Ahhh, female submission.
I don’t know if any other biblical issue has been more prominently featured in my spiritual education than female submission. It is arguably the most important feature of my Old Colony Mennonite background, the topic most often highlighted in our sermons, the most fiercely defended biblical precept amongst my extended family, and it has been, without question, the greatest source of strife within my family’s household.
In a word, this is a deeply personal issue.
Because it has been such a major part of my spiritual education, I’m reluctant to talk about it. To be frank, I’m tired of male headship and female submission. And I don’t have that much to say about it. But I feel I must at least go over the topic to be clear on where I now stand. It’s pretty essential to any Christ-centered understanding of marriage.
I’m going to break my discussion of this topic up into two parts. Today I want to discuss the more abstract, biblical side of the issue which informs my take on the subject; and in my next post I want to discuss my personal experiences with headship and submission in my own marriage.
The Bible Verses
Even though I’ve been taught from the womb that women are supposed to submit to men, I always feel a little punch of nausea in my gut when I read these passages from the Bible. They feel so out of place from the rest of the Bible, which I otherwise find so liberating and elegant and sane. To be perfectly honest, these verses embarrass me. I feel averse to drawing them to my non-Christian readers’ attention because I don’t want to over-emphasize their importance. I grew up with these verses being over-emphasized and I’m sick to death of them.
But I think they’ve been misunderstood throughout the majority of the church’s history, and we take for granted that we know what they’re really saying. So I feel we need to read them again to really understand them before discussing the issue further. If you can stand to read this short passage, please do.
The clearest explanation of gender relations, I believe, comes from Ephesians 5.
Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. [22-25]
The first part of this passage is the probably the most oft-quoted piece of Scripture from my childhood. And on its own, it seems so straight-forward: Wives, submit to your husbands. Wives, do what your husbands tell you to do. Have sex with them whenever they demand it. Cook food for them the way they like it. Wear the clothes that they deem appropriate for you. Yield your own desires to your husbands, because they are closer to God than you are. Disobedience to your husband is tantamount to disobedience to God.
The part that my Mennonite forefathers seem to find more vexing is the second half: Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church.
How did Christ love the church? By lovingly telling her how to fulfill his every need and desire? By lovingly telling her to be quiet and clean off the kitchen table so that he can settle down to some game shows on TV? That’s the idea that I was given. But let’s take a closer look. The next part of the verse says that Christ loved the church by “giving himself up for her.”
What? I don’t remember hearing that, growing up!
Let’s go further. We don’t just have to look at this passage to learn how Christ loved the church. Christ’s relationship to the church is encapsulated in two of his actions: first, the washing of his disciples’ feet (John 13). In this act Jesus took on a servant’s role, kneeling before his disciples and taking their dirty feet in his hands. Second, he willingly died for the church, sacrificing his life for her.
Paul (the same author who wrote the submission verses) describes Christ’s attitude like this: Jesus, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, [and] made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.” He “humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross” (which we know was a humiliating death, generally reserved for the lowest of criminals). [Philippians 2:6-7, 8b]
So if husbands are to love their wives the way Jesus loved the church, they should be willing to humble themselves and submit their entire lives to their brides. They should willingly take on the role of servant in their marriages. They should not consider themselves too high for anything, but be willing to take on the most humiliating forms of service out of love and devotion.
At the same time, though, wives are told to submit to their husbands. So both members are submitting to one another. This would explain Paul’s counsel to “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” [Eph 5:21]. Ahhh. Now that makes sense to me. Husbands and wives both serve each other. They both treat the other as being more important than themselves. And this is how we are to treat all human beings.
I’m not sure why Paul had to go about discussing this issue in such a convoluted way. Why couldn’t he have left it at verse 21? And I’m still not quite sure what’s going on when Paul talks about man being the “head” of woman (1 Cor 11:3). Is man more special and important than woman? I don’t think so — that doesn’t jive with anything else that Jesus taught. But what does it mean, then? I do know that it doesn’t mean men get to boss around their wives and leave their underwear on the floor for their wives to pick up, because that’s not how Jesus treated the church.
Perhaps you have some thoughts. Let me know what you think about the whole headship thing. In my next post, I want to explore how submission and headship looks in our marriage.
Questions: How have you generally responded — emotionally and otherwise — to the verses about headship and submission?
Part 2: Male Headship and Female Submission — Our Story
Photos courtesy of mark.mitchell.brown and Alexander Danling.