Submission and gender

Bible by fireplaceWives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22) That’s an unpopular sentence for today’s world. I wonder if it’s not because we don’t really understand submission.

We have this image of the browbeaten bride trembling before her chest-thumping husband. That may be what the world means by submission, but it’s not what the Bible is talking about.

Some thoughts

  • The concept of wives submitting to their husbands arises from the concept of mutual submission that is to be practiced by all Christians. We put others’ interests first, we sacrifice for them, we count them as better than ourselves.
  • The concept of submission by wives is tied to the concept of sacrificial love by the husband. Both need to be present for the system to work. If the husband constantly sacrifices without the woman respecting him for it, the man is taken advantage of. If the woman submits to a selfish or unloving husband, she is dominated and subjugated.
  • The relationship of the husband to the wife is compared to the relationship between the church and Christ. Paul presents this as a theological concept, not a concession to culture.
  • In Corinthians, Paul compares the relationship between man and woman to the relationship between Christ and God. (1 Corinthians 11:3) The submissive relationship is a reflection of the godhead. Christ isn’t presented as inferior to his Father, but he is presented as being in submission to his Father. According to Paul, the submission of Christ to the Father will be a key point in the final triumph of the Kingdom. (1 Corinthians 15:24–28)

As we explore gender roles in the church, we need to remember that male leadership is a consistent biblical theme. It’s not about domination or authoritarianism; it’s about men loving their wives as Christ loves the church and doing their best to lead their families closer to God.

6 thoughts on “Submission and gender

  1. Keith Brenton

    If male leadership is a consistent them in the Bible, why don’t words like “man” (expressing a male identity only) or “male” show up often in scripture paired with words like “lead” or “authority?” And for all of our talk about gender roles, why do those words never appear in scripture at all, let alone together?

    To me, any discussion that assumes these concepts are fluent in scripture begins with a fundamental flaw: the discussion assumes this because the one discussing it wants to see them there as ordained by God rather than by men, and permitted for a time by God.

    If I make the opposite assumption, even for the sake of exploring it as a possibility, I am labeled as ignoring the clear text of scripture. I’m kinda done with being labeled that way, and arguing with folks who label me that way that our assumptions — whatever they might be — hold equal weight to scripture.

    We’ve got to be able to look at scripture for what it says and not what we think it says before we can even discuss this.

  2. nick gill

    Christ’s relationship to the Father will not change. He is currently the Father’s agent of reconciliation and redemption and salvation. When that work is complete, he will turn the finished product over to the One who sent him to accomplish it.

    Woman came from man. The Son came from the Father. That is, in fact, one of the main points in my mind that pushes back against the idea that Headship = rule. The Son submits to the Father… but the Father submits to the Son (“he gives me whatever I ask”). The roles of mutual submissiin are most clearly depicted in the Father/Son/Spirit relationship.

  3. Tim Archer Post author


    Doesn’t it seem that you can talk about a concept without actually using the word? Deuteronomy 8 is one of my favorite passages on thankfulness, yet I don’t think the word “thank” appears in that passage in any form. Looking for words and phrases doesn’t always lead us to the biblical texts that speak to a subject. Or must we dismiss “gender justice” and “egalitarian” on the same grounds?

    We’re all subject to the error that you describe, and I’m consciously trying to avoid it. We all start from somewhere; a major task in biblical interpretation is being self-aware, conscious of your starting point.

    That being said, when leaders are chosen under Moses, they are men. Male leadership is the norm throughout Old Testament times, with exceptions like Deborah reminding us of the norm rather than denying its existence. Jesus chose 12 men to be his apostles. He valued women and gave them surprisingly prominent tasks, but didn’t make them part of The Twelve. When the early church named elders, they were men. I see that more as an analysis than an assumption; what am I missing?

    Let’s make the opposite assumption. Let’s assume that women are equal leaders with men throughout the Bible. (I’m assuming that’s what you mean by the opposite assumption; or are you saying to assume female leadership?) We can point to Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. Miriam. Deborah. Feel free to flesh out the list as far as it goes. Does there seem to be an equal number of women in leadership positions? Can we claim authority or leadership for these women, beyond that of Deborah? We can include Jezebel, Athaliah, Huldah, Ruth, Esther… it still doesn’t feel equal to me. Does it to you?

    Let’s go to the New Testament. Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene and other women had prominent roles in Jesus’ ministry. But there certainly doesn’t seem to be an equal number of women named among the early leaders. Or can you think of dozens of women that I can’t think of?

    As I said, I’m as open to bias as anyone else. Please show me how I’m missing the mark.

  4. Tim Archer Post author


    “He gives me whatever I ask” isn’t exactly a picture of submission. It’s more like the idea of our being so in tune with the will of God that what we ask is always in accordance with that will. Jesus talked a lot about doing His Father’s will. The Bible talks about Jesus obeying His Father. There’s a lot of discussion of Jesus being in submission to His Father. And I think the Father models the kind of loving relationship that makes submission not be oppressive.

    Grace and peace,

  5. Tim Archer Post author

    Let me add… even if headship doesn’t mean rule, it still means something. That is, it’s not a picture of equality.

    (I still prefer the concept of “leadership” to “rule”)

  6. nick gill

    Assuming that “head” means leadership seems to assume our modern understanding where we know that the brain (residing in the head) – rather than the heart (residing in the chest) — is the place from which the rest of the body is led.

    “Head” language can also mean “source.” And since I am deeply uncomfortable with language that asserts a permanent, existential hierarchy among the divine community (rather than a temporary chosen state of kenosis), I am open to definitions and interpretations that fit my understanding of that relationship.

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