What's So Scary About Submission?

6 secrets about what the Bible really teaches
What's So Scary About Submission?
Image: CARLO FORNITANO / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

One summer Saturday, hot and sweaty, I finished mowing the lawn and realized, This is the perfect time to spray Weed & Feed on the grass. I didn't have any Weed & Feed, though, so I walked into the kitchen and told my wife, Karen, "I'm going to the store."

She said, "But the kids and I are waiting for you to go to the pool with us."

"That can wait," I said flatly.

"Honey," she said with emphasis, "we promised the kids we'd all go."

The next thing I knew, we were arguing.

Some time later I thought, She wanted you to go to the nice, cold pool, and you argued for the right to stay and work in the heat? You are terminally dumb. But this argument wasn't about logic. It was about what I wanted, and what she wanted could wait.

Almost every day in marriage, you and I find ourselves in a struggle. Our spouse makes us mad. We can't get what we want. What makes these situations especially difficult is that usually, underneath whatever the argument seems to be about—such as getting Weed & Feed—it's really about power.

The Bible offers tremendous wisdom on what to do in these situations. From its pages we can learn how to move beyond many of the power struggles in marriage.

The Disliked Word

In Ephesians 5, the apostle Paul explains to Christians how to live the Christian life: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (verse 21).

The word submit is surely one of the most difficult, disliked, and divisive words in the Bible. But Paul says to these Christians, "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." Whatever the word submit means, it's something Paul thinks every Christian can and should do. He then illustrates how to submit by giving three examples from relationships in his day—wives and husbands, children and fathers, and slaves and masters. In each example, one person has more power, and one person has far less power.

Take, for example, wives and husbands. In Paul's day, a wife had no legal rights. Her husband could do whatever he wanted in legal affairs without her consent. But a wife had to get her husband's permission before she could buy or sell property or even make a will. Husbands also had the financial advantages and virtually all the education. They had the support of pagan philosophy, which taught that women are damaged, inferior forms of males.

Whenever there's this kind of imbalance of power, what's the person holding greater power or authority likely to do? Lord it over the other person, control her, use her to make his life easier.

And what's the person holding less power or authority likely to do? Resist, rebel, make the husband's life miserable in some way.

But Paul offers a better solution, a way to move beyond power struggles. It's called submission. He says, in effect, "In life, when you're in a place of less authority and power"—which in his day included wives, children, and slaves—"don't resist and resent and rebel. Out of reverence for Christ, respect and honor and work hard at pleasing the other person. And when you're in a place of more power"—which in Paul's day included husbands, parents, and slave masters—"don't lord it over the other person. Don't use them to make your life easier. Instead, use your power to benefit them."

Submission means I voluntarily limit what I might do naturally in this relationship in order to benefit you. If I have more power, instead of doing what I might do naturally and use that power to make my life easier, out of reverence for Christ I'll use my power instead to serve you. I'll give up even my life in order to benefit you.

Submission also means that if I have less power, instead of doing what I might do naturally and fight you every step of the way, I'm going to show you respect and honor.

What Does Submission Look Like?

Now comes the tricky question: How do you apply that? How do you live out the Bible's principle of submission in your marriage, today? Here are some things I've heard Christians say:

  1. The husband should make all important financial and other decisions for the relationship.
  2. The husband and wife should work together on all important decisions, but the husband has the final say.
  3. The husband should go out to earn the family's daily bread, and the woman should stay home to bake it.
  4. The husband is the president, and the wife is the executive vice-president.
  5. The husband should control the tv remote (actually, I've never heard preachers say that; I just threw that in).

Those may or may not be valid applications of Ephesians 5. I'd simply like to point out that in Ephesians, Paul doesn't say any of those things. As scholar Claire M. Powell writes, "Paul never specifies any cultural action or practical application from this passage." Paul seems to believe that if you're filled with the Holy Spirit and you want to live out of reverence for Christ, then you'll instinctively submit to each other. You'll yield the right of way.

That said, I want to offer six secrets that I believe express from this passage what submission means. They can help you ensure you're capturing the beauty of submission in your marriage.

Secret 1:

Submission Is Personal

Submission is a doctrine you apply to yourself. Notice Paul doesn't say, "Husbands, tell your wife to submit"—or, "Wives, tell your husband to step up and be spiritual head of the home." Instead, he speaks to each person and asks each to work on his or her own attitude.

Secret 2:

Submission Is Spiritual

Unless you're filled with the Spirit of God, it makes zero sense to submit to another person. Why would you ever do that?

In Ephesians 5:21, when Paul says, "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ," the word submit in Greek isn't a command. The command is back in verse 18: "Be filled with the Spirit." Submitting is an expression of that. So the text should read, "Be filled with the Holy Spirit … submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ."

If you're a follower of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit, then when you hit a power struggle in your marriage, you'll submit to your spouse. It will come supernaturally through the Holy Spirit's power within you. There's no other way you and I can submit than by God's Spirit. Submission is spiritual.

Secret 3:

Submission Is Mutual

In Ephesians, Paul actually introduces something radical to the culture: that people with more power have responsibilities, too. Paul says to husbands, "Yes, you've got authority, but you've also got responsibility." In fact, Christian teachers from the earliest centuries, such as John Chrysostom, have pointed out that what Paul asks the husband to do is actually harder than what he asks the wife to do. He asks the wife to show respect and submit; he asks the husband to die.

When Paul writes, "Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her," that's a nice, poetic way of saying, "Jesus chose to submit himself to the whip, the thorns, and the nails for our benefit. That's the example for husbands. Are you daily dying to what you want to make sure your wife gets what she needs?"

It's true that Paul asks people to submit in different ways, depending on whether they have less or more power, but the person with more power must also submit. When that occurs, something amazing happens in the other person. As my wife, Karen, says, "Show me a man who lays down his life for his wife, and I'll show you a wife who has no problem with submission."

Secret 4:

Submission Is Beneficial

Many people think submission is a terrible doctrine. But God didn't give us this doctrine to put us in prison; he gave it to us to set us free.

Think about how much submission helps the person with less power. In Paul's day, as author Jill Briscoe writes, "The Christian wife was about to be offered her first opportunity to have her husband ask her what she felt about selling their 13-year-old daughter into slavery. She'd never been asked before." The person with less power was empowered, a process that's only grown in its beneficial effects up to our time.

Submission also benefits the person with more power. Richard Foster explains that "submission leads to liberty, the liberty to be able to let go of the terrible weight and burden of always needing to get my own way."

You'll know if you're doing submission properly if you and your spouse are becoming better people. Are you growing in freedom, joy, and character? If you're not, then there's something wrong, because submission is beneficial.

Secret 5:

Submission Is Practical

One reason people see submission as The Text of Terror is because they treat it as some absolute law that has no limitations.

My wife, Karen, is a counselor. A woman came to her whose husband was beating her, but she wouldn't leave. Karen was worried for this woman's life, so she asked her what it would take for her to get herself to safety. Because of this woman's understanding of the verse, "Wives, submit to your husbands," the woman said, "I'll stay as long as I have to—even if it means he kills me."

I want to say this in love, but this woman was wrong—terribly wrong. She misunderstood this verse, and she was endangering her life.

Submission doesn't mean you give up your brain. It doesn't mean that if the person you're submitting to wants to do something illegal, you can do it and say before God, "Hey, I was just submitting to my authority." Scripture teaches (in Romans 13) that Christians must submit to the governing authorities, yet Christ's apostles directly disobeyed a government order (in Acts 4). Why? Obeying that order would have meant disobeying God. Submission doesn't mean you go along when you're being asked to do something that violates Scripture, your conscience, or common sense.

Secret 6:

Submission Is Countercultural

In Paul's day, submission challenged a culture that gave men power. It said, "Use your power for the benefit of the other person." In our day, it challenges a culture of power wars. Submission says, "Use your power for the benefit of the other person."

That's countercultural. Nobody wants to yield the right of way. Submission isn't the answer we like. It's not the answer we wanted. But it's the only answer to the constant frustration and anger we have in our relationships. There's no other way.

It's always cut against the grain. Your family or your friends may not understand your relationship. But you and your spouse don't follow the culture, you follow Christ.

The Quest Study Bible puts it this way: "A submissive spirit runs counter to society's values and it always has. However, it remains God's standard for all believers—male and female—for all time."

Kevin A. Miller is the Vice President of Resource Development & Executive Director of Ministry Advancement at Christianity Today. He's also a teaching priest at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.

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May 25

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