The Christ Center at Transfiguration ELCA
The Christ Center Harlem

A New Perspective on Submission

If you grew up like Pastor Kevin did, you sat through countless weddings where the wife was always admonished–even sternly commanded–to submit to her husband. We believe that this Pauline letter speaks some new and refreshing truths, and that there is a more faithful reading. Take a look at this piece co-written by Pastor Kevin and Dr. Marci.

Ephesians 5:22-24: Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord. 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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word…

When we first started dating, we realized that the word “submission” was in dire need of redefinition. When you look at the scripture, it was clear that the Apostle Paul’s whole concept of submission is interpreted as “reverence for each other,” just like Christ’s love for us. It’s sacrificial love, not servitude. The problem is, the message has been jacked up for centuries.

We’ve all been sitting in the wedding ceremony and heard the preacher start the homily/sermon coming from the famous Ephesians 5 passage written by the Apostle Paul. They say something to the effect of: “Wives! You need to submit to your husbands! That means that he is the boss. He is the leader. He is the head of the house. The buck stops with him (no matter what), and he is in control.”

One of the most dangerous things that we can do is take a passage of Scripture and blindly insert it into our lives without realizing that the Apostle Paul’s words were written for a very specific time and place. The word submit in the text would have fit very well, because the society that he addressed was one that was largely run by men. Submit here means to be subverted. To turn control over to someone else. Most women depended upon men for everything, and could not own property. In fact, often women were just a notch above being property themselves! It was a patriarchy: ruling by men.

We know now that it is always necessary to take the spirit of what a text is saying as we apply it to very different times, or else, we’ll be in for a world of hurt. For example—just one chapter over from the “submission” passage, Paul also says to the Ephesians, “slaves, obey your masters ” (Ephesians 6:5).

Well, I guess slavery is okay then, because the bible says it, right? No. The bible must always be read with the spirit of what is being said in mind. Because the literal word kills, but the Holy Spirit is what allows it to have new life again in new situations and in very different contexts in which we live.

So back to the preacher talking about submitting: usually, they then proceed to talk about how the man pays the bills, how the woman should have dinner cooked, and so on—but how should we see the spirit of what Paul is saying in light of relationships today that may not look “traditional”?

The Black community (especially the Black church) exacerbates the issue of submission to be a binary man vs. woman showdown. Women, in this case, are clearly to take a backset to their husbands’ leadership. Women come as some sort of secondhand afterthought. Women are to let the husband lead, follow the husband’s directions, etc. But this isn’t what Christ intended.

Often, submission is used as controlling mechanism to force loyalty, as if it were in service to and for God. But God does not force us to love. With loving-kindness has God drawn us. And when we are forced to love a specific way—especially in a way that subverts another’s personhood—the point has been missed completely. Love is not control, but we have seen it peddled as such. If someone has to control me to love me, then I don’t need that. Submission in the way it was written in the scripture was for the social structure of its day. But it doesn’t work that way today.

We want to often lead the conversation about godly relationships with passages on submission and submitting. But let’s back up one verse. Ephesians 5:21 first mentions submission not as one person being the boss over the other, but in terms of mutual submission. “Submit yourselves to each other,” it reads. Paul is not trying to lead with the idea of subverting personhood. Instead, asking the early Christians in this passage to submit to each other seems as a way to get at what a close relationship should resemble. What does mutual submission look like? Compromise. Mutual respect and care. If we take away the binaries of husband and wife (especially in the day when lots of marriages aren’t husband/wife exclusively), what qualities exist in a Christ-like relationship? Sacrificial care and reverence—being willing to die for each other! Sanctifying and protecting! Loving and nourishing! Cleaving and holding onto—as Christ loved his own church. Since women are no longer considered property, and our beliefs have (rightly) changed that men hold the keys to the world, and since women have been powerfully seeking God and being exemplars of faith and courage in their own personhood, then instead of leading with the tired mantra that suggests, at the end of the day, the man is still the boss, we must read this text anew in light of our own situational realities and look deeper. In loving relationships, we sacrificially submit to each other and love each other as Christ loved the church. This is how Paul opened his instructions in Ephesians.

We believe submission is more so about sacrificial love and compromise. And using this definition, we both submit to each other in a multitude of ways. This is because submission is not about servitude for us. It’s about compromise. It’s about putting “respek” on each other’s personhood. It’s about ridding ourselves of the predetermined roles that previous generations set for us. Establishing this took conversation.

One way we opened conversation about this was by doing a book study together. (As a perfect example of mutual compromise, the book study was initially all Kevin’s idea. After consulting with each other – we decided to do the book study together). We read bell hooks’ All About Love as a couple. We purchased two copies of the book and literally blocked out time in the evenings to read a chapter a week together. We typically would read silently (in the same room) for like 20-30 minutes. Honestly, it was a nice break from Netflix and Chill and offered something “different” once in a while. After we finished each chapter, we would talk about what we got out of the reading. The book surfaced topics like family relationships, childhood trauma, money, gender roles, discipline, etc. It was amazing! Not only did the break from Netflix and Chill give us space to talk and communicate, we also were able to do some soul searching. We discovered that the path laid by generations before us (in many ways) was different from the life we wanted to live together.

One of the primary topics in bell hooks’ book was gender roles and the unspoken pressure we put on men and women in relationships. (Keep in mind, bell hooks is a feminist scholar – so we knew this topic would come up). Early in our dating relationship it was clear that we would abide outside of traditional gender roles. (Or at least that we wouldn’t be completely bound by them). It just worked better for us this way. We both felt like we had a say in the relationship and worked to keep an equitable power dynamic. We kept that same feeling through marriage. We both cook. We both clean the house. We both pay bills. And most importantly, we both go to God in prayer for the other person. If Christ came to the world for all, is it necessary for the wife to have to consult her husband for ALL spiritual decisions?! Should we not both consult God on each other’s behalf? In our relationships, we both have a say. Marci has prayed and made “spiritual” decisions for our family, just like Kevin has. Leadership is less about who is boss on a human level, and more about who is the boss on a spiritual level.

In order for millennials to address “submission” – we have to first unpack gender roles within the Black community. Specifically, we must discuss the topics of heteronormativity and hypermasculity within these said gender roles. Millennials are navigating these issues EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. So many of us fall outside of the prescriptive norms set centuries ago. This is why films like Moonlight and Hidden Figures are making such huge waves with millennials – because we are finally addressing the margins of what society (and the Black community) tells us is “normal.” Black men who are both hypermasculine and gay. Women who are the breadwinners at home and utter geniuses in the workplace. Without addressing these said gender roles, the topic of “submission” simply maintains the elevated role of men and the subservient role of women.

Once we decided that the concept of “submission” was in need of restructuring, we talked about three things often as a couple: 1. Boundaries, 2. Expectations, and 3. Actions/ways where the other person did (or did not) feel valued. These were/are constant conversations, because people constantly change and preferences change. Additionally, as with any relationship, there are also personality differences to negotiate and navigate. This is another form of compromise. For example, it means a lot for Kevin to go fishing and to have time to chill/relax at home. On the other hand, it means a lot for Marci to go to brunch and have specified date nights. So we make sure to do both. Marci learned to enjoy fishing – not the fishing part, of course – but the “sunbathing with a beer on the side of the lake while Kevin fishes” part. Kevin learned to love brunch, because he realized that was definitely happening at least once a week in his relationship. It is not the absorption of the other person (to where you lose your identity), it’s findings ways to feel fulfilled despite personality differences.

While dating, we both paid for dinner. Sometimes we would split the tab. It was no big deal. Kevin shouldn’t be obligated to pay, just like Marci shouldn’t be obligated to cook. But it did take setting clear expectations in the beginning. It’s honoring and respecting each other throughout the compromise process. It’s the elimination of expectations that gender somehow defines what a person should or should not do. There are so many examples where compromise (of this sort) was good for our relationship.

Our recommendation for all dating couples is simple. Whatever belief system you choose (and whatever place on the spectrum you lie with traditional values), know this: Submission should never compromise your “wholeness.” Yes, of course, every relationship comes with compromise, negotiation, and sometimes not getting your way – but you should never feel like you cannot maintain your authenticity in the process. What we mean by this is — if you cannot be your authentic self, then that cannot possibly be the love that God intended. The wrong kind of “submission” can easily compromise someone’s personhood. You are not a doormat. You are free. You are whole.

We believe you should always celebrate the wholeness of the person you are with. This means both parties should have a say in the relationship. It should be fluid and open, just like Christ’s relationship with us.

Instead of leading with control and submission in relationships, we can sum all of this up by leading instead with a verse in chapter 5 that Paul ties it up with. He says in v. 33: “Let each of you love (their) spouse as themselves, and let the (other spouse) see that they reverence their (mate). [Note: Kevin and Marci made the pronouns gender-neutral here, because of what we said earlier about family makeups (they are diverse)]. But look at what it all boils down to: Love and reverence. Mutual love and reverence. And do so just like Christ loved the church.

It is more important for you to feel safe, free, and whole in your relationship. Happiness matters. Wholeness matters. This is the love God intended for everyone.

Blogger bios:

Kevin Vandiver (@thetreacher) is the Pastor and Mission Developer of The Christ Center at Transfiguration ELCA. In his spare time, he loves to go fishing, driving, and reading.

Marci Vandiver, Ph.D. (@CHANGEducation) is an Assistant Professor of Urban Education at Towson University in Baltimore County, Maryland. She loves all things kids, schools, and education.


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