November 14, 2017
18 Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
Submission. It’s a word we love to hate. It evokes images of a mixed martial arts cage fight. Submission must be the worst possible way to lose. It happens when one fighter is held down so oppressively and inescapably by another fighter they “tap out,” which means they tap on the mat with their hand to signify their submission and the referee stops the fight. I think I would rather be knocked out than forced to submit like this.
Is it any wonder so many women have an almost allergic reaction to texts like today’s: Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Submission carries connotations of being overpowered and dominated. Wives, allow yourselves to be overpowered and dominated by your husbands—just tap out. Surely this can’t be what Paul means.
Here’s my theory on the case. Paul is proposing a very radical thing here. In the old framework, under the curse going all the way back to Eden, wives would have had no choice but to be subject to their husbands. “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Genesis 3:16b You will remember a few verses back in 3:11 where Paul said, “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” He might as easily have added here the same pairing he inserted as he expressed this point to the Galatians: “neither male nor female.”
The New Creation is “in Christ,” and it is now. Everything has changed. Husbands no longer rule over wives. Submission, as imagined by the curse, is out. Submission, as imagined by the Gospel, is in. Hear Paul again, and particularly the six word addendum at the end: “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.”
In the New Creation, wives do not live under the curse of being ruled by their husbands. Paul is asking them to step outside the old power paradigm and into the ethos of the Kingdom of God. In this all too rarified realm, submission means voluntary surrender, not to one’s husband, but to Jesus; not giving up one’s rights, but laying them down in preference for others. In short, submission means “having the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus,” and all that this entails.
To be clear, it would never be “fitting in the Lord” for a wife to submit to a husband who seeks to rule over her, violate her sense of personhood or act in any way that might remotely resemble abuse.
Paul is actually saying something very radical here. Submission to one’s husband is now the prerogative, the free choice of the wife, taking submission out of the structures of power and into the realm of holy love. I am sure I will ruffle some feathers with this, but why do we set our sights on equal rights? Isn’t that far too low a bar for God’s people. We are following the one “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, . .” (See Philippians 2). Submission presupposes no obligation; only freedom.
19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. It’s another way of saying, “Husbands, you are not the ruler of your wives. You are not their Lord. In fact, in the New Creation, everything is reversed. You are just the opposite—their humble servant. You are not surrendering some of your power to them so they can be somehow equal to you. No, you are surrendering all of your power to Jesus alone, who will empower you by the Holy Spirit to become the servant of your wife. After all, he refers to his people, the Church, as his bride.
The Kingdom comes in response to radical surrender to Jesus, “in Heaven,” which is manifest through radical submission to each other, “on Earth.” Remember how the chapter began, “Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Colossians 3:1.
We must take care not to baptize our American idealism with Christian theology. While the latter has certainly informed the former, they are decisively different visions. We don’t need better ideas, ideals and ideologies. We need better theology.
Abba Father, we thank you for your son, Jesus, who far from an ideal is the Word of God made human flesh. Forgive us for the ways we want to press him into the service of our ideals and ideologies. Come Holy Spirit and lift my heart and mind and eyes to the heavenly vision of the very real Kingdom of God. I’m ready to renounce every other vision. We pray in Jesus name. Amen.
- How does this challenge your views of what submission means?
- How do you understand the whole concept of one’s rights and how they should be exercised in light of the Cross of Jesus Christ?
- What is it about you that causes you to resist humbling yourself as a woman? as a man? as a wife (if you are married)? as a husband? What are you afraid of?
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J.D. Walt, is a Bond Slave of the Lord Jesus Christ. firstname.lastname@example.org.