As most of you, dear readers, know, I don't tend to shy away from controversial topics. It is my opinion that only strong people can take correction, only humble people can do so. Whatever strength I have is from God, and the same with humility, and the same with wisdom. I might as well boast about the color of my (un-dyed) hair as about the things God has given me. In any case, I invite your comments about this important subject in everyday life. I shall write on submission today, and I think headship on Friday.
I'm going to assume the following: 1. The Bible in its original was inspired and inerrant. 2. Today, we may trust the Bible implicitly; it is the only rule for faith and practice; it is infallible. 3. Since we obtain logic from the Bible, and not the other way around, we may also trust any statement that is either found directly from the Bible, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from it.
Before I begin, I should say the following: I will use the terms submission and obedience somewhat interchangeably in this discussion. They are not precisely the same thing, though they are very closely related. In terms of submission to God, I believe they are precisely the same thing. In terms of submission to fallible mere human beings, I think they are not quite the same, though they usually are.
So what does the Bible say about submission? Plenty! Perhaps the most important passages are in Philippians 2 and Ephesians 5. I will deal with them in this order.
Philippians 2:3-11, a very familiar passage, reads thus in the ESV (all quotes will be ESV):
3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind amoung yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
What do we see from this passage? Well, first of all, obedience is humbling. But what kind of humbling? The kind that is eventually exalted. (Humility is the chief of the virtues, being opposed to pride, which is the chief sin. However, when I say opposed, I really mean that in a somewhat loose way. Humility is greater than pride is despicable, just as Satan is not the opposite of God but of Michael. God is much greater than Satan will ever be.) Therefore, no Christian should ever shrink from obedience. As we have seen, humility is something we are called to have, and even then, there is the resulting glory that we all desire.
Second of all, this is God the Son submitting to God the Father. Even now, with Christ in the heavens, He submits to the Father, always doing the Father's will. And yet we know that Christ is in no way inferior to the Father. He is equal to the Father in substance and glory. Apparently, submission is not demeaning, or else Christ would be demeaned. Since He is not, therefore submission is not demeaning. Feminists out there, hear this: submission is not demeaning! A further passage which illustrates this is 1 Cor. 15:28, where the Greek verb "to submit" is the same as in the Ephesians 5 passage below, where wives are commanded "to submit" to their own husbands.
And now, on to the Ephesians 5:18-33 passage:
18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loves the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctifiy her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without splot of wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
So what is there about this passage? First off, verse 21 does not, as many claim, indicate that everyone submits to everyone in exactly the same way. Here are the reasons that some major commentators give for why this is not so. Here is a quote from commentator O'Brien, which I quote at length.
The meaning of this verse [v. 21], however, is disputed for several reasons: first, is this submission to be understood as 'mutual'? Secondly, how does the content of v. 21 relate to the household table (5:22-6:9) with which it is closely linked...? The following are the main lines of interpretation (although there are several intermediate positions) in response to these questions:
(1) A widely held view is that v. 21 states a general principle of mutual submission by all Spirit-filled Christians to others in the body of Christ. In the subsequent verses of the household table, where the roles of husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves are set forth, the focus is on specific kinds of mutual submission in the light of this general principle. The following arguments are advanced in support of this interpretation:
(a) Although the verb is a strong word meaning 'subject' or 'subordinate' (in the active voice), here in v. 21 Paul employs the middle voice to signify a voluntary submission or subordination, and this means to act in a loving, considerate, self-giving way towards one another. Such a voluntary yielding to the needs of others is an example of that self-sacrificing love which is to characterize the Christian community. It is urged elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Phil. 2:3), not least in Ephesians itself, where 'bearing with one another in love' is necessary for 'making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit' (4:2, 3). Further, this is the pattern of Christ's love for the church which is held out for husbands to follow in 5:25-31.
(b) This view, it is claimed, does justice to the reciprocal pronoun '[submitting] to one another'). Gilbert Bilezikian, for example, recognizes that the natural meaning of the verb 'submit', wherever it appears in the New Testament, is 'to make oneself subordinate to the authority of a higher power...to yield to rulership'. However, the addition of the reciprocal pronoun to each other in here in 5:21 'changes its meaning entirely.... By definition, mutual submission rules out hierarchical differences'. He rejects any thought of obedience to authority in vv. 21-24, claiming instead that it is appropriate to speak of 'mutual subjection' and this 'suggests horizontal lines of interaction among equals'. For Bilezikian, then, the presence of the reciprocal pronoun 'to one another' is decisive. As a result, v. 21 controls our understanding of 5:22-6:9. Mutual submission requires that all Christans, regardless of status, function, sex, or rank, are to serve one another in love (Gal. 5:13). All become subordinate to one another, and 'there remains no justification for distinctions among them of ruler and subordinate'. Bilezikian concludes that 'mutual subjection as defined on the basis of Ephesians 5:18-21 refers to relationships of reciprocal servanthood under the sole lordship of Christ'. This 'reciprocity of such relationship renders hierarchical distinctions irrelevant within the Christian communitites of church and family'. Accordingly, wives are to submit to husbands and husbands are to submit to wives, in exactly the same way.
(2) A different interpretation recognizes that v. 21 is a general heading urging Spirit-filled believers to be submissive or subordinate. The particular ways in which Christians are to submit to others are then specified in the household table for wives, children and servants. It is not mutual submission that is in view, as the first interpretation claims, but submission to appropriate authorities. The following reasons are advanced in favour of this:
(a) The primary argument concerns the meaning of the verb rendered 'submit'. As already indicated, the term regularly functions to describe the submission of someone in an ordered array to another who was above the first, that is, in authority over that person. Further, none of the relationships where this verb appears is reversed: husbands are not told to be subject to their wives, not parents to children, not the government to citizens, nor disciplies to demons. The word does not describe a 'symmetrical' relationship since it always has to do with an ordered relationship in which one person is 'over' and another 'under'. In this sense the term is not mutual in its force. V. 21 'does not focus specifically on the relationship of husbands and wives'. Within the flow of the argument this issue is not taken up specifically until vv. 22-24. But even at this point v. 21 is not calling 'for [the] mutual submission of all Christians to each other'. This is to misunderstand the semantic range of the term. Instead, believers are urged to be submissive to those who are in authority over them. If the apostle's argument had taken a different turn, this presumably might include church members submitting to ther leaders (1 Cor. 16:15-16; 1 Pet. 5:5), citizens being subject to governing authorities (Rom. 13:1; Tit. 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13), or the church being subject to Christ (Eph. 5:24). Furthermore, in its other New Testament instances the semantic range of our verb does not include acting in a thoughtful or considerate way, or showing mutual courtesy, deference, or respect. The term, then, should not be assigned a meaning that is outside its semantic range, especially when its usual meaning makes good sense in this context. We are not suggesting that acting in a loving, considerate, self-giving way is absent from the household table; only that words other than 'submit, be subordinate or submission' are used to describe this loving service (cf. vv. 25, 28, 29).
(b) The pronoun 'one another' is not always fully reciprocal. Although advocates of the mutual submission interpretation assume that the relationships expressed by the Greek pronoun are always symmetrical (and so must mean 'everyone to everyone'), this depends entirely on the context. On occasion, the pronoun does have a fully reciprocal significance (Eph. 4:25; cf. John 13:34, 35; 15:12, 17; Rom. 1:12). But in other contexts a symmetrical relationship cannot be in view. For example, Revalation 6:4, 'so that men should slay one another', cannot mean that each killed the other at precisely the same time as he or she was killed. Likewise, Galatians 6:2 'Bear one another's burdens', does not signiy that 'everyone should exchange burdens with everyone else', but that 'some who are more able should help bear the burdens of others who are less able' (cf. also 1 Cor. 11:33; Luke 2:15; 21:1; 24:32). In the present context, then, given that 'submit' is one-directional in its reference to submission to authority, and that the pronoun does not always indicate a symmetrical relationship, it is preferable to understand the clause 'submitting to one another' to refer to submission to appropriate authorities, not mutual submission.
(c) The flow of the argument. V. 21, 'being submissive to one another in the fear of Christ', is a programmatic statement which introduces the topic of 'submission', and this is developed in the household table of 5:22-6:9. The verse is tightly linked with what immediately follows: there is no verb in v. 22, and so 'submitting' must be understood from v. 21 for its meaning and sense. The idea of 'submission' is unpacked in v. 22 without the verb being repeated. It is as though the apostle is saying: "Submit to one another, and what I mean is, wives submit to your husbands, children to your parents, and slaves to your masters'. To interpret v. 21 by abstracting it from the context not only misunderstands how the verb 'submit' would be grasped by a first-century reader but also fails to see the natural flow of the apostle's argument. What submitting to one another means is spelled out in the household table, with its ordered array in society. And submitting to one another is a significant outworking of being filled by the Spirit.
To conclude. On grounds of semantics, syntax, and the flow of Paul's argument we prefer the latter interpretation. The apostle is not speaking of mutual submission in the sense of a reciprocal subordination, but submission to those who are in authority over them.
So that is a rather technical understanding. Other conservative commentators agree. Here is Sinclair Ferguson:
Paul's first exhortation Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord shocks our 'politically correct' culture. Yet widespread marital breakdown gives the lie to the contemporary self-confident rejection of the biblical teaching. Indeed, it reveals a deliberate blindness to God's pattern for human life - the pattern for which we were created and in which we discover the original purpose and destiny of marriage being fulfilled.
There is no verb submit in the text of verse 22. It is borrowed from the previous sentence about mutual submission in verse 21. Thus, a more literal translation would read: 'submitting to one another in reverence/fear of Christ...the wives to their own husbands in the Lord'. For that reason it is sometimes suggested that the overarching principle in this section is that of the mutual submission of believers. This mutual submission is then viewed as taking different forms, depending on whether one is a wife ('submit') or husband ('love'), child or father, slave or husband. In this interpretation, every exhortation Paul gives amounts to an expression of this mutual submission.
Mutual submission is indeed our calling as Christians. But to regard that idea as the controlling element in interpreting what follows misreads the text - for three reasons:
(i) The same exhortation to wives appears in the parallel passage in Colossians 3:18. There the verb 'submit' is actually present in the statement but mutual submission is not mentioned in the broader context.
(ii) The model for the husband is Christ's love for the church not his submission to the church. While Christ is God's servant to the church, he never submits to it.
(iii) Ephesians 5:22-6:9 describe three contexts for relationships (marriage, family, household) in which submission is called for in one party but not in the other. These are forms of submission to God, not expressions of mutual submission to one another.
Also in agreement is R. C. Sproul, whose commentary I would particularly recommend to your attention. Harry Uprichards also agrees.
My conclusion is several-fold, and these are not in any particular order.
Firstly, all the commentators agree that the verb 'submit' in the Greek is in the middle voice, indicating a voluntary thing. It's something the wife does to her husband, not the other way around. The husband does not brow-beat her into submission. While this is true, I believe the text omits the qualifier "only if he loves you properly," or "only if he asks you do something you already want to do," or "only if he asks you to do things you think are smart and wise." Submission is called for in all of those situations. It is even called for, I believe, when the husband asks her to sin. And this is where submission differs from obedience. Clearly, a wife cannot obey her husband if he calls her to sin. I claim, however, that a wife can still submit to him, can still reverance him and respect him while disobeying. Perhaps I'm wrong, but that is my current opinion.
Secondly, while submission to God is required of everyone, the kind of submission a wife has for her husband is not the same sort of thing he is required to do for her. He is required to love her and cherish her. He is her covenant head.
Thirdly, a wife submits to her own husband, not to just anyone's husband or to men in general. This is actually a freeing thing. Imagine trying to obey five different men all pulling you in different directions! Surely it's easier to submit only to one man.
Fourthly, there are implications for courtship. Not every man can be a good head to every woman. As Douglas Wilson wrote, "Abigail did not go well with Nabal." This is a recognition of the fact that, given a particular man, there are women out there who are his spiritual betters. He should cheerfully acknowledge that fact, and not seek to impose himself on such.
Fifthly, submission is not demeaning, and it does not imply inferiority. Is Christ inferior to the Father? As Sproul wrote, is the Vice-President of the United States inferior to the President? Or is a lieutenant inferior to his captain? I hope you see the rhetorical nature of these questions. God calls wives to submit to their own husbands. Or do you think God wants what is bad for you? I think not; remember Romans 8:28, and all things working for good? What is that good? To become more like Christ. It might hurt a bit to bend in a way you don't want, but to become more like Christ is surely to your supreme benefit. Perhaps your objection to submission is really that you don't want any authority over you at all. In that case, you are simply in rebellion and need to repent and receive God's grace the same as anyone else.
Sixthly, I believe it is partly feminism (brought on by an acute case of male abdication) and partly a misinterpretation of American individualism and equality that tries to obliterate all distinctions between people. I believe the Bible does teach that men and women are different; not one inferior or superior to the other, but different. If you've ever heard the expression 'comparing apples and oranges' you'll get the idea. To try to impose a ">" sign on human relationships is to miss the point. In mathematical language, human relationships are not so ordered.
There are probably loads of other things I could say, but that is all for now. Stay tuned for headship!
As I said before, questions and comments are certainly welcome.