There has been some heated debate recently over the question of submission in marriage. It has been stirred up by the conservative Sydney Archdiocese of the Anglican Church introducing optional marriage vows for the bride that include the concept of submitting to her husband. This of course is something that has existed int he Coptic Orthodox rite since time immemorial. It is no novel invention, but derives from the words of St Paul:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Saviour of the body. 24 Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22 NKJV)
Liberal Anglicans are outraged. They see this as huge step backwards for their Church, plunging it back into a discredited, patriarchal misogyny. St Paul wrote in the context of first century Greco-Roman society, where the inferiority of women was simply taken for granted. He and those to whom he wrote simply could not imagine a world where things were different, so he was simply giving advice on how to live as a Christian within that existing social structure. Compare slavery, the liberals say. St Paul encourages slaves to be obedient and submissive to their masters as to the Lord. But enlightened Christians in a more developed society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries refused to accept slavery as an institution and changed the whole structure of their society, eliminating slavery altogether, rather than just telling slaves to accept their lot and be submissive. By analogy, they say, our even more enlightened society in the twentieth and twenty first centuries is now changing the very power structure of marriage and introducing the fullness of the equality before God that St Paul mentioned elsewhere:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28 NKJV)
But both the liberal interpretation of St Paul and the objections to submission in marriage are based on a crucial misunderstanding of the Gospel of Christ, reflected in St Paul. Once clarified, submission falls into its proper place and becomes something beautiful. To identify this misconception, we shall go right back to the beginning of the problem…
To the woman he said,
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16 NRSV)
The Septuagint version preferred by the Orthodox Church reads thus:
To the woman He said,
“I will greatly multiply your pain and your groaning,
and in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your recourse will be to your husband,
and he shall rule over you.” (Orthodox Study Bible)
God curses the woman in response to her sin. Part of the curse is that the woman must submit to her husband. But there are some important points to notice here. The wording of this curse is such that it may be understood not so much a command as an observation or a prediction. It is consistent with the interpretation that this submissive state is the natural result of her fall from perfection. In Eden, in the pre-Fall state, there was no talk of power structure or of involuntary submission. There was only love. We would not even speak of equality (though it was there) for equality is something you invoke in response to inequality. The revolutionary French and Americans of the eighteenth century cared greatly for equality because they did not have it. Rulers oppressed those they ruled and forced their submission, and the republics of equality both nations developed were a way of fighting back against this injustice, which in its essence, is a lack of love. “Love does not seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:4) but these societies were built upon the rich and powerful seeking their own regardless of the needs of the rest of society.
But where there is true love, equality is a given; it becomes a non-issue. Within a society of pure love, no one seeks their own regardless of the needs of others. There is no need to protect equality, for something greater that equality exists. For you see, in love, equality may even be foregone, sacrificed; not involuntarily as a result of force, but willingly as a result of self-sacrificial love.
Christ did not come to restore equality in the power struggle between a husband and wife; He came to replace equality with love. Equality is something we need in a fallen world to protect us from each other’s selfish, broken nature. In our fallen state, where we have lost the purity of divine love, we seek our own benefit before that of others. The strong get what they want and the weak must lose out. So, St Paul speaks of equality. Slavery has no place in a society of genuine love. But love transcends merely human societal structures, and is applicable in every case, even in a broken, corrupted world where the enslavement of one human by another is possible.
The slave and the master, although holding different positions in society where one holds authority over the other’s very life, are in God’s eyes equal, and each must treat the other as their equal. St Paul, in sending back the runaway slave Philemon to his master Onesimus, says:
Philemon 15 For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17 If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me.
This is in no way an endorsement of slavery. St Paul, in sending Philemon back to his master is not endorsing slavery. He is asking them both to look beyond slavery, to the core underlying question of power versus love. This is a remedy for the power struggle between masters and slaves. What St Paul was saying was this: what really matters is not your position in society and it is not power. The Gospel raises us far above this kind of thinking. True freedom is not external but internal. A free citizen who is addicted to substances or popularity or money is truly a slave, and a slave who has been set free by Christ in his heart is truly free.
At the heart of this issue is individuality. Today, we are just as much prisoners of our culture as the people of the first century were of theirs. We cannot imagine a world where the individual is not supreme above all else. Individual rights, individual freedoms and individual satisfaction are the highest values, and anything that seems to work against this is seen as the ultimate evil. That is why the vow to submit seems so horrible to liberal Anglicans and to the modern western mind in general.
But this individualism is not the Gospel of Christ. Christ did not come to teach us to stand up for individualism, but to practice self-sacrificial love. Self-sacrifice is, by its very nature, a personal denial of individualism. In standing p for the poor and the oppressed we do not do so in order to defend the rights of the individual, but in order to set right injustice. If anything, we fight against individualism, the kind of individualism that led to the injustice in the first place. The master who insists on keeping slaves is practicing individualism. He is saying that his welfare comes before the welfare of his slaves, and thus he has the right to force them to serve him and give their lives for him.
What is wrong with this is not the service and the sacrifice, but it is the force necessary to bring it about. And this is where the misunderstanding occurs. The modern mind sees the crime in the service and sacrifice, not in the force. But what would the Gospel be without service and sacrifice? I hardly need to point out that Jesus made service the chief qualification for entry into His kingdom: “I was hungry and you fed Me…” (Matthew 25:34ff), and elevated sacrifice above all other virtues: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13).
If we truly understand the Gospel, we will reject the force, but do all we can to preserve the service and submission. These are the practical expression of divine love. These are what Christ offered to the human race, not because He was forced, but out of love. In becoming a limited human being and thus sharing our nature, He made the ultimate sacrifice. He submitted Himself willingly to hunger and pain, illness and sorrow, and finally, even to death. All this, in order to practice love in a way we could see and touch, understand and emulate. Take this away, and what you have left, whatever it may be, is not Christianity.
So important is this submission that St Paul actually commands it not only of wives, but of everyone. While the controversial wifely submission verse, 22, is often quoted, very rarely is the verse before it quoted to put it in context:
Ephesians 5:21 submitting to one another in the fear of God.
And that is why there is nothing at all wrong with the to to submit. In the Coptic Church, we call the text where the wife is encouraged to submit to her husband, ‘The Commandment”, but that is a very poor choice of title. The text itself emphasises the voluntary nature of this exhortation:
“If you choose to follow this advice…”
It emphasises the central Orthodox Christian idea that when we depart from the nature and the life for which we were created, things go horribly wrong. You can’t use a chainsaw to pull out a splinter from your finger, and if you try doing so, you will cause a lot of damage. To tell this to someone is not so much a command as it is wise advice. And that is what this wedding text is: wise advice. Its central message, to both the bride and the groom, is that true fulfilment and joy come only when we return to our original state, our state before the fall brought authority and power struggles and unjust inequalities to wreak havoc among us. That is a state of divine love, each unselfishly seeking the welfare and the happiness of the other.
Do husbands have to submit to their wives? Of course they do! “Submitting to one another” said St Paul, and that includes husbands submitting to wives, children submitting to parents, parents submitting to children, and so on. The husband is asked to give his life for his wife, in the way that Christ gave Himself for the Church (Ephesians 5:25ff). Giving your very life is a dramatic form of submission! It says, “Your life is more important than my own. You should live while I die”, which of course, is exactly what Christ did on the cross.
What of leadership? Is it right to suggest that one partner in the marriage should be the ‘head’? Aren’t they just equal partners? This objection arises from the same source that causes the crucial misconception I have been trying to outline in this article. Only in a fallen and broken world does leadership become a question of power balance. But it was not always thus. Christ came to teach us what leadership was originally intended to mean, by modelling that leadership in human form which He and the Father experience eternally. And that leadership looks like this: a ‘teacher’ sitting in the dust to wash the feet of His pupils. A ‘leader’ hanging on a cross dying in order to give life to His followers. Translate that to the marriage relationship, and you will begin to understand what the husband being the ‘head’ of the wife really means. Where is the giving of orders here? Where is the abuse of power for selfish reasons? Where is the pride and superiority of the leader over his inferior followers? All these have no place, are indeed, utterly repugnant to this model of headship. And under this kind of headship, there are respect and love that flow in both directions, making submission a beautiful expression of voluntary love, lovingly received and cherished, in both directions.
We need more submission, I say, not less!