Many of you will approach this article on submission and encompass one of a few different reactions. You may read this article with the intentions of ignoring biblical principles in order to criticize my position. You may read this article with the earnest thinking that you may find some cultural tidbits to add to your own “submit women” ideas. Or you may read this article with openness and see that maybe, just maybe, the radical idea of biblical submission could actually add joy to your life and marriage. This article is written with marriage in mind, though it can equally be applied to singles in regards to preparation for marriage and submission to other authorities, such as government, employers, and pastors.
Our culture generally has a negative view of submission within marriage. Women who would dare say they are submissive to their husbands will be viewed as doormats, unable to think, weak, and somehow inferior to men. Contrary to culture, the Bible exhorts women to submit to their husbands (Eph 5:25, 1Pet 3:5, Titus 2). Does the Bible command women to be weak? Absolutely not! It is within the pages of Scripture that we see some of the strongest women in history. We see women who risk their lives for country and faith. We see women who go against the cultural status quo. Also, the Bible tells women to honor their husbands. Does the Bible in teach that women are less than men? Quiet the contrary!
Where the truth of Scripture has been preached, cultural lenses toward women have been revolutionized.
Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Women are image bearers of God. In 1 Peter 3:7, Peter exhorts men to “…show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life…” In a culture where women were objects, less than animals, and the property of men, the gospel came to life as it loudly proclaimed that women were equal to men in dignity, value, and worth. They were to be treated as equal heirs of eternity and salvation with men.
Does this radical proclamation give the idea somehow that the Bible puts women down as less than men?
Only a very naïve reading could do so. The biblical teaching of submission leaves no room for male dominance. Wayne Grudem says,
“To all societies and cultures where these abuses occur, we must proclaim that the very first page of God’s Word bears a fundamental and irrefutable witness against the evil of thinking of men as better than women” (1).
With this in mind, I would dare say that women who do not submit to their husbands are weak. Please don’t stop reading here; allow me to explain. Part of the curse after the fall in Genesis 3:16 indicates that, “your desire will be for your husband.” Carolyn Mahaney explains, “The form and context of the word desire actually has a negative connotation—an urge to manipulate, control, or have mastery over. Because of the curse, we now have a sinful tendency to want our own way and to resist our husbands’ authority. This evil desire poses the greatest opposition to our submission” (2). So, in fact, the “strong, independent” women who resist submission are doing the easiest thing by giving into their sinful nature. Women who take this desire to rule over their husbands captive and cast it aside, show a great amount of inner strength and biblical maturity.
So why does God, the Father, command wives to submit to their husbands? We see in Ephesians 5 that the purpose of a wife’s joyful submission to her husband is to mirror the churches submission to Christ’s headship.
Submission comes from the heart of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all loving King and Father. In a marriage where a husband loves his wife and a wife submits to the leadership of her husband, the gospel is made great. Can you see from this biblical picture that submission is not simply a choice between a husband and a wife based on gifts and abilities, but it has eternal Kingdom implications! How great is this picture! And with what reverence husbands and wives should view their God-given roles!
This does not mean that submission is easy. Elizabeth Elliot writes, “Many are the discussions I’ve heard on this one, almost all of them directed to what it “can’t possibly mean,” rather than to the plain word of the Lord. The statement is simple. Not easy for women like me, but simple, that is, I understand it only too well. (As Mark Twain said, ‘I have far more trouble with the things I do understand in the Bible than things I don’t understand)’” (3).
As an independent thinker with many thoughts and ideas that I love to voice, I too find that this can be a difficult thing. But submission is a choice that I am held accountable to God alone. I work through decisions with my husband but in the end choose to trust his decision. As a note of encouragement, my husband and I often pray that the Lord would make us like-minded on decisions, and he has done so. But that is not the intended point, the point is, do I nag my husband until I get my way or do I trust him and God to lead our family?
Another important issue to address in regards to submission is the connotation that “to be subject to” or “to submit” means to be a brainless servant. Carolyn Mahaney says, “For as we see in Genesis 2:20, woman was called to be man’s helpmate, not his helpless mate” (4). This means for wives to use their God-given gifts in order to help, make suggestions and even to correct their husbands. Elizabeth Elliot, an accomplished author, speaker, and missionary, addresses the idea of a brainless, submissive wife most appropriately. On an occasion when Elizabeth Elliot spoke to an honor society on the topic, “A Christian view of Liberation,” she told students (all female) that their highest fulfillment would be in marriage. A very offended alumna wrote a letter of protest to her saying,
“To invite a speaker to tell the women who have just been chosen as the most academically gifted in the entire graduating class that their highest fulfillment is to be found in subjecting themselves to a man in marriage is incredible in this day and age. It would have been unthinkable even a century ago!”
The women called Elliot “an ambiguous role model,” to which she replied,
“I suppose I am an ambiguous role model if a mother is not supposed to write books, or if a wife who is submissive would never be asked to speak on a college platform, or if no college graduate ought to love housework. This is not to deny or belittle the other gifts God has given. I have been called to be a missionary and to write, but surely there is nothing incompatible with such tasks and acknowledgement of the fundamental fact that women was made for man. That wasn’t my idea, after all—I got it all out of the Book! The “intellectual” women who feel stifled by what I say have not yet understood the biblical meaning of freedom. God’s service is, as our Prayer Book says, “perfect freedom.” The lady’s idea that mothers do not need a college education floors me. What, she asks is your college educating women for? Surely it is to draw out (the root meaning of the word educate) the gifts God has given, whatever they may be. Surely I did not send you (speaking to her daughter) to college on the assumption that you would not marry. A Christian liberal education will make you a better wife and mother; I’m convinced, if that is God’s will for you. If you were called to be a tax collector or a philosopher I should likewise want you to have that kind of education” (5).
We see that it is the responsibility of women to educate themselves academically as well as spiritually, regardless of if you are a banker, a doctor, a homemaker, or a home schooling mom. Women need to educate themselves and bring that knowledge, with humility, into the marriage.
Although there are many more areas to explore in regards to submission (what about an unbelieving husband, etc) I will conclude this article with a profound truth: 1 Peter 3:3-5 says, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands.” From this verse we see that a woman who is submissive is not only beautiful in the eyes of her husband but more importantly in the eyes of God.
So let this by a cry to women to adorn themselves with strength, intellect, boldness, and beautiful submission.
As you can see, I have leaned heavily on Carolyn Mahaney’s book “Feminine Appeal,” as well as Elizabeth Elliot’s book “Let me be a Women.” I highly recommend both of these in discovering more about biblical womanhood. For these and more resources check out the Veritas Store.
(1) Wayne Grudem, “Gender Confusion: The way Forward,” sermon given at Newfrontiers Brighton Leadership Conference, 2002. (c/o Carolyn Mahaney “Feminine Appeal).
(2) Carolyn Mahaney, “Feminine Appeal.” Pg 140.
(3) Elizabeth Elliot, “Notes on Submission,” The Elizabeth Elliot newsletter, Sept/Oct 2002 (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Ministries). (c/o Carolyn Mahaney “Feminine Appeal)”.
(4) Carolyn Mahaney, “Feminine Appeal.” Pg 142.
(5) Elizabeth Elliot: “Let me be a Women.” Page 67.