A reader commented recently: “What do you think the Bible means when it tells Christian wives to “submit” to their husbands? Do you think submission was just for that culture?”
First let’s look at what Scripture says about submission, and I’m including some of the context of these verses because so often we throw around single verses without remembering their context. This can lead to all kinds of trouble.
“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.[a] 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” (Ephesians 5:15-33)
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. 5 Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:1-10)
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:13-17)
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), 3 that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth. 4 And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. 5 Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; 6 not by way of eye service, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, 8 knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. 9 And, masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.” (Ephesians 6:1-9)
I think this is a good sampling. We see that the Bible tells us to submit to God, submit to human institutions, submit to one’s own husband, submit to parents, submit to masters, and submit to one another. This is not cultural. This is really about relationships, love, and what makes the world-go-round with the least amount of chaos as possible. All cultures like those things and pursue them.
Let’s look at this list a super simple way:
5. Human Institutions
6. One another
Is submission just for Christian wives as so many seem to think and focus on? Well now, I guess not. According to Scripture.
Is submission something everyone is called to do? We just read a few verses that tell us YES. It is.
You see, back in the day, the idea of wives submitting to husbands or slaves submitting to masters was a no-brainer. Wives and slaves didn’t need instructions to do that. It was a given. Paul isn’t telling the Christian wives and slaves to submit to their husbands and masters. They already do that because their power-over philosophy of culture required it. Paul is introducing a new idea to Christian wives and slaves who were powered-over in the culture they lived in. He is telling them, now that they are Christians (followers of Christ), when they do their expected cultural submitting, they can do it AS UNTO CHRIST.
The New Testament leaders (including Jesus) did not overturn the power-over cultural norms overnight. They introduced brand new Christian concepts that would act like leaven, slowly spreading a truly Christ-like way of life (which is decidedly NOT power-grabbing and controlling) over time. When modern day Pharisees demand submission of half the human race rather than lifting up Christ’s Way of living in submission to one another, they continue the humanistic culture of power-over. It’s easy to do. Rules that control part of the human race make things simple. Walking by faith in the living, breathing Spirit of Christ and respecting the boundaries of other human lives is more complex and requires maturity, discernment, and a vibrant walk with Jesus. It’s not so black and white.
The judgment that men would power-over women is exactly that. A judgment. It is not a blessing. Praise God – Jesus Christ overturned the judgments in the garden, and where you see the Holy Spirit at work, you will see the judgments being overturned. Where you see the spirit of the anti-Christ, you will see the promotion and carrying out of those judgments on the people of the earth.
Satan brings people into bondage. Jesus sets them free.
Submission is a voluntary attitude of respect and cooperation. Sort of important when it comes to quality relationships. Without it we have anarchy and chaos inside, outside, and upside down. Whenever you see peace and harmony, you’ll see submission in action SOMEWHERE.
Side note: When one human being forces “submission” upon another, it is no longer submission. Catch that? It’s not submission. It’s control, manipulation, despotism, coercion, and a number of other bad things. Things that don’t make for peace, harmony, or quality relationships.
Look at that list again. Who is the most important one on it? You need to have the answer to that super clear in your head, because we’re in a real conundrum if our parent tells us to kill our unborn child. Or if our employer tells us to change up the numbers. Or if our husband tells us to make porn with him. Or if the person in the pew to the right tells us not to tell anyone what we saw him do to our friend the other night.
Why, no matter which way we turn, we’ll have to disobey God’s word, right?
This is where a little common sense comes in handy. There is a hierarchy to these things. And there’s a bottom line.
The bottom line, remember, is love. It’s always love. (Matt. 22:36-40)
“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10)
Submission, whether you are a wife, a husband, a child, a friend, or an employee is an attitude of love, respect, and cooperation. God will never tell you to do something hateful or destructive or unloving (although humans may manipulate you to believe it is so they can get what they want). You are safe to love, respect, and cooperate with Him under any and every circumstance.
But humans are a whole ‘nother story. And thankfully, the Bible gives us some examples of people who didn’t submit to their parents, husbands, masters, government, and fellow human beings because to do so would have meant not submitting to God. And God (along with REAL love) trumps everyone else. Let’s look at a few examples:
A Wife Doesn’t Submit to Her Husband and is (gasp!) Rewarded by God.
1 Sam. 25 – Abigail didn’t submit to Nabal (I’m pretty sure he didn’t want her to interfere in his refusal to help David, and I’m pretty sure she knew that too—conversations with her fool went nowhere), and God rewarded her willingness to do what was right by killing her husband a few days later and setting her free to marry David. (Seems almost scandalous, doesn’t it?)
(Do you see the love there?)
A Wife Submits to Her Husband and is Killed Instantly by God (DOUBLE GASP!)
Acts 5 – Ananias wanted to get the credit for giving all his worldly goods to The Church without actually doing it. God didn’t like all the lying and killed him for it. Sapphira submitted to her husband’s plan, and God killed her too. If only she hadn’t submitted to her husband. The story would have ended differently. (What would YOU have done?)
(Do you see the lack of love there?)
Some Guys Don’t Submit to Human Institutions and God Approves…of the Guys.
Acts 5 (again) –
“And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
(Do you see the love there?)
A Daughter Doesn’t Submit to Her Mother, and God Gives her a Place in the Lineage of Jesus Christ.
Book of Ruth – Naomi told her daughter-in-law, Ruth, to go back home. Ruth refused, and the rest is history.
(Do you see the love there?)
A Woman Doesn’t Submit to Some Important “One Another’s” and Blesses Their Socks Off
Acts 16 – Lydia (a business owner), after being converted, asked Paul and Co. if they would come and stay with her. The Bible says she “urged” them. Then it says “she prevailed upon us.” It sounds like she had to ask more than once. She wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. If she had been more submissive, she would have backed off, already.
(But, do you see the love there?)
So let’s sum it up. According to the Bible…
1. Submission is for everyone.
2. Submission is voluntary.
3. Submission is rooted in love.
4. Submission to God trumps submission to humans, which means that…
5. There are times when it is wrong to submit to humans, but…
6. It is always safe and right and to our benefit to submit to God.
Want more? There’s a Part Two!
In Part Two I talk about why I think submission is so unpalatable to people, women in particular. Hint: It isn’t because of what it is. It’s because of what humans have made it. There is a universe-sized chasm between the two.