What is submission? Like me, I know you’ve had this question. Today, I invited Rebecca Carlson, also known as The Feminist Theologian, to collaborate with me as we each discuss this question. As a theology student at a Bible college, Rebecca tackles the question from a theological perspective. As a psychologist, I address submission from a psychological perspective.
Rebecca and I connected on Instagram where her beautiful photos from her European travels and her deft analysis of Scripture caught my attention. We both identify as egalitarians and Christian feminists who value the Bible and search for what God really says about women and how this applied today.
Enjoy Rebecca’s article on “What is Submission: A Theological Perspective” below and check out my article, “What is Submission: A Psychological Perspective” on her website. You may also want to read my article originally published by CBE, “Forget the Husband Trump Card“, on egalitarian decision-making.
What is Submission? A Theological Perspective
Are women supposed to submit to men? What does submission even mean? This is probably one of the most misquoted and misunderstood concepts in the Bible. It has led to unequal treatment and even violence against women. It’s time to understand what submission means as well as what it does not mean in light of the totality of Scripture.
So where does this concept of submission come from? The most often quoted verse is from Ephesians:
Wives submit to your own husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife, as also Christ is the head of the Church; and He is the savior of the body. Therefore just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands love our wives just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself up for her.Ephesians 5:22-25
Let’s begin by looking at the word for submission which is the Greek word Hupotasso. This word was originally used as a military term meaning to “arrange troops in a military fashion under the command of a leader.” In non-military use it means “voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility or carrying a burden.” This of course is not being used in a military sense in Ephesians 5 so we can assume it carries the sense of “cooperation” and responsibility toward a desired goal.
So let’s be clear on what submission is NOT. It does not mean obedience. The word for obedience, hupakoe is used when referring to servants and children but never when talking about wives or the body of Christ in general.
Hupotasso and Damam
The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, known to the Jewish people as the Tanakh (or what we refer to as the Old Testament). It is interesting to note that in the Septuagint the word hupotasso is used in Psalm 62:1, “I wait quietly upon the Lord.” The word translated “wait” is hupotasso. The same word is used in Psalm 37:7, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him.” The word translated “rest” is hupotasso. However, the original word in Hebrew is damam which means to “forbear, hold peace, be silent or rest.” This understanding of the meaning of this word in Hebrew helps to give more nuance and breadth to the meaning of the word we translate in English as “submission.”
We see this word used again in 1 Peter 3:1-2, where Christian wives are told to subject to their unbelieving husbands in order to win them to the Lord. I do not think Peter is instructing them to blindly obey unbelievers in order to win them to Christ. Rather he is telling them to win them over with their manner of life, not their words for as we know, “actions speak louder than words.”
It seems to me that many Christians seem to emphasize “Wives submit to your husbands” but neglect the verse just before which uses the same word to say “submit (hupotasso) to one another out of reverence for Christ” meaning the body of Christ should submit to one another. We also see this in 1 Peter 5:5 in reference to those who are younger be subject to their elders. Both of these passages are speaking generally to men and women to submit to one another, not just women to men. In fact, in light of this it would imply men also being subject to women. As the body we should carry one another’s burdens and assume the attitude of responsibility for the cause of Christ, for we are all united in Christ with the purpose of bringing His Kingdom to earth.
So after Paul instructs the members of the Body to submit to one another he further extends this to husbands and wives. We must remember the context of this passage and not just pull Scripture out “willy nilly.” This passage of Ephesians 5 is not primarily about Christ’s leadership and authority. It is about Christ’s sacrificial love for His Church. It is unlikely about the leadership of husbands, as many try to read into it. In light of this definition and how it is applied to the Church, we have a better understanding of what submission is. Submission is not subjugation or blind obedience to a ruler. Submission is living in such a way that prioritizes the needs of the other before yourself. In the same way we prioritize the needs of others in the body by loving our neighbor (Mark 12:31), we prioritize the needs of our spouse in marriage. However, this is not a one-way prioritizing as one might think when reading this passage since it says wives be in submission to your husbands. This is mutual submission.
This mutual submission is out of love not fear. It is beautifully illustrated in the following verses which talk about headship. True headship is about empowering the body, not subjugating to your own rule. For the husband is head of the wife and in the same Christ is head of the Church and gave Himself up for her.
Christ and His Bride
I know this verse can be difficult for many women to read, especially women that have experienced abuse at the hands of men, or even their own husbands. This is nothing new, but has been happening since the fall. We must keep in mind that at this time, women had essentially no rights. The fact that Paul is telling men to treat their wives like Christ is very counter-cultural! If more men treated their wives like Christ, we would not have the abuse and violence against women that we do. This is where we must look at who Christ was. Christ was not violent or domineering. He was a humble servant who gave up Himself to the point of death for His Bride—the Church. If husbands lived up to this standard, submission would not be a troubling thing. If husbands loved their wives as their own bodies, they would love them equally. Paul is using covenant language to convey the reality that Christ loves us as He loves Himself. He has elevated us to sit in Heavenly places with Him (Ephesians 2:6) to rule and reign with Him (2 Tim 2:12). In light of the culture where women were treated as property, Paul is elevating women to the status of equal partner in marriage because of Christ’s work.
We see another example of this in 1 Corinthians 7:4: “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” Once again we see the theme of mutuality. Husband and wife are one. Just as all of us in the body of Christ are one. This means we honor the other, we put their needs above our own and we love them like Christ loves us.
Biblical Submission Today
Godly submission is not what we understand submission to be today. It is not servility, nor does it imply inequality. For Even Christ was subject to His Father and made Himself a servant but has now been exalted to the right hand of the Father (1 Cor 15:28, Phil 2:7, Mark 16:19).
If we look at Christ we get our answer of what submission is. He gave Himself up for us. He emptied Himself in order to take on our sins so that He could be united with us in redemption. Submission is not about a power struggle, as we think of it today between men and women. Rather it is viewed in light of Galatians 3:28 that in Christ there is no male or female, but all are one in Christ. We are united in the Body and Christ and commanded us to give preference to one another. This has nothing to do with men having power over women and telling them what to do. Rather it is about Christ-like mutuality as we submit to one another out of reverence to Christ.
Rebecca Carlson is a Counseling and Biblical Studies major at Moody Bible, Institute Chicago. She is the writer of The Feminist Theologian blog and works along side a ministry to women in prostitution in the Chicago area. She is passionate about helping women find healing and empowering them to find their voices.