Biblical Submission

Rachel’s Christmas present to her husband Dan, labelled “To Master From Rachel”

Oh boy. Here we go. That word “submission” is probably either one that fills you with dread or one that you consider to be God’s plain and simple Will with no room for debate. I don’t find many people who are anywhere in between. The term and the concept, of course, come from a grand total of 3 New Testament household code texts.

 Wives submit yourself to your husband, as is fitting in the Lord. (Colossians 3:18)

Wives, in the same way, submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. (1 Peter 3:1-2)

Wives, submit to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22-24)

Wives = Slaves

Gender Authority Hierarchy

Posted to the Evans’ fridge during the project

The first thing that stands out to anyone who has studied the technique of inductive Bible study (and most evangelicals have) is the use of the words “therefore” or “in the same way,” present in the Peter text above. So what are they being in the same way as? Surprisingly, few complementarians ask this question and realize the answer: slaves and masters. In the same way that slaves must submit to their masters, wives have to do the same to their husband. Sometimes slaves and masters appear first in the text and sometimes husbands and wives appear first, but they are always paired up. Interestingly, the majority of Christian conservatives do not suggest that we return to a system of slavery as divinely-ordained. When challenged with this lack of consistency, I have heard some suggest that slavery was divinely-ordained, pointing out the important caveat that this text is referring to a system of slavery that is a temporary way to repay debt, not to the racist forms of slavery we usually think of from more-recent history. What I’ve never heard, though, is that we need to get back to living out these “divinely-ordained master-slave hierarchies” the same way that they usually advocate we get back to living out “divinely-ordained gender roles.” That leads me to suggest that they don’t really believe we should be recreating master-slave relationships (fortunately) but just need to keep us crazy egalitarians off their backs by being more consistent in theory even if not practice.

Household Codes

Peter and Paul were not the only men to write household codes of this type. The household was the foundation of the society and consequently many religious leaders and philosophers wrote household codes to make sure everyone understood their role. If we start to compare these codes with the biblical codes, there is a remarkable difference: the one in power is expected to be at least as much of a servant as the one of a lower rank. While it was completely normal for women to be told to submit to their husbands, it was far from normal that husbands were told to love their wives to the point of giving up their lives for them as Christ did for the church. While it was common for slaves to be told to serve their masters well, it was far from common that masters were told to treat their slaves like human beings. Peter and Paul are actually making a very radical statement within their cultural context that this servanthood has to work both ways even if society officially puts one on a higher ground.

The question then becomes which interpretation is more likely?

  • Peter and Paul progressed an existing code but it is not supposed to progress any more from there, instead being a new rule for all time. In that case, we should maintain the master-slave and husband-wife hierarchies. For consistency, we better make sure we also keep a lot of other New Testament practices as true for all time like head-coverings, singleness being preferred, and more.
  • Peter and Paul modelled how to live a radically servant-oriented lifestyle even within existing oppressive systems. In that case, we shouldn’t recreate those hierarchies but should instead be continuing to challenge them.
Two completely different conclusions from the exact same texts with very practical and opposing implications. If those texts had no other context to work with, I suppose we’d have to stop here with the two being equally valid. Fortunately, we do have the rest of Scripture, including (among other things) the parts right before and after discussing slavery and the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus to whom we now turn.


So how to do we decide which is better? If Jesus is really the fulfillment of the law and is really the fullest expression of God and what he wants for our life, we need to ask how Jesus’ actions and teachings line up with either of these interpretations of the concept of submission in the Scriptural household codes. Here are just a few examples of how Jesus understands hierarchical relationships:

The first person Jesus revealed his identity as Messiah to was a Samaritan woman who had been through multiple marriages (whether her fault or the various husbands’ faults is not stated). This not only contradicted the hierarchy of men over women but also the hierarchy of Jews, especially Rabbis, over Samaritans and of everyone-else over those divorced.

The first people to discover the resurrection were all women. If God wanted the resurrection to be believed, he could have had upper-class men discover the empty tomb. Instead, he chose to use women and they lived up to the radical trust that they weren’t used to by spreading the word as fast as possible.

Jesus healed a woman with an irregular flow of blood. This made her unclean and unable to touch anybody or anything, but he healed her anyway. Along with challenging the assumptions about women, this breaks the hierarchy between the pure and impure.

Women were regularly listed as among Jesus’ disciples, even if not within the core 12. The tradition continued throughout the early church which had about 50% female leadership and even more than that for average composition of the congregations. Some Roman critics even insulted Christianity because it was a religion for slaves and women. It never was meant to be friendly to the powerful. Interestingly, even though most of the church is now led primarily by men, women are still the majority in the pews for all but a few very-conservative denominations.

Speaking of the disciples, most of them were from despised or disrespected professions. He didn’t chose the best of the best students – he chose those who were working in trades or even as the hated tax collectors. By doing so, he declared that these people were just as good as those others we would expect to be disciples.

Elsewhere, Satan offers Jesus the opportunity to rule over the world the way that others rule over the world. Jesus rejected this form of power and instead chose to suffer and die for the world instead. That’s real power. That’s what really changes things.

Jesus repeatedly taught in various ways that this way: that real power is to serve others. For example, in Matthew 20:25-28, Jesus said this:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

This is almost sneaky and I love it. Paul says that men are to lead as Christ led. And how is that exactly? Christ led by serving, giving his life, being a slave to others. So sure, women are supposed to submit, but men are supposed to serve to the point of being a slave to their wife. In other words, both actually have essentially the same command. It sounds a lot like how the Galatians passage is introduced: “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Hey, why do complementarians almost always ignore that verse when reading this section?) Because we follow a God who willingly entered into a mutually-submissive relationship with humanity, we must similarly enter into mutually-submissive relationships with the rest of humanity whether we think they are lower than us by societal standards or not.

If you’ve paid much attention to any of my previous posts, you’d know that I am a strong believer in the power-under concept. I believe that this is blatantly clear in what Jesus taught and lived as well as what the early church taught and lived. If we want to be truly biblical to those head/submit passages, Jesus even says that leadership is not like the Gentile rulers who lord it over people. We men cannot dare to claim that we own any trump card in the name of Scripture. Scripture is pretty clear that any time we think we have the right to be the first, we have to live as if we are the least. Interestingly, Peter and Paul never say that God ordained authority for men. Instead, they say that we have authority (doesn’t say from where) and we are to essentially give it up to live like Jesus instead. I could keep stretching out this list, but I think you get the point: Jesus taught and embodied a power-under service to others, not a system of social hierarchies. 

The Radical Nature of Mutual Submission

So is it more likely that Peter and Paul were establishing a holy hierarchy for all time, contrary to the teachings and actions of Jesus? As somebody who values Scripture, I can’t believe for a second that’s true. It just doesn’t fit with the rest of the revelation of Jesus especially when there are obvious other interpretations available. I think like in so many other instances in Scripture and in history, God was working with what was available. In this case, what was available was a patriarchal system. Men had authority. That was a fact, not a command. Working with that system, God realized that it wasn’t going to change for another approximately 1900-2000 years, so started with subverting the system from within.

What makes it tragic is that many have taken a radical spirit and turned it into a status quo legalism. This is a common trend in Christian history, having happened over and over again. Look at our Protestant forefathers: they shook up theology and practice, and the most important way they did so was be the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers that shattered many levels of hierarchy. Within a couple of hundred years, their followers had turned their radical freeing thought into stale thought that was helping no-one, actually becoming far more strict than the people they claim to follow. The same thing happened with Peter’s and Paul’s household codes. We’ve taken a beautifully freeing message and turned into a new rule.

As has been a theme of this book and this series on it, let’s aim to live by the spirit of the law – the radical mutuality in this case – instead of the letter by trying to be as 1st-century Greco-Roman as possible (which oddly we don’t do in other respects like slavery).

Buy on Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

5 Responses

  1. sally says:

    Complimentarians certainly do endorse slavery. Slavery for the wife within marriage.

    • While I obviously agree with you in critiquing complementarianism, I would be cautious about such strong language. I do think a lot of complementarian men seek to genuinely love their wives as Christ loved the church which means putting her needs first even if he does theoretically have veto power. Many complementarians actually live pretty much like egalitarians in practice because of this. Of course, many do not, using the command for women to submit as equivalent to men deciding everything all on their own and yes, this version is pretty much slavery. So in short, I think complementarianism opens the door to a slavery marriage – and that should be enough to at least question the framework – but it does not necessitate it.

      Thanks for the comment!

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