I think it’s time we talk about the S-Word. If you were a woman in the proverbial pews this Sunday, you heard the Bible-reader say the words, “submissive to their own husbands….” You might have had a million questions, a number of objections, or maybe even a sinking sadness or distress as these words reverberated through the sanctuary. Your sanctuary, where you normally feel safe and encouraged, even when you’re deeply challenged by the Word of God. But these words present all sorts of problems for our worldview, our identity, possibly even our sense of safety. Because one-third of American women report a history of abuse from an intimate partner. And the rates among nominal Christians horrifically, are not far-off, sometimes under the guise of submission.
Maybe you feel fairly comfortable with the idea of submission, and you didn’t squirm when these words were read. Perhaps you’ve wrestled through it yourself and have found peace with it. I would humbly ask you to reconsider your comfort level with submission. Because the burden of submission, and its counterpart—leadership, is central to the gospel, and yet fundamentally misunderstood in our western progressive individualism. Please join me as we fight to renew our minds in this.
RENEWING OUR MINDS- IN COMMUNITY AND IN ALL OF LIFE
This mind-renewal isn’t only an individual practice, but a communal one also. If members of our congregation struggle with a command of Scripture, it is our responsibility to understand them and their struggle, be humbled by their commitment to obey Christ, and exhort them in their process.
Likewise, the practice of submission is not just about us and our individual marriages. It is a much bigger reality that is central to all things, because it is a characteristic of the triune God. That means that it is a part of our image-bearing DNA, and integral to flourishing relationships and communities. If we are complacently comfortable in our understanding of submission, we will miss its centrality to the gospel and to living out our faith in a counter-cultural way. Additionally, we will underestimate the freedom that it brings as we join Christ in humble submission to our good Father.
There are a million conversations that can be had about what submission is not. Conversations about responding to abuses of power, about bad theology on this topic, etc. If you need wisdom in these things in your life, seek out a leader that you trust, and ask for their guidance. If you know someone who is struggling through these questions, consider coming alongside them. We won’t address those questions here, but instead consider the question, what is submission according to the gospel?
I met my husband in high school, still living under my parents’ house, where submission was a word only used out of selfish ambition, and a husband’s responsibility to love sacrificially didn’t ever enter the discussion. I always knew this was a misuse of Scripture, as did my mom, but as a young Christian, I always wondered what it did mean. Hoping that it didn’t mean I was worth less, or that it would put me at risk to being used and overlooked, as it has for so many women.
Seven years into marriage, these fears are continually and quietly stilled in my heart. Through the years, this relationship has been messy and difficult—as all good marriages are (that’s for you, newlyweds). But it has been very good. Not because I mastered what it means to submit, but because my husband is fervently committed to laying down his life in service to me. He works harder than anyone I know to build a career that will provide stability for our family and community, and he comes home and cares for our health and home through cooking healthy meals, stewarding our finances well, and maintaining a clean environment to enjoy. Beyond this, he is radically supportive of me, as my own entity, with all my desires, talents and dreams. He considers it one of his greatest responsibilities to ensure that I flourish.
On our best days, submission looks like allowing my heart to rest and receive my husband’s service and love. This might seem counter-intuitive. But it makes sense in relationship to the gospel: Jesus sweetly summons his Church, “let me wash you with my love; receive my sacrifice.” This is the first step for us to entrust ourselves to him. This trust leads to obedience, to submission. But it must begin with receiving a gift, making ourselves vulnerable to be loved and served. Jesus tells Peter that he can have no part with him if he doesn’t receive the humble service of Christ. Likewise, submission, in its purest form is allowing ourselves to receive love and trust in the giver.
On our worst days, it has truly felt like torture. A bit like dying to myself. Many times, especially early on in our marriage, submission has looked like crying out to my Father to sustain me when my husband wasn’t understanding or loving me like I wanted. When I felt lonely or overlooked, when my fears felt like they were a reality. In those days, submission is trusting that God is faithful to work in both of our hearts, as he’s always been faithful to do. In these times, it is being united with Christ in his humility, in his sufferings, trusting in his promises that we will be raised with him.
SUBMISSION AS A GOSPEL-CENTERED PRACTICE
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians gives one of the most eloquent and whole pictures of the transformative and awe-inspiring nature of the Gospel.
Chapter one begins by praising the master-orchestrator of this salvation plan, to “unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” As we continue, we find out that Jesus (through his submission to the Father during his earthly ministry) has been set “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” and that the Father made him head over all things to the church.” (Ephesians 1:10, 21-22)
Authority is essential to unity. Satan rejected God’s authority. Adam and Eve mistrusted it, therefore denying it. One of the core aims of the gospel is the restoration of that unity. This theme of unity is thread through the whole book of Ephesians. The gospel unites Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2 & 3) together in the body of Christ (Ephesians 4), united under one authority, the Head (Ephesians 4:15).
Submission is central to love. After Paul pleads for unity within the body of Christ, he lays out what it looks like to walk in this new way in chapter 5. A summative verse closes this section, “…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21). Christ submitted himself to humble service out of radical love for his Church. He gave the ultimate sacrifice. He calls us to submit to follow that same course of love, out of respect to him and the mission that he calls us into. It is the very next verse that transitions from the whole body of Christ into individual roles within the household.
The commandment in Ephesians 5:22 for wives to submit to their husbands, is a subset of these larger gospel-truths. Families are smaller units that make-up the larger Body. If unity and self-giving love isn’t characteristic of the smallest units within the Church, how can we seek to submit to the unifying love of Christ within his larger Body? And as we know from the previous verse, we are all called to submit. In this case, a husband is constantly submitting to Christ as he chooses to lay his life down instead of wield power for selfish gain.
The Gospel instills unshakeable worth
One of the reasons our culture scoffs at submission is because we find our worth in our positions of power. It is a central and deep-rooted idol of our individualistic culture. Just as the Jews hoped for a leader that would raise them up to a place of political power, we hope that Christ would submit to our goals as we seek power, pleasure and possessions. It’s so hard for parishioners to submit to their pastors and employees to their bosses, because we equate authority with worth. If someone has greater authority, that means we are worth less than them. Jesus didn’t restore this brokenness by restoring his people to power. Rather, he reminds us of the sacred worth in all image-bearers, apart from any role or position. God shows us that we are worthy of dying for, securing value beyond our wildest dreams. And in his resurrection, he promises us the most glorious inheritance that we could never earn in all our years of striving for more. This is why we submit, because we don’t need to self-promote, but instead we are free to give glory to the God who deserves everything but laid it all down for us.