It’s dangerous, because it means different things to different people. And because it carries a lot of weight. Some of the weight comes from the Bible. But some of it comes from prejudice and judgements. And it’s hard to sort between the two.
Seven sentences in and I’ve already said “submission, prejudice and judgements”. This is not a great beginning; and it doesn’t get better. I don’t have neat answers, just opinion. I’m thinking aloud; like rambling with a mate.
And that’s where it started. I was talking to a friend about the S word. She’s the godliest, sweetest-natured, gentlest person I know, but she has reservations. And I can understand why. In her experience, the term can be used as a “holy” excuse for sexism:
Surrendered women, crushing their personalities and submitting to bossy men.
Head coverings, self-hatred and domestic servitude.
Floral and Feminine or Doing It Wrong.
Putting yourself down and having no voice.
Finding identity in kids and home.
“Sorry” she said to me. “If that’s submission I don’t want it. Is that wrong?”
I completely agree. Even the term, “surrendered” sounds bad – like you’re fighting for your personality and finally, you give it up.
BUT I do think the Bible teaches submission in certain circumstances. I don’t think it applies to all men and all women. But it matters. So, let’s tiptoe over the landlines, starting with the word, “head.”
What does it mean? “Overlord?” “Boss?” “Dictator?” No. In the Bible, it’s used to describe how the Father is with His Son (1 Corinthians 11:3). Here’s what submitting to the Father’s headship looks like for Jesus: receiving the unconditional love of His Dad, then going out and ruling the world. Which is a good thing, right?
Then in Ephesians we see how Christ uses His “headship;” by dying for His people. Wives (not “all women,” but wives) are called to reflect this in submission to “their own husbands,” (not “men in general”). And it applies to Christians, because we need the Spirit to do it. So, headship is not about me submitting to every Tom and Dick and Harry because they’re men. It’s me submitting to one man in a very particular sense and in very particular circumstances, as defined by God, (not my partner).
When the Bible talks about this issue, it’s not talking about the husband getting custody of the remote. And it’s not about squishing women into a particular model of femininity, (remember, Jesus spoke for and to women in a way that was unheard of in Bible times).
Headship does not mean that Glen earns the bread while I bake it, (I don’t bake and if you tasted my “scones” you’d know why).
Nor is it about me repressing myself or putting myself down. Left to myself, I can do this all on my own. But true headship stops me from doing this. My physical head, (my brain/self-talk) often says this: “you’re rubbish, you can’t do any of this.” My marital head – a Christ-like husband – says, “You’re a strong woman and you have the Spirit of Jesus. Go get ‘em.”
Biblical submission is not about squashing who I am – the very opposite. It gives me a secure and unconditional base from which I can be more courageous, more passionate, more joyful and more ME.
Just as the Father loves the Son and fills Him with the Spirit; just as Jesus loves the church and fills her with His life-giving word; so husbands are meant to love their wives and “wash them with water through the word,” (Eph 5:26). That’s the plan. And yes, they’re human: so they won’t do it perfectly. But what I’m submitting to is love.
This isn’t easy. Receiving love makes you aware of hungers you never knew you had. It makes you soft, when it’s easier to be tough. It shows up parts of you that you might want to bury, areas that have been hurt in the past.
I struggle to take compliments, let alone love. I want to take charge and I want to make myself safe. I’m critical and angry and busy and sad – and all of these work against my calling to receive. But as I struggle in these areas I realise that these have been the struggles of the church from the beginning. God’s people have always found it hard to receive the love of Jesus and we’ve always been tempted to earn our identity instead. But that’s not our calling. Our calling is to live by faith in our walk with Jesus and to live by faith in our marriages.
I don’t pretend to have the answer, but so far, this is what I make of it. And it’s not at all the heart of marriage – it’s just a small piece of the pie. The great passage on headship – Ephesians 5:21-33 – begins by talking about mutual submission, so it’s certainly not a one-way street. But I think there is an overall flow: from Father to Son; from Christ to church; from husband to wife; and then out into a world that’s starved of such love. When I get in touch with this flow, when I receive and rest in Christ-like love: that’s submission – not to a rule-book but to a romance.