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The Source of Submission

Is submission a consequence of man’s fall into sin?

The concept of submission is a tough one to get our minds around. There was a time when I’m sure it came more naturally to people—a time when inequality and hierarchy were assumed. In that kind of social situation I’m sure submission would seem more natural. But today, when we acknowledge that all men (and women) are created equal and when and when there are few things we value higher than equality, submission seems like a relic of the past. And yet the Bible is clear that submission is a duty we all share. All of us are to submit to God and to submit the the authorities He has placed over us. And then there is the one that continues to raise eyebrows: women are to submit to their husbands.

I have often been challenged with the subject of submission and how it relates to the role of women in a marriage relationship. In particular, I have been challenged to understand and then prove that the submission prescribed by Scripture is inherent in God’s created order. In other words, the fact that women are to submit to their husbands is not merely the product of the Fall of the human race into sin, but is a product of God’s creation. Even if sin had never entered the world, a wife would still be expected to submit to her husband. Having studied this issue I believe that is a fair statement and wrote this brief article in an attempt to prove my understanding.

I have discussed this topic with several women and have been a little bit surprised by their reactions. It seems to me that women would be glad to know that the idea of submission precedes the fall. This shows us that the headship of the husband is not rooted in a punishment, and perhaps even an unfair punishment where woman was given the harsher penalty of having to submit, but is rooted in the very purpose and creation of mankind. Yet women have told me that they prefer to think that submission is a product of the Fall. Perhaps this shows just what a poor job the church has done in teaching this subject and what a poor job husbands have done in making submission joyful. Or maybe this is simply society echoing even in the church.

Strange though it may seem, submission is a good and beautiful and godly thing. The most perfect relationship in the world, the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, displays a perfect example of submission. The Son submits Himself to the Father. They are, to echo the Shorter Catechism, “the same in substance, equal in power and glory.” Yet the Father demonstrates headship. We speak of Jesus’ mission to the earth in two ways. We speak of Jesus being sent by the Father. And this is true. From eternity it was decided by the Father that man would have to be ransomed by a perfect substitute. The Father tasked the Son with this responsibility. But we also speak of the Son willingly giving up his life. These are both true. The Son’s perfect submission to the Father’s will meant that a command of the Father is indistinguishable from a decision of the Son. Christ was perfectly willing to submit to His Father’s will. This relationship within the Trinity provides us many clues as to the nature of the relationship between husband and wife.

So let me provide ten proofs that submission precedes the Fall and is part of God’;s natural order. We will follow the structure outlined by Wayne Grudem in his thorough study on the subject, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth.

  1. The order of creation: Adam was created before Eve. This may seem to be weak grounds for an argument yet it was significant enough for Paul to mention in 1 Timothy 2:12-13 where he does not “permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man…For Adam was formed first, then Eve.” Inherent in the order of creation is the foundation for the order of human relationships.
  2. The representation of the human race: It was Adam who had a special role in representing the human race. Though Eve was the first to sin, it was Adam who was considered most responsible for their combined disobedience. In Corinthians we read that, “as in Adam all men die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Christ is the second Adam, not the second Eve as we might expect if the Bible held Adam and Eve as being equal in representation and headship.
  3. The naming of woman: Adam was given the honor and responsibility of naming his wife. “She shall be called woman,” he said, “because she was taken out of man” (Genesis 2:23). Within the Scriptures we see that the person who names something is always the one who has authority over it. This parallels the account of creation where God named the night and the day, the expanse, the earth and the waters. By naming them He showed His authority. And in naming Even Adam proved his headship.
  4. The naming of the human race: The human race is named after Adam, not Eve. Neither is it named after both Adam and Eve. God named the human race “man.” “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created” (Genesis 5:1-2). While this does not provide a cut and dry case, it points again to the headship and leadership of the man in the created order.
  5. The primary accountability: God held Adam primarily accountable for the Fall. While Adam and Eve hid from God, God called “to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” (Genesis 3:9). God did not call to both Adam and Eve, but called to Adam alone. Dr. Grudem draws an analogy of a parent who, upon entering a room where several children have been misbehaving, will summon the oldest and demand answers. It is the oldest who bears greatest responsibility. In the same way God summoned Adam and demanded an account of both his sin and that of his wife. Notice that Satan reversed this order, approaching Eve before Adam in an obvious (and successful) attempt to disrupt the God-given pattern.
  6. The purpose of women: Eve was created as a helper for Adam, not Adam as a helper for Eve. While feminists have made much of the term “helper,” the fact remains that in any given situation, the person doing the helping necessarily places himself in a subordinate role to the person needing help. Yet helping does not remove accountability. While I may help my son with a paper route, the ultimate responsibility is still his. Eve’s role, from the beginning of creation, was to be a helper for Adam. This does not by any means indicate a inferiority, but a helper who was Adam’s equal. She differed in ways that would complement Adam.
  7. The conflict: A dire consequence of the Fall is the conflict it has introduced into the relationships of husbands and wives. In Genesis 3:16 God tells Eve, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” This desire is to interfere with or distort the role of her husband. The roles God gave to the husband and wife have been distorted through the Fall. Eve would now rebel against the God-given authority of her husband and he would abuse the authority to rule poorly, forcefully and even harshly.
  8. The restoration: When creation is restored through the work of Christ we do not find an undoing of the marriage order. Were submission a consequence of the Fall we would expect Christ to “make all things new” in this manner. Instead we find that Christ provides power to overcome the sinful impulses of a wife against her husband and the husband’s response of ruling harshly over her. But Christ does not remove the order of a husband being in authority over his wife.
  9. The mystery: When the Apostle Paul wrote of a “mystery” he was describing something that was understood only faintly in the Old Testament but became clear in the New. In Ephesians 5:31-32 Paul shows that the ultimate purpose in marriage is to mirror the relationship between Christ and the church. “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Dr. Grudem says, “Although Adam and Eve did not know it, their relationship represented the relationship between Christ and the church. They were created to represent that relationship, and that is what all marriages are supposed to do. In that relationship, Adam represents Christ and Eve represents the church…”
  10. The parallel with the Trinity: The triune nature of God provides the perfect example of submission. “The equality, differences, and unity between men and women reflects the equality, differences and unity of the Trinity.” We are blessed and honored to be able to represent that relationship in our marriages.

The ultimate reason a wife is to submit her husband may not have been clear to Adam and Eve. It was not clear to God’s people until after the writing of the New Testament. The ultimate reason a wife is to submit to her husband is that the marriage relationship is to mirror that of Christ and His church. Just as Christ is head of the church and we submit to Him, in the same way man is the head of the family and the wife should submit to Him. A husband is to lead in the same was as Christ: lovingly, tenderly and always seeking the greatest good for his wife. A wife is to mirror her relationship with Christ in her relationship with her husband. She is to trust him, be loyal to him and help him. This can only be done in a relationship of humble, loving, godly submission.

When men lovingly lead their wives and when women respond in joyful submission, we see a beautiful echo of the relationship of the Father to the Son and we model the love of the Son for His bride. Submission may be unpopular, it may be a difficult word to say, but it is a concept that existed in a perfect world and is one that will endure for eternity.