Submit, Woman!

To many of us, requiring wives to "submit" to some imagined, innate "authority" of their husbands appears as a command from an antiquated era, reminiscent of patriarchs who ruled over their houses, as well as over slaves. Our culture, even our Christian culture, finally arrived at denying the viability of keeping slaves. Interestingly, keeping wives under the "submission" of their husbands still seems a viable practice among many conservative evangelicals. Why? Because of their interpretation of St Paul's words at Ephesians 5:22 and 1 Timothy 2:12. But what of St Paul's words at Ephesians 6:5? Surely the apostle believes Christians are to keep slaves. Or what about St Paul's words at 1 Corinthians 7:22? If slaves in this country had assumed an overly-literal and continuationist interpretation of the scriptures, as do some evangelicals, then they could not, biblically, have accepted their own liberation from slavery. But why be obedient to a prima facie reading of the former (Eph. 5:22; 1 Tim. 2:12) but not the latter (1 Cor. 7:22; Eph. 6:5)?

St Peter writes: "In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands" (1 Pet. 3:1). Allow me this interpretative observation and complaint about a complementarian understanding of this passage and this topic. Upon a prima facie reading of this verse, concluding that wives are to be submissive to their husband's leading, they will conveniently dismiss this verse: "just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord" (1 Pet. 3:6). Why do those husbands within a complementarian context not insist that their wives call them "lord"? I am in no sense whatsoever being trite or insincere. I am asking a serious question and I expect a serious response. If a complementarian suggests that wives calling their husbands "lord" was a cultural practice unnecessary of repetition, we can answer that the patriarchal framework in which they existed was also a cultural practice, and if we are to hold to the strict submission of wives to their husbands then those wives ought to call their husbands "lord." In this sense, then, we view a complementarian interpretation a dismissal of context, cultural practice, and a convenience afforded to passages with which they are uncomfortable. (cf. 1 Cor. 7:36-38; 1 Pet. 3:6)

So, complementarians want to interpret the Bible literally and observe all its commands. That is wonderful. Shall we begin with Old Testament sexual ethics? Shall we observe allowances for polygamy, stoning for adultery and homosexuality, marrying conquered virgins in war-torn lands, and slaughtering our enemies, including children? Shall we enforce young teen-aged women into pre-arranged marriages with older men? In an Old Testament culture, notes Jonathan Merritt, "while polygamous and incestuous relationships are not explicitly celebrated, they are regulated by Israel's God-given laws." (link) Obviously, we do not want to interpret the Old Testament in such a way that demands we manage our culture in the same fashion. So, we turn to the New Testament for guidance. We interpret the Old Testament by the New Testament.

But even here we encounter serious problems. The first-century culture is still patriarchal, even if to a lesser degree than previous biblical generations, and also assumes familial practices that no family in this country would welcome or consider a "biblical" model. Consulting this Pauline passage, we can no longer perceive of this as a viable practice, "But if any man thinks he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she is past her youth, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry." (1 Cor. 7:36 NASB) Do complementarian scholars and lay persons adhere to this model of marrying off their virgin daughters? Of course not, for this practice is deemed ancient, and irrelevant to our culture. Yet, verbally coercing wives to "submit" to their husbands -- without having to call them "lord," of course -- is deemed relevant and "biblical." Why? Who is granted permission to cherry-pick the relevance of a passage?

We need to read and re-read this comment from J. Lee Grady: "The church has, unknowingly, created an environment that encourages abuse."1 Egocentric men in the Church who imagine themselves God's General and spiritual leader have abused their office with totalitarian-like reigns of terror. If some of them have not themselves victimized their wives or other women, whether verbally, emotionally, psychologically, sexually, or spiritually, then they have covered-up the same, while insisting that wives (women) should "submit" themselves to their husbands or the authority of the men in the church "as to the Lord." Grady writes: "We cite familiar Bible passages demanding that wives submit to their husbands without providing any explanation of what submission means in a practical sense and without outlining what these same biblical passages demand of husbands."2 (emphasis added) What does submission of wives mean?

First a story -- an example of the deplorable consequences of complementarian theory rooted in a patriarchal context. Doris was the wife of an Assemblies of God deacon who endured physical abuse for years, unbeknownst to anyone in her church, except her pastor. This Pentecostal pastor informed her that she was to submit to her abusive husband, to pray for him, but never to abandon him: "He's your husband. You can't just leave him. It's his house. You're his wife. He has authority over you. You must be making him angry."3 So, Doris is treated like an object -- a piece of human property to be used at the disposal of the man -- and then she is blamed for his abusive attitude and practice. She is the victim and the victim is being blamed by the complementarian.

Doris, later, confided in a counselor named Nancie, who tried time and again to encourage Doris to leave her abusive husband, all to no avail. She was fearful of leaving her husband because her complementarian pastor insisted she had no biblically-valid reason for leaving. Nancie later moved to Florida, where she learned that Doris had been murdered by her husband. "As bizarre as it sounds," writes Grady, "this Christian woman was murdered by her own husband, a deacon in a Pentecostal church. Those who counsel abused women say this story is not as unique as it sounds."4 Some Complementarians will read this horror story and insist that I am appealing to emotion rather than properly exegeting Scripture on this subject. But this irresponsible reaction is merely the means by which they protect their cherished interpretative method.

For many of us egalitarians, such an irresponsible reaction is telling, in that they seem to care more about "being right" than they do about the women who are abused. Moreover, they also neglect to address the fact that, at times, complementarianism is instrumentally culpable for the abuse of women, as they are treated as objects over which to be ruled. Grady quotes Martin Luther: "Woman must neither begin nor complete anything without man: Where he is, there she must be, and bend before him as before a master, whom she shall fear and to whom she shall be subject and obedient."5 There can be little wonder why Calvinists, in particular, who follow this dehumanizing view of women are complementarian by default. God did not create a female for the male to rule over -- she was originally created to come alongside the male to help him; implicitly meaning, the man needed help, and the female could, in equal terms, help the man. (Gen. 2:20) God designed both male and female to work together in a coordinate unity (Gen. 1:26, 27, 28). Note particularly, "and let them rule" (Gen. 2:26, emphasis added), not "let him rule."

As for the husband of Doris, he may have been abusive due to a mental disorder, we do not know. The cause for his abuse, however, is irrelevant with regard to the advice of her complementarian pastor, who not only objectified her and blamed her for the abuse, even suggesting that she may be provoking her husband to hit her, but also gave her no way out of the abusive relationship that led to her being murdered. During one session, in which Doris again complained about the abuse, the pastor responded: "Don't worry. Even if you died you would go to be with the Lord. So you win either way. Just keep praying for him. But you are not allowed to leave."6 This is entirely unacceptable. How, exactly, does she "win either way"? If her husband murdered her then she "wins" by being with the Lord? But if he merely continues abusing her, how does she win? From my perspective, the pastor should be charged as an accomplice in her murder.


Also, consider this, four million women are assaulted each year by their current or former husband.7 At the Rapha Treatment Center in Dallas we learn that many of the calls received are from the wives of complementarian pastors who are beating them.8 Grady writes: "In a survey of battered women who successfully escaped their abusers, the women who sought help from pastors were usually told to (1) continue to submit to their husbands and (2) pray for the men that they would stop the abusive behavior."9 This is complementarianism and this is unacceptable. Grady quotes a horrifying statistic: "Seventy-one percent of the ministers [polled] said they would never advise a battered wife to leave her husband or separate because of abuse, and 92 percent said they would never counsel her to seek divorce."10 So, an abused and potentially-murdered wife is a better scenario for these so-called ministers then separation or divorce from an abusive complementarian husband. From my point of view, complementarians have far more weighty problems to address before they challenge biblical egalitarianism.

Is there a viable means of interpreting passages within the New Testament regarding wives "submitting" to their husbands without conceding complementarianism? We are not permitted to ignore verses in Scripture which state that all in Christ -- regardless of ethnicity, socio-economical status, or gender -- are equal (Gal. 3:28). There is to be no "lording" authority over believers by other believers (Matt. 20:25, 26). We are all to "submit" to one another (Eph. 5:21). This verse precedes the "submission of the wife" passage in that chapter -- submission to one another in Christ. This notion is carried out in the marriage: the body of the husband belongs to the wife and vice versa (1 Cor. 7:4). This is mutuality. When we submit ourselves to one another we are humbly "preferring one another and not demanding personal rights."11 St Paul instructs us to "give preference to one another in honor" (Rom. 12:10). Grady further comments:
We also must note that the Greek word for submission, hupotasso, is written in the Greek middle voice, which means it is something that an individual imposes upon himself or herself. It means to choose to yield to another, rather than demanding one's own way. Submission remains the freewill right of the one choosing to yield. It cannot be demanded from another individual or imposed upon one person by another. When this occurs, it stops being hupotasso and becomes domination, which was an attitude Christ forbade His disciples to operate in with regard to one another (Matt. 23:10). Submission is not something that can be required or exacted from another person.12 (all emphases original)
Marriage, by virtue of nature and design, regards unity: a working together of two equal partners. The husband is not the boss of the wife and vice versa. This much should be obvious even in passages beloved by complementarians. Take, for instance, Ephesians 5:22: "Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord." But he continues: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her ... So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies." (Eph. 5:25, 28) The apostle often writes to the churches in order to correct problems and give instructions. If the Ephesian women are being contentious, and we know that, culturally, women in Ephesus at this time are attempting their own women's rights movement and are assuming authority over men, the apostle reminds these women of their humble and Christian duty to serve the Lord alongside their husbands. Understand that the apostle's instructions here are counter-cultural to a society that still views women as property.13

With regard to the context of Peter: the apostle calls for both men and women to "submit" themselves "for the Lord's sake to every human institution" and to "honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king" (1 Pet. 2:13-17 NASB). He instructs all "house-servants" to be submissive to their masters -- yes, masters -- with "all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable." (1 Pet. 2:18) These "house-servants" are called upon to endure the suffering of these masters and the apostle even calls on the example of Jesus suffering at the hands of wicked people by way of example (1 Pet. 2:19-25) -- a hard saying if ever one is found. He then writes: "In the same way," the previous context regarding suffering being inferred, "you wives, be submissive to your own husbands, so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior." (1 Pet. 3:1, 2) What, exactly, is he advocating?

The following is taken from Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers: "Whether this imposes for all time upon Christian wives as complete a submission towards their husbands as is here enjoined might perhaps be questioned, because the special reason for the command in this place was to allay suspicions engendered by the boldness with which Christianity proclaimed the freedom of the individual." (link) (emphasis added) I can in no sense detect within Peter an advocacy that a wife should endure the abuse of her husband in the hopes that the husband will be "won to the Lord" by her so-called obedience. The phrase "if any of them are disobedient to the word" most certainly refers to the man being a non-believer. So, the apostle states that what is best is for the wife to continue being a humble wife to her husband, and perhaps her love and Christian devotion will affect his spiritual condition. (Let us not forget St Paul's words at 1 Cor. 7:12, 13, 14, 15, 16.)

If, however, we are pressed on this issue, especially regarding 1 Peter 3:5-6, as well as 1 Peter 3:7, and we are supposed to cede a complementarian interpretation, we might just as easily remind the complementarian the following: "St. Peter has just been giving injunctions for absolute submission, even to injustice, on the part of slaves; and the progress of Christianity has abolished slavery altogether. The measure of the Christian wife's submission may safely be left to her own enlightened conscience, guided by other passages of the New Testament not written, like this, for a special emergency." (link) (emphasis added) In other words, the argument is twofold, in that: 1) since slavery was abolished then so, too, may patriarchy and complementarianism be abolished; and 2) the apostle could have written this injunction for a special purpose -- not that this should be the norm for all time -- not that a first-century cultural motif should be the "biblical" standard for the fourth century or the twelfth century or the sixteenth or the twenty-first century.

From the perspective of a biblical egalitarian, we might as well return to the practice of slavery if we are to maintain a strict patriarchal complementarianism, for the one appears as "biblical" as the next. But we need to assume a very serious tone when addressing this issue: that women are being abused because men are adopting a superiority complex by a doctrinal system that many are insisting is "biblical" is irresponsible, unacceptable, and intolerable. Not only does complementarianism distort the equality of Spirit-gifted women for New Testament ministry (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:11-18; 4:4, 5, 6, 7); but the interpretative fallacies underlying this doctrine also destroys the unity of the family and marriage itself as originally designed by God in Genesis. Complementarianism, then, is an assault on women, an assault on the Holy Spirit who gifts women for ministry, and an assault on the holy institution of marriage itself.


1 J. Lee Grady, 10 Lies the Church Tells Women: How the Bible Has Been Misused to Keep Women in Spiritual Bondage (Lake Mary: Charisma House, 2006), 182. I am mostly engaging the work of Grady throughout this post against complementarianism and for egalitarianism.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 182-83. I fully realize that there are complementarian scholars and lay persons who denounce the abuse of women by carnal men. What we will wait in vain for, however, is a confession by these complementarians that their interpretative method is the fuel that produces the energy contributing toward abuse of women. Stated another way: no man, within the context of egalitarianism, would, by the implications of this biblical motif, be led to abuse a woman.

5 Ibid., 180.

6 Ibid., 182.

7 Ibid., 181.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 184.

11 Ibid., 187.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., 188. Dr. Craig Keener writes: "The gains of women in ancient society had introduced new tensions into Greco-Roman life in general and probably into some marriages as well, due to the greater flexibility of possible role expectations now available. This meant that religions that were thought to ignore traditional roles for women would be viewed as threatening by the conservative male establishment."

Consider, as well, that the apostle often assumes the cultural form of household codes; yet, "by grounding the wife's submission in general Christian submission," as he does at Ephesians 5, "he qualifies the meaning of those codes. Yes, the wife should submit to her husband; but the husband, following Christ's example of self-sacrificial service for his wife, also must submit himself to his wife. This is even more explicit than that the wife should love her husband even as he loves her (cf. Eph. 5:2, 25)." See Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women's Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 143, 158.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.