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A Husband’s Authority is Limited (He is Not Pastor or King)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Christians got a severe wake-up call to what it looks like when one sphere of authority (the government) takes more power than it has been granted. Some people lost the ability to travel, go to church, work at their jobs, and run their businesses, while others were forbidden from visiting their elderly and dying relatives.

My own government’s actions (in Canada) led many Christians to do a deeper study of Romans 13, a chapter that describes the God-given role of government authority. A close reading of that text, especially in harmonization with other passages, shows that the government does not possess sovereignty over all of life. It has a rightful authority, but it is limited and for a specific purpose.

Just as life is difficult and unstable when living under a tyrannical government, so it is for a wife and children living under the roof of a tyrannical husband. In this article, I will explain the doctrine of “Sphere Sovereignty,” which provides limits on all human authority, including that of the husband. This will show women how, when, and why they can refuse their husband’s leadership when necessary – without being unsubmissive in the Lord’s eyes.

What is Sphere Sovereignty?

“Sphere Sovereignty” is a doctrine that teaches that God has ordained different spheres of life (family, church, and state), each having a unique purpose and head of authority. Think of a sphere like a jar. In one jar you have laundry detergent, and in another jar you have cereal. The jars separate the two different kinds of contents because they are not the same and have different purposes. In the same way, God created the government to ensure justice and protect its citizens from enemies, while He designated the church to handle worship and spiritual care, and gave the husband the responsibility of overseeing family affairs.

Where is Sphere Sovereignty in the Bible?

“Sphere Sovereignty” is primarily a structural argument induced from Scripture, much like the doctrine of “church membership.” It looks at the “obey/submit” references to church leaders (Heb 13:17), husbands (Eph 5:22), and the government (1 Pet 2:13-14) and simply answers the question, “How can someone submit to each of these if there’s a disagreement between one or more parties?”

If, for example, your government told you to do one thing and your husband told you to do something different, you would be left in an impossible situation. There are only two ways to solve this dilemma. The first way is to see either the government or the husband as sovereign, thus having the freedom to overrule the lesser authority. The other way is to view each authority (husband, church, government) as limited, being delegated by God with the authority necessary to carry out its function in life.

The Bible refutes the idea that the government has authority over all areas of life and can do anything it pleases. One story that illustrates this is about King Uzziah, who entered the “temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense” (2 Chron 26:16). The King believed he had the freedom to insert himself in the area of worship, which was actually delegated to the priests. The priests recognized this infringement and told King Uzziah, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense” (26:18). God himself showed that He agreed with the priests by striking King Uzziah with leprosy (26:19,21).

A similar thing happened to King Saul who “offered the burnt offering” (1 Sam 13:9), which was not in the realm of his authority. Samuel rebuked him saying, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God” (1 Sam 13:13). The Lord agreed with Samuel that He had not given the government authority over the realm of worship. As a punishment, He stripped the kingdom from Saul (1 Sam 13:14) and put David in his place. In both of these examples, we see that the government cannot do just anything it pleases but must act within the realm that God has ordained for it. It has a legitimate, but limited, authority.

The Husband’s Authority is Limited

In God’s economy, He has set the husband as head over his children and wife. Children are to obey both parents (Eph 6:1), and the wife is called to submit to her husband (Eph 5:22, Col 3:18). Just as with the government, the husband does not have the right to do whatever he pleases. There are two instances where a wife needs to disobey her husband. In each of these instances, she is not being unsubmissive but rather is being submissive to the rightful authority over that particular sphere of her life.

The first instance is where the wife is told to break one of God’s commandments. In this case, she should have the mentality of the apostles who proclaimed that they “must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). And so if your husband asks you to sell someone a broken product without disclosure (fraud) or encourages you to watch pornography with him (adultery), you have an obligation to obey God rather than your husband. Your husband has a limited authority and when he asks you to sin, he is acting as if his authority is higher than God’s.

As a caution to women, there are a variety of debatable or unclear issues in Scripture. In these matters, follow your husband’s lead, as he will be the one responsible if he makes a poor decision. One example would be if one of you wants to baptize your child and the other doesn’t believe in infant baptism. Or maybe you feel convicted to abstain from using birth control (non-abortive birth control), while he wants to avoid having more children right now. Follow his lead and judgment on these debatable issues if, after sufficient discussion, you still do not find agreement. God has given him this authority and your calling as a wife is to yield.

Another instance when a wife is obligated to disobey is when her husband tries to take authority over an area of life that he does not rightfully possess. If your husband tells you to do or not do something where the government or church has a rightful authority, you must disobey him in order to obey them. For example, if your husband tells you to not file taxes, or to ignore a summons to court, he does not have the authority to make these decisions. For you to disobey him is not to be an unsubmissive wife, but rather it means you are being submissive to the proper authority that God has delegated (1 Pet 2:13).

Likewise, if your husband tells you to stop going to church (or tries to make you join a church that denies any basic doctrine of Christianity), or if he asks you to stop practicing spiritual disciplines, he is once again trying to take authority over an area delegated to another sphere. Forsaking the gathering of the church and the practice of spiritual disciplines may be in direct violation of your church membership vows, not to mention a violation of God’s Word. I recommend consulting with your pastor(s) and following their counsel, as they have a responsibility before God for your spiritual well-being (Heb 13:17) and can intervene in spiritually abusive situations. 

Once again, this is not unsubmissive behavior, but submissive behavior. You are recognizing your husband is not sovereign over all areas of life but has limited authority. He cannot set his “throne” above God or act like Kings Uzziah and Saul by disregarding church authority and taking spiritual matters into his own hands.

A Word for Wives Married to a Tyrant

God does not invest all earthly authority in husbands, but instead delegates different types of authority to the family (led by the husband), the church, and the state. As a woman, you are called to submit to all three.

If your husband is urging you to sin, you must disobey him in order to obey God. If your husband opposes your practice of Christianity, or is acting in a spiritually abusive manner, you should inform your local church authorities who can help to ensure that you have the freedom to worship God and participate in the life of the church. If you or your children are in a physically abusive situation, you should contact local police (or if uncomfortable, at least another trusted person), who can ensure you are protected. They have been given the authority to adjudicate the case and discipline him (Rom 13:4).

A wife who finds herself in the justified but unfortunate place of having to disobey her husband’s directions should not feel as though she is ungodly or unsubmissive. As a follower of the King of Kings, she recognizes God alone as the ultimate Sovereign. In honor of His authority, she obeys all rightful human authorities that God has placed in her life.

Jeremy G.

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