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Home > Online Magazine > Online Magazine: Edition 26 - December 2008 / January 2009 > Submission (by Erica Green)


by Erica Green

The Subordination of Women in Marriage and The Biblical Principles of Submission

In recent times I have been exposed to a number of discussions, regarding the biblical model for the appropriate role for women within society in general and within marriage, in particular.  The view that has been articulated is that the lot of women is that of unreserved subordination to men and principally so for those women within a marriage relationship, to their husband.  This concept has been presented as a biblical imperative that I find extremely difficult to reconcile with my perception of Christianity.  I cannot fathom how any church can promote the subjugation or inequality of any category of people.  If anyone should 'get' equality and the inherent value of each individual, then surely it should be Christians.   So here are my thoughts on the issue, for what they are worth.

God's Original Intention For Husbands And Wives

Let's start right at the beginning with the original intent of God for humankind.  "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (Gen 1:27 NIV).  Both are required, male and female together to reflect the image of God.  In essence the image of God was not completed until God signed off the Eve project.

Some hold the view that Eve was made after Adam, as a 'helper', thus denoting the subordinate status predetermined as her destiny in life. "The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him." Genesis 2:18 (NIV).  Being neither a bible scholar nor a linguist, I rely on the expertise of others when it comes to translating the original meaning of words in the bible.  I am told that the translation of "helper" in Hebrew is, "like his opposite", a complement, a partner. 

The original husband/wife relationship was quite paradoxical.  Adam and Eve were created with different strengths and different ways of viewing things and yet they were united in their oneness, whilst still retaining these unique identities. " ... a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh." (Gen 2:24 NIV) . The one flesh concept is not just in the physical sense, but also in a relational sense.  This phenomenon is one of the characteristics through which the image of God is revealed.  This relationship design is so harmonious, that even though there are two quite distinct personalities they can be referred to as one.  Think of this in the context of the Godhead, three distinct personalities and roles and yet one.

During the period in the garden of Eden, prior to sin, the only reference to authority or rulership, is as it relates to man ruling over and taking responsibility for the animal, fish and birds of creation (Gen 1:26,28)  There was no need, within the Adam and Eve relationship, to appoint either a superior or subservient partner.   Using the Pauline example, it would have been as absurd as appointing one of the parts of the body to lord it over the others.  "The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. ... so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other." (1 Cor 12:12,25 NIV)

The Impact Of Sin On Relationships

Subsequently sin raises its ugly head in the perfect garden.  Following its discovery, God has a few things to say to the inhabitants of the garden.  "To the woman he said ... Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you." (Gen 3:16 NIV).  You will desperately desire and long for the relationship that you have had, but your husband will assume control over you.  Some may say that this is an instance of God punishing Eve for her part in allowing sin into this world.  For her, or any other woman, to yearn for a better form of relationship, is to fly in the face of God's express will.   Rather, I look at this statement as God offering a prediction of the effects of sin to come, on their and subsequent relationships, rather than as an edict of punishment.  The relationship that was originally intended to be in the image of God, as with everything else on this planet, is now tainted with sin.

Amongst many other things, sin and selfishness has led to societies and situations where women have been exploited and abused by men.  The God-given differences which were intended to be complementary, have been misused for selfish, personal gain.  The strength which God gave Adam and his descendants, for the purpose of supporting their relationships, has been misused against Eve's descendants.  Advantage has been taken of the vulnerabilities of Eve's descendants.

The prediction has certainly come true, as through history we see many examples of the appalling treatment of women.  Even in our "enlightened" age there are some regions where severe exploitation of women still occurs.   Not surprisingly, we have subsequently seen the rise of some of the extremes of feminism, as a backlash to this treatment.  No one wins here.  For the whole relationship thing between men and women to work, as God intended, it needs both genders to use their unique strengths for the betterment of the relationship and each other, not for the exploitation or manipulation of the other.

What The Apostle Paul Has To Say About Submission

So, fast forward some years, to see what the apostle Paul had to say on the topic of relationships between husbands and wives.  One may think that many years of sin and the culture of the time would have taken their toll. The usual text that is trotted out is, "Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord" (Col 3:18 NIV).  Similarly, "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord." (Eph 5:22 NIV)  It all seems quite black and white on the surface, until you read it in the context of the surrounding texts.

So let's get the gist of this in context.  Right before this text in Colossians, Paul speaks to both men and women admonishing them to submit to each other out of respect for Christ. (Eph 5:21)He then goes on to speak specifically to wives, in order to explain what this statement means for them.  He admonishes them to hold their husbands in deference, as this is what God designed. (Col 3:18Then to husbands, he explains what submission means for them in their relationship with their wife.  Be gentle with them and love them more than you do yourself, to the extent of being willing to give up your own life for them.   (Eph 5:25-28, Col 3:19)  Here you can see that Paul does not mean for either partner to be a doormat. 

Where the notion of mutual submission comes into its own, is within a relationship where there is an abundance of security and trust.  Where one partner is able to say, "I trust your judgement in this area.  It is more aligned with your skill-set and abilities.  You take the call on this one."  Now these skills and tasks may be apportioned along the more traditional male/female roles and then again they may not.  This concept though also goes beyond just the division of labour, to other situations where a partner is able to acknowledge, "I can see that this issue means so much more to you than it does for me, so as a partnership or family let's run with your passion on this one."

What The Apostle Peter Has To Say About Submission

Peter also has his bit to say on this topic, complete with a warning for those who treat their wives badly. "Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect ...  so that nothing will hinder your prayers."  (1 Peter 3:7 NIV).  So think on this one for a while.  The consequences for men who are not kind, understanding or thoughtful to their wives and for those husbands who do not hold their wives in high regard, is that God will not answer their prayers.  That is a pretty significant outcome.

Servant Leadership

It is also interesting to view these texts within the view of biblical leadership.  Leadership that is consistent with the principles of the Kingdom of God, may appear strangely at odds with this world's value system.  From a worldly perspective it is difficult to consider a relationship that does not have a power head and a compliant "other" to serve that head.  Servant leadership is what Jesus purported and demonstrated when he was on this earth.  "Jesus said to them, 'The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that.  Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?  Is it not the one who is at the table?  But I am among you as one who serves.' " (Luke 22:25-27 NIV)Jesus' whole life is that of servant leadership in action.  So if we apply this model to us, husbands who wish to exert leadership, are to become servants to their wives and vice versa. 

Gender Hierarchy In God's Eyes

Regardless of how the world sees our relative worth, we are equal in the eyes of Christ.  Whilst Jesus was on this earth his behaviour was supportive of raising the profile of women, and others, from the results of exploitation and discrimination.  "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."  (Galatians 3:26-28).



Even though we are living under the effects of sin, in a world that has been high-jacked by the Devil, we can claim citizenship to the Kingdom of God and live within the sanctuary of His spiritual embassy.  Surely as Christians we should be promoting the principles of His Kingdom. We should advocate the original relationship that God planned for us in the Garden of Eden, that of partnership and mutual submission and respect.  This is in stark contrast to perpetuating this world's distorted take on relationships.  The world's view is where relationships can only be conceptualised with an authoritarian or controlling position, supplemented by a subservient role.

The Kingdom of heaven is not only about hope for the future, but is also about living life to the full now, as a foretaste of the future promise.  To the extent that we try to live up to this original model that God planned for us in our marriage relationships, we experience more fully what it is like to be made in the image of God.

Our marriages should be places where we can find a little haven from the kingdom of this world and its warped value system.  This haven is characterised by mutual submission, respect, and trust, where neither party is trying to exploit the other, but is rather out to seek only the best for the other.  As Christians let's promote only the best in our marriage relationships for both genders.

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