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.
It would be well into my adult years before I would be exposed to the theology of egalitarianism, so I had no alternative but to embrace complementarianism as the biblical norm. But even as I did my best to accept this view, I couldn’t shake the inconsistencies that came with our steady commitment to a woman’s submission to her husband.
1. Healthy marriages seemed less concerned with submission. I noticed from very early on that there weren’t all that many vibrant, happy marriages around me. So whenever I saw a couple that worked well together, I made it a habit to study them. What I found was a consistent respect in these families for each person’s agency and for processing the challenges of life together.
These couples were from the same tradition as me, so I would interrogate them as to how they managed to live functionally as equals while subscribing to a theology of hierarchal submission. Usually I would get some kind of an awkward response like, “Well, the head makes the decisions, but the neck is what actually turns the head.” It didn’t make any sense to me. It was as if they were complementarians who had secretly figured out that treating each other as equals made the most sense.
2. No one had a biblical application for submission. When submission was taught, people rightly wanted to know what it actually looked like. The most two common responses were: (1) the husband should have final say over finances, and (2) the husband should have the tie-breaking vote on any major life decisions.
While these made logical sense as applications for someone committed to hierarchal submission, I was completely shocked when I discovered that neither of them was actually in the Bible. Wasn’t the Bible the whole reason we cared about this in the first place? How had we so comfortably landed on concrete application points that were nowhere to be found? I was very confused.
3. Which passages were timeless and which were culture-bound? I wrestled with the challenge of when to recognize a Scripture passage as being influenced by culture, and when to recognize it as a timeless teaching. I clearly remember being an authentically earnest student of the Bible, and trying to wrestle with passages like Leviticus 11 (where Christians are not to eat pork or seafood that doesn’t have fins or scales) and 1 Corinthians 11 (where Paul says that a man who worships with a hat on dishonors his head and a woman who worships without her head covered does the same). I was told that these were no longer relevant because times had changed. Hearing this applied to some passages but not others (like Ephesians 5) created all kind of intellectual dissonance for me.
In my early twenties, I ended up on staff at Willow Creek Community Church, where I noticed their emphasis on ensuring that women were in prominent leadership positions. I was scared to hear their reasons, because I assumed they were doing theological gymnastics to work around the problematic passages.
But I happily discovered that the leadership at Willow was as every bit committed to a high view of Scripture as those in my upbringing had been. I discovered I had been taught a false binary—the “biblical” (complementarianism) vs. the “liberal” view (egalitarianism). I found myself frustrated that I had never been exposed to the litany of great thinkers, scholars, and theologians who advocated for gender equality precisely because they believed in the authoritative role of the Bible.
I felt tremendous internal dissonance. I had always hoped that the clearer interpretation of the Bible would result in a commitment to gender equality, and was glad to finally be reading scholars who had helped me to see it. But I was conflicted. I felt like I was betraying my heritage, and I feared that I was trying to manipulate Scripture to meet my own desires.
Over time, my views shifted. I first went from being certain of submission-based gender roles to a more middle-of-the-road position. But eventually, I began to see gender equality as an absolute mark of healthy spirituality. Eighteen years later, that conviction burns brighter than ever.
I now pastor a church in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, and we carry on the tradition of holding a high view of Scripture. Because of our high view of Scripture, we have a corporate conviction that gender equality is what best reflects the heart of God, and that any conversations of submission must be filtered through Paul’s commands to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).
I recently taught through the book of Ephesians, including a sermon entitled “How I became an egalitarian.” I told the same story I shared above, and then summarized these four principles from Ephesians 5 that changed my mind:
1. Submission as taught by Paul is mutual
As mentioned above, Paul begins his famous passage in Ephesians 5 by emphasizing the need to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This seems so clear that I struggle to understand where the controversy is.
In the next verse Paul does tell wives to submit: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (verse 22). But every scholar I’ve read acknowledges that this English translation fills in some words that are not there in the Greek. The literal translation would read something like this: “Wives, to your husbands as to the Lord.”
What is the significance of that? Whatever instructions he is giving to wives in verse 22 flow from what he first said in verse 21. Once again, it seems straightforward: mutual submission is the context for everything else he is saying.
2. The unique way that Paul challenged women in this text
The fact that Paul referenced wives submitting to their husbands in this passage would have been no surprise. The church of Ephesus was located in a thoroughly patriarchal society, so hierarchal gender roles were already built into the fiber of the cultural reality.
What is shocking is not that Paul tells wives to submit. What’s shocking is what he doesn’t tell them.
In a patriarchal society women didn’t just submit to their husbands—they obeyed their husbands. Women were not allowed to be educated, to be a witness in a court, or to own property, and were legally required to obey their husbands.
And yet, shockingly, Paul chooses not to reinforce this cultural norm. To do so would go against the new community in the kingdom of God where relationships work on the basis of the equality that comes from being created in the image of God. People don’t rule over each other in God’s kingdom; we serve and submit to each other.
This ends up becoming a unique challenge placed before the women. In a culture where they were legally expected to obey, Paul only asks them to submit. And not just submit, but to do so in a context of mutual submission. And not because of law or society, but instead “as to the Lord.”
3. The unique way that Paul challenged men in this text
In Ephesians 5 Paul tells women twice to submit and once to respect (which is not easy in a tyrannical home). But look how much he has to say to the men:
Verse 25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (A huge call to sacrificial living and love).
Verse 28: “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (A challenge to affirm the worth of women at the same level they valued themselves).
Verse 29: “After all, people have never hated their own bodies, but they feed and care for them, just as Christ does the church” (An incredible comparison with Christ’s nurturing of the church).
Verse 33: “However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself. . .” (A huge call to once again match whatever energy they would devote to their own wellbeing to the wellbeing of their wives).
We cannot read this passage without recognizing the major challenge to men. Paul is reminding us men that we have been given a disproportionate level of power based on cultural gender standards. It’s not rightfully ours, and in the spirit of love we are to sacrifice, serve, nurture, and pursue mutuality.
4. Paul’s reference to God’s original design
In verse 31, Paul references God’s original design, as described in Genesis, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”
I don’t have space to go into gender as it’s presented in Genesis, but plenty of good scholarship exists on this topic (I recommend CBE’s many articles on this). The bottom line of these studies is that even in Genesis, God created male and female as equals, to steward the earth together without gender-based hierarchy.
The movement of God was always meant to include the equality of males and females. Genesis 1:28 says, “God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
I believe that if we submit ourselves to the Scriptures, we have little choice but to conclude that we were not made for submission based on gender-hierarchy. Instead, God’s design always has been, and remains, that we exist as a community of equals, mutually submitting to one another, out of reverence for Christ.