Why We Cringe at “Submit”

A couple of times I’ve run into people who are familiar with the kind of Reformed theology I hold to and are eager to challenge me. Along the way they’ve said something like this: “I don’t believe in predestination.” That brings about an easy response: “The question isn’t whether you believe in predestination, but what you believe about predestination.” After all, the word (or the idea, at least) is right there in Romans 8 and Ephesians 1. We may disagree on what we mean by the term, but we don’t have the option to believe it just doesn’t exist. I think the word “submit” may be quite similar. It’s a word some people really dislike, so instead of studying it and coming to a firm conclusion on its meaning, they choose not to believe in it at all.

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I’m convinced we must have some doctrine of submission (it is, after all, right there in the Bible) but don’t think I’m alone in cringing a little bit when I hear the term “submit,” especially in the context of marriage. When I hear “wives, submit to your own husbands,” something happens in my mind or heart that I don’t really like. I feel this immediate little bit of shame or rebellion or something. Submission feels old-fashioned. It feels like the kind of thing I may want to explain away like, “I know it looks like it says ‘submit’ but it doesn’t really mean ‘submit’.” The problem is that it really does say “submit” and, as far as I can tell, really does mean it. There isn’t one Bible translation that disagrees. So we just need to tackle it head-on.

But what’s happening? Why do I feel that little bit of rebellion or shame when I hear the word “submit?” I think it’s proof that we as Christians are constantly battling worldliness. Worldliness is allowing our minds and hearts to be shaped by messages that come from outside the Bible. Remember Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Our minds are like Playdough and someone or something is always shaping them. Our lifelong battle is to ensure we are not being conformed to the thought-patterns of the world but are instead being transformed by the revelation of God. And in this area I think many Christians, myself included, have allowed worldliness to encroach just a little.

The worldly thinking that constantly creeps into our minds is that our value and our dignity as people comes from our function or role, from what we do relative to other people. The Bible says something different. Your value and your dignity do not come from what you do but from who you are. And who are you? You are the one creature in all the world made in God’s image! You do not gain value or dignity from your function, or your contribution, or your abilities. Your value and your dignity are intrinsic to you and equal to anyone else’s because you are made in the image of God.

Why is that important? Because a world that assigns value to function rebels against the idea of submission. It concludes that for a wife to submit to her husband means that she must have less value than her husband. This is false, but it’s so often there in our minds and hearts.

Do you believe that God the Father and God the Son are equal in value and dignity, equal in majesty and glory? Of course you do. Do you believe that God the Son does the will of God the Father? Of course you do. In John 6:38 Jesus said, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” Jesus submitted to the will of the Father. Yet the Son’s submission to the Father did nothing to make him less valuable or less dignified or less worthy of praise than the Father. This hierarchy of function did not interrupt the essential equality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which proves that hierarchy, the arranging of people according to function, does not change value.

So when we encounter this word “submit” in the Bible and especially in Ephesians 5, Paul is not making a statement about the relative value of husbands and wives, but about their unique ordering, their unique functions. He is simply saying, “Families will function best when one person leads and the other person follows that leadership.”