Adj. Pertaining to complementarianism and egalitarianism.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Biblical submission

I want to try to move the debate over biblical submission forward by observing what the Bible actually says and does not say about submission. I enjoy inductive Bible study and I hope that this post will come across as a humble set of observations about what the Bible teaches on submission. Where I have observed incorrectly, please correct me. Much of this post will be a repeat of things I have said in earlier posts and comments and I apologize for being repetitious, but perhaps you can forgive an aging man who repeats himself.

First the words "submit", "submission", and "be subject to" do not appear in the Bible. Whoa! At this point many of you could think, "Has this blogger gone completely unorthodox and now is even rejecting what the Bible clearly says?!"

The answer is "No." My point is simply this: the Bible was not originally written in English. The words "submit", "submission", and "be subject to" are not in the biblical language manuscripts of the Bible. The biblical word translated as "submit" and "be subject to" is Greek hupotasso. The English word "submit" is probably about as close as we can come to an accurate translation of that Greek word, but we always need to remind ourselves that we must get our understanding of that Greek word from the Bible itself, as well as from extra-biblical documents in which the word appears, not from our understanding of the English word "submit" as it is found in English dictionaries or commonly used. It is entirely possible, and I suggest it is sometimes true, that we include some manmade (unbiblical) meanings in the concept of submission when we teach about it or discuss it.

So let's look at what the Bible does not say is biblical submission, as well as what it actually does teach as being biblical submission.

The Bible does not teach that submission is obedience. The authors of the Bible, inspired by the Holy Spirit, use different words for submission (hupotasso) and obedience (hupakouo). The Bible teaches that we are to obey God (Lev. 26:3; Deut. 13:4; Rom. 15:18; 16:26). The Bible teaches that children are to obey their parents (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20). The Bible teaches that slaves are to obey their masters (Eph. 6:5). The Bible never says that wives are to obey their husbands. A wife who obeys her husband is not necessarily being unspiritual, but she is not being biblical, if we understand "biblical" to refer to what the Bible actually teaches.

I realize that many people believe that the Bible teaches that women are to obey their husbands, but they are mistaken, just as I have been. My wife included in her wedding vow to me that she would obey me. Today I feel shame that we followed the traditional wedding vow
and included obedience in my wife's marriage vow to me. At the time I thought it was biblical for a wife ultimately to obey her husband, although I did not view myself as the boss of my wife. And my wife did not object to that part of the vow. I thought that a husband had the "final word" about decisions made within a marriage, a concept which I have learned never occurs in the Bible. Since we were married, nearly 35 years ago, we have continued to study the Bible and have come to discover more of what it actually teaches and what it does not teach. Again, as a reminder, the Bible teaches that a wife is to submit to her husband; it does not teach that she is to obey him. The biblical language words for "submit" and "obey" are different. I assume that there is an important truth here. I do not understand it all, but from what I have observed so far in biblical usage of the terms for "submit" and "obey", obedience is something done by someone who is a subordinate to the one being obeyed, while submission is something a person does to an equal. I hold this observation lightly and humbly because it may be that I have missed something in the Bible which is counter to this summary of my observations. Please do correct me, with specific biblical teaching, if my observations are incorrect.

The Bible teaches that we are to submit to God (Heb. 12:9; James 4:7). Christians are to submit to each other (Eph. 5:21). A wife is to submit to her husband (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1). Young men in the church are to submit to older men in the church (I Peter 5:5). We are to submit to governmental institutions (1 Peter 2:13). Egalitarians understand the teaching on mutual submission to apply to husbands to their wives. Complementarians, on the whole, disagree with this understanding, and believe that only a wife is to submit to her husband, not a husband to his wife.

The Bible does not teach that a women is to be led by her husband. The Bible never calls a husband a leader or shepherd of his wife or of his family or home. The Bible does teach that church elders are leaders of their church. And there are other leadership relationships which are taught in the Bible but that of a husband to his wife is not one of them.

The Bible does not teach that a husband has authority over his wife. There are authority relationships taught in the Bible but marriage is not one of them. The Bible teaches that governmental institutions have authority over us (1 Peter 2:13, 14). Yet the Bible also teaches that when human institutions require us to do something which is against God's teachings, we must obey God rather than other humans (Act 5:29). As far as I can tell, an authority relationship is one in which, for that particular role, one person is subordinate to the other, as in the case of an employee to an employer. Also, I cannot think of any place in the Bible which teaches mutual authority. I think that authority is always a unilateral relationship. This does not mean that two people cannot have different authority relationships depending on what their different roles are at different times. For instance, a Bible college professor is under the authority of the elders of his church, but if one of those elders is a student of that professor, that elder is under the authority of the professor while they have the student-teacher roles.

The Bible does not teach that a wife is to be disciplined by her husband. Most of you probably wonder why I would even mention this since it is never mentioned by mainstream conservative complementarians or egalitarians when they attempt to teach biblically about submission. But I must mention this because some people believe that a husband has the authority to discipline his wife. I have heard of some husbands who spank their wives to discipline them just as they spank their children. But there is no part of the Bible which supports a husband disciplining his wife.

A marriage is a relationship between two people who are equals in God's eyes (Gal. 3:28). Complementarians and egalitarians agree about this. "Generous" or "soft" complementarians as well as egalitarians believe that biblical teaching about mutual submission applies within a marriage as well as within other relationships within the Body of Christ. However, many others, perhaps most, complementarians believe that biblical teaching about mutual submission within the Body of Christ does not apply to marriage. They believe that since the Bible does not explicitly tell a husband to submit to his wife, but it does tell a wife to submit to her husband, that that silence about a husband's submission negates the teaching about mutual submission within the Body of Christ applying within marriage. Dr. Grudem's teaching about the "myth" of mutual submission within marriage is shared by many, probably most, well known complementarian Bible teachers. It is not an extreme position of complementarian teaching. (BTW, I believe that Dr. Grudem errs in his understanding of the Greek of Eph. 5:21 in narrowing the meaning of submission from "one another" to submission of "some" to others.)

So, what is biblical submission? And, biblically, who is to submit to whom?

Fortunately, teaching about submission occurs fairly frequently in the Bible and there is little disagreement about the meaning of the passages which teach biblical submission. Disagreement arises when we try to relate marriage to what the Bible teaches about submission.

In my next post I will review what the Bible teaches about submission.