When do I submit and when do I stand?

Most Christians have taught the ‘submit’ doctrine in a way that disempowers women. It teaches women to ignore their gut feelings, to put their legitimate needs and preferences and wishes aside. It discourages wives from using negotiation skills with their husbands. It deters wives from setting boundaries when their husbands behave selfishly or sinfully.

Here is a question we received from a reader who is separated from her abuser, but was thinking of going back to him:

I’ve been learning and leaning so hard on submission. How do I know when not to submit? And then how do I stand my ground when he pulls at the “you are displeasing the Lord” string? It’s as if I know he’s pulling it and he knows I know. It’s just so effective. It affects me. And it’s so awful because it’s repugnant that someone would do that and then claim to be a spiritual leader in their next breath.

When do I submit and when do I stand?

Here are our two answers:

Jeff —

In your case I would not recommend a head/submit model, particularly since there is so much confusion about what that truly means among Christians.

Instead, I would encourage you to approach the relationship with mutuality, serving each other as equal companions. See how he responds when you function this way. It will be a good test.

If your husband is a Christian, he will truly repent and turn from these sinful patterns, but do not be surprised if in the end you realize he is not changing. Very few of these people ever change.

If you do not have children with him, DON’T!   Not now. Don’t be duped by false repentance only to find out too late, after having a child with him, that you are stuck.

I would, in fact, recommend that you not return until he shows actual visible steps toward getting serious counseling by a counselor who understands men like your husband AND your husband sticks with that program for quite a time. Otherwise it is almost a certainty that your hopes will be dashed by his deception. We see such a scenario over and over again.

Barb —

Submit only if you are sure he is not manipulating you or coercively controlling you, and even then only if you feel that by submitting you will in no way be violating your own conscience.

Stand whenever you are unsure, whenever you feel that little gut feeling “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this.”

Stand even when you are not quite sure whether you are having that little gut feeling or not.

It’s quite okay to say (to yourself, or to him) “I want to take more time before I let you know what I’m willing to do or what I think about that…”

It’s safer to not submit if you are unsure. You can always change your mind later and choose to submit. But once you have submitted, it can be harder to re-set the boundaries up again later. If we submit when we are doubtful it is wise or safe to submit, we risk being deeply hurt by an unexpected arrow or cluster-bomb from the abuser. And after we’ve been hurt, we are less likely to be able to muster the strength and clarity of mind to re-set the boundaries in a timely and effective manner.

You have the right to take as much time as you need to sense out and assess your own feelings, your intuitions, your degree of comfort, your sense of safety.

Furthermore, when we have been under coercive control it takes time to become more aware of and honor our gut feelings (those little intuitions). It also takes time and application — reading, learning  — to understand and be alert to how abusers think and act. And it takes time to recognize the multitude of particular tactics which our own abuser has used against us.

I suggest you take a lot of time. Your husband will be pressuring you to come back to him sooner rather than later, but you are free to refuse.

Given that he has been showing many signs of being an abuser — his possessiveness, his pulling the headship card to assert his power over you, his emotional abuse, etc., you are free to say “No, not yet, Not sure when…”

Also, he is unlikely to unlearn the abusive mindset and behaviors he has grown so accustomed to while he is living with you. If he resumes living with you, he is much more likely to revert to his old habits and even develop some new, more underhanded, more subtle coercive control tactics to make it look to you like he isn’t being as bad as he once was.

He might have said he wants to change, but words are cheap. Unless he gets himself into a behavior change* program and works hard for a long time to undo his abusive mindset and beliefs, he is most unlikely to change. And even then, he might not have changed enough to be the kind of person you really want to live with.

If you are a born-again Christian, you would want to be living with a spouse who is a born-again Christian, someone who is truly regenerate, not just

  • someone who has ‘made a commitment’ at some altar call
  • someone who has ‘recommitted their life to Christ’ as a ploy to get you back
  • or someone who has had some kind of emotional experience which everyone thinks was conversion — but in time it proves to have been seeds sown on rocky ground.

Many abusers say at one time or another (often many times) that they want to change. Very few actually do change. Don’t go by his words. Pay attention to his BEHAVIOR and his ATTITUDES.

And beware when he plays the Pity card. Many abusers play the ‘pity me’ card to disguise the fact that they are intentionally seeking to have power and control over their target.


*Here are some articles on Behavior Change Programs at this blog:

Men’s Behavior Change — it’s not about doing therapy with the men 

Men’s Behavior Change Programs (Abuser Intervention Programs)

Men’s Behavior Change work – a report from the No To Violence conference


UPDATE  Sept 2021:  Barbara Roberts has come to believe that Jeff Crippen does not practise what he preaches.  He vilely persecuted an abuse victim and spiritually abused many other people in the Tillamook congregation. Go here to read the evidence. Jeff has not gone to the people that he spiritually and emotionally abused. He has not apologised to them, let alone asked for their forgiveness.

30 thoughts on “When do I submit and when do I stand?”

  1. And then how do I stand my ground when he pulls at the “you are displeasing the Lord” string?

    I don’t know if this is good Christian advice, but I would be inclined to see that as a manipulative tactic and run away.

    1. Don’t have time at the moment to do the research, so please forgive the “drive-by” comment. What I don’t have time to research is whether and where / when the alleged religious leaders of their day might have tried to play the “God card” on Jesus or any of God’s true prophets…. Anyone have any enlightenment to offer on this?

      1. Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning You’; and ‘On their hands they will bear You up, so that You will not strike Your foot against a stone.’”

        Jesus said to him, “On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
        (Matthew 4:5-7)

      2. An example of someone quoting scripture out of context to try to force Jesus to do what they wanted? Absolutely! That’s exactly what Satan did during Jesus’ 40 days temptation in the wilderness. Matthew 4:1-11.

  2. A question for that question-writer: What fruits does he display?

    Do you clearly see good fruits, the fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22–23, or do you regularly see disrespect, annoyance, impatience, focus on his own desires and interests, insistence that he must be right, pressure for you to do exactly what he wants and when he wants it, and his own failings excused due the failings of others and not himself?

    Remember—a person’s fruits are what they display as a general rule, not as the exception. If the bad fruit are normal, then stay away. No good tree can bear bad fruit as its normal! (ref. Luke 6:43, Matthew 7:18)

    Look at the verse preceding Ephesians 5:22:
    “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21, both NIV & Berean Study Bible).

    If his fruits are good, he’ll be practicing that—and he’ll be willing to let you make your own mistakes.

    Scripture clearly tells us that we are to not so much as eat with an abusive person who claims to be a believer (ref. 1 Corinthians 5:11). When an abuser claims you are displeasing the Lord, he is lying. You’re doing exactly as you’ve been commanded to do!


  3. Anytime we are learning a new behavior pattern, we must make a conscious effort to act in the new pattern. For a while, this may feel like (and even be) over-acting the other direction. That’s okay! It is a necessary part of learning the new pattern and practicing it until it feels comfortable.

    So, given that you’ve leaned far too much toward ‘submit’ in the past. Moving forward, you will need to intentionally lean more toward ‘take a stand’ in order to counter-balance your prior natural tendencies.

  4. Most people don’t seem to understand what submission even is. It is not unquestioned obedience. It is a give-and-take relationship thing. In Ephesians it says to submit to each other, then it goes on to say how wives are to submit to husbands, AND how husbands are to submit to wives, children to parents and parents to children. It just means to not always insist on your own way but to be gracious and kind, to pick your battles. Submission is a VOLUNTARY act of LOVE. It is not a demand. Nowhere does it say for husbands to make your wives submit. Any type of coercion is not of God. Does he submit to you? To the elders of the church (same word)? Jesus said to not lord it over anyone. Paul said in Christ there is no male or female. We are equal and free. To take away the freedom of another is of satan, not God.

  5. The very fact that you are asking this question on submission shows that you have a heart for God. A heart willing to make any sacrifice that God requires. You already have the “gentle and quiet spirit” which is so precious to God. (1 Peter 3:4)

    So why does this person make these hurtful accusations that you haven’t done enough to please God?

    That’s the voice of the accuser of the brethren. (Revelation 12:10)

    Let’s be clear—the devil is the unsubmissive one who rebelled against God.

    The devil is the one trying to usurp authority.

    The devil is the one whom God “will soon crush under your feet.” (Romans 16:20) You have already become “the righteousness of God in Christ.” (1 Cor 5:21)

    Whatever is born of God overcomes the world. (1 John 5:4)

    God is already pleased with you. (Acts 10:35). No one can withhold God’s approval from you.

    No one has the right to make these hurtful accusations towards you when “there is no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1)

    I agree with the other comments that this sounds like someone is trying to twist Scriptures to manipulate this person into submitting to the sin of abuse. By setting boundaries to protect ourselves, we are obeying the Bible’s instructions to RESIST sin by submitting to God and resisting the devil’s plan for stealing / killing / destroying.

    You have the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of you. Because “where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty” (2 Cor 3:17) there will be times when you can feel the Holy Spirit rising up inside of you, resisting whatever is trying to bring you under bondage. When that happens you might feel a struggle between the guidance of the Holy Spirit and everything you’ve been taught in church about submission.

    So how do we know when to submit and when to stand? That’s a great question.

    The good news is that Jesus gave you the power of yes and no in Matthew 5:37 (NLV) when He said, “Let your yes be YES and your no be NO, anything more than this comes from the devil.”

    Jesus gave you the power to make your personal decisions—to set boundaries in your life—to decide where to draw the line. But when someone else refuses to accept your yes / no and manipulates you into changing your yes / no to fit their will—that is not of God. The fruit of the Spirit is SELF-CONTROL not being controlled. (Galatians 5:23).

    The problem is that most of us grew up in church being taught that it’s a sin for women to make their own personal decisions. That obedience is their only option.

    That is NOT IN THE BIBLE! Look closely at the New Testament and you’ll see the Apostle Paul NEVER told wives to obey. He told CHILDREN to obey and wives to “hypotasso.”

    While the best translation of “hypotasso” is still being debated among scholars, we can look at how it applies in other verses of the Bible.

    The Bible tells BOTH men and women to “hypotasso” in 1 Peter 5:5.

    “You younger hypotasso to the older, ALL OF YOU hypotasso to one another and be clothed with humility for God RESISTS the proud and gives grace to the humble.”

    Submission is a two way street or it becomes manipulation and control when it removes your ability to say yes and no.

    Thank you Sunflower for pointing out that there’s a huge difference between a voluntarily yielding of ourselves and having our lives taken away from us as Jesus warned about in John 10:18 (NLT).

    “No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded.”

    Where you draw the line is your decision. Please don’t let someone take your life away from you. If someone points the finger at you, accusing you of being unsubmissive, just say “I can’t submit to SIN!”

  6. I completely agree with Jeff. I don’t think we as Christians understand the lead / submit model.

    I was really puzzled when I talked to a pastor about submission to elders. He said, it’s a model, like the church submits to Christ. I replied “and Christ submits to the Father”. He was obvious startled by that. He said he was disappointed that I was so “flippant”, and I said I was disappointed that he those three analogies gave him so much pause.

    The reason is that Evangelical lead / submit is so intertwined with superiority / inferiority. So, when I tell someone to submit, what I’m saying, by connotation, is that they are mentally, emotionally or spiritually inferior. So, the leadership of a church elder is wrapped around the idea that elders are somehow “better” than everyone else in all that means. Yet, when Christ submits to the Father, we can’t say that the Father is “better”, so it breaks down.

    So, my wife and I may be spiritually, emotionally and mentally different, but doesn’t mean I’m better or I’m worse. It means that we each have a lot of value to add to the relationship, and we shouldn’t dismiss one another.

    1. The reason is that Evangelical lead/submit is so intertwined with superiority / inferiority

      Yes! And this is how the abuser / psychopath / demons think too. It’s all about rank, position and where one rates in the hierarchy. When God tells us that someone is vulnerable such as when he refers to widows, orphans, foreigners and women, he is reminding his children that we need to be EXTRA careful with them lest we inadvertently harm them. It is not because they are less than or inferior to others but that God wants his children to represent HIM–by being considerate and kind towards the vulnerable. Considering that many of us here have felt and even been told that we are inferior shows us just how abusive the church system is.

  7. Hmmmmm…in the church I attend and sought counsel with, what was offered was like this:

    1) Your command is to obey…period. His lack of godly leadership / love does not give you the right to disobey him. Trust God with your circumstances.
    2) As long as he is not committing adultery or beating you, there is nothing the church can do to make him behave as a husband.
    3) Even if he is a despotic and tyrannical leader, you are not released from your obligation of obedience to him. (unless he asks you to break the law or commit some grossly immoral act, I would assume as this was never spoken but most Christians would agree to this exception)
    4) A wife has no rights except the ones her husband gives her.

    They would poo-poo this post and ask where is the Scriptural support for allowing a wife to stand in opposition to her husband. I did stand, on a few occasions and therefore cannot expect the church to support a formal separation until I repent. I find it crazy because repenting agrees with them that a wife has no rights, he is the final authority over her, etc. etc.

    Seriously…..this is crazy-making. At one point, I honestly felt early death was preferable until I got my wits about me through some godly friends. Now I think the second half of my life will be spent advocating to right the wrongs of some really twisted theology on God’s true plan for marriage in the church.

    As always…thank you so much for being a voice of truth and right thinking from the Bible!! And being courageous enough to act!!!

    1. So you’re a Muslim, right? Of course I’m joking but this is how oppressive and abusive your church’s teaching are!

      Someone wrote something like, “If a religion only works when a woman submits, than that religion is making the woman as powerful as God.” Of course this angers abusive men because by their twisted logic and wrong teachings they are trying to remind the woman that she is nothing and expendable as well, and to also place themselves in positions of power over the woman. But I loved how whoever wrote that used THE ABUSERS twisted logic and turned it on them.

      Isn’t it amazing and beautiful that the evil one has not been able to separate us from the Lord? Even after all the abuse we have received from these evil churches and the evil and abusers–here we are still searching and still seeking the truth through His word. And we have become stronger and our understanding has become even deeper. It is TRULY a miracle that this has happened and I’m so grateful for it.

    2. I stand with you Remedy for freedom from the misguided churches AND the marital oppression.
      These church counselors are blind guides, (like Job’s friends) and have led many into the ditch of misery with their twisted theology.
      Now that I am finally free from both of these evils I want to mention that “my conscience is clean”.
      I have NO guilt or regrets, about the battle I HAD to “proactively fight” to be free myself from their control.
      And the oppressors have finally backed off and are finally gone.
      It is indeed a battle worth fighting for.
      But your statement below also rings true with me…
      .. Now I think the second half of my life will be spent advocating to right the wrongs of some really twisted theology on God’s true plan for marriage in the church.
      Yes this is also true for me and possibly many others due to how much of our lives, and our children’s lives, the misconception in the church regarding marriage stole from us.

    3. Interesting that there is “nothing the church can do to make him behave as a husband”, yet there seems to be plenty the church can do to make you behave as a wife.

      Again, double standard and complete reversal of scripture. The church should be opposing your husband for misusing his authority. Your rights don’t come from your husband. Your rights come from being an image bearer of God. When the church sees someone trampling on your rights, they should be coming to the rescue.

      Paul says, “you shall not muzzle an ox while she is threshing” is a Biblical principle that gives workers the right to benefit from their work, whether man or beast. Paul didn’t have to trace the path of authority and rights granting. It’s a law built into the created order. A church that stands opposed to the created order stands opposed to the Creator of that order.

      1. MarkQ….Thanks for your insightful response. The are opposed to him. However, since we both sinned (me by my few acts of opposition) they cannot support a formal separation. The denomination would have a no divorce position except for unrepentant and ongoing adultery. In other words, our sins are equal. He fights for dictatorship….. I fight for unity…..we’re both in need of serious repenting.

        As far as rights go, we have no rights. They use over and over again the 1 Peter 3 passages on suffering for your faith. I am to get in under the suffering, realize I am in a prison of sorts, and rejoice as Paul did to be counted worthy to suffer in this way. Even though this husband professes to be a follower of Christ also.

        I think of Nabal in the Bible. It was said of him….no one can speak to him (and reason with him is how I would interpret the meaning of that).

  8. The instruction to women to “submit” (which can also be translated as “respect” I believe) to their husbands accompanies the admonition to husbands to “love their wives as Christ loves the church.” Teaching one without the other is clearly not teaching the whole word of God. When husbands love their wives in this way, women will naturally tend to respond with respect and appreciation, without control or coercion from the man.

    Also, the Scripture does not say, “Husbands, make your wives submit to you.” Wives still have free will, and can choose whether to submit or not. It seems to me that when a husband is not fulfilling his responsibility to love his wife like Christ loves us, he has no business demanding that his wife submit to him.

    1. Yes, there is no instruction to husbands to make their wives submit.

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  9. I do not understand what the verse about wives submitting to husbands was referring to when that letter was written. I have thought about it a lot though, and the only thing that makes sense to me; in light of what the rest of the Bible has to say, and in the understanding of seeing people who have good marriages is this:- Exclusive submission from one party (regardless of gender) is slavery. A marriage is a partnership and therefore must be based on mutuality. That is why ‘submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ is the only scripture that makes sense in having a healthy marriage.

    1. My husband has made fun of me on many occasions claiming that I said I wanted a partner and not a husband. I never said this. But he has made the word partner and partnership dirty words in this house. He certainly doesn’t see marriage as a partnership based on mutuality. I thought a partnership was what I was getting when I got married but it didn’t turn out that way for me. He sees it as he’s entitled to whatever he wants because he’s the man – the end, no discussion.

      1. Exactly Annie. My life here also. And at one point, one of the pastors said to the husband…..Be a friend to your wife. She is looking for a friend, not a husband.

        What????!!!!! Certainly we can see most pastors are NOT trained and equipped to deal with the more serious disorders in marriage.

  10. I sometimes wonder why the Lord has not allowed me to hear the truth of submission until only a couple of years ago? I was almost at a breaking point of thinking that I was doing something wrong with the way I interpreted Scriptures. And then I came across ACFJ blog.
    This post resonates with me very much. Thank you for posting it.

    Many abusers say at one time or another (often many times) that they want to change. Very few actually do change. Don’t go by his words. Pay attention to his BEHAVIOR and his ATTITUDES.

    —oh yes, and now they are adamant that it’s my problem and just leave him alone and all will be fine — he claims NOW that he isn’t changing and if I don’t like it, I can move out.

    1. My new pastor says, “when you judge someone by their actions you will never be fooled by their words.”

  11. One might also consider contemplating the “priesthood of all believers.” Notice that it does NOT say all MALE believers. Just some further food for thought.

  12. Submission is not about the husband having his way or him being pleased in every way. Submission is about leadership. A woman is only to submit to her husband “as unto the Lord”, which means that she is never to submit to any type of sin, which of course would include abuse.

    An example of godly submission would be when the husband lovingly lays down his life for his wife, but his job calls him to relocate and the wife does not want to. The husband prays and seeks God and the wife does too, but in the end, the wife submits to a move.

    Submission is NOT a husband demanding his way; demanding she submit to him; micro-management of the wife’s day where he makes her list of orders to accomplish for the day; it is not making his favorite foods; it is not giving him sex when he demands it; it is not taking on his religious views or opinions; it is not taking abuse of any kind.

    Submission is best accomplished when the man follows the command to lay down his life and love his wife as Christ commands him to do. When a husband does this, the wife knows she can trust him to have her and her children’s best interests at heart and she willingly submits to that, when an occasion arises where she would need to submit to his leadership.

    My suggestion to you is that until he quits demanding your return or demanding submission from you, you do not even entertain thoughts of returning. The longer you stay away, the better. This will prove itself out. He also has to be in and continuing counseling with a counselor who deals in domestic abuse, NOT a local pastor. Unless or until you see long-lasting changes and no escalation in anger or abuse and you also see true repentance (which is evidenced by lasting change) I would personally suggest you do not return. So many times abusers manipulate the victim because they know how to do it, and the victim falls for it unwittingly. Abusers do not give up. They always want reconciliation, but it is their form of reconciliation which consists of everyone faking happy while he manipulates and controls and abuses and usually him finding allies to support his forceful demand of your return. Be careful.

  13. Joepote01 commented:

    Anytime we are learning a new behavior pattern, we must make a conscious effort to act in the new pattern. For a while, this may feel like (and even be) over-acting the other direction. That’s okay! It is a necessary part of learning the new pattern and practicing it until it feels comfortable.

    The proverbial pendulum, arcing back and forth to find balance….

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