Denying Submission

Boundaries author, John Townsend redefines biblical submission and says husbands must submit to wives.

This article goes into necessary detail to refute the non-biblical beliefs in the Boundaries teaching about submission. If you would rather see a short summary, please scroll down to the conclusion.

The Boundaries article What Biblical Submission in a marriage really means begins with this disclaimer: “What follows is not a full treatise on submission, but some general issues you should keep in mind.

Sadly, the conclusions of the article contradict what Scripture teaches. 

First the author claims that “both husbands and wives are supposed to practice submission, not just wives.”  This is an increasingly popular belief that is often presented by taking Ephesians 5:21 out of context.

Let's look at the full passage and see what it actually says:

Ephesians 5:21-24: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

If submission applied equally in all relationships, verses 22-23 would not give specific instructions to wives.  

Ephesians 5:21 addresses the type of submission that all Christians must have. It's a general consideration of others (Philippians 2:1-5), and a willingness to honor authority in the church, at work, in the government, and in certain organizations (Romans 13:1-10; Hebrews 13:7).  

Boundaries author, John Townsend redefines biblical submission and says husbands must submit to wives.
Ephesians 5:21 doesn't mean that everyone submits equally to everyone else because "mutual submission" is impossible. Submission means yielding to someone and letting them take authority. It's impossible for two people to mutually yield to each other, both being in submission and both being in authority. That's why leadership is a normal, healthy part of life and a normal, healthy part of marriage. 

Boundaries author John Townsend goes on to say: “Submission is always the free choice of one party to another. Wives choose to submit to their husbands, and husbands choose to submit to their wives.” 

What's wrong with this statement:

✔ Scripture never speaks of husbands submitting to their wives. Never. 

✔ Scripture speaks of a wife's submission and commands wives to submit in multiple passages: Genesis 3:16Ephesians 5:22-24Colossians 3:181 Peter 3:1-6; Titus 2:3-5; 1 Corinthians 11:13; 1 Timothy 2:11-14This is not a vague Bible concept.

✔ As I explained above, mutual submission is an oxymoron, an impossibility. 

✔ Obeying God "is always the free choice of one party." But it's always the right choice.

But Townsend goes further off track claiming "Whenever submission issues are raised, the first question that needs to be asked is, What is the nature of the marital relationship? Is the husband's relationship with his wife similar to Christ's relationship with the church?"

It's quite appropriate to explain that a wife should not agree to ungodly requests from her husband. Colossians 3:18 explains that wives submit "as is fitting in the Lord." If we're submitting to please the Lord, we won't violate His commands in the process.

However, Scripture does not make submission dependent on the husband's godliness. The Bible commands wives to submit to husbands who aren't even saved:

"Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives." 1 Peter 3:1-2

In 1 Peter 3:1-7 wives are commanded to be reverent and submissive and husbands are commanded to love and protect their wives. If we follow Townsend's reasoning about wives only submitting when husbands are Christlike, it would be logical to say that husbands need not love or protect their wives unless their wives are fully reverent and submissive. But neither of these conclusions is biblical.

Townsend goes on to explain that a woman must have free choice not to submit to her husband or she is simply "a slave 'under the law.'" Being under the law means obeying Old Testament laws that were fulfilled in Christ and no longer applicable to Christians. Submission does not apply to this definition because it is a New Testament, New Covenant command. We obey New Testament commands out of love for our Lord and trust in His wisdom to know what is best for us. 

Just as Townsend offers a non-biblical definition of submission, he has a non-biblical definition of being "under the law" basing it on the wife's emotions and feelings. If a wife has "all the emotions the Bible promises the law will bring: wrath, guilt, insecurity, and alienation," then the husband has placed her under the law. Townsend references Romans 4:15 and Galatians 5:4 which address salvation by faith and have nothing to do with feelings, relationships, emotions, or marriage. These passages warn against the belief that the law can save us. Unless a woman believes that submission saves her soul, these verses don't apply.

Furthermore, Christian obedience is never based on our unreliable emotions and feelings. In fact, negative feelings can be warnings that we've sinned (2 Corinthians 7:10).

For the undiscerning, Boundaries teachings appear to be biblical. But Cloud and Townsend misuse and misapply out-of-context Scriptures more often than they use them correctly. See Boundaries Unscriptural Foundation.

Townsend then compares the husband to Christ in ways never intended in Scripture, claiming a husband must offer his wife freedom, grace, unconditional love, and no condemnation, washing his wife of "all guilt."

Believing a husband must perfectly reflect Christ’s grace in order to receive his wife’s submission is as wrong as claiming that being like Christ allows the husband to send his wife to hell if she doesn't trust in him. No husband can perfectly emulate Christ and no husband has the ability to wash his wife of all guilt.

Because 1 Peter 3:1-2 tells wives to submit to unsaved husbands, we know that submission is not dependent on our husband's character. It's dependent on our character as wives. 

Submission allows us to discuss, disagree and respectfully debate decisions with our husband. But in the end, we trust God by submitting to our husbands.

If our husband tells us to do something against God's law, we don't submit because God is our highest authority (Colossians 3:18). But aside from ungodly requests, we let our husband lead even when he makes mistakes. He isn't perfect, nor are we.

We can't read 1 Peter 3:5-6 and come to the conclusions taught by this Boundaries article:

"This is how the holy women of old made themselves beautiful. They put their trust in God and accepted the authority of their husbands. For instance, Sarah obeyed her husband, Abraham, and called him her master. You are her daughters when you do what is right without fear of what your husbands might do." 

Abraham wasn't perfect. Our husbands aren't perfect. But God, who commands us to submit, is perfect.

Read about the way one wife submitted to her husband's unreasonable request and built a bridge instead of a boundary in Speak Your Mind Even if You Lose Your Marriage.

I'm surprised at the bias in Townsend's statements like this one: "Usually husbands who quote Ephesians 5 turn their wives into slaves and condemn them for not submitting." 

I'm also surprised at the narrow scope of Townsend's experiences when he says: “I have never seen a 'submission problem' that did not have a controlling husband at its root. When the wife begins to set clear boundaries in marriage, the lack of Christlikeness in a controlling husband becomes evident because the wife is no longer enabling his immature behavior.”  (underlining mine)

Since Townsend believes most men who quote Ephesians 5 want to enslave their wives, it's not hard to see why he believes all submission problems are the fault of the controlling husband. His bias in this area disqualifies him from speaking on the subject.

Townsend enables wives to reject the principle of submission, and he contradicts both Scripture and experience. 

I've led women's Bible studies for over 45 years, and based on my first-hand experiences with scores of Christian women and based on my own experiences, I can testify that many women struggle with submission even when our husbands are godly and reasonable. 

Do some men abuse the concept of submission? Yes. And so do some women. In fact, none of us do it perfectly. We all mess up at times. But our failures don't make God's design any less relevant or healthy.

I can speak as an "authority" in this area because I've been married to the same man for over 50 years, and I became a Christian before he did, so I first learned to submit to a non-believer and since then I've learned to submit imperfectly to a godly but imperfect husband. 

Conclusion:

Townsend's conclusions about submission are not biblical. He starts by claiming that submission must be mutual, a belief that clearly contradicts multiple Scriptures and contradicts the meaning and function of the submission in a family setting. 

Next, he claims that submission is a choice, not a command, and a wife should only submit if a husband is a good reflection of Christ. He bases the husband's worthiness on his wife's emotions and feelings.

Besides ignoring multiple passages and using a few passages that don't apply, Townsend's bias against husbands completely disqualifies him from speaking accurately on the subject. His article is designed to support the non-biblical concept of boundaries, not to give a fair and accurate description of any aspect of submission. 

If you want to see how this plays out in Boundaries teachings, I recommend you see my review of the Boundaries article Speak Your Mind Even if You Lose Your Marriage.

Those who follow Townsend's advice will lose the benefits, growth, and maturity that God offers through the concept of biblical submission. If you genuinely want to understand the beauty of biblical submission, don’t trust Boundaries, trust your Bible. 

(1) This article expresses the same beliefs as Chapter 9 of the book Boundaries "Boundaries and Your Spouse."

Here are some articles that teach the truth about biblical submission:

An Army Wife’s View of Submission

Why Mutual Submission is Impossible

Nancy Le DeMoss: What Submission Means, podcast with transcript.

Focus on the Family: Submission of Wives to Husbands

Ligonier Ministries: The Beauty of Submission in Marriage

For a collection of helpful articles about specific Boundaries errors in their teachings about marriage, family, and church relationships, see Are Boundaries Biblical Collection.

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