What is biblical submission?


Submission is not sexy. It's a lot easier to find a book or a conference about leadership than about submission. But leadership is only possible because someone is willing to submit to leadership. A church full of leaders without submission is implausible; as indeed is a company, a country or a family. But who should submit, when and why? What is biblical submission and why does it matter? Let me offer four perspectives to help us begin to navigate this issue:

Submission is to each other, so there is equality

The Bible is clear about the intrinsic value that every human being has before God. This means we must show honour and respect to everyone irrespective of their faith, gender, abilities, sexuality, or race. We are to love our neighbours as ourselves and love our enemies, too. This is because we are each made in the image of God and therefore how we treat another person is a reflection of how we respond to God himself.

With this in mind, all Christians are called in the Bible to submit to:

  • The authorities (Romans 13:5)
  • Hardworking leaders (1 Corinthians 16:15-16)
  • The emperor (1 Peter 2:13)
  • God (James 4:7)
  • One another (Ephesians 5:21)

These passages indicate that an intrinsic part of our Christian duty is to yield to the authority of another and to allow someone else to direct aspects of our lives. This is not just culturally difficult, but constitutionally difficult. I know from my own heart that I want to be, as William Earnest Henley's poem put it: "The master of my fate, the captain of my soul." But the Bible argues that we are to look not only to our own interests but to the needs of others (Philippians 2:3-11), and to allow Jesus' sacrificial submission to set the tone for our lives. Jesus was after all, amongst other things, the suffering servant. He was obedient to God the Father and willing to put our needs ahead of his own comfort and safety. New Testament scholar Dr Paula Gooder points out that the Greek verb for submission, hupotasso, is used in the key submission passages in Ephesians and Colossians in the passive voice. In the active form the verb means to subject someone else – that is to force their submission. But in the passive it means to choose to submit yourself. This was as counter-cultural then as it is now. First century slaves and employees had to be told to submit because it didn't come naturally. Dr Steve Holmes of St Andrews University notes: "maybe the point is that telling slaves to submit recognises their moral responsibility, and so the very instruction to submit is a counter-cultural elevation of the agency of the slave."

So there is in the Bible's teaching a counter-cultural call for all of us to challenge the "me-first" instinct and instead to live lives of servant-hearted submission. Recognising that other people have equal dignity to us means I cannot simply expect to always have my way, believing that my desires trump your way and your desires. I was reminded by my friend Natalie Collins that CS Lewis wrote: "True humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less." In the same way, submission is not self-loathing nor does it ignore self-care and self-value. Rather it is a decision to yield to someone else and to put their interests ahead of your own.

Submission is to God, so there are limits

In Nazi Germany there was a debate within the Church as to whether a Christian should obey the State or whether there are limits to that obedience. Romans 13:1-7 was the text most often debated as it urges believers to submit to the power of government which has God-given authority over citizens to reward good and punish evil. Indeed the apostle Paul even refers to the State wielding the power of capital punishment on God's behalf (that is worth a whole article in itself.) Suffice to say, this passage argues that in general Christians are called to submit to pagan governments by being good and upright citizens. But in Nazi Germany where the Church was being asked to participate in wicked practices, the Confessing Church – under the leadership of theologians such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – rightly questioned the limits of the obedience that a Christian owes to the State. We submit to other authorities out of reverence to God, so if there is ever a conflict between what God asks of us and what the State asks of us – God always wins.

If this is true in submission to government, it is also true in all other forms of submission. For example, in Ephesians 5:21 Paul explains that we should: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." The submission that Christians owe one another is a result of our allegiance to Christ so there is never a clash of loyalties, because we only submit to someone out of a desire to please Jesus. For the Confessing Church, obeying Christ meant resisting the Nazi State and it came at great cost. For the earliest Church the issues were the same, as they had to choose whether to obey God or the ruling powers when it came to staying silent about the good news of the gospel. They decided that civil disobedience was the appropriate course of action (Acts 4:19-20). We should expect nothing less in our day. Being a Christian still means that we confess Jesus as the rightful ruler over all of creation and we do that through being good citizens, good spouses, good children, good parents and good employees out of reverence to Jesus. When and if conflict of interest arises, we must obey God first whatever the cost.

Submission in marriage is controversial

The current controversy about submission often relates to the roles of men and women in marriage and church leadership. A small minority argue that it also relates to the roles of men and women in the wider world. (See my response to John Piper on that issue).

I will focus in this section on submission in marriage. There are two main schools of Christian thought when it comes to biblical submission in marriage. One school called 'complementarianism' argues, from passages like Ephesians 5:22 and Colossians 3:18-19, that men should lead in the household. This leadership ranges from a soft approach where the husband is the 'head', but in practice decisions are consensual (apart from the very rare situation where discussion cannot reach consensus). Others would argue that husbands should rule the household and make all the significant decisions. Some would include in this that men should be the wage-earners, suggesting also that women should stay at home to care for the children. For example, Presbyterian minister George Knight III asserts: "it is important in marriage and the family for a man to realise his responsibility as the primary breadwinner and to assume that responsibility willingly and gladly."

Others from what is known as the 'egalitarian' school would argue that there is to be an equality of leadership in marriage. They argue that the Ephesians and Colossians passages that speak of wives submitting to their husbands should be read contextually. No one would argue that because Ephesians 6:5-9 states that slaves should submit to their masters that William Wilberforce was wrong to fight against the injustice of slavery, and that instead Christians should not just endure slavery but actively promote it. In the same way, egalitarians argue that Christians should recognise that through Christ's redeeming work on the cross we should be demonstrating the equality of the Kingdom where there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female (Galatians 3:28). Some egalitarians argue that too often marital submission has been used as a means to justify abusive husbands and marital rape, and should therefore be rejected outright. One line of egalitarian reasoning argues that if, as Ephesians teaches, that God is to Christ as Man is to Woman, and we are confident that there cannot be subordination in the Trinity, then by extension we need to re-read the relationship between men and women in such a way that fits with the mutual relationships we see between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In other words, Paul seems to be actually subverting traditional hierarchies on this issue – challenging the cultural norms of male dominance by calling Christians to model the mutual submission of the Trinity.

There are of course mediating positions between these two approaches to submission in marriage. Both complementarians and egalitarians agree the Bible teaches that all people have equal dignity and value in the eyes of God. But they differ radically on how that equality is expressed. Some complementarians teach that if wives are called to submit, then husbands are called to lead in a Christlike way by putting the needs of their wives ahead of their own wants and desires. Some egalitarians argue that because both men and women are called to submit to one another, that should be the primary perspective to bring to debate about leadership in the home.

Both sides can agree that we should never submit to someone in marriage (or elsewhere for that matter) when we are being asked to disobey God. Thus a husband or wife's submission is contingent, rather than intrinsic. It is informed rather than blind. It is limited rather than comprehensive. So a woman with a complementarian view should disobey her husband if he tells her to stop being generous to the poor. Or an egalitarian husband should not submit to his wife's preferences if she asks him to ignore his God-given spiritual gifts. In practice I have seen many complementarian marriages where the husband and the wife work collaboratively and consensually together and the idea that the husband has some kind of casting vote rarely, if ever, is a reality. I have also seen some egalitarian marriages where the husband makes all the financial decisions and the wife does most, if not all, of the house work. Sadly, I have come across abusive relationships irrespective of theological position on this issue of submission. I'd love to see more conversation on both sides of this debate on how things work out in practice. For example:

  • Who takes time off when kids are sick?
  • Who takes responsibility for wider family?
  • What does a fair distribution of housework and family chores look like?
  • What does financial accountability look like within marriage?
  • How are career decisions discussed?
  • What happens when husband and wife disagree over something like choosing a church, debt management or family planning?

Submission is counter-cultural, so it is radical mission

Personally I believe that our job today is to demonstrate the coming Kingdom of God where there will be no difference in hierarchy because of gender, race or economic status (Galatians 3:28). The radical calling for those first hearers of the book of Ephesians was to subvert the male hegemony that was so prevalent in their day. The command to love your wife is made in the strongest possible terms as husbands are to show the same kind of love Christ showed for the Church; in other words being willing to lay down their lives. This goes beyond a willingness to take a bullet for your spouse – this is the radical call for ongoing sacrificial, counter-cultural, counter-constitutional, supernatural love that actively seeks the welfare and benefit of the other.

In much of the world today there are still gender-based inequalities. We see it in politics, in sports, in the pay-gap in the workplace, and in the levels of male violence against women. With this in mind, we need to take a counter-cultural, trailblazing stance that promotes the biblical outworking of the radical equality of the coming Kingdom.

Whichever way you may land on the question of submission in marriage, the wider concept of submission of our lives firstly to Christ, and then to one another and the ruling structures of our society is an opportunity to demonstrate that we march to the beat of a different drum. Christians are walking in the footsteps of Christ and just as his strength was demonstrated in submission for the sake of others, so for us this is a profound opportunity to demonstrate the power of the coming Kingdom of God.

These are important questions to wrestle with. We all need to make sure that we are genuinely hearing what God's word has to say and not just seeking justification for our own desires or preferences. At stake is not just the health and vitality of married life, but actually the reputation of the gospel in our culture. People on both sides of this debate feel the impact of this. I have heard complementarians argue the very nature of society is at stake and egalitarians argue that the ability for this generation to hear and accept the gospel is in the balance if we get it wrong, too. My prayer is that through humility and open-heartedness we can come to a resolution on this issue that will honour God, give dignity to all people, and commend the gospel in our time.