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Reclaiming Submission: Mutual Love and Service in the Egalitarian Marriage

by Jesse C. Lazar | July 20, 2022

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2021 Writing Contest Honorable Mention. Enjoy!

I suspect many of us cringe when we hear the word “submission.” This is not surprising or unreasonable, particularly because of the ways many people in the church have misunderstood and abused the idea of submission, or even used it as a weapon to dominate others. Does our rejection of a hierarchical view of submission mean egalitarians don’t value biblical teaching? Quite the contrary, I would argue that the egalitarian view is most faithful to what the Bible teaches. It is time for egalitarians to reclaim true, biblical submission. 

When we properly understand biblical submission it’s easy for us to see that it is a good thing. It is something to which God calls all believers (women and men alike). Further, egalitarian marriages actually involve more (and more meaningful) submission than those of our complementarian friends. 

We must stop allowing those who teach patriarchy as God’s ideal for relationships to hijack submission. True, biblical submission between believers has nothing to do with following orders or obeying authority. Rather it means to serve one another (Matt. 23:11), to humbly consider one another more important than ourselves (Phil. 2:3), and to love each other self-sacrificially (John 15:13). The key point is that all believers—women and men alike—are called to live in a submissive way toward one another (Eph. 5:21). This is one aspect of what it means to be truly Christlike. 

If God calls all believers to submit in the ways listed above toward one another, certainly husbands and wives are not exempt. The egalitarian marriage embraces mutual submission, mutual self-sacrifice, mutual love, and mutual service. It is not devoid of submission. Quite the opposite: it is brimming with it, as both spouses submit to each other equally and fully. 

The complementarian understanding of submission seems dull and shallow by contrast. Instead of being the principle by which all believers model their behavior toward one another after that of Jesus, submission becomes nothing more than obedience to an authority (and an arbitrary authority at that). Instead of having to do with reciprocal love, honor, and cooperation, submission becomes about husbands telling their wives what to do, and wives obeying without protest. And since obedience can only go one way, under complementarianism there is far less submitting going on. Husbands, though called to submit to all believers (Eph. 5:21), are inexplicably exempt from submitting to their wives. 

There are, of course, varying views among complementarians. While some stress the “obedience” model, others believe in a softer version in which the husband’s leadership is more service oriented. In this view, the husband has a unique responsibility to love and lay down his life for his wife (Eph. 5:25–33), even as she obediently submits to him in all things. While this may be a step in the right direction, this model not only lacks sufficient biblical support but also runs into practical problems. There still is an imbalance between husband and wife, a degree of responsibility on the part of one that does not exist for the other. I wonder how such an arrangement is supposed to function in an actual marriage? 

Consider, for example, a woman I know who is caring for her husband who has dementia. As time goes on he will need more and more care and sacrifice. Would anyone say there is a limit to how much she should sacrifice for him, since it is primarily the responsibility of the husband to lay down his life for his wife? I say that is nonsense. In an egalitarian marriage both husband and wife love and sacrifice for each other equally. There is no arbitrary assignment of duties or unequal degrees of responsibility. Need and ability, as well as pure love, determine their service to one another. 

Ultimately, whether the focus is on hierarchy and authority or on service and sacrifice, the complementarian marriage model involves artificially suppressing the natural outworking of a relationship driven by mutual love and respect. In either case, one spouse is exempt from submitting to, loving, and serving the other in some way that the other must do. We would do well to reject this diminution of what marriage can and should be. 

Submission, as it is intended by God and clearly displayed in the work and teaching of Jesus, is a beautiful thing. While one-sided submission may act as an artificial shortcut for avoiding conflict, it cannot draw a couple closer together or help each of them become more Christlike. Mutual submission, on the other hand, plays a role in the ongoing sanctification process for both husband and wife. It teaches us to compromise, respect one another, and put the needs of others before our own. It naturally facilitates a thriving, healthy marital relationship. This is why egalitarians must understand what true, biblical submission is—and embrace it. 

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.  


Related Reading

Understanding Submission in the Context of the Pauline Epistles  
The Case for Mutual Submission in Ephesians 5  
Above, Below, and Beside: What Mutual Submission Looks Like In Practice