cheapening submission

‘the buck stops with him’

‘he makes the call’

‘he takes responsibility’

Sometimes headship and submission get reduced down to a trump-card: the husband wins any argument.

Headship sometimes involves tie-breaking authority. I would say maybe more than sometimes—it’s rarely—involves tie-breaking authority. But it does. In a marriage, you only have two votes; so the occasions do arise when there’s like an impasse, “Yes; no.” Okay, how do you break the stalemate? It can only be broken if one party has the authority to overrule; but there can’t be a misuse of that so that it’s done so that, “I can get my way.” The only time that a husband can use his authority to overrule is with knowing he has the responsibility and the accountability to God to only be doing it in order to serve and to take care of his wife and his family. Tim Keller

Now I haven’t resolved my thinking on headship and submission in marriage. But since submission  is a virtue for all Christians (as is sacrificial love), women and men, I feel pretty comfortable saying it’s something wives should care about, regardless of whether their marriages are complimentarian or egalitarian (see who cares what paul meant there, I’ll submit anyway).

But submission isn’t particularly inspiring. It’s normally defined in terms of what not to do. It sounds so passive. I’ve wondered, what do I actually do while I’m waiting around for this marriage stalemate to arrive? Then if it does, apparently I just roll over, and that’s it. Really? So while my husband is busy being a ‘head’ my contribution to our marriage is merely not to get in his way. Hardly something to get excited about.

I suspect we women (and men too actually) have been short-changed on submission.

I want to restore submission – making yourself low – to the high calling that it is.

Firstly, when submission is defined in terms of  ‘tie-breaking’, ‘over-ruling’ or who takes the blame we’re conceiving of marriage as essentially a power-struggle, a competition between spouses rather than collaboration. This is deeply problematic. It assumes division within the ‘one flesh’ that God has made. Yes we are sinful and do argue, but installing the office of ‘tie-breaker’ in marriage assumes that disunity and use of force are good and normal in the relationship. When we talk about marriage this way, assuming a power-struggle, I worry we’ve already lost the plot!

Secondly, the idea that submission means letting the husband make the final tie-breaking call on big decisions or that ‘the buck stops with him’ simply isn’t supported by Biblical evidence as far as I can see (reading it into the ‘head’ metaphor goes beyond the text). Where does it come from? Who knows.

Thirdly, reducing submission to a tie-breaking trump card strips submission of its relational value and turns it into a transaction, a contract. The relationship is reduced to a set of obligations, like a job description for an employer/employee relationship, where a wife has certain duties to the husband, but they’re a function of her position as wife, not of her relationship to her husband. It cheapens submission.

Most complimentarians say that submission is something the wife gives voluntarily, rather than something a husband can demand. Yet by then going on to define submission in definite terms such as the buck stopper or the tie-breaker, women are effectively told how they are to submit (and normally by a man). This robs her of her ability to freely and creatively submit to her husband, expressing her submission in ways which are rich, meaningful, even exciting, for her and her husband.

The irony is, that in these passages in Ephesians and Colossians, Paul is making a radical move of addressing women as moral agents. Yoder explains it in The Politics of Jesus.

The admonition of the Haustafeln is addressed first to the subject: to the slave before the master, to the children before the parents, to the wives before the husbands. Here begins the revolutionary innovation in the early Christian style of ethical thinking…The subordinate person in the social order is addressed as a moral agent. She is called upon to take responsibility for the acceptance of her position in society as meaningful before God. It is not assumed, as it was in both Jewish and Hellenistic thought, that the wife will have the faith of her husband, or that the slave will be part of the religious unity of the master’s household. Here we have a faith that assigns personal moral responsibility to those who had no legal or moral status in their culture, and makes them decision makers. It gives them responsibility for viewing their status in society not as a simple meaningless decree of fate but as their own meaningful witness and ministry, as an issue about which they can make a moral choice. 

When submission is reduced to ‘tie-breaker’, women are stripped of the full revolutionary agency Paul attributes to them. They are no longer allowed to work out in relationship with their husband how they will best submit, how they can best honour and serve him. They are told ‘submission is x’.

The thing is, however, it’s much simpler to resolve to be the loser in any argument, thus ‘fulfilling’ your ‘submissive’ obligations, without actually honouring your husband. It’s something you can tick off. You could let the man make the big decisions while continually manipulating, undermining and dismissing him (see Why you should stop treating your husband like a toddler and actually respect him). Cheap submission is easy. What’s harder is thinking of ways to honour someone, to put yourself beneath them, to serve them above yourself. That kind of submission is never finished.

Instead of a contractual obligation, I imagine a vision of submission based in relationship with the other person, a rich submission which is thoughtful about how best to serve them, to honour them, how to put oneself beneath the other, how to lower oneself. This is a beautiful thing. It will look different for every couple, for every relationship, because it’s submission to a person, nor an office. Morgan Guyton describes submission well, distinguishing it from ‘service’ (which can be ticked off like cheap ‘submission’).

When Jesus says to be a slave of all, he is talking about the radical self-abasement that he models in washing his disciple’s feet. In our era of volunteerism, we have learned how to engage in service towards needy people without submitting ourselves to them as servants. Service without servanthood is almost more oppressive than not serving at all; it creates shame and dependency rather than empowerment.The person “serving” can leave feeling good about themselves for putting in their quota of compassion for the month, but nothing about the underlying power structures in the world has changed as a result.

Servanthood on the other hand means submitting yourself to another person for the sake of lifting him or her up. When Jesus washes His disciples’ feet, He is not just helping or serving them; He is putting Himself beneath them. So Christian leadership is not service in the sense of making decisions for other people or doing what they don’t know how to do for themselves; it is putting ourselves beneath others for the sake of their empowerment. True Christian leadership, as described in Mark 10:42-44, is submission.

This is a rich submission I can get excited about.


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3 thoughts on “cheapening submission

  1. “Servanthood on the other hand means submitting yourself to another person for the sake of lifting him or her up. When Jesus washes His disciples’ feet, He is not just helping or serving them; He is putting Himself beneath them. So Christian leadership is not service in the sense of making decisions for other people or doing what they don’t know how to do for themselves; it is putting ourselves beneath others for the sake of their empowerment.”

    … This is soooo hard o_O Service vs servanthood cuts deep. Do you have any practical ideas on how to do this, in ministry, marriage, etc? Good ways to approach it, attitudes to be wary of?

  2. I guess that’s partly my point – you can’t really work it out or mandate it in the abstract because it has to be in relation to an actual person. If you could just work out a generic answer then it might tend towards self-satisfying ‘service’ or tick-box ‘submission’ rather than actually loving a real person.

    Is that a cop out?

    The only real practical thing I could point to is to listen and create spaces for real communication. Being willing to be vulnerable, even in front of the person you’re ‘leading’ or ‘serving’. Maybe also to think about the power structures in the relationship and how you might be negatively influencing the other person so that they feel indebted to you or are becoming dependent on you – look out for things which might make you feel good but don’t honour the other person.

    still a cop out? do you have any ideas?

    • Yeah so true, unless you have relational involvement – love! – for those you’re serving, it’ll be more about you than them. I think I find this way harder in ministry/volunteering than in marriage, maybe because it’s easier to maintain autonomy and control in those areas. I decide when, and how much, I want to give. I can place limitations on my time and involvement and yet still get puffed up about what I’m doing.

      Scary me! Thank God he still chooses to use such a mess!

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