There Is No Such Thing as Female Submission

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It’s not an exaggeration to say that many Christians disconnect their views on women’s issues from the larger, more general teaching on Christian virtue. Case in point — submission.

If we’re discussing Ephesians 5:1-2, 21, for example, both women and men get the same, gender-neutral exhortation to “follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. … Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” We might ponder aloud in our Bible studies how we follow Christ’s example in our everyday lives.

Then the next verse lands, and all of that Jesus role playing comes to screeching halt. Husbands are Jesus to wives, and wives are the church, and that’s the end of that. With this new metaphor, the definition of submission changes from following God’s example, laying down one’s life, and mutually submitting to male submission = final authority (because Jesus gets the final say over the church, duh) and female submission = unilateral acquiescence (as is proper for the church submitting to the Lord of the universe).

Now that a patriarchal construct is set up wherein women are wives before they are followers of Christ — that is, they do not get to play Jesus in their marriage like they do in every other area of life — submission gets gendered. Always greet hubby with a smile when he walks in the door, no matter how hard your day. Never contradict him. He gets the final say over your life and family. Give him sex when he wants it.

This female version of submission is not only bona fide virtuous but also magical — it converts husbands, changes hearts, saves marriages, and (with a knowing wink to the ladies) ultimately gets women want they want, anyway.

It’s hard to know where this female submission diverges from Jesus’ example and slips into 1950’s manipulation tactics” “Oh, darling, always make your husband think that it was his idea first.”

It’s an understandable phenomenon: our culture loves finding gender differences, so whenever women are addressed in Scripture, we lose our minds and the objective of the Christian faith — which is living a life like Christ.

This is bonkers. Whatever is real about a woman’s spiritual state before God takes precedence over the temporary state of marriage. In other words, women get to play Jesus too.

We see this in the simple fact that the majority of moral and theological injunctions for Christian life are directed to everybody. Women are co-heirs, co-rulers, and one in Christ before they are wives. They too are priests and prophets. They get to follow Christ’s example and exercise their actual spiritual identity just as freely and exactly as men do.

And if a patriarchal power structure prevents that, well, you know it’s one of those worldly principalities and powers we take out as part of bringing in the kingdom.

The common objection is, of course, that applying the gender-neutral virtue of submission to specific instances is not the same thing as redefining it. “Submit one to another” simply looks different for the people on top than the people on bottom. It would be absolutely silly to suggest that parents submit to their child in the same way their child submits to them, would it not? A slave’s submission (or to make it less pointed, a servant’s or employee’s) submission to his master obviously doesn’t look like a master’s submission to his slave. Why get up in arms about a wife’s submission looking different than her husband’s submission?

Well, for one thing, the implication that wives are on the same level as children and slaves — that’s mildly upsetting to any self-respecting person.

But I don’t want to get into an argument about patriarchal power structures and their potential role in the twenty-first century. I simply want to call a spade a spade: control of any sort is not synonymous with submission, laying down one’s life, or following God’s example of love. Period. That’s why we dismantled slavery and why we’re working on dismantling patriarchal models of marriage and authoritarian parenting.

There’s not a pink version of submission that borders on subservience and a blue version of submission that borders on domination. Submission is submission, no matter the context.

I want to counteract this idea of pink and blue virtues not only because it enables oppression of women but because the pink virtue of submission just plain doesn’t work in the magical way complementarians tell us it does.

Female submission boils down to silence and acquiescence at some point. Of course, depending on the couple, a woman may get a say, if she gets even that. But even if she gets to be a part of the discussion, she doesn’t get to be a part of the decision. And once the decision is made, she must accept it and go silent. Voicing her opinion once her husband has made a decision, even if it’s over her own life, is the definition of an unsubmissive wife.

Silence and acquiescence are the opposite virtues of a healthy, abuse-free marriage — that is, communication and compromise. Those are the two biggest keys to relationships as intimate and complicated as marriage. If a definition of submission cuts women off from initiating communication and compromise in any way, shape, or form, that creates, rather than resolves, conflict.

Sacrificing one’s life is supposed to be about creating oneness, not about enabling abusive authority or laying out the doormat. Christ’s sacrifice means nothing, Paul says, if it’s used as an excuse to sin. Same thing goes here — a wife’s sacrifice means nothing if it’s taken as an excuse to sin.

And it can and will be taken as an excuse to sin — which is why anyone serious about bringing health and oneness to her marriage must arm herself with impenetrable boundaries.

I was flabbergasted to find out how obtuse my husband was to my sacrifices.

It was his job to the dishes, for instance. I, being the meek, mild wifey, took the time to wash up for him. I did it out of love, yes, because everybody needs a break from the dishes, but I, born and bred in patriarchy, am not immune to the myth of passive aggressive pink submission’s powers. Surely my act of kindness would rain down burning coals on his head and bring about a converted husband who didn’t leave all his chores to his wife.

Boy, was I wrong.

He wouldn’t even notice I did the dishes, for one thing. When I pointed it out that I did the dishes because I loved him, he happily hugged me with a guilty grin. And then didn’t do the dishes again that night. Or the next. And the more I did the dishes, the more he felt free to ignore them.

I mean, it made sense. I would do the same thing. Why take the effort to address one’s chronic laziness when you’ve got a meek and mild spousey to do so for you?

You know what comes next. Not really being the meek and mild wifey, I exploded at him. (That also didn’t get the dishes done, by the way.)

What did get the dishes done was sitting down and figuring out why he never did the dishes. Turns out he strongly prefers cooking to washing dishes, and a simple job switch was in order. We’ve never gone hungry when he’s in charge of the cooking.

Problem solved. Now I avoid doing the dishes.

All that to say, the funny thing about humans is that it’s easier to take advantage of nice people who never complain than to buck up and change. If your husband’s a real loser, you’re better off having some hard conversations in therapy than meekly agreeing to whatever he says.

This then brings us to the last and final point: Submission, not even magical pink submission, is not the be all to end all in a relationship. Just because a couple passages specifically connect women with submission doesn’t change the messy, honest reality of how marriage works.

Women must look to the whole example of Jesus — the meek man who turned over tables, questioned religious authority, and drove out moneychangers with a cord of whips — to understand what Christian submission and sacrifice looks like in their marriages. And we must afford them the tools and the space to do so, starting with Christocentric, gender-neutral definitions.

Photo Credit: Brain Sauce

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4 thoughts on “There Is No Such Thing as Female Submission

  1. telltalesnotlies

    I think, right on target though this is, you can’t get away from one Christ centered gender specific definition that you are living right now. Fatherhood and Motherhood. My church has a belief that the power to bear a child is equal to the power to hold the Priesthood (we have a lay priesthood). So, in Christ, males and females are equal, we just have to have organization, so somebody needs to be in charge. And as usual, God gives the opportunity to lead to those who need to learn the most.

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    • Bailey Steger

      When I was looking into Eastern Orthodoxy, I was fascinated by their parallelism between motherhood and the priesthood. It honestly doesn’t make any sense to me! :) I understand needing order, but why not merely choose whoever is most capable instead of disqualifying women because they can bear children as well? Otherwise, the motherhood/priesthood parallelism seems to be implying that women are less like Christ than men are, simply because they’re women.

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  2. Evan Willis

    The way I have recently thought through a lot of this, especially the passage in Ephesians, is through the doctrine of Sophia, or divine wisdom, from the medieval philosopher and theologian Hildegard von Bingen (as I understand her thought). On this understanding, the second person of the Trinity may be thought of in masculine aspect (as Christ/Logos, as we saw him physically incarnate) or in feminine aspect (as Sophia, divine Wisdom, as we see her in Proverbs). So when I hear that marriage is Christ (masculine) and his Church (feminine), I hear also that it is Sophia (feminine) and the Lovers of Wisdom (masculine). They are two sides of the same coin. The husband submits to his wife as to Sophia, the wife to husband as to Christ. So I really like your expression of “play Christ” for both man and woman, but I would also like to say that both man and woman in marriage play the role of Church.

    However, thinking this way has lead to my one reservation with accepting full egalitarianism: the problem of the priesthood. In his incarnation, Christ became incarnate as a male human being. The sacraments, particularly that of the Eucharist, focus upon the very physical means used for our salvation. The priest, in presiding over the sacraments, acts in the person of Christ, enacting the sacrifice of the Mass. In this ceremonial role, I take the image of priest as male to be important in better reflection of the incarnate nature of Christ, and thus I favor an all-male priesthood. However, had the second person of the Trinity been incarnated as a woman (thus making Sophia the chiefly expressed aspect) I would forbid men from serving as priests, for then the priestess would be acting in the person of Sophia in celebration of the sacraments. That said, as to preaching, teaching, and leadership roles, in any event I say let the one who is best suited, male or female, take the role. But as to presiding over the sacraments, a ceremonial role, let the priest be male.

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    • Bailey Steger

      Oh, that’s fascinating — your thoughts on the marriage of Sophia and the Lover of Wisdom.

      Like I mentioned to telltalesnotlies, I am sympathetic to the idea of an all male priesthood (and appreciate how easily it is for you to say that were Christ incarnated as female, the priesthood should be exclusively female). I ultimately don’t find that idea convincing, however, for two related reasons: (1) It begs the question of what is the most important thing about Christ to be symbolically represented. Is it really his maleness? Why not his Jewishness? I’m really not trying to be facetious here. There are many factual, actual things about Christ’s incarnation that could be represented in symbolism. If a woman can act as Christ in everyday life and is indeed called to do so, with her gender as no hindrance, she should be able to represent what is most essential about Christ in a sacramental setting. (2) Related, I believe male and female are more essentially human than essentially male and female — that is, they have more in common than they have in difference, which means a certain woman could be more like Christ than a certain man because of that overlap. Except for the physical differences, of course. Which, I would again reiterate, I don’t see as mattering fundamentally in the priesthood.

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