Must a Wife Always Follow Her Husband’s Leadership?

Do you have a category for Abigail? Everything about the story in 1 Samuel 25 commends Abigail, who is a foil for her wicked and foolish husband Nabal. For example, verse 3 describes her as “intelligent and beautiful” and her husband as “surly and mean.”

(The below picture is from The Action Bible.)

I emailed this to a friend earlier this week:

I was just reflecting on the story of Nabal and Abigail in 1 Samuel 25. This nicely illustrates a difference between authoritarianism and complementarianism.

  • Authoritarianism would say that Abigail sinned by not “submitting” to Nabal since she sent David and his men a lavish gift without telling Nabal, who had expressly refused to give David and his men anything.
  • Complementarianism would commend Abigail for wisely not following her wicked husband and for shrewdly saving her household in a way that honored the Lord.

Are you aware of any books or articles making this connection? It’s an important one, I think, especially re how alleged complementarians (who are really authoritarians) encourage women to endure sinful abuse of various kinds in the name of submission.

The next day another friend of mine posted this from Nancy Wilson’s Building Her House: Commonsensical Wisdom for Christian Women:

The commands of submission and obedience are only difficult when we disagree with our husbands. If we agree with them and do what they say, it can hardly be called submission. Submission comes into play when we differ with them over an issue, but we defer to them and willingly give way.

But what about when the husband is in sin? This is a very important issue. What if the husband has adopted a wrong attitude and is heading in the wrong direction? Is a wife obligated to go along? It all depends.

I have often been saddened that we don’t see more Abigails in the church today. She was not afraid to call her husband a fool and make arrangements behind his back without his permission [1 Sam. 25]. God blessed her abundantly for intervening in this way. She did not stay home and wait for David to attack her household while calling herself a submissive wife. She recognized that her husband was acting the part of a fool, and she exercised wisdom and prudence by going to King David herself.

If a man is acting foolishly, a woman is foolish to go along quietly. Of course this requires great wisdom. I am not advocating giving wives license to disobey in a willy-nilly fashion; that is what I am objecting to in the paragraphs above. But there are times when a godly wife should beseech her husband not to act in a foolish manner. It may involve doctrine. Perhaps she is alarmed that he is being attracted to heretical ideas, whether it is “openness theology” or Roman Catholicism. She should speak to him respectfully about this and let him know she cannot follow him there. If she belongs to a godly church, her elders would support her in this.

Perhaps he is plotting to create some kind of stink in the church. Abigail would not stand for it. A good Christian wife should go to the elders and ask them how she can be a good church member and a good wife at the same time. She should not simply stand by, hoping that her husband will do the right thing. Nor should she just accept anything her husband does as though he is infallible. If a husband is bad-mouthing his elders, his pastor, or his friends, a godly woman should refuse to go along. She should speak to him privately first, but if he is not receptive, she should go to her pastor or elders and seek their advice. This same pattern should be followed if a husband is violent, if he has a temper, if he is cheating on his income taxes, if he is not providing for the household, or if he is being sexually unfaithful in any way—and this is not an exhaustive list.

A wife is to be a helper to her husband, not a blind follower, and this sometimes involves going past him to get help. God blessed Abigail when she did this. In her case it was abundantly clear what was necessary. In other cases it might require pastoral input and oversight. But obedience and submission to a mere man is never absolute. God governs all of us. We demonstrate that we serve Him above all others when we realize that our submission and obedience to our husbands is always to be lived out within the boundaries God has wisely set for us. (pp. 44–45)

“Abigail obeys God rather than her husband (cf. Acts 5:29)” (Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007], 650).

Some alleged complementarian churches are really authoritarian and don’t have a category for an Abigail not following her husband.

How many women’s consciences are misinformed such that they think submission entails blind, mindless, unquestioning obedience?

There is a better way. For starters, read chapter 6 in this book (cf. my review).

Qualification

I don’t mean to imply that this is the point of 1 Samuel 25. It’s not.

I agree with cautions about abusing OT narrative. See, for example, Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, “The Old Testament Narratives: Their Proper Use,” ch. 5 in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 89–106.

I’m merely drawing what seems to be a valid inference. The story seems to implicitly illustrate a doctrine taught propositionally elsewhere.

Cf. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, “An Overview of Central Concerns: Questions and Answers,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem; Wheaton: Crossway, 1991):

5. What do you mean by submission (in question 4)?

Submission refers to a wife’s divine calling to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts. It is not an absolute surrender of her will. Rather, we speak of her disposition to yield to her husband’s guidance and her inclination to follow his leadership. (See pages 46-49) Christ is her absolute authority, not the husband. She submits “out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). The supreme authority of Christ qualifies the authority of her husband. She should never follow her husband into sin. Nevertheless, even when she may have to stand with Christ against the sinful will of her husband (e.g., 1 Peter 3:1, where she does not yield to her husband’s unbelief), she can still have a spirit of submission—a disposition to yield. She can show by her attitude and behavior that she does not like resisting his will and that she longs for him to forsake sin and lead in righteousness so that her disposition to honor him as head can again produce harmony. (p. 61, bold added)

8. When you say a wife should not follow her husband into sin (question 5), what’s left of headship? Who is to say what act of his leadership is sinful enough to justify her refusal to follow?

We are not claiming to live without ambiguities. Neither are we saying that headship consists in a series of directives to the wife. Leadership is not synonymous with unilateral decision making. In fact, in a good marriage, leadership consists mainly in taking responsibility to establish a pattern of interaction that honors both husband and wife (and children) as a store of varied wisdom for family life. Headship bears the primary responsibility for the moral design and planning in the home, but the development of that design and plan will include the wife (who may be wiser and more intelligent). None of this is nullified by some ambiguities in the borderline cases of conflict.

The leadership structures of state, church, and home do not become meaningless even though Christ alone is the absolute authority over each one.

  1. The New Testament command for us to submit to church leaders (Hebrews 13:17) is not meaningless even though we are told that elders will arise speaking perverse things (Acts 20:30) and should be rebuked (1 Timothy 5:20) rather than followed when they do so.
  2. The command to submit to civil authorities (Romans 13:1) is not meaningless, even though there is such a thing as conscientious objection (Acts 5:29).
  3. Nor is the reality of a man’s gentle, strong leadership at home nullified just because his authority is not above Christ’s in the heart of his wife.

In the cases where his leadership fails to win her glad response, we will entrust ourselves to the grace of God and seek the path of Biblical wisdom through prayer and counsel. None of us escapes the (sometimes agonizing) ambiguities of real life. (p. 62, bold and numbering added)

Update: Some related articles:

  1. Douglas Wilson, “How Jerks Define the Golden Life
  2. Bob Bixby, “Sapphira—When Standing by Your Man Will Kill You
  3. Douglas Wilson, “When Wives Say No

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for this article Andy! We are just getting to Col. 3:18-19 in our Sunday morning Bible Study and this post was providentially timely. Hope you and your family are doing well.

  2. Christian Markle says

    Andy, I am certainly thankful that you added your qualification. I really am not sure that Abigail is a good example of what often is the case in our culture nor am I sure that God really intended her to be used as a good example of how to handle these cases. I am certain as I prepare for a series on the Book of Judges that even those held up as “hero’s of the Faith” in Heb 11 are not to be emulated as pure examples of Christian piety. I am still working through some of my thinking on how a wife should respond in some of the cases you mention, but I am glad you caught yourself and qualified.

  3. says

    Great article. This is a hot topic in the church today, as far as I’m concerned.

    Men need to get back to being men. Fathers need to be better fathers. We need to love our wives like Christ loved the church. (Yea, I’m preaching to myself here as well.) Women need to respect their husbands and, if necessary, “win them” without a word. If the bulk of the American Church started doing this, the world would take notice.

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