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Biblical Submission: What it Is and What it Isn’t (Part 1)

By: Kristen Clark

I looked into his handsome brown eyes and repeated two little words that would change my life forever. “I do.” From that moment on, I officially became Mrs. Zachary Clark. Not only did I walk away with a new name that day, but I also walked away with a new title and role. I was now a wife.

As someone who grew up in the church, I was familiar with Biblical phrases like “the husband’s role” or “the wife’s role,” so these weren’t new concepts to me. My parents modeled a healthy and beautiful marriage my entire life, so I never had a problem with  these biblical “titles.”

However, once I got married myself, something weird happened.

Being a self-proclaimed “strong woman” and “Type A” leader, I suddenly found myself recoiling at verses that didn’t phase me before. Ephesians 5:22 for example (which calls wives to submit to their husband) sounded more like an identity threat than a blessing and gift.

In my heart, I knew that God was a good Father, but I couldn’t wrap my head around the “beauty” of submission. It seemed far more oppressive than liberating. Besides, why should my husband get the leadership role and not me? I’m the type A in the marriage. Shouldn’t I be in charge?

Deep in my heart, I knew God’s plans and ways were good, I just didn’t understand them.

Instead of writing God’s Word off as irrelevant and outdated, I needed to study more. I needed to learn God’s intentions and purposes behind the seemingly dreadful “s” word.

As I studied God’s Word more deeply, I began to see the bigger picture. From Genesis to Proverbs, from Ephesians to 1 Peter — I saw that God wasn’t calling me to be a brainless wife by embracing His design. He wasn’t calling me to leave behind my personality or strengths in order to fulfill my role either. In fact, the opposite was true.

I saw that God’s Word placed an equal value on men and women, and regularly highlighted the lives of strong, beautiful, and humble women (Esther, Mary, Ruth, etc). Throughout the Bible, I saw that God clearly loved and valued women. I saw that God is for women, not against them.

This was huge.

As I looked into Genesis 1 and 2, I saw that God loved the first woman so much that He placed her under the tender, loving, strong, and protective care of her husband (Genesis 2:18-23). In the perfect garden of Eden (prior to sin), unpolluted by sin, Adam loved and led his wife perfectly and Eve responded to his leadership with delight and joy.

This was marriage as God intended — beautiful, functional, selfless, and overflowing with joy. This was God’s good plan for masculinity and femininity.

As I studied the perfect marriage of Adam and Eve in the garden, I realized that in order to understand and appreciate God’s design for “marriage roles,” I needed to first back up and learn why God created marriage in the first place. Marriage roles will always seem strange and unfair when they’re out of context.

As I journeyed further in my Bible study on this topic, I came across Ephesians 5 which shed some light on why God created marriage in the first place.

‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”

In a nutshell, here’s what Ephesians 5 taught me about marriage:

God created marriage to be between one man and one woman as an earthly representation of Christ’s relationship with His Bride (the Church). The husband’s role in the marriage is to reflect Christ, and the wife’s role is to reflect the Church.

Just like Christ lovingly led, served, and sacrificed for his Church, so husbands are called to do the same for their wives. And just like the Church is called to trust, receive, and follow Christ, so wives are called to do the same towards their husbands.

God created marriage to be the stage in which His magnificent story of love, sacrifice, and redemption is played out for all to see.

Marriage roles aren’t actually about us, but about us displaying the gospel of Jesus Christ. Like actors on a stage who tell a story, our roles within marriage tell a story too.

In our new book, Love Defined (available for pre-order here), I say it this way,  “Understanding marriage through a gospel lens is essential for us as Christian women. When a man and a woman live out their unique gender roles within the marriage covenant, they put the glory of the gospel on display as God intended.”

With that divine reality as the backdrop, I was able to read the rest of Ephesians with an open heart…

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (Ephesians 5:22-24).

There it was. The “s” word.

It still didn’t sound inviting to me…but I genuinely wanted to learn what it meant and why God designed it. As I studied further, I learned some liberating truths. I learned that I could keep my personality intact (and my brains) while still embracing God’s design for marriage. I discovered that having the correct understanding of what biblical submission is (as God intended) was key.

If you’re in a place right now like I was where you don’t like the word submission, it’s probably because you don’t have all the pieces in place. The reason I didn’t like the concept was that I didn’t fully understand it. But the more I understand God’s heart and design for wives, the more I see how much He loves women and created marriage roles for our own protection and good.

God loves you and is for you.

Stick with me! We’re going to dive into what biblical submission actually looks like in Part 2 of this post.

There’s still a lot to unpack. In Part 2, we’ll break down exactly what submission is, as well as debunk a few popular lies surrounding biblical submission (i.e. there is no room for abuse in God’s design for biblical submission). Come back on Monday for Part 2.

For now, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comment section below!

  • Thinking back on your life and personal experiences, what has had the most influence in shaping your current view of submission?
  •  In what ways does your personal view on submission need to be realigned with God’s truth?

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Husband and wife

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  • I’m not married. I’ve never struggled with the idea of having to submit (as the church does to Christ) to my husband one day when I do get married. I can’t wait to serve him with love and tenderness, but I’m also not a Type A personality. I love helping people with projects, but leading them isn’t my strong suit. Thanks for this study in biblical submission – always great to keep this topic fresh in our minds.

  • Heather

    Thank you for a great article, Kristen! The timing of it is perfect as I’m currently reading Girl Defined and the last couple of chapters I read were about Genesis 2 and the Pillars of Biblical Womanhood (which really helped me! I hadn’t thought of things that way before, so thank you for that too), so this article has perfectly complemented that reading at the perfect time.

  • Dana

    But Adam and Eve’s marriage was clearly NOT perfect, as the story of the Garden of Eden demonstrates. Adam must have done a terrible job of “leading” his wife if she not only disobeyed him with such ease, but also convinced him to eat from the tree with no trouble. If husbands are designed as natural leaders, why did Adam fail so easily? Also I feel like I have to point out that if Esther had submitted and allowed herself to be lead by her husband and his wishes, her people would have been slaughtered. She had to go behind his back and persuade him against his previous decision to save her people, it’s the point of the whole story. Also you say God designed marriage to be between one man and one woman, yet he had no problem with Jacob having multiple wives and concubines? The old testament doesn’t explicitly forbid polygamy. And if your counterargument to that is that the old testament’s rules no longer count or are amended by the new testament, well that just raises a whole other host of questions. If the bible is God’s written word, why would one half contradict the other? Did he simply change his mind? if he’s omniscient than why wouldn’t his moral code remain consistent through time? There’s also the fact that if I recall correctly you both have drawn from the old testament to support your arguments in different articles, so clearly you agree that it has at least some relevance. I don’t mean to put you on the defensive or anything, I’m just genuinely confused by this article.

    • Caroline Oliveira

      Dana, I understand your questions, I’ve had many of them too. In the first place, Adam was not a good husband because he disobeyed God. But that does not mean that God did not qualify him to be a leader, for before Adam was created, Adam was already responsible for taking care of the whole garden. Although it was Eve who made the decision to eat the fruit, God took from Adam the responsibility for Eden (Genesis 3: 9). About Esther: A man’s leadership does not nullify a woman’s decision-making power! Esther knew that the last word was from the King, and wisely devised strategies to access it and convince it to save the Hebrews, it is not about manipulation. On polygamy: In the historical context in which the bible was written, society organized itself in this way, it does not mean that God created or was in favor of polygamy. In the very book of Genesis we have the reference to a monogamous marriage as a principle established by God. And yes, the bible is the word of God, but we have to understand that not all the people pictured therein lived according to the principles that He has established. The New Testament deals with the coming of Jesus the Earth, which represents the restoration of God’s will for humanity, the reestablishment of divine principles. God did not change his mind, but by the Grace of Jesus.
      Kristen and Bethany I love your ministry! It takes a lot of courage to defend biblical principles in this distorted society. Congratulations on your commitment, God bless you.

    • Jason Garrick Shirtz

      @disqus_6017JkFFoO:disqus

      “A man’s leadership does not nullify a woman’s decision-making power!”

      ummm….. Isn’t the very point of “wives submit to your husbands” as a biblical reference, to imply that when a woman’s decision-making power is in conflict with her husband’s leadership; that she should give up her “decision-making power” and defer to her husbands judgement??

      If you go back and read through the archives a bit, you’ll find plenty of examples of Kristen advocating the idea that women need to submit to their husbands “godly leadership” by giving up bits of their personal independence.

      For example in the article “Why being an Independent woman isn’t always good” Kristin talks about how during one argument with her husband, she was emotionally compromised and didn’t want to continue the discussion at that point, and implies that her desire to have a break in the conversation, and to continue it at a moment when she was more emotionally prepared to deal with the issue was some form of sinful rebellion against her husband’s authority.

      As far as the Polygamy argument…. God doesn’t actually say much for or against Monogamy, any more than he has said for, or against Polygamy in the old or New Testament. Directly at least.

      That being said, Abraham, the father of the 12 tribes of Israel conceived the tribes by means of multiple wives, and through the handmaidens of said multiple wives.

      Given that Abraham was a prophet, and a major one at that, who did on multiple occasions at very least receive revelation from the Lord according to the biblical account, one would imagine that if God were not at least neutral, or willing to tolerate Polygamy he would have brought it up to him at some point in that segment of the Old Testament.

      • Caroline Oliveira

        Esther could have settled for the king’s decision, but she knew she could do something for her people. She could have entered into conflict with the King to defend the people, but respected the authority that God established to him. That is why Esther brought the situation before God, asking Mordecai and the people to fast. In this way the people were saved. This is an attitude of a wise wife: assess the situation. If the husband is wrong, take it before God, avoiding conflicts within the marriage. God is in charge of moving the heart of the husband. This is how I understand submission. You mentioned Kristen’s text, I imagine she also prayed for the situation in question within her marriage.
        With regard to polygamy, I will study more about it.

        • Dana

          Well, God didn’t change the king’s mind in that story, Esther did. Esther may have prayed to God, but it was her words that changed the king’s mind and actions.

          • Shanae B

            God worked through what Esther did and said. That’s why the king listened to her!

          • Caroline

            This! I agree with you.

          • Dana

            What do you mean God “worked through” what Esther did and said? It was Esther’s decision to speak and to act. And it was her words and actions that swayed the king. Either God changed his mind or Esther did, and if God did then that negates the king’s free will.

          • Shanae B

            If you actually read the whole bible you can find multiple situations where it literally says God hardened or softened someone’s heart. Pharaoh in Egypt, King Saul, and Saul who became Paul in the New Testament to name a few. Easter’s husband wasn’t a godly man. God puts or allows things in and around all our lives to cause us to lean towards certain decisions sometimes. We still make the decisions, yet God will work out His ultimate plans regardless.

          • Livia

            So God doesn’t care about free will, then. Also strange that God would harden the Pharaoh’s heart against a goal that God supposedly supported. Why did he want to prolong the suffering of the Jewish people on top of causing extra suffering to the entire Egyptian people (innocent children included)?

          • Shanae B

            God very much so cares about free will, otherwise we wouldn’t have it. God could have (and still can if He wanted to) remove free will, yet hasn’t. That in no way what so ever doesn’t mean He won’t divinely intervine in situations, or allow people to live out in their own plans or sins for a time before He carries something through Himself.

          • Livia

            It’s one thing to intervene via external forces, it’s another to directly change and meddle with thoughts and emotions (i.e the Pharoah), what is free will if not our control over our own thoughts and feelings?

        • Dana

          And furthermore, if God can change the heart so easily, doesn’t that negate free will?

        • Jason Garrick Shirtz

          You could argue that Esther was following “the greater law”, similar to an ox in the mire situation, or similar to how King David was allowed to eat bread consecrated for priests in that situation.

          Honestly, while it’s not my personal cup of tea, I’d argue that if you do want to live biblical submission to your husband, that keeping in mind that the bible makes provisions for the “greater law” to override lesser laws would be an excellent idea while so doing.

          I Would not be surprised one bit if Kristen made a reference to the idea in the part two of this article.

      • theburritohasmyheart

        I am so glad to see that women aren’t the only Christians who see things about ‘submission’ and ‘giving up your independence’ as demeaning and incorrect. Thank you!!

    • Amy Flowers

      The people God mentions in the Old Testament are not perfect; we are supposed to learn from their mistakes and grow as Christians. God’s morals remain the same throughout all time, “[he] is the beginning and the ending”, and God is not bound by the limits of time. I also have to mention that we don’t know everything there is to know about God. We are just simplistic humans on earth; we are only the creator’s creations. So when we ask hard questions about an infinite and all powerful, and all knowing God, there is a chance that God may not give us the answer that we are hoping for. But God asks us to trust him and have faith in him, and as we read the Bible, become better, more sanctified Christians, and our relationship with God grows, trusting in God and in his word will get easier. Whenever you decided to get married, if that is God’s calling for your life, you should look to model your marriage after Jesus and the church. The Bible does not contradict itself, and it is important to remember that when Jesus came and died for our sins, he changed EVERYTHING. So then when you read the New Testament, you have to remember that God is telling us how to live now that our sins have been forgiven, we have become christians, and we are able to be in a relationship with him. Jesus, the husband in this analogy, did lead perfectly and selflessly, so as you and your spouse keep your eyes on Jesus Christ and continue to study and implement God’s word, you will be able to better maintain a healthy marriage. Lastly, the husband and the wife are a team, one person isn’t any better or more important than the other. When you find a partner that loves God, respects you, and is willing to listen to you and values your opinion, you won’t feel powerLESS by submitting to him, you both will become powerFUL in Christ Jesus. I hope this helps your confusion! God bless!

  • Shanae B

    Thank you for posting on this topic! I actually first heard the word submission from the Bible as a small child, so I never really had an issue with it. I’m still single yet have had a lot of negative onslaught from girls and women over the years because I don’t have a non biblical view of it. Looking forward to to part 2! 🙂

  • Agnes

    Thank you very much for sharing what you’ve learned. Submission is something a little difficult to understand for me. I don’t want to disobey God but I wouldn’t like to stop being who I am. I studied at college and bought my car on my own when I was really young (in my country Argentina this is not so easy to achieve especially for a woman) when I got married my husband asked me to sell my car!!! It was so difficult for me because it represented my achievements and independence. Finally I did it I sold it but I still at night dream that I look for it and don’t find it anywhere. When I wake up I do it with a feeling of loosing independence. I work on my own too. At the beginning I didn’t want to be in charge of cooking or cleaning. No way!!! We share these chores. Some people look at me as if I were an alien because I don’t iron my husband’s clothes or do the laundry for him. But we agreed on that. I don’t know if it’s ok. I don’t want to be just a housewife. I’m LOOKING FORWARD for the second part of this topic because I don’t want to disobey God and I’d like to learn more about HIS will

  • Casey Halbert

    Thank you for this post, Kristen! I used to really struggle with the concept of biblical submission since I was raised by two strong women (my mother and grandmother), and that was never something that I saw modeled for me. I guess I never grasped the fullness of submission until I reached my twenties about three years ago, and became serious about my walk with God. Then I was able to understand the right context for submission, and what it truly means.

    I guess my personal view needs to realign with God’s word when it comes to understanding and nailing down what exactly submission looks like in a marriage. I understand the concept and I admire that concept now, but I guess I just need to dig deeper in God’s Word for His view and His right design for it.

  • God’s Child

    In my opinion- submission is equally required for both men & women – not an excuse to abuse one another or walk on someone — but each putting their own needs above their own .. coupled with God – is the exact representation of how Jesus cares for us —we rely on each other for strength & in turn show Gods love to one another

  • Esther L

    Could you please do a post with date ideas?

  • mrsdaniels923

    Thank you so much for doing these posts! I’ve been married about six months and really struggling with the “s” word. Can’t wait to read part 2.

  • Zoe

    I want to die


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