Monday, August 29, 2005

To Submit or not to Submit: That is the Question

When Christians talk about wives submitting to their husbands in marriage - we are almost guaranteed to be accused by many of being benevolent (at best) dictators trying to keep our poor suffering wives subjugated - as well as barefoot, pregnant and standing in the kitchen. Christian women who support this I am sure are viewed by many as female "Uncle Tom's" supporting the subjugation of all women. As a man, I should just keep my mouth shut; but I have never shown much wisdom. Then again, husbands are to submit too; something that gets left out of this discussion a lot.

I will link two posts elsewhere:
The hiatus is broken [at Habbakuk's Watchpost]and Submission in a Nutshell [at Intellectuelle]. Some internet links: Christians for Biblical Equality, The Meaning of Christian Marriage, and The Submission of the Christian Wife, and The Submission of the Christian Husband. Finally, this post centers around:

Ephesians 5:21 and be subject [upotasso: In non-military use, it was "a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden"] to one another in the fear of Christ. 22 Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, 26. so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. 28 So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; 29 for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, 30 because we are members of His body. 31 FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND SHALL BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH. 32 This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church

Lexie, at the Intellectuelle link above cited this definition of:
Submit: v. intr. - To allow oneself to be subjected to something.
And one truly magnificent example:
"Jesus allowed Himself to be subjected to the cross. He could have opted out, but He chose not to because of His love for us. Restraint of strength is one expression of power. Choosing to submit and serve is another expression of power."
The decision to submit is a voluntary one - it cannot be forced on the wife or husband. It has to be voluntary because it is an expression of obedience to God; and He looks at our heart.

My most important imperative in my life and my marriage is to obey God - and to submit my ego and self to Him. As I do that, I will love my wife as Christ loves me; because that is what I am told to do and if I love her that is what I would want to do. As is pointed out in "The Submission of the Christian Husband":
"If the wives are commanded to submit, then the husbands surely must be instructed to lead. But they are not. Instead of commanding husbands to lead their wives, Paul instructs them to love their wives."
How does Christ love me? Sacrificially, unconditionally, meeting all my needs with no expectation (or need) for me to meet any of His. Feeling that love for me; I channel that to all people but particularly my wife - my self actually in a one flesh (two become one) relationship that mirrors Christ and His church (Him the head, the rest of us the Body); and the duality of God and Son. I love her, above all, as I love myself - because she is myself and to harm her harms me.

My wife too has this relationship with God. This leads to another spiritual relationship our marriage should mirror - the Trinity. My wife and I are one flesh; and we each, and as a duality, have a relationship with God. Therefore, we comprise another triune relationship that mirrors the Trinity for the world.

God's central human-to-human relationship on the planet, marriage, is such a deep spiritual and theological pool because it mirrors not only Christ's sacrificial, loving relationship to His Church; but the duality of Christ (God and man, God and Son) and the nature of the Trinity. From "The Meaning of Christian Marriage" (linked above):
Our text is based upon a principle, which is vitally important and yet little understood in our times: God has established certain institutions in this world which are earthly symbols of heavenly realities. The nature of the heavenly reality determines the nature of the symbol. Stated briefly the substance dictates the symbol . . . To pervert or distort the symbol is to distort the picture of the heavenly reality, which it represents . . . Christians have become far too casual about the commands of our Lord pertaining to symbolic actions . . . There may be a few areas of our Christian life where we have a measure of freedom to change a symbol, so as to make it more pointed to our culture, but we have no right at all to disobey, change, or distort God's symbolic commands when they distort the picture they are to portray concerning the substance."
How do we accomplish Biblical submission in order to display this symbol properly:
True submission is not difficult, my friend, it is impossible. There is no way that we can, in and of our own strength, submit. But that only means that we must look to God to produce that of which we are incapable, but which His word commands. Our text on submission follows immediately upon the teaching of Paul concerning being filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). It is only as the Holy Spirit controls our life that the will and the ability to obey His commands are produced. To submit to one another necessitates that we die daily, that our flesh by crucified, put to death. This is God's work, and we must trust in Him to do it. This is God's work, and we must cooperate with Him as He does it." -- "The Submission of the Christian Wife" (linked above)
Now for the brain cramp. Kyle in the Habbukuk's comments (linked above) rightly says:
" . . . this understanding of man as the head of woman as God is the head of Christ has a notorious history of tyranny, oppression, and abuse . . . isn't it the oldest trick in the book for a dictator to defend himself by claiming that he loves his subjects and acts in their best interest? A dictator is a ruler with absolute power, whether it is exercised for good or ill. And when he starts comparing himself to God and his subjects accept the analogy, there is nothing to stop him from using his power for evil and no recourse for the subjects."
Of course, all sorts of nasty things can happen. I can open up myself in vulnerability (loving my wife as Christ loves me) and my wife can take horrible advantage of my servant heart. My wife can choose to submit and I can take horrible advantage of her servant heart. We both place ourselves by faith under God's grace by obeying Him - and open ourselves up to sacrifice on His account. We have taken up our crosses. Therefore, as is pointed out in "Submission of the Christian Wife" linked above:
". . . our text has much to say to the young woman who is considering marriage. A commitment to marriage to a young man is the commitment to a lifetime of submission to that man. If there is any one question which should be in a young woman's mind concerning marriage it is this one: 'Is this the kind of man I want as my 'head,' to whom I will submit in all things for the rest of my life?' Surely our text suggests the necessity of premarriage counseling, so that an independent, objective third party can help in arriving at the answer." [The future husband should also look at what he is submitting to]
Here are some questions I would not have thought to ask. From "The Meaning of Christian Marriage":
"For those who have chosen to set aside the teachings of Paul and Peter on the roles and responsibilities of husbands, and especially of wives, I have [these] question[s]. If you have set aside certain biblical commands, duties, and actions, with what have you replaced them? What are you doing which boldly and dramatically reflects the headship of Christ over His church, and the submission of the church to Christ? . . . What is it that you have replaced God's symbols with, which brings about persecution for your identification with Christ and the proclamation of His glorious gospel?"


  1. Great post, JCH. I think it's worth noting that a husband's authority is delegated by God and therefore limited, like all earthly authority. Thus a wife is duty to obey is within those bounds, but not without. For example, just as Peter did not have to obey a civil ruler who went outside his bounds by ordering no further street preaching, so a wife need not obey a husband's order to stay away from church.

    Sorry for the legalese sound of that, but I wanted to be succinct.

    On a sweeter note, how wonderful that Jesus never clubbed us with "I'm the Lord, and you'll do it because the Bible says I'm in charge here."

  2. JCH,

    I still don't understand how you square your reading of this passage with your general statements about equality between the sexes. The analogy Christ:Church::Man:Woman clearly, it seems to me, describes the woman as spiritually, morally, and intellectually inferior, indeed in need of salvation through the mediation of her husband. This has been clear to every commenter that I've read until the sexual revolution. Now you don't hear so much about it.

    All the talk of the man loving the wife and having greater burdens than the wife and so forth is well and good, but that's not at issue for a liberal like me--as a corollary to what Kyle points out, the dictator is always beset with greater burdens. It is part of the ideology of dictatorship. It is one thing to understand this as the model of relations between God and humans. It is another altogether to apply it to relations between humans.

    You've said some nice things here, but you haven't answered the question I'm curious about: are women by nature inferior to men and more distant from God? If not, how do you explain the meaning of this passage?

  3. Ben

    How about God:Christ or Cross:Christ? Is there inherant inequality in these relationships?

    How do two halves of the same entity stand at different distances from God? Or can my "right side" be inequal to my "left side"?

    I view it as two equal people agreeing with God to "dress up" in this clothing to represent something God wants represented. I view the struggle to balance the deepness here within an equal relationship as a means for the husband and wife to learn about these mysteries more deeply.

  4. How about God:Christ or Cross:Christ?

    That isn't the textual issue. I want to understand the analogy in the passage we've been discussing, which is Christ:Church. I'm interested if you would be willing or able to apply your relationship with Christ (Lord of your life, Master, etc.) to your wife's relationship with you, or more importantly, whether you would consider that normative. I don't see the grounds for substituting the central analogy.

    In any case, whether we view 'hupotasso' as voluntary or not, whether we use the Ephesians analogy or one not scripturally applied to marriage, I do not see how you can "place yourself under" something that isn't above you. The question of hierarchy really matters here, and if you're endorsing it, you're not being very clear. If you're not--as the "dress up" seems to imply--then I wonder what it says about natural law and the general reasonability of God that women must, for no particular ontological reason, place themselves under men.

  5. JCH,
    Nice post.

    Ben, the problem with the supposition that Ephesians 5 message is "inferior women" is to ignore other Pauline writings which emphasise equality amongst people.

    There is neither slave nor free, Jew nor gentile, men or women says Paul. Men are to be in submission to their wives, and both shall be in submission to God.

    Keeping in mind Paul was writing guidelines for behavior in Greece and Rome in the year 40, these epistles are asounding in thier message of equality.

    Paul is addressing Christians who have lost order during thier times of assembly and of problems widespread in the church. Every teaching and word he wrote was to get people back on track to a relationship with God. You can not progress to a goal if you are disorganized and fighting about how to get there. So Paul tells people: you need to a leader to exercise authority. Traditionally this has been (in marriage) men, it makes sense for people to use a system which they understand and are comfortable with.
    The key is stopping the petty bickering and refocusing on God.

  6. Ben

    I mean the "dress up" more seriously than that. If we start from the supposition that Christian marriage is about God; and not about us - then the reason we assume the roles is because we are to display a relationship to the world He wants us to display. It is not an act - we assume a role.

    We learn something deeper about God by assuming that role. The article I linked from Christians for Biblical Equality has a discussion on page 3 under "Does the Head Metaphor Mean Authority" which is very interesting.

  7. The "mutual submission" argument is, in my opinion, frequently used to placate women, i.e. "Yes, you should submit to your husband, but he's submitting to you as Christ loved the church, which is huge, so don't worry about it." It seems to me that if husband and wife are mutually submitting to each other as to the Lord, the submission between them becomes moot. That just seems logical. A mutual submission argument which still tries to maintain authoritarian structure seems to be trying to have it both ways.

  8. I suppose my "sometimes the Bible says stupid things" argument wouldn't go over well here. In reading the text and in the context of the other things Paul is said to have said, I think that any "submitting" that takes place is to God, not to any human authority. Husband or wife. In the context of marriage, since God is the "glue" between the two individuals that become one-flesh, then that is submission to the unity, not a particular role. I do not see any distinction between husband and wife. Partner would be more accurate. (Yes, of course I would say that)... ;-) But in history the definition of what a husband or wife is often more bound up with what people do rather than who they are. And the things people do, whether they are bread-winners or bread-makers change in gender from place to place and from century to century, usually in response to the needs of survival. The one-flesh bond however being of God is eternal, not transient.

    If Paul had said "submit to each other" or even "husband submit to the wife", how would that have gone over with to the people he was preaching to? Is there a preacher that does not preach to his audience?

  9. If Paul had said "submit to each other" or even "husband submit to the wife", how would that have gone over with to the people he was preaching to? Is there a preacher that does not preach to his audience?

    This sounds right to me and it seems not dissimilar to what taleena is saying. I think Paul (and whoever wrote Ephesians) and all the Biblical authors are at times using casuistic reasoning, legislating for specific cases or circumstances. However, I don't see how those ad hoc instances can be made foundational doctrine for all time. If the Ephesians author was merely using the language appropriate to settling marital relations in a patriarchal society, then this cannot be considered binding on us (however, the depth of the analogy says to me that the author was not just doing an ad hoc argument here).

    I'm in the 'sometimes the Bible says stupid things' camp--God was not dictating this or any other text and, like anything else written by humans, it encodes human opinions, ideologies, and metaphors. This is not the time to have that argument, I'm just stating my view. My question persists for those who find this text to be normative for marital relations: are you really arguing that the Ephesians metaphor implies no essential inequality between men and women? I don't see how the 'head' metaphor can not involve authority--indeed, total mastery. Christ is the head of the Church. It does not mean he is adopting a 'role,' it means he is part of a fixed relationship with us which is most certainly hierarchical (not to mention the slave language that follows). That is the Ephesians metaphor, and those who want the Bible to be authoritative at all points have to deal with it.

    Moreover, the suggestion above that all this submission and role-adoption is voluntary is very overstated. Because these roles were understood as being essential, women who accepted them were defined as good and those who didn't as unnatural and bad. It wasn't some voluntary godly discipline that people took on the way they took on fasting. It was a norm for gender relations. While I certainly reject the views of gender involved in that interpretation, I think it is an absolutely necessary consequence of an honest reading of this passage.

  10. Ben

    We may be using voluntary in a different sense. There are many duties, attitudes, and even sacraments asked of us in the New Testament. God of course expects us to carry them all out in obedience; but of course knows we will carry none of them out consistantly.

    New Testament requirements also do not carry the kind of "do it if even if you do not believe it" quality of Judaic Old Testament Law. God looks at our heart far more than our actions. The "hot or cold - not lukewarm" reference in Revelations; praying and giving to be seen; etc are all examples.

    So the husband or wife "subjecting" themselves to the roles here while feeling bitterness, inequality, or rebellion would "set worse" (in my opinion at least) with God than just not doing them at all. Of course, there are going to be times when Christian humans simply want to be self-centered and "hang their spouse" - but the overall nature of the subjection to your spouse must be wholehearted and voluntary and not forced or contrived.

    Did you read the "head" part of that piece over at Christians for Biblical equality? I would like your and Kyle's opinion. The position of "head" being that from which things flow or derive; rather than implying authority is interesting. It would certainly explain why Paul asked husbands to love; and not lead. It also explains Christ's relationship with the Church better - He and God are our Source more than our ruler (King analogies aside).

    Jan above has posted on this topic at The Submission Proposition

  11. You make a mistake in equating love and submission. Although love may involve submission, they have different objects. Christ loved the church, but submitted himself to death.

  12. Hoots,

    If you read either the Christian Marriage, Christian Wives, or Christian Husband piece linked above it talks about, generally, how the Bible directs us to submit up; and love down (in a chain of command sense).

    That is what is unusual in Paul's direction. Husband's are not told to lead, but to love. While wives are told to submit.

    I am not sure where I equatted them; but you are right. We are told to submit to civil authority - and I am not sure love in this sense is involved at all.

  13. In any case, whether we view 'hupotasso' as voluntary or not, whether we use the Ephesians analogy or one not scripturally applied to marriage, I do not see how you can "place yourself under" something that isn't above you.

    How can the first be last and the last be first? Christ turns everything upside down, and gives us the ability to do the impossible.

    Or to put it another way, this shouldn't be the only part of the Bible where you find yourself scratching your head saying "I don't see how that can be, yet it is." :)

  14. Real life here: About an hour ago, I think I "unsubmitted"to my husband, but I'm not really sure. I thought he was being controlling, and to acquiesce would have fueled his flesh, giving him power over me the Lord never intended for him to have. Or, I could just be fearful of being controlled. (which I am) I have wrangled with this issue for years now, and have always feel I've fallen short of being that submissive wife. This has caused guilt, but still I didn't seem to get much better. I've resigned myself to the Potter's wheel, knowing I am God's work, and as I yield to His Hand on me, eventually I will truly have a submissive spirit affecting all my relationships. This has freed me from feeling less than all the time as I've surrendered the restoring of my soul to my Lord, whose business it is to conform me into His image. So, even though I mess up time after time, I know He will complete the work in me to the praise of His glory. So, is understanding what submission is really productive in becoming that?

  15. Hi Patti,

    The pain and the damaged relationship you have with your husband need counseling - it is beyond simple answers.

    I will try to answer your question though: First, since I am talking to you - your submission must be voluntary. It sounds like it never really has been. If your heart has been wrong, that cannot help but have been in the way of your relationship with your husband.

    My assumption to is that your husband has not sacrificially loved you the way Christ loved the Church; and taken care of all of your needs. He probably has not submitted to God the way he should have either.

    Get thee to a marriage counselor sister - and work with your husband to save your marriage.

    BTW: the other shoe for me is that if neither of you can wholeheartedly submit to whom, or Whom, you are to submit to - go to egalitarianism as a fall-back position. Equality is better than oppression


How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly