Whenever I hear the word “submission” I am immediately transported back to my childhood home. We were staunchly rooted in a conservative, Christian tradition, and my family prided itself on having a high view of Scripture. There were a number of beliefs affected by this high view of Scripture (which, for the record I still hold to!), but few made their way into the everyday vocabulary of my family more often than submission. We were instructed to see complementarian gender roles as one of the foundational building blocks of a godly family, and ensuring a healthy sense of submission was front and center when building that foundation.
Since the middle of the twentieth century there has been an ongoing, sometimes acrimonious debate over the meaning of “head” (Greek, kephalē) in Paul’s letters, especially 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23. This article is an attempt to review the most significant scholarly literature that has emerged in the debate and to summarize each without critique.
Many Christians, certainly most egalitarians, are familiar with Ephesians 5:21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (NIV). But as well-known as this passage is, it’s still common to wonder what mutual submission actually looks like in practice. Here’s my take on it.
We are not told exactly what Barak did to demonstrate his extraordinary faith. But, thankfully, the account of his work under Deborah, the respected prophet and judge, in Judges 4–5 provides helpful clues to answer this question from the Scripture.
Where and how we start in our interpretation of Scripture determines where we will end up. When seeking to understand the relevance of the Bible’s teaching for our lives, interpretive starting points are particularly significant. The method by which we read and derive meaning from Scripture is the fundamental determinant of the nature of the meaning we will derive.
If we want to see women free, we have to challenge the message that passivity is godly. We have to encourage women to boldly exercise their God-given authority. We must image Bible women who took direct action to further God’s vision for the world.
Over the past forty years, the remarkable presence of women in Prov 1–9 has drawn an equally remarkable number of studies, a gift from the rise of feminism and women in the academy. The combination of these two forces brings attention to the once invisible women in the text, figures generally overlooked or ignored as males have read and interpreted the text for other males. Now, however, the text again gives birth to these marginalized figures, providing them with bodies, eyes, ears, hands, feet, and especially, mouths for speech. Of 256 verses in Prov 1–9, 132 specifically mention or speak about women and another seventeen verses either introduce these texts or draw conclusions from them;hence fifty-eight percent of Prov 1–9. Yet, ironically, all this attention to women comes because of the writer’s interest and concern for young men (1:4), with a secondary appeal to older, wise men (1:5). For the sages, it would seem that the way to a man’s heart is not through food, but through women. After all, the author seems to assume, what better way to engage the attention of a young man than by speaking about or describing women?
I have always admired Deborah. She is a woman, but she embodies both “traditionally” male and female characteristics. She just doesn’t fit into stereotypical boxes of masculinity and femininity. Further, Deborah’s relationship with Barak is a beautiful picture of biblical equality that I deeply appreciate—as well as both leaders’ relationships with their communities.
Christians who struggle to believe that God would intentionally appoint a woman to lead often argue that Deborah was chosen because no men stepped up to fill the role of judge. But the text does not support this.