Some of you reading may already be bristling at the title. We do not live in a society or culture in which submission is an acceptable term. Rather we prefer: independence, self-care, individuality, surety and standing strong. It is not an idea that was either familiar or acceptable to me either. When I first became a Christian, I discovered that this idea seemed to be a church thing and I really didn’t like it. Any suggestion of submission had me getting on my high horse. I was a strong, independent, fight-to-the-bitter-end kind of woman; I would never submit.
This Church, it is true and sad to say, had an almost unspoken backdrop of historic patriarchal culture; thankfully this silence is no longer the case. Coming from a secular environment I had always worked in so-called male-dominated environments and had never let that stop me, so I was surprised by this church culture. It was not that the patriarchy was particularly overt, in my case at least, but it was a constant and accepted undercurrent.
I was still a fairly new Christian when I got married and there was no way I was going to accept some 1950s view of wives submitting to their husbands. In a bid to learn what it meant to be a ‘good Christian wife’ (whatever that meant!), I picked up a book by Elizabeth George, ‘A Woman after God’s Own Heart’ which was quickly and repeatedly thrown across the room. I say repeatedly because I did try to persevere with it—but if this was a biblical wife, I wanted none of it. This was not how I understood God’s character in Scripture and nor was it how I saw Jesus behave. So, what was going on?
I wanted to know where this was coming from and so I turned to Scripture. It seemed that the majority of the ‘wives submit’ idea hinged on a misreading of Ephesians chapter five. This wasn’t helped by some Bible translations inserting divisions which split verses 21 and 22. However, it is not solely the fault of Bible layout and translation. It is largely due to a culture that has taken a word given by God to show love in action and given it a meaning that was never intended. Submit was never an instruction for abuse and fear but an invitation to love and be loved.
This entire discourse by Paul is not about telling one another what to do but rather about how the body of Christ is to function by loving one another; not just in marriage but also in friendships, families and church communities. The beginning of chapter five is set in the context of the way in which Christ loved. The context for the instruction is to ‘walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (5:2).
Indeed, you can read straight into chapter five from the end of chapter four and see it is a continuation. Chapter four is about unity and maturity and chapter five continues in that same context. It calls all believers to be kind, compassionate and forgiving to one another. A similar instruction can be found in the letter to the Colossians in which Paul implores the believers to ‘bear with one another’ as an act of love.¹
What else is submission, in the Kingdom of God, than a reflection of His character and love? Jesus himself submits to the Father in love and being loved as he says ‘not my will but yours.’² The Father did not dominate Jesus and Jesus did not submit out of fear but rather both acted in love.
I liken it to a dance; in order for the dancers to flow they move in a synchronicity that makes them look as if they are one person. The Rhythm to which they move is not that of one or the other but of the music which leads them. However, there are times in the dance where each must trust the movement of the other. For example; in order for a successful dip in the dance the woman must submit her body to the man. Not so that he can control her but so that she can fully submit to the movement while trusting that she will be held up even as her body arches backwards and down. There are two important factors in this picture of a dance:
- The woman in this instance is not submitting to the man so that he can push her around the dance floor, rather she is surrendering her body to the flow of the moves.
- The man is not dominating the woman by leading the dance, he is stepping in time with the music so that he too is led by the dance itself. In a similar way, submission to one another, whether in marriage or other relationships, is not to the whim and will of the other. It is instead, submission to the leading of the Spirit, teaching of Jesus and character of God.
This idea of a dance reflecting the character of God is not a new one. Indeed, the Trinitarian relationship being described as a dance goes back to the seventh Century and St John of Damascus.³
In all relationships, whether that between ten people or two, there are those with different skills, strengths and gifts. We submit ourselves to acknowledging those skills, strengths and gifts in others to allow them to lead and function in the ways they have been called to. This is not the same as submitting to culture-led gender stereotyping but is the submission to the recognition of our own strengths, or more often our weaknesses, before the other. Too often, as women, we are told we can have it all, do it all and be it all. Really? Why should we? That sounds exhausting! It also sounds like there is no need for the other. God placed us in community with one another in marriages, friendships and larger groups, in order to make up the body.
Ephesians five culminates in Paul making the point that the ‘mystery’ he speaks of is Christ and the church (v32). The Church, rather than stating its independence and doing things the way it feels it should, must instead be submitting to Christ’s rule and instruction and to the leading of His Spirit. For me, as a wife, to be compared to the call to the church is both humbling and challenging. It is a call to submit, not to my husband because he is a man, but to Christ who instructs me to kindness, love and compassion and to submit to His rule and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Each follower of Jesus is called to imitate Christ who shows us the character of God, to be kind, compassionate and forgiving.
And what of the husband in this story? Mostly over history a lot has been made of the call for a wife to submit but what is asked of the man? Husbands are instructed to ‘love your wives as Christ loved the Church’. How did Christ love the Church? He died for her! Submission is only biblical when it is mutual; it is not an act of power of one over another but of love one with another. In chapters four and five, when speaking of how to behave, Paul uses this phrase ‘one another’ to show that these actions are mutual. In the case of submission in 5:21 he gives the why or the how; ‘in reverence to Christ’.
As a Christian wife, I decided to reclaim the word submit from the hands of cultural abuse. I am still a strong, independent, fight-to-the-end kind of woman. Indeed, I believe I am stronger still because I have learned what it means to submit my life, my movements and my interactions with others, especially my husband, in order to revere Christ as Lord. In practical terms this will look different in every marriage, family and relationship because each one of us is an individual with different abilities and skills. On reflection, I wonder if my husband is the one who has practised submission even more than I. As a strong, independent man with his own home and financial stability, he submitted the finances to me as I was not working, by choice, in order to bring up our son. So, I did and still do deal with the bills and accounts. I often defer to my husband in matters around the home, especially in terms or renovations or the like, because we have found over time that I have no spatial awareness or measuring skills. We have chosen together that I am not allowed near a tape measure! He is not allowed to paint because I do it better. We are both equally capable of checking oil and water in the car and do the other’s if we are doing our own. If we go out I often drive, not because I am a better driver but because he is a better passenger. He does any DIY around the house that involves a power tool—not because he’s a man but because I’m a little scared of them (but I have plumbed in a sink recently)! There are many ways every day that we bear with one another and submit to one another; this means we don’t really argue a lot, unless one of us is tired and grumpy.
This does not come easily though. We have been together nearly twenty years and it certainly was not plain sailing in the beginning as we each fought to keep our independence and do things our own way. It is only over time and the building of our relationship that we have learned where our skills lie, sometimes where our time is and what season we are in. We live in a culture where marriage is entered into with the knowledge that there is a way out. This, for us, is where our main mutual submission is evident. We submitted our marriage in its entirety to God, committing to work at it and not quit when things got difficult—and it was tempting for both of us at times. We were able to persevere through those growing times because we fundamentally believed that God had called us together to be husband and wife. It is by submitting first to God that we learned to find the safety and joy in submitting to another in the everyday things of life.
Next time you read quickly over the closing passage of Ephesians five, bristling at its instructions, remember it is a dance that Christ has invited you to, in which he leads you to the music he plays.
- Colossians 3:12-14
- Luke 22:42
- Hikota, Riyako Cecilia. “Beyond Metaphor: The Trinitarian Perichōrēsis and Dance” Open Theology 8, no. 1 (2022): 50-63. https://doi.org/10.1515/opth-2022-0192 The dance metaphor does date back to the 4th Century but was not expanded to reflect the Trinity until 7thC.
Revd. Tania Vaughan is a Baptist Minister in North Bristol. She completed her Master’s and ministerial training at Bristol Baptist College in 2022. She is passionate about God’s word and living in obedience to Jesus as a witness to living life differently in the community.