Ephesians · Theology

‘What Does It Mean By “Submit”?’: A Question and a [Theological] Response

In the course of any given day, I may receive various questions regarding Scripture or theology. I personally love these as they are chances to reflect with others about what God has revealed and might be making known to and in us. I received the title of this blog post as an email subject line with the following question and, below that, I offer my (perhaps overlong) theological reply. The question emerges from one of my former students who is a pastor.

The question:

So I’m hung up on the fun theological question of relational roles and I think over the last couple of years I have gone so far to the point of eglitarian belief where each member is as valuable and has just as much say as the other that I am wondering that I might have gone to a point where I may be missing what it means for a man to lead. I think I was raised so heavily on the “woman submit” mentality, that when I pushed against the idea in the way I knew it, I may have ran from the actual intent of the passage? I guess at this point I am wondering if treating both members as equals doesn’t mean that there aren’t still some roles within a relationship setting? But I’m stuck on how are two people equal if one person gets the final say in everything?

My response:

I totally get it. There can be a tendency in swinging positions to ignore the critique of the other/s. In this way, I personally contend for egalitarianism even as there must be distinctions of persons, but not any predetermined roles with the one exception of producing a child in bearing a child [mother] and producing a child without bearing a child [father]. Otherwise, I see no clear distinctions of roles for earning income, determining responsibilities, child care, household care, etc. There is only a mutuality of shared agreements between the parents (when two are present) that allows for mutual loving of each other and any children (or others brought into that sphere of life including family by blood or choice, and the Church).

The call to “submit” is a mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21 that seems inclusive of all who are in Christ. In this fashion, there is no distinction of gender, social class, age, etc. Even as any distinctions are not erased, ignored, or imagined to not exist. All relationships are re-oriented in Christ Jesus as the mediator between every person and every other person, between individuals and groups, and groups and groups. He is the mediator for all relationships. In this way there cannot but be mutual submission to the other as to Christ our Lord.

Now, I read Paul as engendering relations of his historical-cultural-social context/s in how he explains such relations playing out following this mutual submission call. In his context, there are culturally delineated roles of husband-wife, parent-child, master-slave that simply are not our own context/s (we not only do not believe the relation of master/slave ought to still be maintained even if “good”, but we actually believe children have rights as humans…and for the Church we contend they are in Christ Jesus by faith and in this manner we relate to them). Even as he calls for relationships to be specifically faithful in the given context they are found in, there is a sense in which through the movement of his letter to the Ephesians that all relationships are upended, transformed, and made new in Christ in whom all things are being brought to submission and brought into for the redemption that is ours in him. This is the end of all things breaking into the present age in the crucified and risen One.

As to the question of both being “equal”, that is a problem that requires further explanation. Our own western contemporary ideals of what it might mean to be “equal” convolutes the discussion. We really may be far better served not speaking of each other as “equals”, but as those who are “in Christ”. This means we all have differing contexts, histories, cultures, responsibilities, gifts, etc., that are honored and remade in our obedience to the Word. This should not be confused with being “equal”. Equality can suggest all things equal, which seems to ignore our specificity as humans that are different from one another and that somehow in this differentiation we bring glory by the Spirit to the Father. It is not in overcoming our different-ness, but in living by the Spirit in that different-ness that we are conformed (and being conformed) to the Son. It is not the removal of difference, but the sharing of difference as a sort of mosaic of new creation in Christ. This actually honors our different-ness and appreciates each social-historical-cultural context.

As to the question of one individual getting “the final say in everything”, I would say there is only one who does this: God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The only person who does this is the God of Israel, given to and for us, the man from Nazareth, Jesus, and poured out and enjoined in his Spirit. To imagine that one spouse has any “final say in everything” would be for that spouse to take the place of the Lord in the relationship. Neither spouse is the Father, nor the Son, nor the Spirit. Nor should either take the place of such. To do so would be as if the Father simply dictated to Son and Spirit and they obeyed. But this misses that our God, in the bonds of love, mutually submits for the sake and glory of Father, Son, and Spirit. The “final say” in this way is the mutually shared agreement of Father, Son, and Spirit in making all things new. But the model you are speaking of is widely held and believed in the Church even as it is precisely the model Jesus condemned as the world’s way where one lords it over another. This is not who we are, because this is not the God we worship and are being sanctified into the image of.

Does this make sense? What are your thoughts in response? Sorry for the long explanation that is perhaps difficult reading. I’m thinking I will go ahead and post my reply as a blog post (so thank you for being my muse 😉 ).

Blessings,

Rick

11 thoughts on “‘What Does It Mean By “Submit”?’: A Question and a [Theological] Response

  1. Honestly, I think there is a lot to be gained by being less fixated on what Paul may or may not have said, and what Paul may or may not have meant etc, and just use a bit of common sense. eg. If indeed there is a human tendency for us all of either gender to control others then pay attention to when u are doing so, and refrain from doing so. Turn your energy towards what is best for the other(s). Much less theological toing and froing blah blah.

    1. The challenge of what you are proposing is some idea of a universal or generalized sense of right/wrong with regard to this. What I’m seeking is to respond in an appropriate manner to God’s self-revelation in the Word (enscripturated and enfleshed). This means that he is the measure of all truth and that by which all must be and is truly judged. This is why an appeal to Paul is not an appeal to Paul as some figure, but an appeal to the enscripturated Word of God as being what God has made known on this and therefore what we must believe. Any other basis seeks to avoid this Word as that which directly addresses all of us by his Spirit.

  2. Rick, as a complementarian, though a fairly generous one, it seems to me that Ephesians sets the pattern for how mutual submission (if you want to call it that) is to be worked out in a family setting. I am not one who argues that culture supercedes meaning, that culture has progressed and therefore we must read the Scripture differently in light of our progressing. Parts of what you wrote above seem to argue in this direction, that we have progressed beyond the Scripture, and thus we cannot take it as it is, but must read it in light of our seemingly more righteous culture as we know it (maybe I misunderstood).

    However, in Ephesians wives submit to husbands as to the Lord, for the Lord is the head of the church, and He is also the Savior of the body. The husband is to love his wife as Christ loves the church. This is significant, for love is not equivalent to submission. Egalitarians often argue as if it is, but where did Christ submit Himself to the church? When does the church dictate to Him or make demands that He has to accede to? Certainly we can intercede, we can request, we can act upon authority He gives us; but we do not set the agenda, rather we take our agenda from Him; His will is to become our will; this is the church’s submission.

    The love Christ has demonstrated to the church is, most certainly, a self-sacrificial love, no doubt about it. It is a love that goes to one’s death; it is the love of our truest Friend, the One who truly laid His life down for His people. There is a submission in this, perhaps, in that Christ seeks out our true good – and a true husband should give up His own desires in order to seek the true good of not only his wife but his children (though Paul’s instructions about children comes later in the context).

    But as to will, purpose, direction, mission, that comes from Christ. If the husband fulfills Christ’s role, it seems to me that these elements, in the family setting, should sorting forth from the husband. Certainly these should and would include what is best for the wife and the family; but this is classified in the text as love, not as submission.

    So, then, what does it mean for the wife to submit? It means that the wife is to willingly order herself under the care, will and purposes of her husband even as the church willingly orders herself under Christ. Unless I am incorrect, this is the meaning of hupotasso – from my understanding this is a military term referring to the ranking of order and proper authority. It seems significant as well that she is to do so (submit to get husband) in the Lord, which I would understand to mean in the same way that she would submit unto Christ.

    My writing here is a bit convoluted also. Equality in Christ is not the elimination of differences and distinctions, it is not women becoming better men and men better women. It is recognizing the God created men and women to be different, and to recognize that as they come together living out their differences, men and women together reflect the unity reflected in the relationships within their Creator.

    1. Correcting some typos:

      Paragraph 2 should read that these elements should spring forth from the husband…

      Paragraph 3 parenthetical statement should read submit to her husband…

      Sorry.

    2. Keith,
      Thanks for the response. I use the language of “mutual submission” because that seems precisely what is called for in Ephesians 5.21 as a preface to the three specific relationships that Paul is addressing in this passage.

      And while I do not hold to somehow our cultural-historical context being determinative of meaning, it plays a role in how we hear, miss-hear, and might re-hear the texts of Scripture. My point about context has more to do with Paul actually making use of his own very particular context for how he conceived of these relationships playing out if they were maintained following the cultural-historical-social context of his world (thus the continuation of slavery as primary example). I’m fairly certain you actually believe slavery is not something to be maintained any longer. I could just as well say you are ignoring Scripture if you don’t accept slavery like this passage. It seems a sense of cultural accommodation is at play for this congregation even as the trajectory of where they must reconceive ALL of their relationships is also presented.

      1. Rick, while I think the slavery issue is a red herring, I will speak to it briefly. I do not advocate slavery, but I think Paul’s point in his writings is that regards the Gospel it is a non-issue. It is a transient, temporal condition that has no bearing on one’s salvation or true status in the kingdom. If one can obtain freedom, Paul seems to recommend that one take it. But if not, one is to continue to serve, and then serve as unto the Lord, recognizing that in reality the Lord is one’s true Master. With this, I believe, Peter would agree.

        Certainly as to status, the same is true of both husband and wife. Both have equal standing before the Lord, no question. Paul would agree with Peter’s “grant her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of Christ,” for instance.

        But Paul nowhere seeks to overthrow slavery (other than perhaps with Onesimus) any more than he seems to overturn the household dynamics. Rather, it seems to me that he upholds the latter, seeing them grounded in the created order.

        Greg, I believe, has already referenced the idea that a strict egalitarianism denies that there is any created order when it comes to human relationships. While it can be squiggly at times (man also comes from woman by birth), I think Paul would argue that there is an order, an order than remains despite the equality in salvation.

        This order seems to be present in Ephesians unless we just gloss over terms such as submit, head, even Savior. I point out once again here that the wife is to submit as the church submits; in the way the church submits to Christ so also the wife is to her husband. The illustration of the church’s submission to Christ has to govern our hermeneutic here, just as Christ’s love for the church and His sacrifice government our understanding of the husband’s posture to toward his wife. I simply can’t find any other way to read it.

        There is another issue at play also in the textual issue. The MT has the verb submit in verse 22, which would, should it be original, begin a new sentence. This would make verse 21 – that wonderful mutual submission verse – the final clause in a paragraph denoting manifestations of one’s being filled with the Spirit (18-21). My own hunch is that the MT is correct, for if the prepositional phrase “submitting to one another…” is intended to govern both the male and female relationships, why does Paul supply a verb for the man’s role different from submission (agape vs a form of hupotasso)? If Paul was teaching mutual submission he would not have needed to add the reference to love, he could just have said that the husband’s submission was to sacrifice for the wife just as Christ sacrificed Himself for the church. Therefore, I suspect Paul writes that the woman is to submit in the same way that he commands the man to love, and that verse 21 belongs to the paragraph above it.

        1. Keith,
          It is not a red herring. It is very much driving the clearest part of this text in the manner in which I’m describing Paul’s reorienting of all things coming under Christ’s lordship and all relationships being transformed (and ultimately undone in being subsumed under him).

          We could even take chapter 6:1-2 concerning “children” as this is not intended (in context) to be about little children, but ALL children who live in the home with parents. This would mean that you and I must still “obey” our parents. Now, we both know full well this is not followed by almost any adult child in the Church (neither by yourself or myself), because our family contexts are not their’s. Yet there is that word “obey” staring at us. And here is our context where the child leaves home at about 18 and becomes an “adult” who is “independent” (even if many of them stick around for awhile…it is still nothing like Paul’s context of the family). Somehow you and I (and others in our Western contexts) have imagined independence of parents so that this passage now only means to us that we must “obey” them only when a child and not as adult children. And in some sense…we are correct, because we now actually grant children rights that were NEVER understood as such in the history of the world until about the last 120 years. And it is good we have granted such rights.

          This matter pertains also to husbands and wives…in Paul’s context (at least in many of those he participated in) a husband would actually own his wife. Yet, you and I would NEVER think (nor say) we “own” our wives. You did not purchase your wife. You did not give a dowry for your wife. She is regarded as capable of working any job, of managing a household by herself (should anything happen to you), etc. She does not revert somehow to the closest male in her family to care for her. Yet that is precisely the type of context/s Paul found himself in. So we already have recontextualized (you have as well) what it means to “submit” to the husband or to “love” the wife. You are by no means doing as they would have done in Paul’s day. And I would imagine you are actually doing it nearer what the Lord would have. But I would contend that the best yet…is to actually honor one another with the one Lord of all as those who belong to Christ and only secondarily belong to one another in a mutuality of submission.

          This is where I see verse 21 as both ending what has preceded and leading into what follows. It is not independent of either, but intentionally crafted to look both ways.

          1. I put my response in the wrong place accidentally. I will paste it here also; perhaps you can delete it from below also.

            I guess we see life differently as to how this plays out. I believe I am still to honor and obey my parents. My parents (Dad specifically) have given me one command since I left home. It was when my brother and I had a major tiff related to family affairs. My dad called and commanded the both of us to reconcile, stated it was unbecoming to the family and unbecoming to Christ. We reconciled.

            Secondly, the idea of me owning my wife in the sense of slavery is not in vogue; but she is my wife. You, when you referred to her, referred to her with the possessive, when you started that she is “your wife.” So, she belongs to me and she is my possession. I also belong to her and I am her possession. So, ownership comes with the marriage vow, “Do you take so and so to be YOUR husband or wife.” No purchase is needed; no dowry. And if you or I go messing with another man’s wife, we will find out that in his view, we are messing with his property (same with a woman and her husband).

            If this is not the case how could Paul say that the wife’s body belongs to the husband and vise versa in 1 Corinthians 7? Or, do we need to reinterpret this verse also and make it more culturally conducive?

            Certainly how these things play out and our attitude changes toward them over time. But the Scripture still stands as it has been given to us. And we needs be very cautious before we enculturate it too quickly, for when we take a look around at our culture, not everything about it is righteous – nor it is necessary more righteous than the culture of Paul’s day.

  3. Hupotassow (submit) carries the underlying idea of “order.” That is to say that there is an order to things– even extending to the entire universe– which God has established. To submit is to acknowledge that order and align ouselves with it. To do so results in harmony. Our present struggle with biblical submission can be traced to the prevailing cultural rebellion against the idea of any God-established order leading to a hyper-egalitarianism that attempts to press upon us the false idea that there cannot be true equality unless all distinctions– including those God has established– are abolished.

    1. This presupposes several things: (1) that words carry inherent meaning rather than only meaning whatever they mean from context, (2) that the “order” by which we experience life in this in-between (between the “very good” of creation and “all things new”) is actually indicative of intended “order” of things and not temporary, (3) that hyper-egalitarianism is in fact what is being discussed or any sense of erasing differences between individuals (which my post explicitly does not hold to and openly rejects).

      1. I guess we see life differently as to how this plays out. I believe I am still to honor and obey my parents. My parents have given me one command since I left home. It was when my brother and I had a major tiff related to family affairs. My dad called and commanded the both of us to reconcile, stated it was unbecoming to the family and unbecoming to Christ. We reconciled.

        Secondly, the idea of me owning my wife in the sense of slavery is out of vogue, but she is my wife. You, when you referred to her, referred to her with the possessive, when you started that she is “your wife.” So, she belongs to me and she is my possession. I also belong to her and I am her possession. So, ownership comes with the marriage vow, “Do you take so and so to be YOUR husband or wife.” No purchase is needed; no dowry. And if you or I go messing with another man’s wife, we will find out that in his view, we are messing with his property (same with a woman and her husband).

        If this is not the case how could Paul say that the wife’s body belongs to the husband and vise versa in 1 Corinthians 7? Or, do we need to reinterpret this verse also and make it more culturally conducive?

        Certainly how these things play out and our attitude changes toward them over time. But the Scripture still stands as it has been given to us. And we needs be very cautious before we enculturate it too quickly, for when we take a look around at our culture, not everything about it is righteous – nor it is necessary more righteous than the culture of Paul’s day.

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