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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just found your site and have enjoyed perusing your blog and book recommendations. This subject of submission seems to remain perpetually festered within much of the church, unfortunately. My observation is that in an attempt to argue their cases both egalitarians and complementarians tend toward extremes. Your treatment of it here is balanced, sober-minded, and gracious. Thank you.
Ah…I just stumbled over this on the internet search of “what does biblical submission look like”.
Thank you for this…especially the early part about equality and especially this line:
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.”
I struggle with submission and the concept behind it, and was pretty much insulted by a biblical counselor when I conveyed these thoughts to him about it. So to the internet I went and this popped up. You may not get this because I’m so many months after the blog went up, but if you do, thank you for writing this.
Lisa, I’m glad you stumbled across this post, and I’m so happy it blessed you. I’m sorry that you were hurt by what the counselor said to you. I’ve found that most of us have not given enough good thought to this very important issue.