The word often carries echoes of totalitarian dictatorship, of subjection, of the repeated claim of the Nazi rank-and-file that they were “just following orders”. Like “obedience”, it’s not something we crave, unless we are the ones being obeyed, we are the ones being submitted to.
And not even then, if you’re a decent sort of person.
It seems like it’s only Muslims and Christians who even use the word any more, at least trying to convey anything positive. For most of us, nothing that you have to be told to “submit” to can possibly be any good. You “submit” to a humiliating nude body scan and/or pat-down search at an airport. You “submit” to a background check in which third-parties poke around in your record for evidence of trouble. You “submit” an application for a loan or for government assistance, not only suffering the embarrassment of needing it, but inviting an impersonal agency who don’t necessarily care to sit in judgment over you. A “submissive” is the term we give to a participant in a sexual relationship who gets a disturbed thrill from acting as a slave.
In general life, the connotations really aren’t good.
As Christians, we’re somewhat justifiably put off by Muslims’ focus on submission. “Islam” itself means “submission”, submission to the will of God, whether that be good, bad or indifferent to your personal life. It smacks of fatalism – you can’t fight God’s Will. If He’s determined to crush you, all you can do is shrug and accept it. This doesn’t sound so much like the God we serve.
And then we as Christians use the word “submission” in our descriptions of the Christian marriage relationship, to describe the proper attiitude of a wife to her husband.
I… have a problem with that.
Yeah, I know the word is used in the Bible. Several times, by both Paul and Peter. Peter says “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands, so that if any do not believe they may be won over…”
Paul says “Wives, submit to husbands as to the Lord…”
Apparently I have some explaining to do. If this is what the Bible says, and I believe that if I’m going to call myself Christ’s follower I have to take even the parts of the Bible that I don’t like seriously, how can I have a problem with Christians using the word “submission” about our marital relationships?
Well, first of all I have to remind all of us that our English Bible is a translation of the original. We try our best to make it as accurate as possible, but as anyone who knows more than one language will tell you, sometimes words just don’t translate well. A word that in one language is a harmless, neutral term may become a deadly insult when translated literally into another language. Compare US and British uses of the word “fag”. Or even when it means the same thing, the nuances can be wildly different. A “cafeteria” is an eating-place in both British and American versions of English, but means something subtly different: the British version is a small eating establishment where you could get a light snack or sandwich or the equivalent – a café, in fact – while the US version is what we call a “canteen”: a large institutional dining area, for example in a school.
And this is just between two different versions of the same language! The problem is multiplied when you take in a more distant (in both time and dissimilarity) language like Koine Greek.
The Koine word which we translate as “submission” is ὑποτάσσω, which does indeed mean “submission”. However, as I have said, the difficulty is not with the literal meaning but with the connotations in our cultural milieu versus those of the New Testament Greek/Aramaic period.
Which brings us to our second issue. Words change over time. Within my lifetime, “PC” has gone from having one meaning to having three, and its original meaning is now probably the least-used. “Friend” has become a verb as well as a noun, while “Like” has gone the other way, becoming a thing as well as an action. Such-and-such a post has so many likes. And don’t get me started on those hideous monster words beloved of American news media, “burglarize” (the word is “burgle”; a “burglar” is “one who burgles”) and “normalcy” (because it seems like Americans can’t cope with the stress-pattern shift of the word “normality”).
English has never inflicted itself with the bureaux (which is fast degenerating into “bureaus”) of language preservation found in French and Spanish. The Academie Française is particularly known for its resistance to importing words unless they are Latin-derived, but even with their efforts, French still has “le weekend”. Languages change. If they don’t, it’s because no-one speaks them any more, like Latin or Sanskrit or Old Church Slavonic.
Along with adding new words for new things, sometimes old words add new meanings (as with “like” or “PC”) or lose old meanings (as with “intercourse”, which at one time regularly meant “conversation” and was used only secondarily to refer to the sexual act). Or meanings can change as the usage of the word alters. This is why we need new dictionaries every few year, and why the OED publishes lists of the year’s new words.
Has this happened with “submit”?
I submit that perhaps it has.
See, that’s formal usage now, which always lags behind regular conversational usage, and it’s a slightly different meaning of the word anyway. It still carries the idea of subjection, but it’s merely an “I put forth my idea and subject it to your judgment”.
Our primary cultural connotations of the word “submit” are, with the exception of Christian and Muslim usage, entirely negative. Nothing that you have to “submit” to is going to be pleasant; otherwise you wouldn’t be using that word. Submission does not really come into play if it is to something desirable or good. No-one “submits” to being bought ice-cream, or to their friend. That would be weird.
So why do we use “submission” as a description of proper Christian wifely behaviour?
Normally, the word describes a relationship of unequal partners, in which the greater partner’s desires and needs are paramount and override the desires and needs of the lesser partner. The greater partner is probably going to be hostile or unresponsive to commentary from below, and the lower partner cannot do anything to change it.
To me, none of that sounds like the sort of relationship I want anywhere near my marriage.
Marriage is a relationship of two equal partners under God. Even Paul’s statement in Ephesians is actually misquoted; verse 22 is the second half of a sentence beginning in verse 21, the whole of which reads “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives to husbands as to the Lord…”
That’s right; the word “submit” isn’t actually in the original in verse 22 at all. Worse, we insert the paragraph distinctions and subtitles that weren’t in the original (in order to help ourselves find things) and we artificially separate this one sentence into two paragraphs in different sections.
It’s not the first time that Bible translators (who tend to be older men) have become out-of-step with the regular culture. And this has theological implications for our teaching on the proper relationship of Christian spouses, and power implications for men who are husbands.
Personally, I don’t want a vertical, positionally-hierarchical relationship with my wife. If I can bring up personal ancient history, I resisted the idea of my wife promising to “obey” in our wedding vows. I’ve since been content to ignore it, but it’s one of the things we might have done differently if we had it over. Rather like my own insistence on being proclaimed “man and wife” rather than “husband and wife”, which I’ve since decided just plays into the lie that my manhood comes from my relationship to a woman and that to be a real man you have to know (in the KJV sense) a woman.
As far as I’m concerned, as a married couple the minute you believe that one of you can pull rank on the other, you have already lost. The relationship goes from being a horizontal one between equals to a vertical one of commander and subordinate, ruler and subject, master and mastered.
That may have been the expectation in First-Century Greco-Roman Jewish society, but we’re beyond that now. Thanks largely to the influence of Christian teaching on the equality of all persons before God, we no longer expect to have a marriage relationship of dominance and subjection.
After long struggle, at the beginning of the last century we finally let women have a vote in how our national affairs are governed. Britain had its first female Prime Minister in Margaret Thatcher; America might have its first female President before too long. Whether you like or loathe Hillary Clinton (and I’m not personally a fan), her gender isn’t an issue, except perhaps in the minds of the most reactionary misogynist neanderthals.
As men, we don’t expect to rule our wives as the little tin god of their world. Or if we do, we have serious problems whether we know it or not. Women don’t expect to be our subjects, and nor should they. There’s some give-and-take in any healthy marriage, and if it’s all one-sided, we don’t have anything like a healthy marriage.
So why do we, as Christians, insist on preserving language that frames the relationship as one of dominance?
Oh, we try to soft-pedal it in the way we interpret submission, but the word itself has become loaded with baggage it didn’t have half a generation ago.
I have no idea what word we might use instead, though. We can at least stop unnaturally splitting Ephesians 5:21 from 5:22 (if submission is expected to go both ways, we eliminate a lot of the problem), but perhaps here more free translations like the NIV have the advantage over more literalistic translations like the New American Standard. There may not be one word that fits the bill.
Then, too, we might possibly recognise that, like the teaching about slaves and masters, some of this New Testament teaching concerns a social context that no longer exists in the same way.
We like to apply the teaching on slaves and masters to the employer/employee relationship, but if we’re honest we have to face the fact that the relationship is not the same as that of a master and his slave. Last time I checked, my employer still couldn’t sell me to another company, or beat me or kill me on a whim.
The situation of husbands and wives is complicated by the fact that while slavery has been largely consigned to the dustbin of history (human trafficking exists, but nowhere in the world is it a legal and above-board part of society), we still have husbands and we still have wives. And yet, how different is the relationship!
In much of First-Century society, married women were akin to property. They were bought with bride-prices or sold with dowries. Their husbands were legally responsible for their actions, as they were for those of their slaves or their children, and a man beating his wife was considered a normal and good thing rather than a dreadful criminal act. The Greeks, in particular, found the more gender-enlightened and egalitarian attitudes of, for example, the Scythians, as a perverse indication of extreme barbarism on the part of the Scythians. (And Paul states that “[in Christ] there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all”)
Nowadays, if we found a husband and wife who had a First-Century sort of relationship, we’d call the police. Or at the very least a social worker.
Society has progressed beyond those evil pagan expectations, largely building on the Christian understanding of the equality of all people before God. The point of the Scriptural teaching is not to mandate any particular kind of society as normative for Christians (else we would still keep slaves), but to teach believers how to live as believers within the sometimes fallen human structures of the day.
Marriage isn’t something that can be done away with like slavery. The beginning of Genesis ties marriage to the creation of human beings: “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”. Eve is Adam’s ezer kenegdo, or “suitable helper”; the word Ezer is also used of God as our Helper, so there’s no place for seeing this as any sort of subordinate position.
Interestingly, the subjection of womankind doesn’t take place until after the Fall: “I will greatly increase your pain in childbirth… Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you“.
To me, it seems a bit backward that we would hold the results of the Fall up as an example for how redeemed new creations in Christ should live, but there you go. I know many Christians do honestly believe in an inherent primacy of the man in a marriage relationship, but I’ve looked at the Scriptures and I don’t think that’s what they are saying.
If “submission” is for you a positive or neutral term without baggage, I’m pleased for you. But the fact that we keep having to explain why submission isn’t the problem non-Christians think it is suggests that Christianese may be out of sync with real life. If you honestly want a vertical relationship in your marriage, you have my pity, and my suspicion that your spouse might not be so blithely accepting of this. We teach, and rightly so, about marriage being a partnership. We do pre-marital counselling for young couples to try and help them become aware that they aren’t going to get their own way all the time. We encourage husbands to love their wives sacrificially, as Christ loves the Church. And then we use a loaded, almost universally negative term like “submit” for the wife’s side of the marriage responsibilities, a word which is intrinsically vertical in its orientation without any counterbalancing command to the husband to submit. Oh, he’s required to love as Christ loved the church, which implies service and sacrifice, but you can love a lesser. The way we’ve broken Ephesians 5:22 off from verse 21, men don’t get commanded to submit to their wives; it’s all one-way. And this is wrong, and it’s not what we mean.
Ideally, we men would all take the command to love our wives sacrificially as seriously as Jesus performing the most disgusting task of the lowest slave for his disciples. Jesus here isn’t explicitly or implicitly demanding his disciples’ submission to him; he’s submitting to them, seeing to their needs and desires first, serving them like a dog slave. There’s no place for positional authority here; the normal positions are shockingly inverted.
And this is what the Scripture says is our pattern. We don’t let the social customs around us set our agenda as Christians; we act with righteousness, according to a higher pattern of submission, not one way from women to men, but to one another, husbands as well as wives, masters as well as slaves. We make a nonsense of fallen cultural patterns by living in such a way within them that the expected fallen norms are done away with.
I think it’s time we did away with this one-way notion of submission as a solely wifely requirement. At best, it conveys to non-Christians a horrible picture of what Christian marriage is supposed to be like, and at worst it reinforces our own tendencies toward letting our marriages degenerate into entirely the wrong kinds of relationship.
As far as I’m concerned, as soon as the word “submit” comes into play, we’re dealing with a vertical relationship that ought to have no part of a healthy marriage.
Maybe we ought to say “put your husbands first” rather than “submit to them”. That’s more like what we actually mean, and far more communicative.
“Put one another first out of reverence for Christ. Wives, put your husbands first as you do the Lord…”
It isn’t perfect, but it seems more in tune with what we really mean than “submit”. Maybe. At any rate, it doesn’t have quite the same amount of baggage.