Writer Amy Jo Stimson explains why she thinks the discourse around the word submission, particularly in conservative, complementarian churches, needs to be challenged. As she has heard preaching of submission for wives that thinly veils an exhortation to plain obedience.
In commemorating a couple milestone recently, I bowed my head as he prayed over us and the food, asking for the Lord’s ongoing blessing, guidance in our relationship and continued submission to his wisdom. I was ever so slightly distracted by the stray thought that this was the first time I’d heard the “s-word” without cringing.
I grew up in a lovely church and family. It was an environment in which the “wives submit” passage of Ephesians 5 was handled with respect for the Bible and for women, as well as kindness – enough that even a budding feminist firebrand like myself was never incited to rage against God or men in protest. The women around me, including my mother, held to a teaching of complementarianism that also held the belief that though different, men and women were equally valuable. To my knowledge (and the keen observation of a curious singleton anxious to know everything about relationships in preparation for her own if it materialised), all their marriages were mutually Christlike, respectful, kind, and equally self-sacrificing and affirming. In addition to that, neither these women, nor the church, skipped the contextualising verse 21, which advocates for submission of all believers “to one another”. The instructions “husbands, love” and “wives, submit” and might occasionally cause discomfort when badly handled, but submission was never then a dirty word to me.
A recent rash of Netflix documentary series demonstrates how teachings on submission can be the focaliser for cultish deviations from scripture.
Several years, churches, teachings, and preaching styles later, I now have the opinion that the discourse around the word submission, particularly in conservative, complementarian churches, needs to be challenged. Even without entering into the debate of complementarianism versus egalitarianism, such a loaded term deserves careful consideration nevertheless. A recent rash of Netflix documentary series demonstrates how teachings on submission can be the focaliser for cultish deviations from scripture, and which result in appalling subjugation of women. Cults aside, I have seen for myself in otherwise great churches, the preaching of submission for wives thinly veiling an exhortation to plain obedience. I have similarly accrued a blacklist of well-meaning books on female identity that appear to advocate for the “bring him his slippers and make sure his food is hot when he gets home” style of relationship. Or worse still: that the wife owes her husband sex, because if he wanted companionship only, he’d have a golden retriever.
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Such people believe that it is man’s to dominate and define marriages – euphemistically termed “leading” as opposed to a woman’s “submitting”. The husbands’ injunction from Ephesians 5, to love his wife, does not seem to apply to allowing her her own ambition, career, intelligent engagement with the Bible. Nor yet does it require him to be her cheerleader, considerate of her needs (emotional, sexual, professional, etc.) or even to love self-sacrificially (which must surely incorporate all the above).
What we cannot ignore anymore is this casual misogyny in churches claiming to be Christlike. If a wife’s role is merely to be obedient, she lacks the distinction and glory of an embodied soul, made in the image of a God who did not create us to be automatons, nor defined by man (either the biological category, or humankind at all). To be Christlike in relationship, and indeed in life, is to value and esteem women for what they are: image-bearing creations who, in being distinct from men, bear witness to God’s character in a way that is different from men, and no less valuable for that.
What we cannot ignore anymore is this casual misogyny in churches claiming to be Christlike.
Moreover, the Lord himself noticed, cared for and valued women. Their emotional needs were important to him, as shown in his interaction with the women at his tomb and at the grave of Lazarus. He understood the pride they took in their work (Martha), and their capacity for spiritual enlightenment (Mary), and never disparaged either. Women were instructors in the faith (Timothy’s mother and grandmother), funding the work of missions (Lydia), instrumental in the spread of the gospel (Mary, Mary Magdalene, Priscilla, Junia). There is a whole chapter in Proverbs, dedicated elegiacally to the varied and important functions women could occupy and is not meant to be read as a checklist for the ideal woman, as many churches do.
Women are not meant to be dominated, neither by default of their physiology nor by design of a loving Creator. In the words of Keith Gregoire, “[refusing] to see the objectification of women and male sexuality as the same thing” means “realising that by teaching that women are in any way less than men, we are training men to see women as objects for their use rather than equal partners working together for God’s kingdom”. And such a redeemed view on women, despite naysayers, is possible in a Bible-believing culture, without compromising one’s Christianity.