A lot has been said lately about submission, gender, and complementarian theology. What does submission mean? Should we even talk about submission anymore? Have we made too much of submission?
Yes and no.
In some sense, we have talked about submission so much that we’ve missed the nuances of it completely. In an attempt to talk about a biblical truth, we have often reduced submission to personality types or framed it only as a woman’s issue. But the reality is that submission is hard to define, and even harder to apply, within the context of marriage because every marriage is different, every situation is different, and every person is different.
But in another very real sense we haven’t made enough of it. Submission is a very real teaching in Scripture and to ignore it isn’t right either. We haven’t made enough of it because we haven’t talked about it in its fullest form—submission is for everyone.
Submission is often seen as a women’s issue. It’s the wife’s role in marriage, we say. And it does pertain to women in the covenant of marriage (I should know. I wrote an entire chapter on it in my book). But it’s not just a women’s issue. Whenever submission in marriage is brought up in Scripture it is always done within a larger conversation about submission for everyone. In 1 Peter 3, Peter addressed unbelieving husbands in the context of enormous suffering and persecution. It’s a call to steadfastness and hope in difficulty. He’s not addressing women universally (although there could be some implications for wives for all time), so we can’t build a theology of wifely submission off of those verses. In Colossians it is within the larger context of unity among the body because of Christ’s work and household codes in that context. In Ephesians it is to show the beauty of the gospel in marriage, and after a call to mutually submit to one another. But in every single one of these cases, Paul or Peter addresses submission broadly before he addresses submission in marriage. There are just a few verses devoted to submission in marriage, but many more devoted to our human submission to universal authority. At the end of the day, every governing authority is under God and accountable to him, as seen in passages like Romans 13.
Submission is not just a woman’s issue, it’s a human issue. We are human beings under authority, namely God’s authority. There isn’t a person on this planet who is exempt from submission, which should shape how we talk about it.
God is far more concerned with his people (men and women alike) having a posture of submission to his will for our lives. His plan for men and women is not that men rule the show while women sit behind and blindly follow. Our general posture, men and women alike, is a humble submission to God who is supreme over all things and places us under a variety of authorities: governmental (Rom. 13:1-7), church (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:5), employer (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22; 1 Pet. 2:18), parental (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20), and marital (Eph. 5:21-33; Col. 3:18). This reality, that we are all under some form of authority, is the great leveler when we talk about submission for anyone. We cannot escape authority in our lives.
But it’s also the guiding principle when we talk about it in marriage. If we are all under authority, and all authority comes from God, then there is no posturing when it comes to headship and submission in marriage. It’s a product of God’s proper ordering of an ordinance he created. It has nothing to do with our worth or our ability. It should drive humility into us, not pride. When we divorce submission from its proper context in Scripture and make it only about women, we miss the fact that all of us are under someone’s authority. More importantly, we are all under God’s authority, and his purposes for us are always for our good.
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