptized against the desire of a husband does not mean that a wife has abandoned her disposition of heart and mind to give glad support to her husband’s leadership. This exceptional act of non-compliance can be pursued without defiance and without anger, and with respect and affection, and with a longing expressed to her husband that he would see in her a loyal wife who delights to be responsive to his initiatives and leadership. But on this particular point, her greater allegiance is to Jesus and his call to be baptized.

Her Approach

Third, I would emphasize that she doesn’t need to be precipitous or hasty in her action, but for her husband’s sake and for peace and hope she can go slowly (it seems like she has) and pray and seek to help him understand, as much as he’ll let her. She does not need to give any impression that she’s acting irrationally, but that she has come to this decision carefully, thoughtfully, and would love to include him in the process — and, indeed, have him be a part of the event as well.

His Opportunity

And finally, by way of encouragement, even though this is a point of tension between her and her husband, it may turn out that by the conversations they have about the meaning of what she’s doing and why she’s doing it, that this would be one of the most clarifying things for him about the very meaning of Christianity. What does it mean that his wife is a Christian?

It may be that some of his resistance to baptism is owing to a very superficial understanding of what it is and what it really means to be a Christian. And this decision on her part may give her an opportunity to explain to him the profound reality of spiritual death with Christ and new life in the Spirit and all the implications of what it is to be forgiven and accepted and loved and indwelt by the Holy Spirit with the hope of everlasting life.

Few things will provide as clear an opportunity for a wife to make plain to an unbelieving husband what it means for her to be a Christian as for her to explain — in great detail, perhaps — what the greatness of baptism stands for. So I will pray that God gives you great grace and wisdom as you move forward, and that your husband will not only be agreeable, but someday join you in the life that baptism really stands for.