Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. [Ephesians 5:22 (NIV)]
I’m not quite ready to put to rest Paul’s use of the word “submit.” With one in three women having experienced some form of domestic violence, the word “submit” makes us bristle as we think of passivity in the face of abuse. Throughout the ages, women have been mistreated, exploited, demeaned, and discounted. We’ve had the vote for just 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 80% of what men make and professional women still bump their heads on the glass ceiling. Wanting independence and empowerment, submitting sounds too much like surrendering whatever power we have, buckling under to unfairness, and servitude.
Paul’s words regarding submission, however, deserve more than a quick dismissal as being outdated or politically incorrect. In actuality, we voluntarily submit to people all the time simply because submission is a vital part of living in a community. We yield at intersections, move to the side so someone can pass, hold a door, wait our turn in line, yield the floor so someone else can speak, remain silent during a concert, or let the kids pick the night’s movie. We submit to one another because we’re in this crazy world together and surviving it takes a cooperative effort.
Submission isn’t the same as obedience. Obedience responds to rules and is imposed but submission responds to reason and is freely given. Obedience doesn’t require a relationship; submission does. 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. It doesn’t elevate one person above the other or cancel their equality. Moreover, it has nothing to do with allowing abuse of any kind.
Submission is what happens when there is a collaborative effort and any relationship worth having is worth making that kind of effort. I regularly submit to my husband out of respect, affection, or persuasion (but I usually don’t call it submitting). In the same way, he often defers (or submits) to me. That’s how we’ve lasted 53 years! While we recognize one another’s rights, we also recognize our obligation to put aside our own personal agenda to serve one another.