Unless you were born on another planet, you are most probably acquainted with the book series and now the blockbluster movie, “50 Shades of Grey.” Because of this cultural phenomenon, the media is currently obsessed with the idea of feminine submission; an idea that has become a topic of every talk and news show across the United States. But, as Christian women, we are confronted with a different “shade” of submission, as presented to us in scripture . How do we, as contemporary Christian women, who are independent, self-sufficient, self-directed, and confident in our own skin; embrace the construct of wifely submission? Isn’t this the opposite of empowerment? Is this what God desires for us, as females created in the image of God? It is a series of difficult questions that we must ask, and then negotiate the answers, and to which scripture holds the key and the truth.
Maybe our first step for understanding what we should know about biblical submission, is to actually consider the definition of the word:
SUB – MISSION. This is a compound word which simply means: SUB – “under, or from below.” MISSION – “an assignment or a task.” Therefore, the word “submission” means to get under the mission, or to position one’s self for the mission from the vantage point of below. So, biblical submission is more about the task or the assignment (from God), than about being humbled or obedient to another person. In other words, whether male or female, we are ALL called to submit to the mission and the assignments which are sent to us by God.
Perhaps, the second step is consider what we have heard or have been taught about biblical submission. For the most part, our impressions about female submission in the bible come from the following New Testament scripture:
“Wives, be subject to your husbands, as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which He is the Savior.” (Ephesians 5:22-23)
Almost to a complete point, this is the text which has given SO MANY wives, so much concern, as we struggle to accept the idea of being a submitted wife. The text goes on to say: “In the same way, husbands should love their wives, as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” (Ephesians 5:28)
While this is certainly the primary proof text in the New Testament to present the idea of feminine, wifely submission in marriage, as composed by Apostle Paul, here are some of Paul’s other thoughts about submission for varying circumstances:
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” Ephesians 6:5
“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak; but must be in submission, as the law says.” 1 Corinthians 14:34
“Let every person be subject to the government authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” Romans 13:1-2
So, if we, as Christian women and men, are to blindly follow the submission teachings of Apostle Paul, and without question, then we are to believe:
Slaves should obey their masters. Women should not speak in church. Every person should be subject to governmental authority because these authorities are instituted by God.
Obviously, something is sorely missing in these Pauline teachings, since we can all imagine scenarios where these advisements are not only gravely misinformed; but, outright dangerous! Therefore, the question becomes: Are we to blindly submit, as these texts suggest, or are we to “test the spirits ( 1 John 4:1) to discern whether the mission (or intent) is truly from God?
As thinking Christian women, who know we are given the authority to study and question scripture, “testing the spirit,” means we have the right to question whether the call to submit to our husband, or to anyone else comes from God, or comes from somewhere else. So often, dominance, power, and control is the real motive in marriage, or in other earthly relationships. These three have nothing in common with authentic partnership, or the assignments and tasks which we are to undertake for our service to God.
Looking to the Old Testament for a model of a submitted wife, we find the empowering story of Abigail, which provides a better and more realistic model of submission for contemporary Christian women; who may either already be a wife, or who one day hopes to be. Let’s read the story found in the 1st book of Samuel, Chapter 25, giving special attention to the bold verses:
And now, THE WORD from our SPONSOR . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1 Samuel 25 New International Version (NIV) 1-40
David, Nabal and Abigail
Now Samuel died, and all Israel assembled and mourned for him; and they buried him at his home in Ramah. Then David moved down into the Desert of Paran.
2 A certain man in Maon, who had property there at Carmel, was very wealthy. He had a thousand goats and three thousand sheep, which he was shearing in Carmel. 3 His name was Nabal and his wife’s name was Abigail. She was an intelligent and beautiful woman, but her husband was surly and mean in his dealings—he was a Calebite.
4 While David was in the wilderness, he heard that Nabal was shearing sheep. 5 So he sent ten young men and said to them, “Go up to Nabal at Carmel and greet him in my name. 6 Say to him: ‘Long life to you! Good health to you and your household! And good health to all that is yours!
7 “‘Now I hear that it is sheep-shearing time. When your shepherds were with us, we did not mistreat them, and the whole time they were at Carmel nothing of theirs was missing. 8 Ask your own servants and they will tell you. Therefore be favorable toward my men, since we come at a festive time. Please give your servants and your son David whatever you can find for them.’”
9 When David’s men arrived, they gave Nabal this message in David’s name. Then they waited.
10 Nabal answered David’s servants, “Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse? Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days. 11 Why should I take my bread and water, and the meat I have slaughtered for my shearers, and give it to men coming from who knows where?”
12 David’s men turned around and went back. When they arrived, they reported every word. 13 David said to his men, “Each of you strap on your sword!” So they did, and David strapped his on as well. About four hundred men went up with David, while two hundred stayed with the supplies.
14 One of the servants told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, “David sent messengers from the wilderness to give our master his greetings, but he hurled insults at them. 15 Yet these men were very good to us. They did not mistreat us, and the whole time we were out in the fields near them nothing was missing. 16 Night and day they were a wall around us the whole time we were herding our sheep near them. 17 Now think it over and see what you can do, because disaster is hanging over our master and his whole household. He is such a wicked man that no one can talk to him.”
18 Abigail acted quickly. She took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five dressed sheep, five seahs[b] of roasted grain, a hundred cakes of raisins and two hundred cakes of pressed figs, and loaded them on donkeys. 19 Then she told her servants, “Go on ahead; I’ll follow you.” But she did not tell her husband Nabal.
20 As she came riding her donkey into a mountain ravine, there were David and his men descending toward her, and she met them. 21 David had just said, “It’s been useless—all my watching over this fellow’s property in the wilderness so that nothing of his was missing. He has paid me back evil for good. 22 May God deal with David,[c] be it ever so severely, if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!”
23 When Abigail saw David, she quickly got off her donkey and bowed down before David with her face to the ground. 24 She fell at his feet and said: “Pardon your servant, my lord, and let me speak to you; hear what your servant has to say. 25 Please pay no attention, my lord, to that wicked man Nabal. He is just like his name—his name means Fool, and folly goes with him. And as for me, your servant, I did not see the men my lord sent. 26 And now, my lord, as surely as the Lord your God lives and as you live, since the Lord has kept you from bloodshed and from avenging yourself with your own hands, may your enemies and all who are intent on harming my lord be like Nabal. 27 And let this gift, which your servant has brought to my lord, be given to the men who follow you.
28 “Please forgive your servant’s presumption. The Lord your God will certainly make a lasting dynasty for my lord, because you fight the Lord’s battles, and no wrongdoing will be found in you as long as you live. 29 Even though someone is pursuing you to take your life, the life of my lord will be bound securely in the bundle of the living by the Lord your God, but the lives of your enemies he will hurl away as from the pocket of a sling. 30 When the Lord has fulfilled for my lord every good thing he promised concerning him and has appointed him ruler over Israel, 31 my lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself. And when the Lord your God has brought my lord success, remember your servant.”
32 David said to Abigail, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. 33 May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands. 34 Otherwise, as surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, who has kept me from harming you, if you had not come quickly to meet me, not one male belonging to Nabal would have been left alive by daybreak.”
35 Then David accepted from her hand what she had brought him and said, “Go home in peace. I have heard your words and granted your request.”
36 When Abigail went to Nabal, he was in the house holding a banquet like that of a king. He was in high spirits and very drunk. So she told him nothing at all until daybreak. 37 Then in the morning, when Nabal was sober, his wife told him all these things, and his heart failed him and he became like a stone. 38 About ten days later, the Lord struck Nabal and he died.
39 When David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, “Praise be to the Lord, who has upheld my cause against Nabal for treating me with contempt. He has kept his servant from doing wrong and has brought Nabal’s wrongdoing down on his own head.”
Then David sent word to Abigail, asking her to become his wife. 40 His servants went to Carmel and said to Abigail, “David has sent us to you to take you to become his wife.
One of the very first things presented in the story of Abigail, David, and Nabal, is the description of Abigail and her husband. There is stark contrast between Abigail and Nabal: she is described as beautiful AND intelligent, while Nabal is described as surly and mean. Clearly, Abigail is a wife to her husband, indicating, if we follow the reasoning of New Testament Pauline teaching on submission, Abigail is to submit to her husband, without question. However, as the story unfolds, we discover that Abigail is married to a fool, literally. Nabal’s name in Hebrew translates to “folly,” or “fool.” It is a certainty of the text, that David, his men, and Abigail, and her servants must grapple with Nabal’s foolish decisions.
In this particular context, David and his men are protecting the property interests of the nation of Israel in general, and specifically, Nabal and Abigail’s property. The hospitality laws of Israel provided for those who were fortunate enough to have ample resources of food, shelter, and water, to extend to those in need. In this case, David and his men are doing a great service to Nabal, by providing protection from marauders and thieves who would steal and plunder their property. David assumes Nabal will provide the food and water he requires for his men; but, to his utter surprise, Nabal the fool, denies the hospitality requested. David is so insulted by Nabal’s blunt rejection of hospitality, that David promises to wipe out his entire household, even though he realizes, in doing so, God will be displeased with his actions.
Interestingly enough, the servants of Nabal, recognizing the possible outcome of David’s revenge, bypass Nabal, and go straight to Abigail, with the dire news of David’s intentions. Abigail, both intelligent and strategic, loses no time in preparing a massive feast for David and his men. She knows the actions of her husband must be quickly reversed, so she takes the feast to David, herself, and with all of the feminine savvy, she states her case. She does not ask or tell her husband anything. Just as interestingly, she does not mention to David that Nabal is her husband. The day is saved. David releases her household from his death pledge. The story ends with Nabal drunk and ultimately, out of the picture. David requests her as his wife and Abigail consents. Abigail, by marrying David, becomes Queen. Quite the opposite of what a blindly submitted wife would do, when we consider the Pauline suggestions!
Questions for our consideration and discussion
Considering the Pauline texts listed above, how do these texts make you “feel” about submission? Explain why you are either uncomfortable or comfortable with these texts?
Do you ( or would you) have any objectives submitting to your husband? Under what circumstances would you and would you not?
When, how, and why does Abigail submit? Who does Abigail submit to?
How does the story of Abigail differ from the ideas of feminine submission presented to us in church and in the main culture?
What are some of Abigail’s most admirable characteristics? How is she similar to a contemporary Christian women?
Under what circumstances is submission dangerous? What does the scripture mean by “testing the spirits?”
Finally, how can you take this story and make it your own? How does this story inform us of empowerment, as contemporary Christian women?
In the book, “Night,” by Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor, Jewish-American professor, and political activist, he writes: “Man raises himself towards God by the questions asked of Him.” As women of God, we can take this to mean, we have the God-given right to ask questions of scripture. Without grappling with the “shades of gray,” scripture often presents, we can find ourselves in a very dark and confusing place.
Reverend T.D. Jakes writes: “No woman wants to be in submission to a man who isn’t in submission to God!”
Written by: Maxine E. Garrett