One of the problems with understanding difficult things like submission is that we want exhaustive definitions where God only gives us general guidelines and descriptions. This means we have to work harder to figure out what submission is, as well as what it isn’t. It means we have to use the basic guidelines of Scripture as our starting point, and humbly submit to the Lord while He teaches us in the midst of doing it. It means we have to confront the sin that clouds our thinking. Because misunderstanding submission has enormous implications for the gospel.
Scripture is clear that submission and obedience are not the same thing, and yet there are movements within the church that proclaim the opposite, either directly through teaching or through practice. There are movements in our culture as well that believe submission and obedience are the same, the difference being how much they despise both. We have conflated these two ideas more than we’d like to admit, and history continues to testify to this. It’s not that old habits die hard, but it takes a long time to work ideas out in a culture.
One of the biggest difficulties to communicating clearly how submission and obedience are different is that they do bear some resemblance. For instance, a disciplined person’s submission can look very much like obedience. Submission and obedience also both assume that there are appropriate responses to a person in authority. But they are not the same kind of response. They exist, to use my husband’s helpful term, on a different axis.
Obedience is a response to rule. In our earthly relationships, a person under authority obeys because the rule is the focus, and the person in authority is expected to judge according to the rule. Children obey parents, soldiers their commanders, drivers the police officers, and so on. This is simply a reflection of God’s rule over His creation, and explains why parents, for example, cannot be the focus of their children’s obedience. God’s rules stand over us all.
Submission, on the other hand, is not a response to rules. Of course, it assumes that an order of authority exists because otherwise submission would be meaningless. But the focus is different. In our earthly relationships, a person under authority submits because the love of the person in authority is the focus. Wives submit to their own husbands, congregants submit to their elders, the needy submit to those who give, and so on, with love in view. It is a fine distinction, but an important one. This is a reflection of God’s love for His creation, especially of Christ’s love for the church. Christ leads the church into submission by loving and giving Himself up for her. She, in return, submits to His loving and sacrificial leadership. The focus is not on the rule of His authority—although it is necessarily there—but on the love in his authority.
The book of Ephesians tells wives to submit to their husbands, and husbands to love their wives, because in sin we forget that this has been God’s design for marriage from the beginning. Instead, because of the curse, we are more inclined to expect husbands to rule and wives to obey. What’s more, we are prone to establishing laws and cultural standards that expect men to lead by ruling, and women to obey by compulsion. The implications of this confusion are enormous, and we have ample evidence from history that it is still being worked out.
In the ancient world women were considered to be like children, ruled entirely in all things by men. Roman husbands had the legal right to beat their wives as punishment for disobedience, and in ancient Greece women were not even considered fully human. Wives in both cultures had no legal rights over their children, and especially in Greece, no authority in training them. But even the spread of Christianity didn’t fully improve things. Many of the Patristic Fathers, for example, taught that women were the root of evil, and that the Bible shows male superiority. The church learned to reject these teachings, but the curse was not removed so easily.
The belief that society functions best when men rule and women obey unfortunately lives in modern history as well. Until the 19th century, women were excluded from universities because of widespread fear that women with a college education would be unfit for marriage and motherhood. And until the 1970s, in many states in the U.S. even a wife with a source of income could not sign with her husband for a home loan, which left her without property protection if he abandoned the family. A man’s rule (not his income) was the guiding factor. And since we still bear the curse, I don’t think we should assume we have it all right today either.
The reality is, cultural patterns speak very loudly to a watching world. This is especially true when those patterns are established and modeled in the church, or in a gospel-informed culture. I am not suggesting that history is a timeline of men oppressing women, or even that we should always concern ourselves with the ranting of unbelievers about oppression. But I am suggesting that the gospel needs to more deeply permeate our thinking about submission and authority in our marriages, in the church, and in our culture.
This is why it’s not simply about our stated positions, but how we live them out. I have heard many within the patriarchy mention a husband’s love, but not nearly as often as I hear them call for men to rule their homes, the church, and every other area of society. The patriarchy can’t help it—this is what patriarchy (father-rule) means, after all. But it’s the curse that tells us that men rule and women obey, and as Christians we are called instead to live in the light of the gospel. We must send a redeemed message about the heart of authority, especially to those who are called to submit to it. And we must send a redeemed message to a culture continually attempting to remove the curse apart from Christ. This is the only way to prove the loveliness of God’s created order, to show how vibrant marriages and strong cultures can endure. We can’t do this if we’re not continually taking our thoughts about submission and authority captive to the obedience of Christ.