Monday, December 15, 2008

biblical womanhood (8a) submission strong and beautiful

Submission is beautiful. Submission is strong. Submission is not a dirty word.

Submission is beautiful. It makes us like Jesus, who gladly submits to the will of his Father (Jn 8:29). It makes us like Christ's glorious bride, the church, who joyfully submits herself to the Husband who laid down his life to win her (Eph 5:22-33). Its beauty is seen in every Christian who obeys God willingly, in every child who honours their parents, in every safe and ordered society. It springs from the unchanging, inner beauty of a "gentle and quiet spirit", one of God's most precious treasures (1 Pet 3:4).

Submission is strong. Only those who are confident in themselves, or (better!) in God, don't need to throw their weight around. Sarah left her home and follow her husband Abraham on the journey of faith to an unknown country, because she trusted in God and didn't give way to fear (1 Pet 3:5-6). Only women with a big picture of God - a God whose eternal purpose in making men and women was to display the love between Christ and the church, and who works every circumstance for our good and his glory (Rom 8:28=29) - are able to submit with trust and joy.

Submission is not a dirty word. We honour submission in Jesus, in Christians, in children. But when it comes to marriage, we have a mental block. When the "s" word comes up in a talk or a Bible reading, it makes us squirm with embarrassment.

The word "submission" may bring to mind mental pictures of a (perfectly dressed) housewife taking (perfectly baked) biscuits out of her (perfectly polished) stove, or the "little wife" who brings a "masterly man" his slippers and pipe, or the human doormat who has denied her own intelligence and personhood to say "yes" to everything her husband asks, however demeaning or stupid.

My own journey to seeing the beauty of submission was a long one. I don't remember thinking much about submission in marriage as a child. As a teenager at a girl's school, the idea would probably have seemed repellent. During my Arts course, I became a thorough-going feminist. Steve, who is now my husband, was also a feminist in those days.

I only accepted submission as God's will for marriage after much study, conversation and heart-searching. I debated every side of the issue with wise Bible teachers, read books representing different points of view (the most memorable and influential being Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), and spent many hours studying the Bible passages on men and women (Gen 1-3, 1 Cor 11:2-16, 14:26-40, Gal 3:28, Eph 5:22-33, Col 3:18-19, Tit 2:3-5, 1 Tim 5:14, 2 Tim 1:5, 3:14-15, 1 Pet 3:1-7).

Despite all the debates, in the end it seemed to me (and to Steve!) that the Bible is actually very clear: "Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything" (Eph 5:24). You have to jump backwards through many exegetical hoops to get it to say anything else.* So we made the good old promises of love and submission at our wedding.

Even then, with not many models of submission in marriage to imitate, and few older, godly women who practise submission to teach me the practicalities, it's taken many years for me to understand what headship and submission look like in a healthy marriage.

These days, I find young Christian women much more willing to accept the idea of submission. But they are still confused about the practice. One of the questions I'm asked most often by young women is "What exactly does submission in marriage look like?" In a day or two, I'd like to write about the practicalities of submission in marriage.

* I know I've left acres of questions unanswered. This isn't the place for a huge theological debate. If you'd like to follow the issues up for yourself, can I suggest you start by listening to Claire Smith Different by Design. She is fair, thorough, compassionate, and well thought out. She answers the various objections to submission logically and well. And if you'd like to talk more about what I discovered about the Bible's teaching on submission, feel free to contact me, or write in the comments.


The Idle Introvert said...

I eagerly anticipate your thoughts, Jean, on what submission looks like in marriage.

I felt as I was reading your blog that you described me perfectly:
'As a teenager at a girl's school, the idea (of submission) would probably have seemed repellent. During my Arts course, I have become a thorough-going feminist...I debate every side of the issue with wise Bible teachers, read books representing different points of view (the most memorable and influential being Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), and spend many hours studying the Bible passages on men and women'...

The main difference I can think of is that I have probably always thought of submission as a dirty word, at least as long as I've thought about. My example has been my God-loving parents have a loving, fully functional egalitarian marriage.

But the issue is certainly up for debate amongst my Evangelical friends! I have been challenged, and continue to prayfully consider both sides. My complementarian friends believe my largest problem, as you also cite, is a lack of Godly women's examples of submission. I think my own hostility to the idea stems from my grandfather's misuse of headship, which resulted in my grandmother being shunted from 3rd world country to 3rd world country, with little choice in the matter. This had disastrous effects on 2 of his 5 children, who have never fully recovered from the experience. Even now he is moving her to the opposite side of Australia despite her humble request to remain where they are.

Sarah B said...

Jean, there is a quite alot written about marriage to an unbeliever. I'm particularly keen to hear your thoughts about submission in a difficult marriage or where the husband shows a lack of wisdom or godliness - but professes to be a Christian.

Jean said...

Dear Idle Introvert,

Good on you for thinking hard about a difficult issue. So many people put it in the too hard basket and ignore it, hoping it will go away. Better to grapple honestly with the Bible, and talk openly with friends who differ from you, whatever conclusion you come to about what God is saying. And he will honour your honest search.

It sounds like you have certainly had good examples of egalitarian and bad examples of complimentarian marriages to look at - no wonder you find the complementarian position difficult to accept.

I have a couple of quick observations. The first is that I've noticed that marriages which are "egalitarian" in principle are often "complementarian" in many subtle ways. This may or may not be true of your parents' marriage. But it seems to me (biassed as I am!) that traditional roles often appear in a healthy marriage, even when both husband and wife are "egalitarian" by conviction. Of course, you could put this down to cultural influences, or to God-given differences between men and women: it would depend on your position.

Secondly (and I'm sure you're aware of this!) experience influences us profoundly, but isn't necessarily a good guide to truth. I'm sure there are many loving, healthy defacto or same sex marriages. This doesn't necessarily mean this is God's ideal for marriage. I'm not saying this to criticise you, but to acknowledge the power of your experience, and how it may have influenced you.

And you're absolutely right that "complementarianism" (like any model) is often abused. A marriage where the husband misuses his leadership and dominates his wife is certainly no example of God's plan for marriage! For such a husband is nothing like Jesus, who sacrifices himself and lays down his life for his bride.

Again, good on you for thinking hard and honestly about this. I honour your willingness to think prayerfully through the issues, and I pray that God will guide both you and me into a deeper understanding of the Bible.


Jean said...

Dear Sarah,

I'd love to talk about all 3 - submission in a loving Christian marriage, submission in a difficult marriage to a believer, and submission to an unbelieving husband. I won't have time, of course! But I hope my suggestions apply to the situation you mention.

And thank you so much for your card - it was so lovely to receive it!

Love Jean.

TruthMatters said...

Loved this post! I think most (if not all) of our struggles and our disappointments and are pain, are a result of having a temporal perspective. Most of us have unrealistic expectations of life and of marriage.

When Christ is your all-and-all, you can be content in a prison cell, even if that prison cell is being married to a man who is less than a "Knight in Shining Armor".

Let us not forget, God has instructed us to submit to our husbands; but, God has instructed husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church.

I think men were given a slightly more difficult task, yes?

I could go on and on; but I am confident that future posts will provide great biblical insight for women on this subject. I look forward to the future posts.

Thankful for You - In Christ,

Manda said...

I agree with what you say about "egalitarian" marriages with complementarian ways. My parents, who are not Christian, are rather openly unimpressed with my egalitarian thinking (particularly as it prevents me from aspiring to be a Bishop one day - which I think is an odd thing for atheist parents to want for their child, let me say, though it's lovely that they support me). And yet in their own marriage, my father has definite headship and my mother lovingly (sometimes frustrated-ly) submits.

Meanwhile, I am new to the egalitarian thing (having also gone to a girls' school and been rather fiercely feminist in my own mind) but am convinced about it, while my boyfriend is egalitarian. He doesn't agree with wifely submission, but he does seem to think that if we are to marry, he should have headship - because his personality/leadership skills would mean he'd be good at it!

Isn't that weird?

Jean said...


Thank you for sharing that - you gave me a bit of a giggle!! Aren't people wonderful, with all their lovely quirks? I hope you and your boyfriend can work it out!

Love Jean.