One subject which never fails to stir up emotions and differing opinions is the topic of biblical submission. In its historical context, this was not a controversial subject, but a widely understood one. So why do we have such a hard time with the concept? I think it has much to do with our sin nature – that natural desire to rebel against God. I also think a large part of our initial hang-up is that the doctrine of submission has often been distorted by some who twist the concept to suit their agenda.
It is also particularly controversial because of the society in which we live, where Americans herald their independence above all, making freedom their king and viewing submission as an ugly thing of the past. But the Scriptures point to a deeper and more beautiful way of looking at submission. The concept is actually quite near the heart of Christianity.
For instance, we see this when Jesus calls us to deny ourselves and submit to the will of God. “And He said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it (Luke 9:23-24 ESV).'”
Unfortunately, when people hear “submission” they automatically think of doormat wives attending their husbands’ every whim. On the contrary, that’s not at all what submission looks like. To get a more well-rounded view, we’ll look at a few places in the New Testament where submission is seen in a variety of contexts.
The context in which submission is perhaps most often thought of is the instruction from Paul in Ephesians 5:22 for wives to submit to their husbands. God in His infinite wisdom structured the family unit so that husbands should act as the head of the family. Because of that, for things to flow properly, wives must be on board with their husband’s leadership. It does not mean he should unthinkingly plow over her opinions and suggestions. Any wise and loving husband will listen to his wife, value her thoughts, and heed her advice at times.
Following this instruction for women to submit, husbands are told to lay down their lives for their wives as Christ did for the church. Both of these responsibilities are loving and honorable tasks, that benefit both parties and exude the glory of God. They are kin to the way that Jesus submitted the Father when He laid down His life on the cross.
What people often forget is that in the verse just before these, we see Paul admonishing all Christians to submit to one another. After giving various instructions regarding holy living, he seems to summarize in Ephesians 5:21 by writing, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This cooperation does not deem either party as less valuable or more worthy than the other. Rather, it displays unity to the utmost degree, one of the most essential traits of a healthy body of Christ. Therefore, it seems logical to conclude this passage of Scripture also applies within marriage, where a kind of mutual submission necessary for a healthy dynamic.
While our efforts to live by the previous instructions often fall short, Jesus fulfilled all this in the loveliest way possible. We see Him submit to the Father throughout His life and in particular through His death. Jesus expressed His pain in submitting to the cross when He prays, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will (Matthew 26:39 ESV).”
Praise God it wasn’t His will to let it pass, for Christ’s crucifixion is the atonement for our sins. So as we see in all these instances, submission is not only essential but lovely. It is not chucking your mind at the door, but it is the essence of following Jesus. It is a difficult thing, but His ways are higher, better, and more wonderful than anything we can think up of our own accord.
Note: If you or someone you know has been hurt by distorted teachings on biblical submission, I recommend reading “No Little Women: Equipping All Women in the Household of God” by Aimee Byrd. Though I haven’t read it myself, it comes with high recommendations from trusted sisters in Christ.