Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting for those who belong to the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly. [Colossians 3:18-19 (NLT)]
And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. … For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. [Ephesians 5:21-22,25 (NLT)]
Before I actually read much of what he wrote, I used to think the Apostle Paul was a bit of a misogynist; I’m probably not the only person to think so. Throughout the ages, women have been mistreated, exploited, demeaned, and discounted. We’ve had the vote for less than a century and it wasn’t that long ago when our career choices were pretty much limited to teaching or nursing. Today, women continue to earn only about two-thirds of what men make for similar work and professional women still bump their heads on the glass ceiling. We women want freedom and empowerment and Paul’s use of the word “submit” makes us bristle as we think of cringing, passivity, surrender, buckling under, and servility. We’ve come too far for that!
Paul’s words regarding submission, however, deserve more than a quick dismissal as being outdated or politically incorrect. We submit to people all the time. We yield at intersections, we move to the side so someone can pass on the sidewalk, or we hold a door. Submission is part of living in a community. We submit to one another because we’re in this crazy world together and surviving it takes a cooperative effort. Why then is it so hard to admit that I submit to my husband—the man I’ve loved and cherished for nearly 49 years? In actuality, I submit to him regularly out of respect, affection, or persuasion (I just don’t use the word “submit”). In those situations where I am correct (not nearly as often as I wish), he, in turn, defers (or submits) to me. While we recognize one another’s rights, we also recognize our obligation to serve one another.
When we, as Christians, bear one another’s burdens, we are submitting. When we don’t dominate, we are submitting. When we are humble, we submit. When we respond to one another’s needs, we submit. Submission is a sign of strength, not weakness, and it neither elevates one person above the other nor does it cancel their equality. Submission, unlike obedience, is not a response to rules but a response to reason. Obedience is imposed but submission is freely given. Obedience doesn’t require a relationship; submission does. Submission is what happens when there is a collaborative effort and any relationship worth having takes a collaborative effort.
How, after reading Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13, I could ever think of him as a misogynist is beyond me. The unmarried Paul probably didn’t know a lot about eros love, the kind we read about in Solomon’s Song of Songs, but he sure knew a great deal about agape love: selfless, sacrificial, and unconditional love. While sensual love between husband and wife is part of a healthy marriage, it is not the kind of love that holds a couple together for decades, for better and worse, in sickness and health. That is agape love—the kind of love that, among other things, requires submission.