“Submission.” It’s not a four-letter word, but it may as well be.
Depending on how it’s used, who says it, and what they mean, “submission” can be anything from dirty and disgusting to offensive and oppressive. Or, perhaps, even beautiful.
One brand of submission made headlines when it was glorified in Fifty Shades of Grey. And in the West (with the apparent exception of sexual fetishes), the notion of submission is offensive, an affront to freedom and individual rights—the bedrock of our culture.
For many in the church, submission is simply another word for abuse. Far too many women and children have suffered in churches and communities that teach them that the Bible requires submission to the husband or father in all circumstances, even abuse. On the other extreme, some Christians dismiss the concept of submission altogether as quaint and primitive, saying Bible passages like Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3 reflect archaic values and have nothing to say to us today.
In evangelical circles, the popular teaching about submission (at least in marriage) is somewhere in the middle: marriage is a relationship where a wife submits and a husband leads (a right he loses if he abuses his power). This, we’re told, is beautiful; a living model of Christ’s relationship with the church. If this offends our sensibilities, it can only be because of our sinful pride and selfishness. After all, this model of marriage is the Bible’s clear command.
Is this true? Does the Bible require a submission-leadership dynamic that we’d naturally embrace if not for our sinfulness? I think not. There’s more to the story of submission, and the true story is a beautiful one.
The Bible tells us we were built for mutuality. In Eden, female and male were equal partners, with joint stewardship over creation. They were endowed with the power to create, to grow, to love, and to ensure creation flourished. But humanity abused this power, using it to dominate rather than create, to serve ourselves rather than others. The pursuit of power has driven human history ever since.
Rightly, Christians decry the pursuit of power and dominance. We humans are a power-hungry lot, to be sure. Ironically though, our solution is often power-based hierarchy. We place one group in power over another, then insist that if those with less power would simply be content, the power struggles will cease. Problem solved!
Of course, history has shown this doesn’t work. What’s more, it is not what the Bible calls for, and it is not what Jesus modeled. We are not simply to not seek power. Rather, we are to live in communities not defined by power at all! We are to build communities where power is shared as in Eden, for the flourishing of the other. No matter what we might say, a submission-leadership model of marriage doesn’t meet that standard. A relationship where one person must submit and the other is encouraged to submit if they decide it’s the most loving thing to do is a relationship defined by a power imbalance.
Jesus did not deal in power imbalances. He emptied himself of his power over others. God did not extend a helping hand from a place of power. Jesus did not become like us; he became one of us. The Creator-creation relationship ceased to be defined by a power imbalance. And that is what Christian submission is about.
Is it radical in our world to ask women to submit to their husbands? Yes, perhaps it is. It’s certainly not popular, at least in the West. But it’s also only a fragment of biblical submission. What’s truly radical is the challenge to men to love as Christ loved. That is, not simply to wield power kindly or lovingly across the power gap, but to cross the gap itself, to empty themselves of power. This is the act of submission required of those with power and privilege. Now that’s an idea that has the power to change the world.
In this issue, we explore Christian submission. What does submission in Christian marriages look like? Why does it matter? How should we read and apply passages like Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3 that tell women to submit to their husbands? I had the good fortune of working on this issue of Mutuality at the same time as I prepared to preach on Ephesians 5:21–6:9. I found myself scribbling notes and quotes from the articles, hoping to squeeze their insights into my talk. I’ve been educated, challenged, and inspired. I hope you will be as well.