Biblical Submission: What Is It? What Does It Look Like Today?

We are preaching our way through 1 Peter at Hope Church, where I serve as one of the pastors. This is a very relevant book for modern Americans, as the original recipients of Peter’s letter were dealing with widespread social disfavor and increasing marginalization. The more that our culture becomes like ancient, pagan Rome, the more we will find that we have in common with the first Gentile Christians.

A Christianity that dominates and subjugates women is not a faithful version of itself.
A couple of weeks ago I preached 1 Peter 3:1-7, which contains the apostle’s admonitions for wives and husbands. This text includes the [unpopular] command, “wives…submit to your own husbands.” This is a difficult verse, in no small part because of all the cultural and personal baggage that comes with it. This passage has been misused and abused within the church. Preachers and teachers have taken this text to say that women are second-class citizens of God’s kingdom. We have used it to spiritually manipulate wives into submitting to husbands who are physically, sexually, or emotionally abusive. And that is wrong. That is sin.

A Christianity that dominates and subjugates women is not a faithful version of itself, because it was mostly women who were first drawn to the message of the gospel and the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Women were flocking to Christianity in the early days because they found in the gospel something they couldn’t find anywhere else. They heard a message that proclaimed, “You are valued by your Creator. You have tremendous worth. You have an inheritance.” God doesn’t sell his daughters for a bride price; he gives them the full inheritance of the kingdom.

So when Peter wrote this letter to these churches, he was writing to groups of people that were mostly women, many of whom had converted to Christianity either secretly, without their husbands’ knowledge, or against their husbands’ will. The churches were full of married women converts whose husbands were not believers. It would behoove us, then, to understand rightly (so that we may preach and encourage, rightly) the nature of biblical submission.

The Assumption of Equality

The first thing we must understand is this: biblical submission assumes equality. God does not elevate women to a position just below men; he knows that they are already equal to men (because that is how he created us), but he asks them to imitate the faithful obedience and humility of Christ. Biblical submission assumes equality because it is a volitional act of humility in letting another lead. Like love, submission can never be forced upon or demanded of. Submission is a gift freely given to another in humility, not the humiliation extracted by force from a weaker person.

Biblical submission assumes equality.
The equality that God assumes between the sexes is based on the original nature of creation. Genesis 1:27 proclaims:

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

There are plenty of differences between men and women; worth in the eyes of their Creator is not one of them. Men and women share equal position in bearing God’s image on earth. In the original, sinless creation, God commissions both men and women to fill the earth and rule over it. The text gives us no indication that there was an intentional hierarchy of image-bearers.

The problem of inequality arose after humans fell into sin. This curse fell upon Eve, and through her, to all women. The text says this: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” The image-bearers were created to rule the earth and the animals, not one another. But with sin came the curse of relational hierarchy and the inequality of the sexes. After the fall, women will seek to dominate their husbands, but their husbands will rule over them. This, I believe, is the root of the majority of our cultural brokenness.

In order to understand biblical submission, we must orient it around God’s original creation, not the curse which came through sin and which Christ died to reverse. God knows that men and women are equal because that is how he created us. We must, therefore, receive the command of biblical submission through the lens of the divine assumption of equality. In Christ, after all, there is neither male nor female. This doesn’t mean, of course, that gender is inconsequential. Instead, it means that the dividing lines and the hierarchical structures between the sexes, which never existed in the mind of God but came about as a result of the fall and are a painful reminder of the curse of death, are undone in the death and resurrection of Jesus. So when God says, “Wives, submit to your husbands,” he is not saying, “You are less.” Rather, he is saying, “Take on the humble character of my son, letting your husband lead.”

Humility, Obedience, and Endurance

Biblical submission is the confluence of humility, obedience, and endurance. Submission is what happens when you humble yourself and follow another over a long journey. It does not mean that you are taken, against your will and without your input, somewhere you do not wish to go. It means that you go together, willingly following another, with the assumption of equality and the inner-attitude of humility, to the place where God is calling both husband and wife.

Biblical submission is the confluence of humility, obedience, and endurance.
In God’s upside-down kingdom, it is the one who humbles herself who is exalted. God honors the humble, but rejects the proud. The ones who are seeking to get ahead, who dominate others and seek to rule over their fellow image-bearers have no place in the kingdom. Jesus told us, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be the servant of all. …For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Humility is the taproot of God’s kingdom.

We often think of obedience as subservience, as a lesser being carrying out the wishes of a greater being. But this is not the obedience we see in Jesus, for we know that Jesus and the Father are one. Biblical obedience in the context of submission is not subservience, but faithfulness. A faithful marriage does not consist in a wife filling every order and meeting every command of her husband, but in the two being true to God and one another. In this sense, both husband and wife obey one another, creating a relationship of faithfulness that is built to stand the test of time.

Biblical Submission Today

I’m not going to pretend that this is easy, or that any thing I’ve written takes away the sting that many women feel when they hear the word “submit.” It’s a hard word, no matter how well we understand it. But I think it can be redeemed, and I believe that biblical submission has an important place in marriages today.

Your husband doesn’t need to be told what he’s doing wrong, he needs to see a better way.
My wife tells me that she hears something like this from a lot of Christian women: “I wish my husband were a better spiritual leader.” I wonder if submission, rightly understood and practiced, could help here.

The wider context of this command is to help Christian wives bring their unbelieving husbands to Christ. Peter tells them to show, rather than tell, their husbands the importance of surrendering to Jesus. The same principle applies to men who aren’t leading well. Your husband doesn’t need to be told what he’s doing wrong, he needs to see a better way. He needs to see the way of Jesus in your life. Guys are visual. We need to see in order to understand. In fact, let me just do the telling right now so that you don’t have to.

Guys, and I’m including myself in here, I know you’ve got a lot on your plate. I know what it’s like to be a guy, to be a husband and a dad, to work hard to provide for your family. I know what it’s like to be disrespected at work, not here, but other places. Heck, I know what it’s like to be fired. Guys, you’ve got a lot of pressure on you. And you’re trying your best. I believe that. But home is not where we get to take it easy. Home is not where we get to be selfish, or moody, or take out our stress. Home is where we get to lead. Most of us spend eight hours every day following orders, and home is where we get to lead. But we have to lead in the way of Jesus. And that means we need to be close to him. That means we need to follow him, obey him, and put him first in our lives. The people that depend on us to put food on the table also depend on us for spiritual food. They need you to lead spiritually.-From One Guy to Another

The old way of marriage, the pagan, Roman way, was the husband over the wife for the sake of the honor of the family. The new way of marriage, the way revealed in Christ, is the husband with the wife for the sake of God’s kingdom. Biblical submission has a place in modern, Christian marriages. But not as the silencing and degrading of women, or at the expense of the exaltation of the husband. Instead, biblical submission serves as a living parable of the humility of Christ, and as a relational testimony of God’s power to carry two imperfect people on a life-long journey in the direction of heaven.

The battle over who is greater or lesser, who is weaker or stronger, is only the gasping breath of death dying. For in Christ, the curse of relational death is reversed. Now, in the power of the Spirit, a man can serve his wife, and a woman can submit to her husband, and the two can respect one another without any concern for the questions of division and hierarchy. Instead, they can reach back to the original intent of creation, while simultaneously looking forward to God’s new creation, where men and women together bear God’s image as good and wise rulers of the earth.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email