Sunday, July 15, 2012

Submission: Love in practice

from here
In a very early post on the whole egalitarian/complementarian issue, I said that I didn’t like reading pro-egalitarian arguments written by women because I tended to accuse them of “finding loopholes in what the Bible says because they don’t like submitting.” It’s interesting reading back over where I was a year ago, and comparing that to where I am now. One of the reasons I started this blog was to document the journey, and I appreciate the record I have of the ways different assumptions and confusions have been reshaped over time. An important part of my conversion to egalitarianism has involved a new respect for and love of the concept of submission; I now believe that it should be a way of life – the way of life for all Christians. A couple of posts ago I spoke about magic, and I’m about to attempt some for myself: Be amazefied, ladies and gentlemen, as I condense two giant ideas – submission and love – into one not-too-lengthy* blog post!

Complementarian teaching on submission is aimed only at women**, encouraging them to let men initiate, lead, protect and provide for them. Submission seems to have become synonymous with Peter’s “gentle and quiet spirit” which has morphed into just being “gentle and quiet,” causing most passionate and loud-laughing women to question their submissiveness and therefore their chances of impressing godly men. So submission is reduced to women aiming to be less animated and men not thinking about it at all. (I have never once heard a man wishing he was more submissive; hopefully by the end of this post, this fact will worry you as much as it worries me.)

Egalitarian teaching on submission encourages both men and women to follow Jesus’ example by humbly “taking the very nature of a servant” and giving themselves up for others. I found it striking to read that the word ‘Islam’ means ‘submission’; it made me wonder if we Christians had missed the hugeness of submission by applying it to only one sex. Surely submission is something that should define Christianity too, because it’s the way we live out Jesus’ great command to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. As Darren Hanlon sings, “love is just a lazy generalisation that we use for a hundred different feelings and as many situations” – it’s a word we throw around a lot without ever thinking through how to actually do it (although we also know, thanks to DC Talk, that Luv is a Verb). I think 1 John 3:16 tells us how to do love: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” Love is being like Jesus: laying down our lives, humbling ourselves, looking to the interests of others as well as ourselves, sacrificing for the sake of others; in short, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).

I used to panic about what submission was supposed to look like practically in marriage (of course, I thought it was my job alone, as the wife; my husband was busy trying to work out what practical love looked like), but I’m seeing it more often as I understand it better. As a treat, my husband and I sometimes buy a box of ice creams. There are three flavours in the box, and strawberry is our least favourite. Last time we bought them, I knew there were two left and I headed to the freezer hoping that only one would be strawberry so that I could eat it and leave my husband the one he preferred. My husband takes our son for a couple of hours every morning so that I can sleep for longer. We both aim for submission, which looks a little like a friendly dance (“You go first!” “No, you go first!” etc., etc.). He lets me initiate, and I let him initiate. We support and encourage each others’ gifts and passions. He leads where he’s strong and defers where he’s weak, and I do likewise; we recognise and embrace the fact that God has made us complementary in many ways.

In our best moments, our marriage is like a tiny and mysterious version of the Church, a body in which there is no division and each of its parts have equal concern for the other; “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:25-26). And it’s not just husbands and wives who make up the Church and are therefore called to adopt the attitude of Christ Jesus and be servant-hearted, or “slaves of all,” as Jesus puts it in Mark 10:44; in all relationships Christians must “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).

Outside of marriage, submission may mean washing up your flatmate’s dishes without keeping tab of how many nights now you’ve done it because she hasn’t. It may mean offering to make your colleague a cup of tea every time you fix one for yourself. It may mean tidying up the mess in the lounge room even though it was your brothers who created it. It may mean sticking to your position at the back of the field even though your team still hasn’t scored. It may mean biting your tongue, it may mean looking for new chances to show kindness, it may mean losing self-righteousness, time or money, and it may mean talking to someone on their own at church even though you’ve noticed your buddy Jordan is back from Europe and you haven’t had a chance to catch up with him yet. There are so many chances each day for all of us to serve, to submit, to be humble and loving, that it’s almost ridiculous to suggest that such a massive theme should apply merely to a Christian wife as she is to relate to her husband, as is too often the case. 

In last Saturday’s paper, Sandy Gordon, a sport psychologist, is quoted as saying this: “It’s important to realise that the best teams in the world aren’t full of well-rounded people who do everything well. They’re full of people with particular, complementary skills, whose goals for the team trump their individual goals.” The thought of every person in the world working alongside each other towards a goal of peace and harmony is one that fills my heart with fuzziness and makes me long for heaven. This is submission, this surrender of our own goals and selfishness and desires and pride and resources and ability for the sake of others! And this is love. Christ was servant-hearted, humble and loving, someone who repeatedly and willingly gave himself up for others (including those who hated him). His submission is what makes him so compelling, so worthy of worship and adoration, so worthy of following. It’s a beautiful guide and goal for all of his disciples, as we strive to love a little more like him and taste a piece of heaven here on earth.


* Okay, it was a little lengthy.

** For an example, click on this link, search for the words “And I think” and then read the paragraph that follows. I originally saw this sermon on the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood website months ago, but they’re currently updating their site so I found it elsewhere.


  1. Good post, Belle, and good to keep this discussion going.

    In general I agree with what you've said here. Submission is huge, and it's very one dimensional to see this only as applying to wives. The Bible shows very clearly the opposite. I like the gist here, that you are not anti wives submitting, but pro everyone submitting. Very sound point, and one not usually given enough clarity.

    My issue though (you knew there was one coming, right?:)) is that I don't think this is the full picture. I do think husbands are called to something on top of this.

    In our best moments, our marriage is like a tiny and mysterious version of the Church, a body in which there is no division and each of its parts have equal concern for the other

    I think this is true, and also beautiful, and is a good image of overall submission to each other. In this image, husband and wife are both the church, intertwined and inseperable.

    But we also need to fit in to this picture the metaphor of the husband being head of the body. In that picture the husband is supposed to be like Christ to His church, and the wife is like the church, the bride. I'm still unsure about how all this works itself out, but I guess it's hard to ignore that distinction being made there. And I don't really think it can be explained away as love and submission looking like the same thing, therefor husband and wife having the same calling. Yes, all are called to be Christ-like, but in this instance there is a specific distinction in what husband and wife are called to do.

    I'm not trying to prove you wrong, I think you are saying right stuff, I'm just trying to pry into how headship works into the picture you describe.

    1. The metaphor you mention comes from Ephesians 5:21-33, which explains what submitting to each other looks like in specific relationships. The husbanda are told that "headship" involves loving like Christ (who "gave himself up for" the church) and loving their wives like they love their own bodies (the two are "one flesh," after all).

      Both of these sound like submission to me, which isn't surprising given that Paul starts this whole discussion in 5:21 by telling everyone to submit to one another. What many complementarians end up with in their effort to finding a distinction in what men and women are called to is "servant leadership", which I think is a cheating way of telling men that they also need to submit.

      I wanted to include lots of Bible passages in this post to challenge the fact that many read the Bible through the lens of (or trying to make sense of) passages like Ephesians 5, rather than the other way around.

  2. P.S. For anyone else who may be wondering, Ben mentions keeping the discussion going because my post was very much inspired by one of his:

  3. I get that headship includes submission, but I don't get that submission can be the extent of headship. To me the 'head' image makes leadership (yes, servant leadership)pretty inescapable.

    I get what your saying about looking across the Bible, not just at Eph 5, but still, there's a LOT to be got out of there, and it seems to speak pretty frankly on this.

    If the head image is used to describe Jesus in relation to His church, it feels like it diminishes Him and his role by saying head and body work in unison, there's no order or distinction. Jesus in that Ephesians passage as the Head is very much the initiator, there's an order there of Him acting first, ie, leading-

    -Christ loved us and gave himself up
    -Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior
    -Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy
    -to present her

    In all that wording Jesus instigates. And then it says for husbands to love their wives in that way. So I gather that that includes that sort of leading instigation thing.

    1. I agree that the Bible speaks frankly on this, but it seems that the clear message I get is different to yours. :o) Yes, Ephesians 5 talks of Christ being the saviour of the church, making her holy, cleansing her, presenting her to himself. Obviously this stuff doesn't and can't apply to husbands (I talk a bit about this in a post from a few months ago:

      What does apply: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church - for we are members of his body."

      Both husbands and wives are part of Christ's body, the church, which is possibly why it's all "a profound mystery." And, as I said on your blog, wives are called to be like Christ too! Throughout the New Testament we're all repeatedly reminded that Christ "gave himself up" and that we should too - never that we should try to be more authoritative or "leadery" like he was. In fact, this is exactly what he teaches *against* in passages like Mark 10:42-45:

      "Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

      P.S. THANK YOU for continuing this discussion with me! I love that unity in the church doesn't mean uniformity, and that we can passionately disagree on this forever but still be blog-buddies (even though I'll be praying that God changes your mind as you continue to think about it!!). :o)

  4. I think it's good that we should talk like this. Much better than heading off to our own safe little camps of those who agree with us about everything, to feel all content with how right we have it, and how well we understand the mind of God:) It's good to challenge each other and try to get to the bottom of things. It also helps us try and clarify and evolve our own thinking, as we try and sum up our thoughts to explain to others. And we can still be bluddies while disagreeing, as you say.

    I haven't much time today, but I'm going to ponder your comment over the weekend and consider the passages you've mentioned. To be continued..