The Divine Drama of Submission

Rachel Held Evans retweeted a link to a blog post written by Harriet Reed Congdon entitled Why Patriarchy Keeps Women from Growing Up. It would be best to read that first before reading my response.

The gist of Ms. Congdon’s  article is that she believes submission cannot bring about maturity in the lives of women in the church. She relates most eloquently that her father
“wanted children badly but he didn’t want children forever. He was committed to raising me to be a fully functioning adult, confident of my abilities to maneuver through life and confident of my standing as an equal member of the human race” (Italics mine).
Given this goal of fatherhood, Ms. Congdon implies any submission in the church would necessarily imply that childishness of the one submitting, and apparently, the fatherliness of the one being submitted to.
 Again, her own words:
When women are denied equal authority, equal responsibility and equal voice, they are being treated like children and are denied adulthood in its fullest sense.
She is arguing against patriarchy, which while undefined in the post, is clearly any view of differing roles for men or women, any view that would exclude women from leadership positions over the church as a whole. Modern-day complementarianism would clearly fall under this definition.

But does Ms. Congdon’s view – that submission restrains or retards maturity – conform to the biblical witness? I think not.

Paul clearly shows us that it is through submission to Christ that the church grows into maturity. It is when the church is not under submission that she remains childlike.
11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16, ESV)
Christ, the head, the one to whom the church submits, is the reason we are able to mature. Outside of his headship we, as the church, cannot grow into eschatological adulthood.

I believe one of the errors Ms. Congdon has made is associating submission within the church as between a child and a father, rather than between a wife and her husband. God does not want women to have childlike submission; he wants them to have wifely submission.

The very next chapter of Ephesians reveals this truth. Paul shares the “mystery” that our earthly marriages are actually a divinely authored play that theatrically present the really real relationship between Christ and his church. Again, marriages were created by God to give us a picture of the relationship that was ordained before time between Christ and his church. The true, real, permanent marriage is Christ and the church. Our marriages are a dim and passing shadow of that ultimate reality.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (Ephesians 5:22-24, ESV)

The scary reality is what follows this short passage. The husband, who while called to be head over his wife, which puts him in some authority over her, is then called to die to himself and serve her just as Christ served by dying for his bride.

It is in this earthly presentation of ultimate realities that I believe the egalitarian most misses out. The Bible teaches us that our earthly family was created to present the truth about our relationship to other believers (Mat 12:46-50), and that marriage presents the truth about our relationship to Christ. I am not a complementarian by desire. Before I was married, I was egalitarian, if not in name, in practice. As my small family faces trials the sinful side of me truly desires to abdicate my role as my wife’s head and instead “share” the responsibility of leadership. But to do that would be to lie about Christ and his church. And lie I do. But, I repent anew and strive by God’s grace to live up to the calling he has given to all men.

Likewise, a world without submission leaves us no model to understand not only the commands to submit to our elders, but also what our submission to Christ looks like. A world without submission presents a Christ without a church.

There is a lot more that’s going on in our submission and authority than who gets to call the shots. God has engineered an earthly drama to represent heavenly realities. Every part is important, even if every part is different.


  1. Zack,

    I'm guessing you don't usually get massive comments like this, so I apologize if this is a bit overwhelming. But the problems with your blog post warrant a full response.

    I’m afraid your own position is based on selective biblical passages, flawed theology, and faulty logic. The thesis that I will unfold in the paragraphs that follow amounts to this: Harriet’s (in the interest of full disclosure, my mother’s) claim is that patriarchy imposes a false understanding of human relations in the name of God, whereas your counterclaim is that this patriarchal relationship is actually indeed grounded in our relationship to God (in Christ). I will argue, by contrast, that the relationship to God (in Christ) to which you appeal actually supports my mother’s position and not your own. The form of submission that faith in God entails leads by necessity to an egalitarian form of human relations.

    Let’s begin with the centerpiece of your “argument,” namely that submission of wives to husbands is necessary as an “earthly presentation” of the “ultimate reality” of the church’s submission to Christ. This is, of course, a tried-and-true complementarian line of reasoning that has been addressed repeatedly in the past, but let’s examine it again. As with all complementarian thinking, the problem here is that your theology is actually controlled by human custom and not by God. Complementarianism is finally just a species of natural theology. How do I know this? Because despite your claim that the man-woman relation mirrors the Christ-church relation, you’ve actually made the Christ-church relation mirror a preconceived understanding of the man-woman relation. This becomes clear through a number of steps, both explicit and implicit. Notice, first, that you attempt to establish the Christ-church relationship via Eph. 4:11-16, a passage that actually says nothing about submission. It refers to Christ as the head, but to read submission into that word is simply to beg the question that needs answering (your use of the ESV is another instance of begging the question). In point of fact, the passage only says that our maturing occurs in Christ; it says nothing about a certain kind of relationship to Christ that is the condition for such maturity. We could probably mount a good case for such maturing occurring by Christ as well, but that is not the theme of this passage, where the agent of this maturity is actually fellow believers, in the form of apostles, prophets, etc. In short, this passage has absolutely nothing to do with submission, but has everything to do with discipleship and the grounding of our identity in Christ—points that, in fact, are more central to the egalitarian line of thinking than the complementarian.


  2. This means that when you turn to Eph. 5:22-24, you are actually giving content to your concept of submission for the first time. The submission of church to Christ is an empty cipher, whose content is supplied by a certain understanding of the husband-wife relationship as found in Eph. 5:22-24. Of course, this passage is read in an ahistorical, decontextualized, nontheological way, as if the meaning of “let the wife be subject to” is self-evident, when it is not. The apparent self-evidentness of this passage is simply the consequence of one’s blindness to the fact that we approach this text with a preunderstanding of what submission looks like, and what an “appropriate” husband-wife relationship entails. But this preunderstanding is largely unconscious and taken for granted, so that Eph. 5 seems obvious, when its obviousness is actually a condition of our failure to interrogate our own cultural presuppositions—as well as the cultural presuppositions of Paul (assuming he’s the author). The result is an entirely circular line of reasoning. You begin with an assumed concept of submission, which you connect with biblical language of submission (in English translation, of course). You read a passage like Eph. 4:11-16 and assume that this master-servant relationship is the form of the Christ-church relationship. You then read Eph. 5:22-24 and assume that this master-servant relationship is mirrored in the husband-wife relationship. To put it simply, you’ve started with an extrabiblical, anthropocentric understanding of human relations, projected this upon God, and then reprojected back onto human beings as God’s will.

    All of this is a perfect replica of what complementarian thinking does in all of its arguments. I have demonstrated this at length with respect to recent complementarian appeals to the Trinity, but the same logic is operative here as well. This really shouldn’t be a surprise, since Piper, in his book with Grudem on the topic, says explicitly that the norm for gender relations is rooted in “permanent facts of creation.” Nature itself teaches us, so he thinks, that women are to be submissive and obedient to men. Of course, he has to say this, or else his entire “culture war” fails, for if this hierarchy only applies to believers, then it cannot be expected of society in general. But that is precisely what the complementarians demand: the antifeminist moral reform of society in line with what they take to be a universally applicable law of gender relations. In order to achieve this, they must appeal to natural law. Ergo, complementarianism is inseparable at its root from natural theology and has always been so. This is evident even in your appeal to Ephesians. You claim to be getting your account of submission from the Christ-church relationship—which, I’ll grant, is more than can be said for Piper, but at least he’s more honest about matters—but in fact you don’t. The Christ-church relation provides you with concepts (e.g., “head”) whose meaning you actually fill with content derived elsewhere.


  3. I don’t want to get into a direct discussion here about whether “head” means authority or source, in part because this is a very tired argument. Of course, it’s both. The real question—which definition is determinative of the other—is one that cannot be decided by surface-level exegesis, but has to be informed by a canonical theological exegesis, a bit of which I will explore below. But it’s worth pointing out that Eph. 4:15 offers you no help whatsoever in understanding what the term means. Indeed, if you want a better passage to give you a handle on its meaning, look to Col. 1:18: “He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.” Here the concept of “head” pertains clearly to his status as the origin of the church’s life and hope, the source of its existence. Is this in competition with his authority? No, of course not. I won’t dispute the notion that the church submits to Christ. But the question is: In what does this submission consist? And is there more to the story?

    Here it might be worth pointing out the excellent work of Alan Padgett on the question of submission: As Christ Submits to the Church: A Biblical Understanding of Leadership and Mutual Submission. I would rather not rehearse all of his claims. Suffice it to say, he offers a robust and persuasive account of mutual submission as the New Testament witness. He especially offers a remarkable interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11 that thoroughly undermines the complementarian use of that passage. I commend it to you.

    It is ironic that you would choose to begin your citation of Ephesians 5 at v. 22, for it is Eph. 5:21 that contains the most pointed instance of mutual submission in the NT. And moreover, the verse connects this mutual submission to Christ himself: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This verse cannot be divorced from the ones that follow, nor can the verses that follow be understood apart from this axiomatic statement in v. 21. The question that it raises, and which Padgett explores in depth, is this: if mutual submission constitutes the relation between husband and wife, and if this relation is supposed to bear witness to the Christ-church relation, then might it be the case that Paul is actually of the opinion that Christ and the church exist in a relation of mutual submission? This is indeed Padgett’s position, and there is ample support for it.

    The theme of Christ’s submission to others runs deep in the New Testament. Think of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and declaring that the first must be the last, submitting to others as an act of love. Think of the Christ-hymn in Philippians 2, where Jesus is described as taking on the form of a slave and submitting himself to suffering and death. And here I recommend reading Michael Gorman’s work on Phil. 2, where he demonstrates that this passage is speaking of God’s very being (see Inhabiting the Cruciform God). And this is not an isolated passage. The theme of God’s own self-submission is central to the NT and lies at the center of its soteriological and ethical message. Think therefore of all the “marvelous exchange” passages in the NT where God takes on (i.e., submits Godself to) our sin and death so that we can receive God’s life and freedom. So God in Christ became poor, “so that by his poverty [we] might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9), and God in Christ became sin, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). In other words, Christ’s own submission is at the very heart of the NT’s understanding of God.


  4. If mutual submission is at the center of the gospel, is it any wonder then that we see mutual submission reflected in the NT understanding of human relationships, as in Eph. 5:21? Or take 1 Cor. 7:3-4, where Paul commands husbands and wives to submit their bodies to each other. Indeed, “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (v. 4)! Padgett adds, “The comment by Piper and Grudem that this text merely gives ‘shape’ to the leadership of the husband is another example of how complementarian authors can impose their views on the text. Paul is here giving leadership to the wife, not ‘shaping’ the leadership of the husband!” (p. 43). Given God’s own self-donating, submissive character, it is little surprise that we find a radically egalitarian message connected with our being in Christ: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28; cf. Col. 3:11). This passage cannot be isolated from the larger theological context of the NT witness. It is of a piece with the Philippian witness to Christ’s submission to death, with the Synoptic witness to Jesus’ submission to sinners and disciples alike, and with the consistent NT message of an ethic of radical love for neighbor and enemy. It is also, and here rather ironically, also consistent with the position of Ephesians 4 that you quoted, in which our maturity is grounded in Christ—a maturity in which all members of the community, men and women both, are included in God’s reconciliation and thus called to be ministers of this reconciliation in the world. Gal. 3:28 encapsulates the very essence of the gospel message, wherein all are equally included in the saving work of God in Christ, and therefore all are equally called, equally commissioned, equally sent as agents of God’s liberating work in the world. The only appropriate model of human relations in light of this soteriological truth is one of radical egalitarianism, that is, of mutual freedom and mutual submission.

    If one is looking for a metaphor to understand our submission before God, then Paul’s language in both Romans and Galatians about us being “children” of God would seem the most likely place to find a message of human submission to authority. Surely the parent-child relation is the one where submission is most clearly evident. But what do we find instead? In Galatians, Paul speaks of our existence apart from Christ as being one in which we are like children or minors, who are no different from slaves. Here Paul is drawing on his Greco-Roman context, where children were indeed property of the patriarch, capable of being sold or abused at will. We were children when we were enslaved to the powers and principalities of the cosmos. God’s coming to us in Christ makes us a radically different kind of child, in which we are no longer slaves but heirs. In Romans, Paul repeats this same message but emphasizes our status as heirs even further, this time speaking of our being “joint heirs” or “co-heirs” with Christ. Certainly here it would seem most difficult to sustain the notion that the church submits to Christ in a hierarchical, unilateral relationship. Paul in fact says quite the opposite. Christ and the church equally submit to God, and yet this submission is simultaneously the most profound liberation and empowerment.


  5. Finally, I cannot help but comment on your reference to Matt. 12:46-50. Rather bizarrely, you cite this passage to support the claim that “our earthly family was created to present the truth about our relationship to other believers.” In fact, the passage (and its Synoptic counterparts) presents the exact opposite position. Jesus emphatically denies that our “earthly family” presents the truth of our relationship to God and others, which is why he says that my family is not my mother and brothers in blood, but rather my brothers and sisters in faith and obedience. Not only does Jesus refer to his followers using an image of equals (brothers and sisters, not children or servants), but he thereby relativizes any appeal to “earthly” family relations as normative. The only genuine norm in human relationships is the norm of the gospel, that is, of our status as God’s children in faith. The so-called “earthly family unit” is subordinate to and ought to reflect the “divine family unit,” in which men and women equally share in the power and promises of God. Your appeal to this passage thus confirms the natural theology that is operative in your way of thinking. Unfortunately, it is not only a blatant eisegetical misreading of this passage, but it flatly contradicts the overall message of scripture.

    I think it’s time to bring this to a close. Your position, Zach, is dependent upon a highly selective reading of a Deutero-Pauline epistle, in which you’ve not only conveniently ignored 5:21, but also failed to demonstrate that a relation of submission actually exists between Christ and the church in that letter. More importantly, you’ve isolated these passages from the wider theological witness of the NT. The actual relation between Christ and the church is one of mutual submission and joint participation in God’s reconciling mission. If I had more time, I would explore the role of the Spirit as an agent of liberating power that confirms our status as children and heirs of God, and who empowers women and men to proclaim the gospel as preachers and prophets in the world (Acts 2:17). Maybe another time. In short, ironically, it is in fact your position that is the unbiblical one.

    1. I'll respond to the rest a bit later, but I just wanted to defend my use of Mat 12:46ff (which was not part of the overall argument). It is precisely because Jesus calls his followers "Mother, Brothers, and Sisters" that we learn the true purpose of our families. See, he could have used any other form of description for this new movement: Master/Slave, King/Subject, Teacher/Student, but he didn't. He used family language and it wasn't just because it was convenient. He's revealing something to us.

      His use has spiritual meaning precisely because it has earthly meaning. If families never cared for each other, they hated each other, and that was God's plan for families, then that would be saying something entirely different about how his followers were to treat each other. He gave us families to teach us what it means to relate to each other in his kingdom.

      I preached on this passage for Mother's Day. Feel free to review if you'd like to see more of my exegesis.

      BTW, I've got 7yrs of Biblical Studies training with some excellent (well published) Greek and Hebrew profs. All but one year was spent on languages. I was writing to a popular audience. Context is really important whenever you read a text.

  6. Sorry, back when I talked about the Trinity, I should have given you a link to my blog series on the topic: