Submission. OOoo . . . that dread “S” word!
This morning I had an interesting conversation with Rachel Held Evans, who is writing a book on “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.” Though Rachel and I would likely disagree on several points regarding the Bible’s teaching on womanhood, I deeply appreciate the opportunity for us to dialogue and engage on the topic. Rachel asked me to answer three questions about submission:
- What are some common misconceptions about what it means to be a “submissive wife.”
- Why might some (think secular audience) be surprised to learn that you submit to your husband. In other words, how do you yourself defy the stereotype?
- How long have you been married, and how has submission worked out practically in your marriage? (In other words, what does it look like when you submit to your husband?)
Those are excellent questions! Here’s how I answered her first question, “What are some common misconceptions about what it means to be a “submissive wife?”
Seven Misconceptions about Submission:
Misconception #1: Submission is universal—the directive can be applied correctly by all, even those outside of the faith community.
Christian submission is defined by the relationship between God the Father and Son. It cannot be properly understood apart from that mooring. Hence, I believe it is unwise for us to uphold the instruction for wives to submit themselves to their husbands as an achievable standard for those outside the faith community. People without the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit have neither the discernment nor the power to live out submission and authority in a godly manner.
Misconception #2: Submission is gender-exclusive—it’s just for women.
Men have a responsibility to submit too—it’s not just something that’s required of women. EVERY Christian, female or male, has the responsibility to submit to the Lord, and also to the authorities the Lord has placed in his or her life. What’s more, the biblical concepts of submission and authority cannot be disassociated. The two are indivisibly connected. A biblical definition of submission cannot be understood apart from a biblical definition of authority.
Misconception #3: Submission is generic—every woman submits to every man.
The Bible instructs a wife to submit herself to her own husband; not to men in general.
Misconception #4: Submission is a right—a husband has the right to demand his wife’s submission.
A husband does not have the right to demand or extract submission from his wife. Submission is HER choice—her responsibility… it is NOT his right!! Not ever. She is to “submit herself”— deciding when and how to submit is her call. In a Christian marriage, the focus is never on rights, but on personal responsibility. It’s his responsibility to be affectionate. It’s her responsibility to be agreeable. The husband’s responsibility is to sacrificially love as Christ loved the Church—not to make his wife submit.
Misconception #5: Submission is indiscriminate—it means mindless acquiescence.
A Christian’s first responsibility is to submit to the Lord and His standard of righteousness. A wife is not called to submit to sin, mistreatment, or abuse. The Lord does not want “weak-willed” women—women who lack the discernment and strength to respond to the right things and in the right way. Godly women do not submit to sin. They carefully and intentionally weigh and discern how to submit to sinful human authority in light of their primary responsibility to submit to the ways of the Lord. No brain-dead doormats or spineless bowls of Jello here! Submission is neither mindless nor formulaic nor simplistic. Submitting to the Lord sometimes involves drawing clear boundaries and enacting consequences when a husband sins. Submission is an attitude of the heart. A woman can have a submissive spirit even when saying “no” and refusing to go along with sin.
Misconception #6: Submission precludes mutuality—it creates lopsided, one-way relationships.
Submission and authority function hand-in-hand with all the other biblical directives about how Christians ought to interact with one another. Along with submitting to her husband, a Christian wife also has the responsibility to be transparent, speak truth, confront sin, and challenge her husband to ever increasing levels of holiness. As heirs together of the grace of life, both husband and wife have the responsibility to love, encourage, and build one another up; and to interact with forbearance, kindness and humility. Biblical authority and submission contribute to mutuality, and do not diminish or detract from it. (It’s “both-and” not “either-or.”)
Misconception #7: Submission promotes abuse—it encourages husbands to be domineering, self-centered boors.
When properly understood and enacted, the framework of hierarchical relationships within the Christian community serves a protective function, because every authority is accountable to a higher authority. This community structure encourages husbands to fulfill their responsibility to love as Christ loves, and holds them to account when they don’t. It fosters Christlikeness and prevents abuse. A wife whose husband is abusive can appeal to higher authorities for intervention and protection. It is the responsibility of the authorities to protect and seek the good of all those under their care.
Defying the Stereotype
Rachel’s second question was “Why might some (think secular audience) be surprised to learn that you submit to your husband. In other words, how do you yourself defy the stereotype?
My husband takes his responsibility to love me as Christ loves the Church seriously. I take my responsibility to submit to him seriously. That means that I am cherished and have a voice. That means that he is respected and supported. I work with him, and pull in the same direction. Some might be surprised that I believe in submission because my marriage displays a unity, intimacy, and mutuality that is deep, profound and enviable. I am flourishing. I have what most women want. And it is a great paradox how it is has been achieved. The way of faith is the way of paradox: lose your life to live it, give to receive. It is also a great paradox that honoring God’s pattern for authority and submission in marriage fosters unity and mutuality.
What Does Submission Look Like?
Rachel’s third question was “How long have you been married, and how has submission worked out practically in your marriage? (In other words, what does it look like when you submit to your husband?)
I’ve been married for 29 years—“just getting going” says my mom, who’s been married for 62.
“What it looks like” is a difficult question, since submission is not something foreign—not something “other”—to the character of a redeemed woman. Submission is not as much an “action” as it is an “attitude.” So it can’t be dictated by behavioral prescriptives. Submission boils down to a having spirit of amenability. It means being soft, receptive, responsive, and agreeable. Because of the misconceptions surrounding the definition of submission, I actually prefer to use the term “amenability.” Amenability comes from the French amener (to lead). An amenable woman is “leadable” as opposed to “ungovernable” She’s responsive to input and likely to cooperate. Amenability is part of the three-fold womanly disposition of 1 Peter 3:4-5, which includes gentleness, calmness, and amenability—which works itself out in a married woman’s life in submission to her husband.
So “what it looks like” on an on-going basis, is that I am soft, receptive, and agreeable toward my husband. I love responding to his lead. I respect who God created him to be as a man—and support his efforts to provide godly oversight for our family. I respect the position of responsibility that goes along with being a husband and father. “Respect” is probably the best word to describe what submission looks like in my marriage.
For me, submission is one of those things that is far more easily identified by its absence rather than its presence. I know that I am struggling with it when I am critical, impatient, defiant, and “snarky” toward my husband—when I refuse to cooperate and am unresponsive to input, when I rush in and take control, when I fail to “provide space” to allow my husband the opportunity to be a man and provide godly oversight for our family. In other words, it’s not readily apparent to me when I’m submitting, but it’s painfully obvious to me when I am not. I sense that I am disrespecting/ disregarding my husband, taking control, and pulling against him rather than for and with him.
So what do you think? Is there anything I missed? Which misconception do you encounter the most? How would you answer Rachel’s three questions? Or do you have any other questions or comments about submission?