Do the words “submission in marriage” make you bristle?
Perhaps it should, if we look at human history. Men have abused and exploited women in the name of submission. Executives have borrowed it as an excuse for domination and discrimination in the workplace. Our society labels it synonymous with cleaning, cooking, and keeping your mouth shut.
Looking at this long trail of brokenness, a wife submitting to her husband doesn’t sound desirable. It sounds despicable.
If this is what Biblical submission in marriage looks like, maybe you should give up on your Christian boyfriend now, and even following Christ. After all, if you’re someone’s girlfriend, you have the potential to become someone’s wife. The Biblical command for wives to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22) doesn’t apply to your relationship now, but it could very soon.
Let’s not give up just yet. If you’re like me, your observations of submission compare to seeing a horrible film adaption of a wonderful novel. If we judge the book by the movie, we’ll miss not only the author’s original vision but also the unfolding of a beautiful story.
Submission in Marriage: Problems and Answers
Why is submission in marriage so difficult to accept? I can’t answer for all of us, but I can show you how I’ve processed it, along with insights from women who’ve studied the Bible and been married longer than me.
1. Association with abuse
First, I think submission is difficult because we associate it with abuse. Men wield authority to manipulate and mistreat their wives. Others insist that submission means that a wife must remain in an abusive situation.
We’re right to condemn the use of submission as a justification for abuse. God abhors abusive relationships. If the husband is living out his side of the command to love his wife (Ephesians 5:25), he’ll treat her with respect. Abuse isn’t part of the picture.
Jen Wilkin explains in a video discussion: “Any marriage relationship that has turned abusive is an abdication of authority. A woman needs to get safe, and she needs to submit to the higher authority of her Heavenly Father, who says that she’s created in the image of God, and she is to be treated as an image-bearer.”
2. Application beyond marriage
I’ve also seen people apply the submission of women to non-marital contexts, claiming that women should never hold positions of leadership.
But Ephesians 5:22 is addressing the roles of wives and husbands in marriage, not society at large. While other Biblical passages address the role of women in the church, the overarching theme is that woman is not commanded to submit to all men.
That’s why if you’re dating, these commands don’t apply to you, at least for now
3. Connection to innate differences
I love Rebecca McLaughlin’s critique of this problem in her article, Confessions of a Reluctant Complementarian, so I’ll just include an excerpt:
“Hoping to uphold the goodness of God’s commands, Christians sometimes try to ground complementarian marriage in gendered psychology: women are natural followers, men are natural leaders; men need respect, women need love; and so on…
“…If we look closely, however, we’ll see that these claims are nowhere to be found in the text. Ephesians 5 grounds our marital roles not in gendered psychology, but in Christ-centered theology.”
Women and men may possess different traits in general, but that’s not the reason God created this model for marriage. Marriage is a symbol of Christ and the church.
4. Evidence of inequality
For me, one of the hardest problems to swallow was that submission looked like inequality. The fact that God would assign roles within marriage felt like a denial of basic rights.
The problem is that we assume submitting to someone is an indication of worth. Biblically, however, that’s not true. Jesus submitted to will of the Father without losing his deity or his position in the Trinity (Luke 22:42). In fact, Philippians 2:5-9 shows that Jesus’ submission is actually what led to his exaltation.
In the book The Meaning of Marriage, Kathy Keller writes along with her husband,
“If it was not an assault on the dignity and divinity (but rather led to the greater glory) of the Second Person of the Godhead to submit himself, and assume the role of a servant, then how could it possibly injure me to be asked to play out the “Jesus role” in my marriage?”
Why are women commanded to submit instead of men? I don’t know, but if anything, submission is a gift in light of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
Submission in Marriage is Still Hard
Knowing all of these facts is encouraging to me. I can see that God’s purposes toward women are good and loving.
As a new wife, however, submission is still a challenge for me. In part two of this series on submission, I talk about how I wrestle with the reality that my husband isn’t God.
In the end, I always come back to the truth of the gospel. McLaughlin asserts:
“If the gospel is true, none of us comes to the table with rights. The only way in is flat on your face. If I want to hold on to my fundamental right to self-determination, I must reject the message of Jesus, because he calls me to submit completely to him: to deny myself and take up my cross and follow him (Luke 9:23).”