A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post about Abigail from 1 Samuel 25. If Abigail had submitted to Nabal, she would not have intercepted David’s army, saving her household from certain death. She is praised for going against her husband, is memorialized as a prophetess of Israel, and David marries her when Nabal dies. She is even portrayed as a type of Christ in the passage. (You can read that post here.)
For many Christians today, Abigail’s story begs the question,
What about submission?
If you’ve spent any time in modern evangelical Christianity, you’ve caught on that submission is a big deal. You’ve heard the sermons, been tagged on the blog posts, and have seen a boatload of books flooding the evangelical publishing industry on the topic. Did you happen to notice that these resources are aimed nearly entirely at women?
Because much of Christianity today is shaped by a patriarchal insistence on strict gender roles, there is a widely taught faulty view of biblical submission that defines submission as a one-sided, blind obedience or subservience of a wife to her husband.
Here is a small sample of quotes about submission directed to wives alone:
“Supreme authority in both church and home has been divinely vested in the male as the representative of Christ, who is Head of the church. It is in willing submission rather than grudging capitulation that the women in the church (whether married or singles) and the wife in the home find their fulfillment.” ― Elizabeth Elliot
“The Lord commands the wife to be submissive. Refusal to submit to the husband is therefore rebellion against God himself. Submission to the husband is a test of her love for God as well as a test of love for her husband. The wife then must look upon her submission to her husband as an act of obedience to Christ and not merely to her husband.” ― Wayne Mack
“When you honor your husband, you honor God. When you obey your husband, you obey God. The degree to which you reverence your husband is the degree to which you reverence your Creator. As we serve our husbands, we serve God. But in the same way, when you dishonor your husband, you dishonor God.”
“The overwhelming weight of Bible testimony about a wife’s obedience is that God expects a woman to obey her husband cheerfully, immediately and without reservation.” ― Elizabeth Rice Handford
For many married Christians, this one-sided approach to submission is working just fine, in fact, they are having a positive experience following this teaching. Should we try to fix something that is working?
Abso-freaking-lutely yes. Ideas have consequences. If one-sided submission is not God’s intention for his children, we should not be teaching it!
Let me attempt to demonstrate the faults of this view.
If you are being taught that marriage is a picture of the Gospel, this is your PSA that you are attending a patriarchal church that holds the faulty view of submission. The idea that living out traditional 1950’s gender roles in marriage is how Christians best display the goodness of the Gospel to the world is a mind-boggling notion for those who have not been raised in an evangelical patriarchy culture.
Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary, explains it like this:
Probably the most important biblical principle in relation to the institution of marriage is that it is designed and intended to present something beyond itself, namely the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:30-31,
“‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (ESV)
Paul is suggesting something radical, and he knows it! But he cannot shy away from the truth the Holy Spirit is revealing through him. From its very founding, the institution of marriage was designed to image forth the relationship that Jesus Christ has with the people of God, the Church. The man leads, loves, and serves his wife because that is how Christ gives himself to his bride. And the wife respects, submits to, and helps her husband, because that is how the Church of God follows the risen Lord Jesus.
First of all, the Gospel is the “good news” that Jesus died for the forgiveness of sins and rose again from the grave. Nothing in there about men leading and women submitting. Strict gender roles are not good news to a single parent that is both mom and dad to their children, working night and day to put food on the table. Strict gender roles are not good news to people who are not naturally “masculine” or “feminine” in “traditional” understanding (i.e. social constructs of expected behavior). Strict gender roles are not good news to single people who are marginalized in patriarchal churches. We should not be conflating our views of “biblical manhood and womanhood” with the Gospel.
Secondly, Akin misconstrues the “one-flesh” interdependence in marriage by insisting that the husband’s role is to have all the power and authority, and the wife’s role is to respect and submit to her husband. Yet, Christ loved the Church by giving himself up for it, laying his life down. Our relationship as a Church and Bride of Christ has not been one where Jesus directs our every move (imagine how things might go differently if that were the case in our churches!) but one in which we have autonomy as well as inter-dependence with Christ and with one another.
Thirdly, Akin ignores Ephesians 5:21, where Paul instructs believers to “submit to one another out of reverence to Christ,” then continues in verse 22 (Paul didn’t separate this thought with a header as many of our modern translations do) with “wives to your husbands.” Submit occurs in verse 21, applying to all believers, and is fleshed out in the following verses as Paul adapts the commonly known Greco-Roman Household Codes of the day. I would guess that Akin takes the word “head” (5:23) to mean “authority” rather than “source” (like headwaters). Christ is the Church’s source, in whom we live and breath and have our being. In Paul’s day, “head” did not commonly mean “boss” as it does in our modern vernacular. Paul was instructing men, who had inordinate power in the patriarchal Greco-Roman context, to care for their wives as they care for themselves. He is not telling them to rule their wives.
Moving on from the Marriage-as-Gospel idea, another expression frequently expounded on to defend the faulty view of submission is “equal but different,” which calls to mind the “equal but separate” ethos behind segregation and racial discrimination under Jim Crow. This doesn’t make any sense to an increasingly egalitarian society, but it is taught to nods and “amens” in patriarchal churches. The pastors of these churches have strenuously cautioned that the rejection of male authority and female submission is rebellion against God’s intended design for the “flourishing” of society (although studies have proven that greater results come from men and women leading together, as this Forbes article demonstrates).
If this is their view, they are failing to recognize that male authoritarianism and female submission is not how God designed male and female relationships to function. God had recognized Adam’s loneliness and given him a partner who was equal, as Adam clearly saw when he declared she was “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” God gave Adam and Eve dominion together (Genesis 1:26-28) and said a man should leave his family and cleave to his wife, becoming “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24; opposite of patriarchal customs that integrate a bride into the husband’s family). Authoritarian hierarchy clearly enters the biblical narrative at the Fall, in Genesis chapter 3. (Here is a helpful article by Marg Mowzcko on Gender in Genesis 1-3.)
I was speaking with my mentor Collette over the phone since I posted my article about Abigail. She blew my mind, asking, what if David had co-reigned with his wise wife Abigail, instead of being discontent and taking multiple wives and concubines? The whole trajectory of Israel’s history would have been different. I had never considered this before. If only David did not have this faulty view of submission, it is possible that Israel’s “series of unfortunate events” and calamity may have been averted.
I mentioned this to my husband Logan, who had just been watching the John Adams series, and he wondered what would have happened to the direction of U.S. history if Abigail Adams had been co-president along with her husband. He mentioned a powerful scene in the series in which Abigail Adams asked what good could come from the government when she saw the half-starved slaves building the White House (a quote from one of her letters).
While many enjoy a “traditional” marriage, they may not realize that girls in evangelical Christianity are socialized since birth to defer and to be passive, to believe that the highest iteration of herself as a woman is to find a man to follow, to yield to his desires and assist him in his calling. She has been conditioned to be content as a “helper,” not realizing her actual strength and capacity as an ezer (PLEASE check out that link!) and imago Dei.
They may not recognize that the orderliness of their life precludes the messiness of creativity and the freedom of living out our one, wild and precious life and our unique callings. Disorder is what brings change, and change is good. Sure, there is less friction when women’s voices are silenced, but how does that actually benefit anyone?
The bad fruit of this faulty view of one-sided submission is most visible in instances of abuse. A pastor that holds this faulty view is more likely to counsel an abused wife to submit more, to be more agreeable so as not to provoke her husband’s anger. The paradigm in his mind misinforms him that if wives respect their husbands and submit to their loving leadership, all will be well. He has been taught that since the Fall, women want to dominate their husbands (not that they were designed by God to share dominion), and his patriarchal lens gives the benefit of the doubt to the husband.
This is why denominations that teach male hierarchy and female submission tend to be rife with abuse. This is the consequence of this faulty view of submission. An abuser is attracted to the safety of a faith community that will help him maintain control over his spouse. Meanwhile, abused women are asked to do the heavy labor of “bearing their cross” and are praised for suffering in silence. (There are also male abuse victims, but this ideology specifically supports male domination, thus my use of male pronouns.)
I wrote an article on recognizing domestic violence for the IPHC Encourage Magazine last year, that you can read here.
So what is the correct view of submission?
Biblical submission is about mutual and reciprocal collaboration, humility, and the consideration of others before yourself. Unlike one-sided submission that gives all authority to males, Biblical submission returns our God-given dominion and care to all believers, who are created in the imago Dei with the capacity and agency to rule as God’s co-regents on earth. We are to be “one-flesh” in marriage, and working together, side-by-side as siblings, in the Kingdom.
The false narrative of those who believe the faulty view is that Christian egalitarians don’t believe in submission at all. We, in fact, believe in submission all the more, as a critical aspect of loving conduct for all Christians.
Here are some quotes from those who espouse this correct view of submission:
“When two followers of Jesus Christ are married, it is important to remember that Scripture clearly teaches submission is never the wife’s responsibility to the exclusion of the husband’s, nor is love the responsibility of the husband’s to the exclusion of the wife’s. A Spirit-filled, Christ-honoring, God-glorifying marriage is one of mutual submission and love.” ― Wade Burlson
“Mutual submission means that leadership is shared and exchanged based on each spouse’s expertise and need. This means that men will sometimes need to submit to women and women sometimes to men—but not because of their gender.” ― Jeffrey Miller
“When society was patriarchal, as it was in the New Testament context and as it has been everywhere in the world except in modern society in our day, the church avoided scandal by going along with it – fundamentally evil as patriarchy was and is. Now, however, that modern society is at least officially egalitarian, the scandal is that the church is NOT going along with society, not rejoicing in the unprecedented freedom to let women and men serve according to gift and call without an arbitrary gender line. This scandal impedes both the evangelism of others and the edification – the retention and development of faith – of those already converted.”
― Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender
“The noble calling to rule and subdue the earth in God’s name was perverted, as male and female tried to rule and subdue each other.”
― Lost Women of the Bible: Finding Strength & Significance Through Their Stories
Here is a simple exercise that demonstrates the interdependence of Christian conduct that is explicitly taught throughout the New Testament. Apply the idea of mutual submission to the “one another” passages. While “one another” occurs 100 times in the New Testament, it is specifically commanding Christians how to (and how not to) treat each other in 59 instances. For example:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Ephesians 5:21
Have equal concern for each other. I Corinthians 12:25
Serve one another in love. Galatians 5:13
In humility, consider others better than yourselves. Each should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:3b-4
Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Romans 12:10
As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Colossians 3:12
Rather than cherry-picking a few verses that reinforce the patriarchal, authoritarian domination of the Fallen world in which we seek to have power and control over others, we must look at the entire message of Scripture, in which women like Abigail and many others subvert the faulty view one-sided of submission.
Marg Mowzcko is my go-to reference point for egalitarian exegesis. Her article Submission in Marriage explains some of the passages that are used to subordinate women.
For example, in Ephesians chapter 6, Paul instructs children to obey their parents (hupakouete, v. 1) and slaves to obey their masters (hupakouete, v. 5), but the word used in 5:21-22 for wives means to be submissive (hupotasso) not obey, and it occurs in verse 21, when all believers are told to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” It is merely implied in verse 22 (“wives to your husbands”), although most English translations separate verses 21 and 22 with a heading that did not occur in Paul’s letter. Husbands are then told repeatedly to love their wives, continuing the application of verse 21, of living in mutual submission. Paul does not tell husbands to lead their wives.
In Peter’s first letter, he directs Jesus followers to submit to every secular authority (2:13) and slaves to submit to their masters (2:18), and wives, in the same way, be submissive to their own husbands (3:1). Then he says, “Husbands, in the same way live together with your wives…(3:7). Without a verb in the Greek of verse 7, it is the theme of submission that continues.
Marg Mowzcko beautifully explains that “God’s ideal is for a husband and wife to have a harmonious, loving relationship where each partner serves and prefers the other, in an interdependent, mutually submissive union (1 Corinthians 11:11-12). ..Every follower of Christ, regardless of gender, race, social or church position, should endeavor to live in submissive harmony with others. Jesus exemplified this submission and humility during his earthly mission. Our aim should be to intentionally follow Christ’s example found in Philippians 2:3-8.”
Having believed in one-sided submission for most of my life, and having come to an egalitarian, mutual submission view in the past decade, I can verify that mutual submission is not always as orderly and clear as one-sided submission. But I have freedom and joy in letting the “Leave It To Beaver” charade go and finding my own gumption and voice as a “very good” imago Dei. And my husband and I are finding that the expression “two heads are better than one” works well in marriage.
The fruit of mutual submission is the beauty that will attract the world to the Christian faith. Again, Biblical submission is about mutual and reciprocal collaboration, humility, and the consideration of others before yourself. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are to be formed more and more into his likeness.
Jesus told his disciples in John 13:34-35, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so also you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
This is the good news.