By Sandra Ostapowich
When you hear about submission do you think of Law statements such as, “You better submit!” or perhaps of military formations with everyone standing in specific order, all lined up just so, in their proper places? Some people think that submitting is simply about gritting your teeth and assuming the position (literally!?) in the order of all things, because that’s just the way God set it up and who are we to argue with God’s ways?
But what if I told you that submitting is also (and perhaps more importantly) a joyful response of faith in what Christ has done for us and who we are in Him, as faith is lived out in relationships with her different neighbors in all sorts of various ways it’s something that a Christian just does. Of course there’s Law involved with submitting — but that’s not all there is.
Hear me out. So often, the idea of submission is used in a not-so-nice manner to push women down in an attempt to exert authority over them. The message that can all too easily be heard in these situations is, “All people are equal before God…but some are more equal than others. There are those who have been created to submit (women), and those to whom others submit (men).” I don’t think that’s quite the message we want to be communicating.
Pastor taught us in confirmation that the Law shows us our sin. It exposes our selfishness and fears. When it comes to even the idea of submitting, the Law has a way of bringing out our inner neck-wagging, foot-stomping, righteously-indignant, independent, die-hard (literally) Old Adams who sure as heck better not be told to submit to anyone — much less some wretched sinner who’s no better than ourselves. We Americans don’t ever like to be less than the most important person in our own little worlds (and everyone else’s too, while we’re at it) or to be told to submit and get in line. Them’s fighting words.
But submitting is not something that happens in a vacuum. It’s something that is done within some sort of a relationship with another person. In Ephesians 5:21, everyone is submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Submitting is nothing more than trusting someone else to do their vocation for you. That’s it. What does this submitting business actually look like? It looks like you trusting your neighbor to actually be your neighbor and not throw trash in your yard or park their car in front of your house, and that if you need a cup of sugar to finish a batch of cookies you can knock on their door without having the hounds being set loose to attack you for trespassing. Or if you need someone to pick up your mail while you’re on vacation they’ll do it without stealing your identity and/or paycheck. Because just that’s what neighbors do. You trust that your pastor will be your pastor and will preach and teach the purity of the Gospel and rightly administer the Sacraments. You trust that your friend will be a friend to you, and will answer the phone when you call in a time of need and say the comforting words you need to hear. (And bring ice cream and wine.) Are you getting the idea?
When everyone trusts everyone else to do their vocations for them and puts each other before themselves — in other words, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” — there’s no reason to make power plays or even think about arguing over who’s the boss of whom or who’s under whose authority. It’s kind of difficult to be putting everyone else first while simultaneously worrying about who really has the authority to ask you to do something for them or making sure someone is properly carrying out your requests.
Submitting is not simply about some static arrangement of who’s got authority over whom or who’s the boss and who needs to be put under someone else. In Ephesians 5:21, it’s all a shifting, changing dynamic from relationship to relationship. As Christians, submitting ought not be about having power exercised over you, but about how we can all serve one another and consider others more important than ourselves, trusting that we will be served by our neighbors as well.
A marriage is the most intimate relationship that a man and a woman can have on earth. It only makes sense that the dynamics of trusting submission and sacrificial love involve more comprehensive parts of themselves than those shared with anyone else. St. Paul has some great insights here, thanks to the Holy Spirit.
We, as the Church, submit to Christ, trust Him to…well, be Christ for us. And likewise, a wife trusts that her husband will be a husband to her. The Church does all she can to focus on proclaiming Christ Him crucified and receiving His gifts for her in Word and Sacrament…as opposed to promoting all her wonderful programs, comfortable pews, and all the good she does for the community. Likewise, a wife also thinks of her husband as more important than fussing about herself, trusting him to seek and hear her opinions and ideas, and knowing with all her heart that everything he does is for her good out of his love for her.
Husbands aren’t let off the hook while wives are the only ones putting someone else first. Quite literally, a husband husbands by giving himself up for his wife, loving her, never pointing out sins or flaws, and treating her as more important than his own body and life — just like Christ has done for His Church. A husband who loves his wife that way doesn’t need to assert his authority over his wife or put her “in her place,” because he’s too busy loving her by taking her sins upon himself and dying to himself for her sake. Her place in his life is one of love and respect, not subjugation.
Does this sound like an impossibly tall order? Don’t know if you can submit to your husband like that, actually trusting him to love you, to look out for you and take responsibility for your sins, to still see you after years — decades — of marriage as the most beautiful, perfect, and amazing woman in the world that you were the moment he fell in love with you? Of course you can’t! So repent of that kind of thinking. It’s not about you working up some more devout submission-type feelings from within yourself. Going about things that way is just going to breed pride and legalism or resentment and despair.
Christ and the Church aren’t simply our model for marriage. Through Christ’s giving of Himself for us, His Bride, we have been forgiven for all the times we didn’t submit and put ourselves first. We have been given our Bridegroom’s own perfect righteousness and holiness. In Christ, we’re been set so free from all of the condemnations of the Law that we can put others before ourselves without fear or worry about that our trust is misplaced or that the other person might not live up to our ideals. When he doesn’t, forgive him as you have been forgiven.
Christian wives are free to submit to their husbands. This isn’t just out of some Law or fear of what might happen if we don’t or even repeating (until we actually believe it) pious words that this is just our lot in life and the sooner we accept it the better off we’ll be. It’s a response of faith in what Christ has already done for us. He has been our perfect Bridegroom. Has always been, and always will be.
And that’s what makes the mystery of this so profound.