Situational Obedience

By Erin Ortega, from Arise newsletter:

Erin Ortega lives in Southern California with her husband, Erick. She is a passionate, Jesus-loving intellectual. In addition to egalitarianism, she also has a passion for cross-cultural work, teaching, emotional health, and worship ministries. You can find her on Facebook.

It occurred to me as I was reading Philemon recently that Paul actually uses the word, hypakoe (Phm 21), translated as “obey” when he asks Philemon to comply with his request to free the slave, Onesimus. This is significant because many Christians believe that wives are called to obey their husbands. Though some complementarians use the term “submission,” they are often actually talking about one-way obedience.

Paul and Philemon are both men, but their relationship paints a picture of how obedience should play out between adults. By studying how Paul uses hypokauo, we can gain a greater understanding of the biblical usage of the term, thus shedding light on how submission or obedience should look in a marriage.

It’s important to note that Paul does not demand Philemon’s compliance. In the passage, Paul makes a request of someone he considers his equal, a partner in ministry and co-apostle, and he uses this term, hypakoe.

Most significantly, there is no indication that Philemon is in a relationship with Paul that requires one-way, absolute, binding-for-all-time obedience. With the same authority that Paul makes his request, Philemon is free to either grant it or not.

With this in mind, what should obedience look like between two equals? Is the idea that one gender owes another timeless obedience really compatible with the whole of Scripture?

Spirit-filled adults are called to obey other adults, but it doesn’t look like the one-way submission of complementarianism. Women in the body of Christ are not called to one-way, absolute, binding-for-all-time obedience. Instead, both men and women are responsible for making godly decisions based on their gifts. Both are called to obey and submit to each other at different times in different situations.

According to most complementarian theology, the freedom Paul offers Philemon in choosing whether to comply is not offered to wives in their marriages. Though most complementarians agree that it is wrong for a husband to force his will upon his wife, broadly speaking, this philosophy does not truly allow for a wife to make her own decision when her husband makes a request of her. Certainly, she can choose not to “submit,” but her decision will usually be regarded as both sinful and unbiblical, rather than evidence of a mature adult exercising her agency to choose.

A wife is to comply with her husband’s requests, obeying him in all situations regardless of her gifting or her opposition to his decisions. The husband is free to make decisions unilaterally that affect the direction of the family, and a wife is called to humble submission even in disagreement. She may state her disagreements but ultimately, she is expected to fall in line if her husband still wishes to proceed with his decision.

Is this the way that Paul approached Philemon when he requested something of a mature adult and spiritual equal?

To be fair, typical complementarian theology does allow for “disobedience” if the husband asks his wife to do something that is clearly sinful. But a wife is not truly free, as Philemon was, to grant or refuse a husband’s request. The wife does not exercise her own will as her husband’s spiritual equal, because she is called to one-way, absolute, binding-for-all-time obedience. Much of this practice is rooted in the complementarian understanding of the husband’s position as “head.”

We must keep in mind that the actual meaning of the word “head” or kephale is highly debated among scholars (see the work of Dr. Alan F. Johnson in Priscilla Papers). I would also argue that building an entire theology around the idea that one partner must always submit to the will of the other based largely on an ambiguous word (kephale) is patriarchy at its best. But that’s another article for another time.

Let’s get back to the word in question. Often, people use terms like “submit” and “obey” to build a legalistic, oppressive theology that does not match how the original authors used the terms.

Some assert confidently that women do have to obey their husbands, quoting 1 Peter 3:5-6:

“For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror.”

Notice that Sarah’s obedience to Abraham is an example of her submission to (i.e. respectful cooperation with) her husband, not necessarily a state of being that is constantly required of her.

A close scriptural study of Abraham and Sarah’s relationship reveals that there were times when Sarah made significant decisions and Abraham followed (Genesis 21:12). Abraham did not always “set the agenda” for their lives. He did not always lead. There is no indication in Genesis that God was disappointed with this, or that Abraham should have led more consistently.

Sarah’s obedience was situational. God likely honored Sarah for leaving her homeland and following her husband to a new land. That took a lot of faith on her part! And there were other acts of cooperation that 1 Peter 3:5-6 might refer to. Perhaps the passage refers to Sarah’s acceptance of Abraham’s news when he announced that God had renamed her (Genesis 15:12). We can’t be certain which act of obedience 1 Peter is commending and using as an example.

In Genesis 21:12, God even tells Abraham to obey Sarah. By observing how Abraham and Sarah lived together, we can see that their submission/ obedience was both mutual and situational. It’s also interesting to note that Abraham called other men “lord” (Genesis 18:3) indicating that the term was one of respect, and did not always indicate one who has power over another.

We can also say for certain that God did not honor all of Sarah’s acts of obedience to Abraham. When Sarah complied with Abraham’s request to lie to the king and say she was his sister (Genesis 12), God was angered and punished Pharaoh until he released Sarah. God’s response does not imply that he was pleased with Sarah’s obedience or Abraham’s leadership in this situation.

How then, can we say that one gender is always meant to be the leader when clearly either gender may wander off track?

If 1 Peter 3 is meant to be understood as a mandate for women to obey their husbands in all situations without exception, then this chapter would appear to applaud Sarah for complicity with Abraham in his lies. This contradicts the “rule” complementarians often state–that a woman should not submit if her husband is asking her to sin.

This is where complementarians appear to make up their own rules to cover the failures in their theology. If the verse is meant to be understood as a timeless rule, then there is no room for disapproval of Sarah’s actions. If it is meant to be situational, then it is just that–situational.

I considered the instances of hypakoe in a concordance and noticed that, most commonly, believers are praised for their obedience to the Lord. The term is rarely used as an admonition with regard to relationships between people. In fact, we are cautioned against obeying anything or anyone other than God (which I would assume also would include constant, guaranteed obedience to one specific person, e.g. husband) in Romans 6:16.

As illustrated by Paul and Philemon, Scripture portrays obedience as an exchange of respectful requests between spiritual equals who have a choice of whether or not to “obey” one another. Believers are not commanded to obey other believers for the entirety of their life on earth.

Obedience or submission is situational and each case must be judged individually.

It is my hope that the church will come to understand obedience as a mutual give-and-take between Spirit-filled adults rather than a one-way power structure where the man’s will always prevails.

Remember, man’s way isn’t always God’s way. Deborah said so to Barak in Judges 4:9, as did Abigail to David in 1 Samuel 25. Often, a Spirit-filled woman is what is needed to bring new insight into God’s will and plan for the world.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.