A Biblical Case for the Beauty of Mutual Submission In Marriage

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I am not naturally a submissive person. Lets just say, my mom used a lot of reverse psychology on me when I was a little girl. Any woman who is a strong willed woman understands that the struggle to submit is real. If someone demands that I go right, my natural inclination is to go left.

However, as I have grown in Christ, I have learned that godly submission looks a lot like love.

The Church has all sorts of ideas about submission when it comes to marriage and whether we like it or not, the Bible calls Christians to submission. The problem is that many believers have misunderstood the beauty of submission and have over emphasized it as a requirement for some, but not for others. We have made “submission” about “obedience,” rather than about sacrifice, love, and trust.

The Bible does not call wives to obey husbands or husbands to obey wives. It calls husbands and wives to trust and love one another so much that they become intertwined as one flesh.

I love what Lisa Bevere writes about the word submission in her book Lioness Arising: Wake Up and Change Your World. She states, “the prefix “sub” means “under,” and “mission” is an assignment. Put them together and we can draw a conclusion that submission means ‘under the same assignment or mission.'”

When my husband, Luke and I got married, I had no idea the sort of unconditional trust and love marriage would require. Submission in marriage is not blind obedience; it is loving sacrifice. It is turning the position of one’s heart towards the needs or desires of another’s heart. This is why the Bible calls husbands and wives to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21).

Perhaps Sarah Bessey, author of Jesus Feminist, describes Ephesians chapter five best in her book:

And so we discover the great paradox hidden within these hotly debated passages of Scripture, tragically misused to subject and berate and hold back, to demand and give place to pride – however benevolent the intention. If wives submit to their husbands as the Church submits to Christ, and if husbands love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, and if both husbands and wives submit to one another as commanded, we enter a never-ending, life-giving circle of mutual submission and love.

When husbands and wives submit to one another, checks and balances are in place and all parties can feel safe to express their needs, desires, and callings. 

If husbands truly love their wives, they will strive to submit to their needs and desires if those needs and desires seem godly and possible. Likewise, if wives truly love their husbands, they will strive to submit to their husbands needs and desires if those needs and desires seem godly and possible.

Husbands and wives are meant to hold one another accountable and help one another move forward in their walks with Christ.

We are to equally give into one another, considering the interests of our partners more important than our own. Husbands and wives are meant to be a team, just as the Body of Christ is meant to be a team. Teams operate best when one member does not demand authority or superiority over another member.

This is why the Apostle Paul says to all Christians, married or not, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves (Philippians 2:3 NIV).”

There should not only be mutual submission in marriage, but also among brothers and sisters in Christ.

This is how we function properly and love one another well. This is how we unite and show the world that we are one in the Spirit. This is why the Apostle John writes, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:35 NIV).”

In order to understand how to love one another well, we must look to Christ, God in the flesh. We do not love one another well by claiming that we have the final say on all matters. This attitude is the opposite of Christian love. The love of Jesus says, “you first dear, how do you feel about this matter?”

The beauty of mutual submission in a Christian home or church is that all parties involved look to Jesus as their leader and to each other as their peers or siblings. Everyone’s voice and opinion is equally valued and weighed against the Holy Scriptures. There are no power hierarchies based on gender, race, or social status; just as the Apostle Paul teaches as the crux of his theology.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28 NIV).”

Remember, the Apostle Paul’s mission was to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles and he became a strong advocate for their spiritual equality. Christian Jews generally struggled to accept Gentiles as their co-heirs in Christ because Jews were taught from a young age that they were spiritually superior to Gentiles. Christian Jews believed that Christian Gentiles should submit to their ideas of spirituality, but even the Apostle Peter knew this to be false.

We see this play out in Acts 15. Some of the Christian Jews, who were previously pharisees, demanded that Gentiles be circumcised as the law required of the Jews. The Apostle Peter stood up for the Gentiles and said that God does not require this of them to be accepted because they were given the same Holy Spirit as the Jewish Christians.

Within the marriage unit and in the Church, there are no spiritual authority hierarchies among men and women because we have all been given the same Holy Spirit.

The Spirit of Christ seeks to empower others, while the spirit of this world seeks to disempower others for it’s own selfish gain. It is our human struggle to desire authority over others, but Jesus has called us to lay down our authority for the sake of those who hold little to no authority.

There is much debate among Christians concerning “husband headship,” but we must remember that the New Testament was written in ancient Greek and the word “Kephale (head),” meaning that of “authority over,” is obscure among ancient texts. Scholars disagree over what the biblical word “head” means, but we can be sure by the context of Ephesians five, that it means to be like Christ.

Jesus laid down His authority at Calvary to empower His Bride, which includes all Christian men and women.

He said in Matthew 26:53, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels (NIV)?” In other words, Jesus and God were on the same team and mutually submitted to one another. Yet, Christ laid down His power to do what was best for His body.

This is why the Apostle Paul states in Ephesians 5:28, “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself (NIV).” Christ loved His body (His bride) so much because we abide in Him and He in us.

A husband and a wife are of one flesh; when a husband empowers His bride and gives her all of his cultural authority and societal male privileges, he empowers himself.

As a leader in Christian ministry, my husband has always been my greatest supporter. He has come along side of me in the ministry and has used his male privilege to get me in doors that would have normally been closed to me. He has given me the final say many times.

He has died to himself, just as Jesus Christ died to Himself on the cross. He has empowered me and has chosen to submit to me as an assistant when I was a children’s pastor and a part-time youth pastor. Of course it was not always easy; it was sacrificial love, which is rarely easy.

As the “kephale” of our home, my husband is called by God to take the lead in just one area and that is sacrificial love.

Because he has done this by both loving me and submitting to me first, I have learned to trust him enough to love him and submit to him in return. He would never deny me an equal voice or a lateral position in our marriage, nor would he deny me an equal role of authority in our church. My husband always invites me to the important decision making tables and if there were not enough chairs for everyone, he would gladly give up his seat for me.

We love because he first loved us. -1 John 4:19

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13 Comments

  • Well written…there should be no argument, but of course some just can’t let go of cultural bias.

    One point that I find irrefutable in discussions, however, is based on the fact of the equality of the three persons of the Godhead. Most orthodox Christians will hold to this if they know the historic uniformly accepted teachings about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Ironically some Complementarians are exploring a new doctrine of inequality in the Godhead to justify their cultural teaching)

    Now “The head of Christ is God”. So with this as the basis of our construction we add:
    ” Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation , and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:”

    So far, agreed?

    So we find that Jesus thought it NOT robbery to be equal with God who, incidentally, is HIS head. If that is the case, therefore, there can be no necessary insinuation that the man’s being head of the wife infers inequality at all, no matter what ‘head’ means to the writers of the New Testament.

    If one adds to this the teaching of Gal 3:28 and Luke 6:27 and Matt.20:26 there seems to be no ground for inequality at all, not omitting Genesis 1-2 of course.

  • I really love this piece and enjoy the depth of biblical understanding behind it. I had to write on the Colossians household code for seminary and know some of the proof texts that we keep banging our heads against have deeper meaning than many complementarian proponents ascribe to them. Good work on writing a readable piece that doesn’t sell the academic side of the argument short. If you are interested in an academic analysis check out my paper from seminary “Who’s Your Daddy?” (I saw it as my mission to write papers that had some entertainment value.): http://wp.me/p1mf0P-K

  • “My husband always invites me to the important decision making tables and if there were not enough chairs for everyone, he would gladly give up his seat for me.”

    Beautiful. Simply, beautiful. What a commendation of your husband. He sounds grand.

  • “The beauty of mutual submission in a Christian home or church is that all parties involved look to Jesus as their leader and to each other as their peers or siblings. Everyone’s voice and opinion is equally valued and weighed against the Holy Scriptures. There are no power hierarchies…”

    I suffered at the hands of abusive, hierarchical ‘leaders’ in the church, and couldn’t comprehend how people who said they loved me could treat me so appallingly. Eventually I came to realise just how warped their theology is. Insisting you are entitled to exercise power over a brother or sister goes against everything Jesus modelled. Submission is a gift – not something you can demand!

    • I have been through similar experiences and yes yes yes that theology is warped! And it parades as the final say, the truth. It’s incredibly harmful. Submission is not something you can demand. The Bible is the story of Jesus. We just simply cannot miss what has modeled for us, like you said. Just wanted to give you an AMEN and you aren’t alone!

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