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Submission: A Lot More Than Giving In

by Rebecca Jones

As I drove my fifteen year old daughter home from gymnastics, I listened intently to her description of a painful, embarrassing moment. Her emotions weighed not only on my soul, but on the gas pedal. A sick feeling came over me as I saw flashing lights behind. When the policeman asked me if I had any reason for driving 40 miles an hour in a 30 mile an hour zone, I simply replied, "No sir, I just wasn't paying attention."

When we had finished the formalities of the ticketing process, I drove away (slowly!). My daughter (now truly sobbing due to the increased strain of watching me get a ticket I couldn't afford) began complaining about how unfair the cop had been.

"No," I insisted. "He wasn't unfair. If I was going over the speed limit, he had every right to stop me and give me a ticket."

"But he was so arrogant, so know-it-all," my daughter argued. "And he could have just warned you."

"Well, I've seen worse," I answered.

I didn't resent that policeman, nor did I fear him as a person. I didn't feel either better or worse than he, but he was a policeman and I wasn't. In that situation, I was called to submit myself to his jurisdiction.

This situation of legal authority is about the only one left in our society that parallels what I think is true of the submission a wife is to have in relation to her husband. She is no less a worthy human being than he, but he has been placed in authority. It is his job, his identity of calling.

I have never heard or read the word "submission" in current speech or journalism. I imagine that the average shopper or movie-goer would give this word a negative connotation. Only wimps submit. The fulfilled person is strong, autonomous, and self-propelled. When I attended Wellesley College, the feminist movement was gaining momentum. For a woman to announce her vocation to be marriage and motherhood was nearly unheard of. Since my college days, such attitudes about wives and mothers have spread until now they are no longer the domain of the radical left, but the common opinions of society at large.

In this context even Christian women have a great deal of difficulty adjusting to the apostle Paul's words to the Ephesians: "Wives, submit to your husbands in all things." Of course, some try to argue that Paul really means a less offensive, tit-for-tat submission, in which each party simply considers the other's needs. To bolster this point of view, some look to Ephesians 5:21 which seems to imply a mutual, 50-50 submission that might slip unnoticed past the politically correct guardians of our culture. But surely we feel Paul's colon after that statement, in the context of the whole book, for he follows, "Submit one to another" with the ways in which we submit, namely wives to husbands, children to parents, slaves to their masters (or in our societal structure, workers to their bosses). If Paul were only emphasizing a general principle of mutual submission, why should he enumerate specific cases? And had he wanted to illustrate the mutuality of the submission, he would have emphasized both sides of the issue by specifying "Slaves, submit to your masters and masters to your slaves. Husbands submit to your wives, and wives to your husbands. Parents submit to your children and children to your parents. No, I'm afraid this passage is revoltingly undemocratic.

So how does a Christian woman today live out this notion of submission? What does it entail?

I would like to use two Pauline thought patterns to talk about submission. Perhaps if we can train ourselves to think a little more like the apostle Paul, we will understand what this submission should look like.

Radical Positive Obedience

First of all, I would like to emphasize the principle of radical positive obedience. Some people have described this as putting off and putting on. Notice in Ephesians 3 when Paul talks about stealing, he does not stop with the negative command, "Cease stealing." No, Paul tells us that in order to cease stealing, we should use our time working with our hands. But even this is not sufficient. The thief is to stop stealing, and to work in order to have something to give. So the negative behavior is stealing. The "neutral" behavior is working with one's hands, and the positive behavior is giving away one's belongings to others. We see Paul use this same principle in relation to speech. It is not sufficient to stop lying, or even to be silent, but one must speak the truth with the goal of building someone up. We are not to be drunk, but we are to be filled-filled with the spirit so that we can sing songs and spiritual songs under His control to the edification of Christ's body.

The Parallel Principle

The second Pauline principle that will help us understand the passage about submission is the parallel principle. Paul makes a strong and specific parallel between Christ's relationship with the church and the husband's relationship to his wife. The very reason for which God created men and women and the profound physical and spiritual union they experience in marriage is to teach them of Christ. All God's creational structures are to help us grasp His nature. He encourages us to learn of Christ and the church by what we know of the marriage relationship and also to apply what we know of Christ's union with his church to our marriages so that we can better understand how to love in the context of that union.

Let's apply these two Pauline ways of thinking to submission.

Replace negative rebellion with radical love.

Women who actively rebel against their husband's authority, refusing to accept what God has placed in their lives for protection, are quite obviously not in submission. But in order to submit, it is not sufficient to go into neutral. Submission is not a grudging or laissez-faire passivity. To obey Christ's command to submit, a wife must attempt to know the heart of her husband, to honor that heart, to come in line with its desires and joys, its instincts and its passions, and to align herself and her children with those desires and passions. Not only must we wives not belittle our husbands, we must lift them up. Not only should we not refuse our bodies to them, but we are called to give of ourselves with joy. Not only should we not try to "have him, to dominate him" (see Gen. 3:16 And 4:7 in which the same phrase, "it desires to have you," is used), but we should desire to increase his authority and respect in every way possible, whether in the eyes of our neighbors, our children, or our church friends. The famous Proverbs 31 passage shows a woman who uses her great initiative and creativity to control a sphere of influence given her by her husband, in order to bring honor to his name.

The church's relationship with Christ parallels a wife's to her husband.

A wife is to submit to her husband as the church submits to Christ. The church's job while in the "fiance" stage is to learn to bring all things together under one head, even Christ (Eph. 1:10), and to allow her Savior to make her holy (5:26). We all know what is demanded of the church in relation to Christ. We are to bring every thought captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). We are to have our minds renewed (Rom 12:2), conforming them to the mind of Christ, our Savior. We are to be washed clean by the water of Christ's word (Eph 5:26). The church is to adopt Christ's heart.

A wife's job in submitting to her husband is far more than simply acquiescing when his will happens to cross hers, or in allowing him to make decisions without objecting. No, a wife is to bring "all things together under one head," her husband. In other words, in the sphere of her home, where her husband is head, she is to gather, collect and submit all those things that are under her supervision (including her children!) to her husband's control, as a means of submitting them to Christ's control.

I have been married for twenty-eight years. As I gradually understand the radicality of submission, I also understand the depth of my own rebellion. Without the power and grace of Christ, the church cannot live up to the goal of bringing all things together under one head, Christ. Without the power and grace of Christ, I will never begin to bring all things in my home together under one head, my husband. But in my weakness I learn of Christ's strength, and as I obediently work at submitting to my husband, at coming in line with his heart, even when I don't understand it, I am also helping to bring all things together under Christ- for the man is the head of the woman, Christ is the head of the man, and Christ will then lay all things at the feet of his Father when all things have been brought under his control (I Cor. 15:21-28).

So what is submission? Whole-hearted participation in exalting one's husband and in lifting him up to glory and honor under Christ. Without realizing the Biblical basis for her conclusion, one Wellesley graduate, having come to the brink of a second divorce, said, "I guess my first husband was right. It takes two people to make one success." God gave me to my husband to help him succeed in his task of bringing his family and home under the headship of Christ and in his job of preaching the gospel clearly. As children submit to their parents in the strength of the Lord; as employees or slaves submit to the wills of even their wicked bosses or masters through the amazing power of the gospel; as wives submit to their husbands' God-given authority; we all grow up together into him who is the head, that is Christ (Eph. 4:15), and fill the whole universe with the knowledge of the glorious God of the gospel (Eph. 4:10), who has loved us with an everlasting love.

By radically submitting to our husbands with joy, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we Christian wives participate not only in the original earthly mandate to fill the earth and to subdue it, we also participate in that greater heavenly mandate of God's church to show the "manifold wisdom of God...to the rulers and authorities" (Eph. 3:10) and to "attain the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (4:13) in order to lift him up in glory, to "fill the whole universe" (4:10). How great and high is our calling, and what a selfless Savior we have to show us the way and to give us His righteousness.

Rebecca has a B.A. from Wellesley College and is the mother of seven children. With her husband, Peter, she lived for eighteen years in France, where they worked as missionaries with the Presbyterian Church in America. Since returning to the United States in 1991, Rebecca has taught Graduate Writing for four years at Westminster Seminary, and has both edited and authored books and articles. She is a board member for CBMW.
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