Against Patriarchy, Part Eight: Mutual Submission

It is necessary to now look at the concept of submission in Scripture, to determine whether all Christians are called to submit to one another in reciprocity, or whether there is a sense in which women must perform an additional form of submission that is nonreciprocal above and beyond this mutual submission. Patriarchalists and hierarchical complimentarians frequently claim the latter, that women had a special role of submission and indeed subordination based in their reading of the eternally subordinate Godhead and the very creation order, by “design” and nature.

We should also take note carefully of our terminology. Patriarchalists simply assume the debate is between the defenders of Biblical orthodoxy, against whom the cultural enemies of “radical feminism” seek to destroy all gender differences and live forever in a glorious flatland of non-differentiation, of which the notion of Biblical equality is only a “lite” version of this, pressed into the Church by hopelessly gullible Christians who have absorbed “cultural” and “alien” presuppositions. This is a recurring motif of Piper and Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of this discussion.

This is, actually, a discussion between two groups of Christians who both take the text seriously and want to live according to all that is revealed in God’s word. The major impetus for the push for equality comes not from feminists outside the Church, but by careful and detailed exposition and examination of Scripture within the Church. Likewise, embracing such Biblical equality does not threaten either the oneness and threeness of Trinitarian life or of the very real sexual and pyschological differences between men and women of which all admit (or of anyone who finds themselves somewhere in between). Instead, it simply means that such distinctions ought not to be the definition of the way in which one relates to God, the Church, and the world. The question is really a question not of specific texts but of the whole sweep of Scripture’s story. Does God relate to us on the basis of biology or gender, or does He relate to us as each images of Him able to stand as equals before the Throne? The rhetoric leveled against the term “feminist” by hierarchical-complimentarians, claiming that it seeks to eliminate all biological and gender difference in creation, has resulted in the preference of the term “egalitarian-complimentarian” to apply to those who support Biblical equality. This is done to highlight the fact that their goal is neither to deny or to eliminate the differences between genders.

As Christ Submits to the Church

One of the shocking things about Scripture is how clearly it teaches us that Christ submits to the Church just as much as the Church is summoned to submit to Him. We have already looked at Ephesians 5 in the previous post, but Paul’s analogy between Christ and the Church and the husband and the wife is vital to our understanding of this important truth of mutual submission. As we recall, Paul wrote that Christians generally and married couples in particular were called to “submit to one another…as to the Lord,” (Eph. 5:21). This analogy is tightly argued and flows in both directions, between Christ/Church and Husband/Wife. So when Paul declares that wives are to submit to their husbands “as the Church submits to Christ,” (v. 24), it is in the context of both submitting to one another. But this means that Christ submits to the Church. There is an exchange of mutual submission between Christ and the Church.

This is seen in a number of other places, where Christ submits to the Church out of love and honor, taking the form and station of a servant with respect to her. Most famously, Paul tells us that Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” and therefore “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant [lit. slave],” and “becoming obedient to the point of death,” (Phil. 2:7, 8). This is to become our example. Paul tells the Philippians to be “of the same mind, having the same love,” and commands them to “do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves,” (v. 2,3). These are genderless, universal calls for mutual selflessness, a submission borne not from authoritarian hierarchies or command structures, but a submission that begins by having the “same love” that Christ had for us. Peter tells us the same thing. Christ “committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten,” and “to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps,” (1 Pet. 2:22-23, 21). When Peter recommends wives with unbelieving husbands win those husbands with their conduct and submission, he is doing nothing more than applying a mutual, genderless call for all Christians to take the form of a servant to each other and the whole world to a specific situation (1 Pet. 3:1-6). He concludes by again contextualizing this as a universal command: “Finally, all of you…do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless,” (1 Pet. 3:8, 9). Paul agrees. “Outdo one another in showing honor,” (Rom. 12:10). This mutual seeking the good of others above oneself is to be exercised in every area of life. To the point when someone demands a legal claim against you, “why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Cor. 6:7). It extends to our economic and material lives as well: “your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be equality,” (2 Cor. 8:14). Anyone in need whom you come across is to be seen and dealt with as you were dealing with Jesus Himself (Matt. 25).

Christ modeled this mutuality of servanthood by initiating the cycle of blessing and not cursing, stepping down out of heaven to submit to all of our weakness and frailty and hatred. “The Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve,” (Mark 10:45), and therefore “lording it over” one another is excluded. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all,” (vv. 43-44; 9:35). During the last Passover, Jesus washes His disciples’ feet: “If the I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, so you ought to wash one another’s feet,” (John 13:14). This submission is not done because of a hierarchy or external, imposed structure that requires or obligates it, either by gender role or by nature. It is to be done simply because Jesus loved us enough to become the servant of His Church in a self-sacrificial way. But as we have seen, imitating Him in this self-sacrificial way is what all Christians are to be like toward all Christians, as well as to the whole world.

There is a clear reciprocity of love here in which all serve all, regardless of gender. The submission of marriage is not different in form or nature, and nothing more is demanded of women than of men with regards to submission. “Submitting to one another…as to the Lord,” (Eph. 5:21). In fact, mutual submission is illustrated by regards to sexual intimacy: “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does,” (1 Cor. 7:4), but rather, the “husband ought to give himself to his wife, and the wife to her husband,” (v. 3). It is here that the hierarchical-complimentarian ESV translation can trick us; they speak of “conjugal rights,” and while this is certainly implied, the intimacy is actually far greater. This is a total self-giving, an intimate mutual-indwelling between husband and wife that includes sexual activity but also transcends it. The text says that husband and wife are to give themselves and recognize that they don’t have rights over their whole person, not just over their activities in the bedroom. This is a radical mutual self-giving to one another, a mutual taking the form of a servant to one another.

At their best, the hierarchical-complimentarians draw near to this idea of self-sacrifice. They do their best to emphasize the husband is to lead sacrificially, as a servant leader (Wilson, For a Glory and a Covering is the most direct about emphasizing this). But they still cannot get past the idea that something, somehow, is required more for women than for men in the submission/servant/slave department. Note Kostenberger: “wives are called to submit to their husbands in a way that is nonreciprocal,” (God, Marriage, and Family, 59. Emphasis, ironically, is his.). For all their talk of servant leadership, hierarchical-complimentarians must still define this as “authority over” (Piper and Grudem, Recovering Biblical, 52-54, 60-61, 64) and are forced to argue that “egalitarians wrongly pit servant leadership against authority,” (Grudem, Evangelical Feminism, 168). They are trying to strike a “halfway covenant” between the “authority over” of the Gentiles and the “authority-as-servant” of Jesus. But “no one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other,” (Matt. 6:24).

As we have already seen, for Jesus and the Church, leadership is taking the initiative to become a servant for others, serving their needs and desires and not their own, and that this call is not gender-exclusive. It is a call for all who are believers, men and women alike. What is more, it is the heart of Paul’s teaching on marriage, that husband and wife are to take on the form of servant for the sake of the other, practicing mutual submission. The Bible teaches mutual submission, not the submission of the wife exclusively, and not as a result of her “nature,” “design,” or “gender role.”


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