I used to think that submission was passive.
It’s why, working at the campus bookstore at my university, I ignored the shelves of women’s studies books, sure that picking up even one would mean not submitting to God’s design for me.
It’s why, after realizing that women were not allowed to serve communion at my college church, I kept mum about it, shoving aside my disquiet.
And it’s why I avoided talking about my long-ago experience of spiritual abuse with anyone on staff at my current church.
Submission, I thought, meant that I shouldn’t ask myself or anyone else too many questions. It meant that I trusted church leadership to handle decisions about women’s roles, feminism, and even abuse without trying to become part of the conversation. It meant that I ignored my misgivings instead of speaking them aloud.
When I got married, I assumed submission meant my husband was supposed to lead the way in our marriage—that his maleness would give him a sort of natural advantage in discernment and decision-making. I reasoned that if women were called to submit to their husbands, wouldn’t God have given men some extra capacity to ensure that submission went well for couples?
But though my husband does have a gift for discernment and I appreciate his gifted leadership, the idea of submitting to him always—like for many reflexively complementarian couples—just didn’t seem practical. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust him or respect him. It was that in some areas, I had more experience and interest.
But even more confusing, he relied on my leadership in those areas, which took me aback. I didn’t want to lead.
Underneath my unthinking complementarian theology was a desire to avoid risk.
To my chagrin, marriage demanded the opposite. More than ever before, I felt called to lead, take ownership, and be intentional. Another person—and soon, two children—depended on my ability to step up.
It was about five years into my marriage that I started looking into egalitarianism. I realized that a lot of my ideas about submission were more rooted in fear and self-protection than in loving my husband. Deferring to him, church leaders, and to conservative theology was easier and less courageous than thinking for myself.
After becoming an egalitarian, I realized that true mutual submission means trusting that other people will help us grow into God’s calling for us. True mutual authority means empowering other people to embrace their calling. We all—male or female—need to both submit to others and steward our own authority well to live out our callings in the kingdom of God.
Through further study, I discovered that, even in the rigidly patriarchal, hierarchical societies captured in biblical stories, submission to authority didn’t look like the passivity I once longed for.
A favorite story is that of Deborah and Barak in Judges 4, which illustrates God’s upside-down power triumphing over the staid gender roles often associated with biblical times.
In the story, Barak is clearly submitted to Deborah’s authority. She judges the Israelites with the same decisiveness that Gideon and Samson would display after her. Deborah summons Barak like the tribal elder that she is. Then, she commands him like a military general.
Considering he’s facing Israel’s judge, Barak’s answer is surprising. He refuses to obey unless she comes with him. He doesn’t blink at her being a woman—he blinks at having to be brave without her.
Deborah reprimands him for his cowardice. She tells him that the ultimate victory will be won by a woman’s hand.
A woman, like Deborah, would be the one to take initiative and ensure military victory.
Honestly, before I got married, my idea of submission was a little like Barak’s. I avoided full responsibility for my opinions, and assumed my husband would do the heavy lifting of decision-making.
But in the story of Deborah, we see my assumptions turned upside-down. Clearly, women are the authorities in this story—both in Deborah’s commanding presence and in Jael’s ultimate victory. Women are seen as capable generals and warriors, meant to be obeyed and deferred to.
But just as surprising is how Deborah’s authority elevates Barak’s. She doesn’t want him to shrink back and hide in her shadow. No, she encourages him to be as fearless as she is. She wants him to succeed and grow in stature. Perhaps, had he stepped up, he might have succeeded her as judge.
If he had fully submitted to Deborah, Barak would likely have grown in stature and authority. Deborah’s authority was not designed to make Barak more passive. No, her authority made space for his skill and leadership to grow.
I’m reminded of Mary’s submission to Gabriel when she’s given the assignment to carry the son of God in her womb. She is the handmaiden of the Lord, humble and willing to do his bidding. But Gabriel’s assignment grows her stature and authority–it does not shrink it.
Likewise, Deborah isn’t exercising power to keep Barak subordinate. She tries to make him her equal.
For too long, I understood submission to be a kind of abdication. But when mutual authority and mutual submission meet, it looks more like intentional power-sharing than it does hierarchy.
After examining how God’s authority empowers, lifts up, and encourages those whose hearts are submitted to his will, I find myself ever more willing to trust the Lord. His authority emboldens me to serve others with sacrificial love and steward the power and gifts he gives me with grace and wisdom.