What 'Submission' Actually Means

The Bible reveals it's much more than household roles and gender bias.

The concept of “submission” has long been a sticky subject in Christian circles. The term often conjures up pictures of ’50s housewives and makes women everywhere twinge in discomfort.

However, the term “submit” is strewn throughout the Bible, difficult to ignore whether you want to or not. It’s been skewed by culture to be derogatory, and by some well-meaning Christians to enforce the idea that women are the weaker gender and that to be a godly woman means to hide or give up your opinions.

What’s happened, I think, is girls like me—who’ve grown up surrounded by strong, outspoken women—find it difficult to reconcile the polarized opinions.

Fret not, ladies and gents. A quick study reveals biblical submission is much more than antiquated roles and gender bias. Instead, it’s about mutual service, selflessness and love and ultimately, attitudes that should mark any believer, male or female.

Submission Is An Expectation of All Believers

Most Christians think of romantic relationships, particularly marriage, when this topic comes up. But really, submission should be a regular part of life for all believers.

In Ephesians 5, verse 21, we’re commanded to submit to one another in love; it comes on the tails of a full section on walking in love and living in the Spirit. The Epistles—those “-ians” books in the New Testament—are littered with instruction on how Christians are to humble themselves, (Philippians 2:13) encourage one another (Colossians 3:12-16; 1 Thessalonians 5:11) and basically put others ahead of themselves.

Most Christians think of romantic relationships, particularly marriage, when this topic comes up. But really, submission should be a regular part of life for all believers.

So, there’s some expectation of all believers to defer their pride and preferences for the sake of others. Even more, all believers are commanded to submit to God. In fact, instructions to submit to someone else are often qualified with a statement like “as to the Lord” or “as is fitting to the Lord.” In other words, how we relate to others should always be viewed first in light of our relationship with God. We ultimately yield to Him and in doing so, serve others well.

Submission Is a Picture of Christ and the Church

Paul provides further instruction in Ephesians, particularly for husbands and wives, which is where controversy sets in. Starting in verse 22, wives are instructed to submit to husbands, as to the Lord. Then, husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the Church.

Why? Marriage is ultimately a representation of two people loving one another as Christ loves the Church, giving of themselves in sacrifice, loving their spouse as they love their own bodies. Paul puts it pretty plainly when he says, “This is a profound mystery, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.”

It’s tempting to jump quickly to conclusions about how this plays out in day-to-day life, but it’s important to first consider the context and God’s design for the various ways men and women relate. When we reflect on the “whys” behind the guidance here, we’re reminded submission is meant to reflect mutual support, a reciprocal, life-giving relationship that points to God’s story of redemption.

Sure, romance and the feel-goods are often a part of marriage, too, but ultimately it’s a covenant between two people and God, made to put the Good News on display for a world that needs it.

Submission Is Not an Excuse to Manipulate Your Spouse or Brothers and Sisters in Christ

Don’t. Even. Think about it. This is clearly not a “Woman, get in the kitchen,” message. Aside from making my blood boil, that attitude is a misapplication of God’s word.

I’ve heard too many sermons preached and stories told where men use this passage as a crutch, an opportunity to dominate and assert their will, even unknowingly. At the same time, I’ve witnessed women manipulate the God-given leadership of men into a scapegoat, an excuse for lacking ownership and an opportunity to call men out when they lack initiative. Neither is God’s design.

Consider the context for the verses we just looked at. Go ahead, check out the surrounding details. Whether female or male, it’s pretty obvious that using this passage to control, shame or dodge responsibility is completely missing the larger picture.

Think about it: If husbands are meant to be an example of Christ, do you think an attitude of entitlement is fitting? No way. Jesus was humble, the ultimate servant who could’ve demanded His own way any time but chose instead to sacrifice Himself for the sake of His people, His Bride, His Church.

You Might Also Like

Submission, even by its simplest definition, is about yielding your desires, plans and preferences.

Meanwhile, if wives are meant to portray the Church, do you think they should lack initiative or manipulate their husbands? Nope. We, His people, are made pure and righteous by His blood, perfect in His eyes and equipped to carry out the most important work of sharing the Gospel. The Church is an extension of Christ. Let’s not cheapen submission and marriage by making it about a power struggle.

Submission Is Not Always Easy

Even with context, a great understanding of submission and a true appreciation for God’s design, it’s not always easy. Submission, even by its simplest definition, is about yielding your desires, plans and preferences. Putting someone else first—whether it’s God or your spouse—takes constant effort.

But as we reflect on our good God, let us consider His faithfulness and trust Him and His Word, even the difficult parts, to conform us to His image, serving one another in love and considering others above ourselves.

Top Comments

Patrick J. Nugent

2

Patrick J. Nugent commented…

Great article. There is a lot of revolutionary stuff in Eph 5. The key thing is that the "thesis sentence" is 5:21, which declares that submission is mutual. Many translations and editions package v 21 as the conclusion of the previous passage. Incorrect. And when we see 21 as the thesis sentence which Paul is about to elaborate, it turns the traditional interpretation on its head. Paul then goes about explaining how each spouse submits. A Roman husband's power over his wife extended to the right to take her life. The Christian husband, instead, gives his life. Christ'a headship over the church is not imperial, it is sacrificial. Christ heads the church not by imposing slavwry but by offering freedom ("For freedom Christ had made us free.") Roman marriage was an economic and social institution, not a romantic or emotional one. While some Roman husbands certainly did develop love for their wives, by and large wives were for bearing children and managing households; love was for concubines, courtesans, and mistresses. Paul is telling Roman husbands to make an emotional bond with their wives which is at best optional in Roman terms; by doing so, the husband stops seeking that satisfaction outside the marriage. Then there's that wacky language about bathing--the root of it is that the husband is supposed to bathe and cleanse his wife (even if only metaphorically?) which is not the job of husbands but of servants and slaves. Paul models the role of the husband on the role of a housemaid or public bath attendant--diametrically opposed to the imperial marriage his audience was used to. I could go on in this vein. But In the end, this passage has much more to say about the submissiveness of the husband than of the wife. Finally, when I preach this passage I ask the audience to play a bit with the word "submissive." It has an unfortunately sexual meaning in our hyper-sexualized culture, and Christians have given it a far more rigid meaning than it needs. I urge the audience to remember that "submission" here is not the complement to "domination," but a word in its own right meaning flexible and accommodating--the opposite not of "dominating" but of "unyielding." The opposite of the Roman ideal of the husband who rules his household with a rod of iron.

Barry V. Evans

31

Barry V. Evans commented…

Great article! Well said!

I've heard it said by other biblical commentators (and I think history and the rest of Scripture bear this out) that whereas contemporary readers look at Ephesians and are aghast that Paul would call wives to submit to their husbands, his original first century readers would have been just as shocked--if not more so--that he called husbands to love their wives to the point of complete sacrifice. The Bible truly does raise up all people, revealing both their value as made in God's image and their equality as all of us are in the same boat, fallen in need of redemption.

It's sad that so many people (some of whom, unfortunately, have articles posted here on RELEVANT) who seem to think we need to get away from the very thing that shows us how much we're worth as human beings in order to move forward in society. God bless you, Vikki! We need young voices of biblical wisdom in our time!

4 Comments

Barry V. Evans

31

Barry V. Evans commented…

Great article! Well said!

I've heard it said by other biblical commentators (and I think history and the rest of Scripture bear this out) that whereas contemporary readers look at Ephesians and are aghast that Paul would call wives to submit to their husbands, his original first century readers would have been just as shocked--if not more so--that he called husbands to love their wives to the point of complete sacrifice. The Bible truly does raise up all people, revealing both their value as made in God's image and their equality as all of us are in the same boat, fallen in need of redemption.

It's sad that so many people (some of whom, unfortunately, have articles posted here on RELEVANT) who seem to think we need to get away from the very thing that shows us how much we're worth as human beings in order to move forward in society. God bless you, Vikki! We need young voices of biblical wisdom in our time!

Carolyn Robe

55

Carolyn Robe commented…

He doesn't actually prevent husbands for submitting to their wives if Christians are supposed to submit to one another etc. Nor does it say that women cannot love their husbands " to the point of complete sacrifice"?? it is interesting that the writer calls herself a "girl." admittedly one who has been surrounded by "women." Is "girl"getting more popular in our culture as with books like "Gone Girl," "Girl on the Train," and "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Call yourself what you want as long as you agree with equality for women: social, political, economic, spiritual. Paul's keep quiet in the churches notwithstanding.

Patrick J. Nugent

2

Patrick J. Nugent commented…

Great article. There is a lot of revolutionary stuff in Eph 5. The key thing is that the "thesis sentence" is 5:21, which declares that submission is mutual. Many translations and editions package v 21 as the conclusion of the previous passage. Incorrect. And when we see 21 as the thesis sentence which Paul is about to elaborate, it turns the traditional interpretation on its head. Paul then goes about explaining how each spouse submits. A Roman husband's power over his wife extended to the right to take her life. The Christian husband, instead, gives his life. Christ'a headship over the church is not imperial, it is sacrificial. Christ heads the church not by imposing slavwry but by offering freedom ("For freedom Christ had made us free.") Roman marriage was an economic and social institution, not a romantic or emotional one. While some Roman husbands certainly did develop love for their wives, by and large wives were for bearing children and managing households; love was for concubines, courtesans, and mistresses. Paul is telling Roman husbands to make an emotional bond with their wives which is at best optional in Roman terms; by doing so, the husband stops seeking that satisfaction outside the marriage. Then there's that wacky language about bathing--the root of it is that the husband is supposed to bathe and cleanse his wife (even if only metaphorically?) which is not the job of husbands but of servants and slaves. Paul models the role of the husband on the role of a housemaid or public bath attendant--diametrically opposed to the imperial marriage his audience was used to. I could go on in this vein. But In the end, this passage has much more to say about the submissiveness of the husband than of the wife. Finally, when I preach this passage I ask the audience to play a bit with the word "submissive." It has an unfortunately sexual meaning in our hyper-sexualized culture, and Christians have given it a far more rigid meaning than it needs. I urge the audience to remember that "submission" here is not the complement to "domination," but a word in its own right meaning flexible and accommodating--the opposite not of "dominating" but of "unyielding." The opposite of the Roman ideal of the husband who rules his household with a rod of iron.

Carlos Rodriguez

86

Carlos Rodriguez commented…

Let’s make a “dirty” word beautiful. The original use of the word submission in scripture, translates “to get underneath and push up.” To walk in the spirit of sonship is to put yourself underneath another’s mission, and do all you can to make them successful. You do this knowing that as a son or daughter there is an inheritance that lies ahead for you. Submission is becoming a stepping stone to someone else’s greatness. Like Jesus did with you and me.

More: http://www.happysonship.com/happy-devotions-8-beautiful-submission

Please log in or register to comment

Log In