Since Sarah called Abraham “lord,” should wives always submit to their husbands?
Today we’re going to discuss whether women are supposed to be submissive to their husbands.
A lot of people believe that’s what the Bible teaches.
Researching all the women in the Bible
One of the Bible study classes I conduct at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, CT is about all the women in the Bible. It takes about 9 months, meeting once a week, to get through all this information. There are a lot women in the Bible!
Doing the research for this class brought things to light I had never seen before and it put a lot of things in perspective that are often taken out of context. Part of today’s episode comes from what I learned teaching that class.
So-called Biblical womanhood
But what impels me to address this topic right now, is a book I just finished reading called The Making of Biblical Womanhood, How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth* by Beth Allison Barr.
I highly recommend it. The author pulls the carpet out from under the assertion by the patriarchal system throughout much of church history, that women should be subservient to their husbands, and men in general.
She shows, in fact, that what is called Biblical womanhood by some churches today, is actually not based on the teachings of the Bible at all, but has crept into the church over centuries, and with greater influence than ever before in the last few decades.
Focus on one story
There’s no way cover this whole topic in a short podcast episode. And there are many facets to the discussion about the relationship between husbands and wives.
There are many Bible verses used to argue both for and against wives submitting completely to their husbands.
I’m simply going to use one Bible story in particular to bring out a point that is often misconstrued, or left out completely from the discussion.
And just to be transparent here. I am a guy talking about women in the Bible. So I am bring my perspective to the discussion here, but I try to be as objective as possible and see what the Bible texts actually say.
Wives submit to husbands verse
One of the most often quoted Bible verses used by those who believe women should submit to their husbands on all matters, is from 1 Peter:
For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. 1 Peter 3:5, 6 NIV
Here’s the verse referred to:
So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?” Genesis 18:12 NIV
Sarah was laughing because she and Abraham had just been informed by God’s messengers that Sarah would have a son.
Some people say that since Sarah referred to her husband as her lord, that meant she was submissive to him.
What I learned from teaching the Bible class about all the women in the Bible at the prison, is that Sarah and Abraham had quite an interesting relationship.
If you read all chapters that talk about Sarah, beginning with Genesis chapter 11 all the way through chapter 25, you get a very different picture of Sarah and the way she interacted with her husband than what that one verse in 1 Peter says.
Sarai obeys Abram
There are many times when Sarai does what Abram tells her to do. When they went to Egypt, Abram told her to say she was his sister. And she was obedient.
This happened again in the land of Abimelech. There were many times when Sarah did what Abraham told her to.
Abram obeys Sarai
But there were also many times when Abram did what Sarai told him. For example, since she couldn’t have children, she told her husband to have a child with Hagar, her Egyptian slave, with the idea that she could somehow have that count as her child.
She tells Abram what to do. That doesn’t sound like she is submitting to him at all, does it? And Abraham does what she tells him.
That doesn’t sound like a wife only doing what her husband tells her or always asking him what to do.
And in regard to Hagar, Abram tells her to think for herself and make up her own mind. He did not always tell her what to do. He treated her as an equal.
This is a back and forth relationship where each one submits to the other on occasion depending on the situation.
God tells Abraham to obey his wife
The most interesting time Abraham does what Sarah tells him to happens after Sarah gives birth to Isaac.
Sarah tells Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham is not happy about this idea.
But God tells him to obey his wife.
This is what is almost always left out of the discussion about Sarah submitting to Abraham.
God Himself is telling Abraham to obey his wife. Hmmm…?
Does that sound like the husband always makes the decisions in the home? Is the husband always right, just because he is the husband?
Is this Sarah submitting to her husband? Not at all.
Marriage based on equality
From everything I read about Sarah and Abraham, it seems clear they have a marriage based on equality and mutual respect. Sometimes Sarah obeys Abraham. Sometimes Abraham obeys Sarah.
There is no submission based on gender. It’s based on what is closer to right. It’s what God directs them to do
So, thinking about the story of Sarah and Abraham and their relationship, how can their situation apply to marriage today?
For me it means both husband and wife should seek God’s guidance directly and freely talk about what they should be doing individually as well as how to work together as a team.
Throughout the 30+ years of our marriage, my wife and I have worked diligently to have a relationship based on equality. Neither one of us is subservient to the other. My wife has a direct relationship to God, just as I do.
She needs to listen to me, just as much as I need to listen to her.
Listening to God
We’ve been the most successful in our relationship, when we have both listened to God for direction and talked about things to find the best way to approach a situation.
There have times when my wife was right about something. Other times I was right. If it all depended on just one of us to make a choice, that’s not really valuing the direct connection each of us has to God.
It’s about turning to God for the answers.
Does God ordain gender roles
Another related issues to marriage is: Does God, through the Bible, assign gender roles such as women always being in the home, doing the cooking, etc.?
There are certainly examples in the Bible of women serving family members and guests.
I think of Peter’s mother-in-law, after Jesus healed her of a serious fever. She got out of bed and expressed the normal hospitality to those in her home.
People love to talk about Martha serving company in her home.
These things all happened. But does that mean it’s a gender role ordained by the Bible? No. there are lots of things in the Bible that are not ordained by God.
Men also prepared and served meals
Jesus also served meals. He multiplied the loaves and fish to feed the hungry crowds and had his disciples, many of whom were men, serve the crowd.
He served a meal on the shore of the Sea of Galilee to a few of his disciples after his resurrection. (See John chapter 21.)
Why are these examples not turned into Biblical gender roles?
The crux of the matter is asking God for guidance. A man and a woman can do that equally well.
Are women the weaker sex?
I want to touch on one more verse from the passage in 1 Peter already quoted. It’s often used to argue that women are the weaker sex and should be subservient to their husbands, even all men.
This comes directly after the verse referring to Sarah calling Abraham lord.
Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. 1 Peter 3:7 NIV
What’s going to hinder your prayers is not being respectful of your wife.
Let’s look at that word weak. It comes from the Greek word asthenace’. It means “without strength.”
What does that mean, the women are the weaker partner? That women have no strength?
What does it actually mean to be weak?
Listen to what Paul says:
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame/confound/ the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame/confound/ the strong. 1 Corinthians 1:27 NIV/KJV
If you are going to claim that women are the weaker sex based on 1 Peter 3:7, you also have accept that God has chosen women, whom you define as weak, to confound or shame the arrogance of men who think they are stronger and wiser.
You can’t just take one Bible verse and make a final conclusion. You need to look at everything the Bible says on a given topic to get an overview of what’s really being said.
Jeremiah supports this idea from 1 Corinthians. He says
This is what the LORD says: “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches,” but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD. Jeremiah 9:23, 24 NIV
Can a man be weak?
Is this so-called weakness a negative thing? A “less than” or a “not as important as” thing? I don’t believe it is.
Should a man ever be weak?
Paul says he delights in weakness and that when he is weak, he is strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)
The world may define women as weak, but when they trust in Christ, they are strong.
When we realize, male or female, we do not have the personal strength or ability to do something on our own, when we realize our own weakness, then we turn to God, lean on Him, and are strengthened by Him.
Can “weakness” be a strength?
Is perhaps this so-called weakness of wives actually a strength?
Jeremiah says that the strong and mighty should not glory in their own abilities, but in the fact that they know God.
Maybe what Peter is calling the weakness of wives is actually their willingness to trust God and depend on Him instead of themselves.
That is true strength. When they are weak, they are strong. That’s true for men and women.
Back to Sarah and Abraham
Sarah was by no means submissive to her husband at all times. Abraham by no means lorded over his wife at all times, insisting that she always obey him. On many occasions he obeyed her.
I just want to reemphasize the fact that those verses in 1 Peter 3:5, 6 which I quoted at the beginning about Sarah calling Abraham her lord, do not paint the whole picture of Sarah and Abraham’s relationship.
Read the Bible for yourself
This is why it’s crucial to read the Bible for yourself and study everything it has to say on a given subject.
We need to ask God to open our eyes to see things we haven’t seen before.
Nobody pointed out to me the ideas I’ve been talking about here. They came to me because I was preparing to teach a Bible class in my prison ministry. I was studying the Bible for myself.
You need to read the Bible for yourself and see how it speaks to you. That’s why I call my podcast The Bible Speaks to You.
You might see things next week that you never saw before and it could change your whole perspective on a given topic.
One thing I hope you’ll take from this discussion is not to accept everything someone says about the Bible just because they’re some religious authority. For example, that all wives should submit 100 per cent of the time to their husbands because of that verse in 1 Peter.
Go the Bible and read it with a fresh light, even when you think you understand it.
This is how got a whole new perspective on Sarah and Abraham because I saw things I had never seen before. And I wasn’t just taking someone else’s word for it.
So don’t take my word for what I’ve said here. Go read those chapters in Genesis for yourself. I would love to hear what insights you get about Sarah and Abraham’s relationship.
Marriage is about each partner listening to God
Sarah and Abraham had a beautiful, not perfect, relationship. I was based on equality and mutual respect.
If you are married, I hope you and your spouse can bring some of the ideas here into your relationship, turning to God directly for help, listening for His voice and His guidance together.
Husbands, if your wife has a better idea about something than you do, have the humility to do what she says.
Wives, if your husband is right, go along with it.
It really boils down to listening for and obeying God’s direction.
James Early, the Jesus Mindset Coach, is a Bible teacher, speaker, and podcaster. He conducts Bible workshops online and in person. His focus is on getting back to the original Christianity of Jesus by embracing the mindset of Christ in daily life. Contact him here.
Bible verses quoted this week:
1 Peter 3:5, 6 NIV
5 For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands,
6 like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord.
Genesis 18:12 NIV
12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”
Genesis 12:11-13 NIV
11 As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are.
12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live.
13 Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”
Genesis 20: 13 NIV
13 And when God had me wander from my father’s household, I said to her, ‘This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.” ’
Genesis 16:1, 2, 5, 6 NIV
1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar;
2 so she said to Abram, “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said.
5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me.”
6 “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.
Genesis 21:8-12 ESV
8 And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.
9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing.
10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”
11 And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son.
12 But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named.
1 Peter 3:7 NIV
7 7 Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.
1 Corinthians 1:27 NIV/KJV
27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame/confound/ the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame/confound/ the strong.
Jeremiah 9:23, 24 NIV
23 This is what the LORD says: “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches,”
24 but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD.
2 Corinthians 12:10 NIV
10 … for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.