What Submission Is Not

The Lord is raising up a veritable army of holy women holding men accountable for abuse in the home, church, and society. Women such as Rachel Denhollander, Jennifer Greenberg, Diane Langberg, Naghmeh Panahi, and Julie Roys are telling their stories and/or those of others. In the process, they are shining light on leaders who are using their positions to take advantage of women or failing to protect them. In addition, they are helping the church see what is taking place and offering ways to address this matter.

One of the key principles from Scripture that they are addressing is that of submission. Christians wives, dutiful church members, and even godly elders can have a false understanding of this biblical concept and, as a result, a harmful environment is created. Perhaps a brief case study of what submission is not from a key place in Scripture is instructive.

In Ephesians 5:23, we have a relatively straightforward command. “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” However, all manner of interpretations abound, creating a fog of misunderstanding that puts stumbling blocks – some of which are quite dangerous – before people. They grossly distort the beauty of submission. Here then are five statements that clarify what this verse does not mean to help remove these stumbling blocks.

“Wives, submit to your own husbands” does not mean “All women are to submit to all men.”

In certain patriarchal circles, this imperative in Ephesians 5:23 is broadened. Appealing to the creation order and other texts such as 1 Timothy 2:8-15, some teach – or at least act – as if this directive includes all male and female relationships. All women are to view themselves as subordinate to all men in any given ecclesiastical or societal context.

Yet Paul is clearly addressing the marital relationship by using the terms husbands and wives. Furthermore, note the possessive. “Wives, submit to your own husbands.” This command is specific to a woman’s unique marital relationship. Read more»

Barry York | “What Submission Is Not” | Gentle Reformation | 27 September 2021


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  1. I agree with this post. Thank you. Would it be possible for you to address comments made by the Reformers like John Knox in “The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women”? For instance, “If any think that all these former sentences be spoken only of the subjection of the married woman to her husband, I have proved the contrary. . .” (18). “The Holy Ghost. . .taking from all women all kind of superiority, authority and power over man” (13). “For [women’s] sight in civil regiment is but blindness, their strength weakness, their counsel foolishness, and judgment frenzy. . .” (9). John Knox, “On Rebellion” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

    The kick back that I get as a pastor is that historical position of the Reformed on women was based on Greek philosophy rather than the examples of the Bible or the Bible rightly understood. And to a degree I am forced to agree.

    • Shane,

      I don’t know about “the” position of the Reformed. Knox was probably more of an outlier. Calvin thought he was extreme. Calvin’s wasn’t offended by Elizabeth. He corresponded regularly with females.

    • Knox was a bit fiery, although largely was correct and not at all a minority in his analysis. Calvin and Beza had a bit more tempered view, thinking rebellion to not be the proper course (which is the correct one). During Elizabethan England you see more defense of women magistrates that before or after her time (ex: William Perkins). All 3 (Calvin, Knox, Beza) did not think it a good thing for women to be magistrates, although Beza was especially amicable to Elizabeth (if memory serves right, so was Calvin). The Reformers and their heirs certainly understood a natural/creational superiority between the sexes, with certain allowances due to age and place, etc. Subordination, being subject or under their husbands was understood to be the main/chief duty of that relation, while the husband was that of love. They overwhelmingly spoke out against beating of their wives. They also did not pit duties of their created sex (marriage being normative) against common Christian spirituality of believers as is now being promoted.

      • Nicholas,

        You say Knox was correct but admit that Beza and Calvin disagreed with him. This seems incoherent.

        If Knox was incorrect, then Margaret Thatcher shouldn’t have been Prime Minister of the UK and no female is fit to be president of the United States. That strikes me as bizarre. If Calvin and Beza permitted it (morally) in the 16th century why should we side with Knox. His view was more than fiery. It was a minority. Further, were it the case that his was the majority view (which I doubt) it’s still wrong. People in the 16th century thought a lot of things we do not think today, e.g., geocentrism. We know from experience that females are quite capable of doing a lot of things that many didn’t think they could do just 40 or 50 years ago.

        Facts matter.

        Natural/creational superiority? Really?

        On Ontology And Male-Female Relations

        Heidelcast 178: Responding To Criticisms Regarding Ontology, Feminism, Nature, and Grace

  2. “ Over the years, I have become unfortunately acquainted with a number of men who became so blinded by a sense of male superiority that they believed they did not have to submit to anyone. Men such as this, though they may tout many orthodox Christian beliefs, are typically anti-governmental and do not submit to church authority.”

    Good article. I have seen in patriarchal circles a failure to recognize the authority of church leadership or magisterial authorities. They seem to immanentize the eschaton and see the chain of command as “Christ the King, me, and then my wife and children.” It’s interesting that they don’t seem to understand that if the Kingdom has arrived in its fullness, then “husband and father” is no more.

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