What 'Submission' Actually Means
The Bible reveals it's much more than household roles and gender bias.
The concept of “submission” has long been a sticky subject in Christian circles. The term often conjures up pictures of ’50s housewives and makes women everywhere twinge in discomfort.
However, the term “submit” is strewn throughout the Bible, difficult to ignore whether you want to or not. It’s been skewed by culture to be derogatory, and by some well-meaning Christians to enforce the idea that women are the weaker gender and that to be a godly woman means to hide or give up your opinions.
What’s happened, I think, is girls like me—who’ve grown up surrounded by strong, outspoken women—find it difficult to reconcile the polarized opinions.
Fret not, ladies and gents. A quick study reveals biblical submission is much more than antiquated roles and gender bias. Instead, it’s about mutual service, selflessness and love and ultimately, attitudes that should mark any believer, male or female.
Submission Is An Expectation of All Believers
Most Christians think of romantic relationships, particularly marriage, when this topic comes up. But really, submission should be a regular part of life for all believers.
In Ephesians 5, verse 21, we’re commanded to submit to one another in love; it comes on the tails of a full section on walking in love and living in the Spirit. The Epistles—those “-ians” books in the New Testament—are littered with instruction on how Christians are to humble themselves, (Philippians 2:13) encourage one another (Colossians 3:12-16; 1 Thessalonians 5:11) and basically put others ahead of themselves.
So, there’s some expectation of all believers to defer their pride and preferences for the sake of others. Even more, all believers are commanded to submit to God. In fact, instructions to submit to someone else are often qualified with a statement like “as to the Lord” or “as is fitting to the Lord.” In other words, how we relate to others should always be viewed first in light of our relationship with God. We ultimately yield to Him and in doing so, serve others well.
Submission Is a Picture of Christ and the Church
Paul provides further instruction in Ephesians, particularly for husbands and wives, which is where controversy sets in. Starting in verse 22, wives are instructed to submit to husbands, as to the Lord. Then, husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the Church.
Why? Marriage is ultimately a representation of two people loving one another as Christ loves the Church, giving of themselves in sacrifice, loving their spouse as they love their own bodies. Paul puts it pretty plainly when he says, “This is a profound mystery, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.”
It’s tempting to jump quickly to conclusions about how this plays out in day-to-day life, but it’s important to first consider the context and God’s design for the various ways men and women relate. When we reflect on the “whys” behind the guidance here, we’re reminded submission is meant to reflect mutual support, a reciprocal, life-giving relationship that points to God’s story of redemption.
Sure, romance and the feel-goods are often a part of marriage, too, but ultimately it’s a covenant between two people and God, made to put the Good News on display for a world that needs it.
Submission Is Not an Excuse to Manipulate Your Spouse or Brothers and Sisters in Christ
Don’t. Even. Think about it. This is clearly not a “Woman, get in the kitchen,” message. Aside from making my blood boil, that attitude is a misapplication of God’s word.
I’ve heard too many sermons preached and stories told where men use this passage as a crutch, an opportunity to dominate and assert their will, even unknowingly. At the same time, I’ve witnessed women manipulate the God-given leadership of men into a scapegoat, an excuse for lacking ownership and an opportunity to call men out when they lack initiative. Neither is God’s design.
Consider the context for the verses we just looked at. Go ahead, check out the surrounding details. Whether female or male, it’s pretty obvious that using this passage to control, shame or dodge responsibility is completely missing the larger picture.
Think about it: If husbands are meant to be an example of Christ, do you think an attitude of entitlement is fitting? No way. Jesus was humble, the ultimate servant who could’ve demanded His own way any time but chose instead to sacrifice Himself for the sake of His people, His Bride, His Church.
Meanwhile, if wives are meant to portray the Church, do you think they should lack initiative or manipulate their husbands? Nope. We, His people, are made pure and righteous by His blood, perfect in His eyes and equipped to carry out the most important work of sharing the Gospel. The Church is an extension of Christ. Let’s not cheapen submission and marriage by making it about a power struggle.
Submission Is Not Always Easy
Even with context, a great understanding of submission and a true appreciation for God’s design, it’s not always easy. Submission, even by its simplest definition, is about yielding your desires, plans and preferences. Putting someone else first—whether it’s God or your spouse—takes constant effort.
But as we reflect on our good God, let us consider His faithfulness and trust Him and His Word, even the difficult parts, to conform us to His image, serving one another in love and considering others above ourselves.