S is for "Submission"

This blog post is part of a broader discussion initiated by Rachel Held Evans: "One in Christ - A Week in Mutuality." You can follow the discussion on her blog or on Twitter - #mutuality2012.

Several years ago I had a really good idea while preparing to officiate a wedding for a first time. I had the couple to pick a bible verse for the ceremony - one that would set the theme/focus for my meditation and the service overall. Nothing profound, I know, but it seemed like a good way to make the service personal and theological.

Of the all the great choices available (1 Cor. 13 and Col. 3:12-14 are two of my favorites), this is what they picked - Eph. 5:21-25:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
Submit, submit, submit. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, I thought...

Now, being a culturally astute theology grad student at the time (i.e. one who thinks they know everything, but really doesn’t!), I knew the word “submit” was loaded. For many, submission is all about power - who’s got it (usually the man) and who needs to respect it (usually the woman). The short and profound command of the first verse (describing mutual submission) gets overwhelmed by the rest of the text. Husbands get to love, while wives are supposed to submit. It's unfair! In good conscience I could not preach this message. What was I to do?

To say I was nervous is an understatement.

But then I realized “submit” is only a bad word in bad marriages. I once read that “marriage in our society has become a commodity.” If we grow tired of our partner, we simply trade up “for a newer and sleeker model.” From this standpoint, it’s no wonder submission is disliked!

Back then it was still safe to quote Rob Bell in public, and his words helped guide my thoughts. I shared them with the couple that day:
So the husband is commanded to lay down his life for his wife, and the wife is commanded to submit to her husband, but they’re both commanded to submit to each other because everyone is commanded to submit to everyone else, and all of this out of 'reverence for Christ.' (Sex God)
Sadly, in our world of power struggles and selfishness, we immediately want to know, “Who’s in charge? Who’s gonna make the decisions? Who has the final say? Who’s in control?”

My answer: yes!

In marriage, submission means both partners belong to the other person. Love, not power, determines the nature of the relationship. And facing all the decisions and situations of married life (career, children, place, faith), we need the reminder that God’s design for marriage is about sacrificing for the other. Submission is mutual.

Which is why I was glad (and relieved!) the couple actually picked a second verse for their ceremony (I didn’t tell them to do this!):
“I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3)
What began with my fear and trembling over the dreaded S-word - “submission” - turned into joyous celebration of covenant love as I led this couple in their vows of submission and belonging to one another.

In marriage, couples belong to one another. The love they profess reflects the unconditional of love of God through Christ. This love isn’t based on the ability to muster enough good feelings. Or on how many times one says “I love you.” Or how many conflicts are resolved using newly found “active listening skills.” No, covenant love isn’t a formula for success - marriage is far from formulaic! But simply and beautifully, covenant love offers something profound and binding for every situation: “I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine.”

For consideration:
  • How do you understand parts of the bible like Eph. 5:21-25?
  • How can we regain a healthy emphasis on submission and sacrifice?
  • If you're married, how does mutual submission work itself out in your marriage?


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