Should a Wife Submit To an Unrepentant Husband?

Submission is a hot topic in today’s culture, but it’s nothing new for the Christian. The Bible gives us guidelines on how to think about submitting to another person, even unrepentant spouses.

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Warning – There are some marriages where it would be harmful for the wife to talk to her husband because of the repercussions. If your husband is abusive, leave your spouse immediately, find safety first and then seek help.

In our imperfect world, both spouses rarely repent equally or consistently. Typically, one of the partners will “walk out repentance” while the other one lags behind in his repentance. In a worst case scenario, one of the marriage partners may go years without repenting or possibly never desire to transform into Christlikeness.

“Should I submit to an unrepentant spouse” is a common question that spouses ask me. It is a hugely important question in a world full of sin. As you might surmise, this question has several layers, which is why it is not possible to answer the query with an absolute “yes” or “no.”

  • Yes, you should submit to your unrepentant husband.
  • No, you should not submit to your unrepentant husband.

Like so many questions that we bring to the Bible, the answers typically fall within the realm of “wisdom issues,” those gray areas where the Bible is not explicit. Much of the time we do not find what we are looking for in a one-two-three, neatly tied with a bow, formulaic answer.

Here are a few of the things I would want to work through while serving a wife who has an unrepentant husband. And many of these ideas apply to an unrepentant wife.

Humility

Humility Must Be Your Starting Place – Before you begin assessing how you are to respond to your unrepentant husband, you must first address your own heart (Matthew 7:3-5).

  • Are you regularly pursuing humility?
  • Are you consistently resisting pride?

If you are, you will be able to think correctly and clearly, with the Spirit’s help, regarding what you are supposed to do with your husband.

While God provides grace to the humble, He will also resist a proud soul (James 4:6). Before you can examine another person, it is mandatory that you evaluate your heart first. This essential first step will determine how the process will go for you and your spouse.

The gospel must inform your attitudes and behaviors. Christ lived a submitted life on earth to rescue you from your sin. (Read Philippians 2) He took the lower position. Though He was a better person, He humbled Himself by dying on a cross so you could be free.

He was the innocent; you were the guilty. But the primary issue was not about who was more righteous. This gospel-centered perspective on resolving relational conflict is critical.

Let the gospel inform and guide your motives and decisions. It will help you to walk in humility. The gospel loudly proclaims from Golgotha’s Hill that the more significant sin is what you did to Christ. If you are living in the good of this gospel truth, you are ready to think through your marriage struggles.

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Authority

No Human Has Absolute Authority – Regardless of the type of relationship one individual has with another, there is no biblical warrant for absolute submission to humans. For example, there may be times when a spouse or a friend asks you to sin. You cannot submit to what they are requesting.

What is your husband asking you to do? Is he asking you to sin? If so, you should appeal to him, letting him know that you cannot sin against God or your conscience.

Is your husband abusing you? If he is, he’s committing a crime, and he’s sinning against a fellow image bearer (James 3:9-10). You must flee from the abuse while appealing to the authorities to intervene. You should also ask your pastor to step into your marriage.

Partial

Partial Submission Is Biblically Required – Though your husband may not be leading you well, because of his lack of humility and his lack of submission to God, you are still required to submit to him. At least partially. He is your functional authority in the marriage. Peter taught a similar truth when he told the servants to submit to their ungodly masters:

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.

For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it, you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.

For to this, you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. – 1 Peter 2:18-21

Examination

Examine Your Heart To Determine Motives – Why would you not want to submit to your spouse? Why would you submit to him? It is essential to answer these questions.

In either case, your answers should be more about God than you. Your point for submitting should be so God can do great work in the heart of your husband, and so you can make the Lord’s name great.

Your primary motive must not be a desire to be unsubmissive so you can measure out revenge or anger on your husband. Sometimes wives can be angrily unsubmissive as a way of paying their husbands back for their harsh treatment of them. If this is your situation, you are as ungodly as your husband.

Note how Peter not only addressed the issue with the servants, but he kept the narrative going by helping wives to see the point in submitting to their husbands when he said,

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives—when they see your respectful and pure conduct. – 1 Peter 3:1-2

Leadership

Lead Your Husband From Behind – Paul taught that it was the “kindness of God that brings change” to our lives (Romans 2:4). The critical point for the wife is to help her husband change so he can glorify God by his life. Thus, you must ask,

  • Would my lack of submission help him change?
  • Would my lack of submission be “kindness” to him?

While I would never condone any husband’s sinfulness, it is also never right to withhold the love of Christ from a person because they do not deserve it. None of us deserve the kindness, patience, or forbearance of God. But our awfulness did not stop Him from loving us well.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:32

The gospel not only calls you to be mature in the relationship, but it empowers you to be different than your husband. You do not have to be as sinful as he is. You can show the love of Christ, especially when he does not deserve it. Isn’t this what Christ did for you? Do you want to be Christlike?

Appeal

Appeal To a Higher Authority – Finally, if your husband is sinning and is refusing to repent, after several requests to him, be released to go to a higher authority. Talk to your small group leader or elder or pastor. Bring others into your marriage. You are entirely within your biblical rights to do so.

It is never right to let sin continue. Do all that you can do to serve your husband and if nothing else works and you believe you have exhausted your appeals, find help. One of the best ways you can serve your husband is by allowing others in on the “secret” of your marriage.

If your husband was “physically hurting” and you could help him, it would be unloving to let him continue in his pain. You must enlist others to resolve the physical suffering.

It is even worse to allow a person to continue to live in “spiritual dysfunction” when you have the power and the opportunity to do something about it.

Warning – There are some marriages where it would be harmful to the wife to talk to her husband because of the repercussions. If your husband is abusive, leave your spouse immediately, find safety first and then seek help.

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