Years ago, when I was a teenager, I got weights and a bench as a gift. I was not especially excited to receive them. The idea of working out didn’t really appeal to me — I played sports, but didn’t enjoy them as much as when I was little. As I entered my teenage years, sports became much more competitive. To me, that made them less fun. I rarely used the weights, and so I never experienced the benefits that would have come with making them a regular part of my life. Besides, lifting weights was hard and unpleasant and not something I wanted to spend my time doing.
There are a lot of gifts we receive when we’re young that we are unable to appreciate at the time. Socks and underwear are the clichéd ones, but the set of weights is the one I remember best. What if I had dedicated myself to using them? Forget sports — how would that have changed my health? My approach to self-discipline? My understanding of the importance of delayed gratification, or doing hard things because they produce good results? Those weights were a gift that I received, but never really made my own.
Many of God’s gifts are difficult to recognize or accept. I think submission is like that. There is something about it that just rubs us the wrong way. Yet God created the world to work a certain way. Sin has twisted things, but the underlying designs hold true. Submission can be (and often is) abused, but that doesn’t make it bad. Our task is not to reject a gift of God, but to rediscover its proper function amid the centuries of misuse.
Jonathan Edwards defined beauty as things being in right relationship with each other. For him, the opposite of beauty was not ugliness, but dissymmetry. We know that a face with symmetrical features is more aesthetically pleasing and Edwards extended that truth further – relationships are beautiful when all the members relate to one another properly. Husbands and wives, parents and children, neighbors and even strangers who meet on the bus: When people relate to one another in proper, healthy ways, there is something beautiful in that.
Naturally, the Trinity is the ultimate example of this — all three members are in perfect relationship to one another and this is beautiful. As I wrote last month, during his life on earth, submission was at the core of Jesus’ relationship with his Father and their relationship was perfect, eternal and good. Submission isn’t a feature of every relationship, but it is affirmed in the New Testament by multiple writers as a good and necessary part of Christian marriage. Our task is to figure out what that looks like, practically.
For starters, it isn’t going to look the same as it did in the first century. Peter was writing during a time when husbands (especially Roman ones) were the undisputed heads of their household. 1 Peter 3:1 seems to have been written in response to women who were asking, “Our husbands are not followers of Christ yet — do we still need to obey them?” And Peter says, simply, “yes.” Why? “So that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives.” (3:1, ESV) In a way, this is similar to Paul’s advice to slaves: As long as you are a slave, obey your master. Not because slavery is good, but because the Gospel always begins the pursuit of justice with love. Paul and Peter are not endorsing these systems, but neither are they advocating their overthrow. They knew that if people were won to Christ and that if they began to wholeheartedly follow him, corrupt systems would crumble or be transformed.
For the people Peter is addressing, however, the old systems are very much in place. Submission did often mean obeying husbands in everything. But Peter reminds them that the love and service they give their husbands is ultimately for God. Their task is not to break the system, but to subvert it with radical love.
What about us? Does God still call wives to submit? I think that Paul is very helpful here. In Ephesians 5, Paul writes on the same topic and he says essentially the same things that Peter does, with some important additions. I want to focus on two things he says. First, in Ephesians 5:22-23, he tells wives that they should submit to their husbands because the Church submits to Christ. Has that changed? Does the Church still submit to Christ? To me it is clear that Peter and Paul are both espousing permanent principles. Second, Paul writes in 5:25 that husbands should love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” In other words, wives need to be prepared to submit to their husbands and husbands need to be ready to die for their wives.
The wife’s role requires radical trust because chances are that her husband is NOT worthy of her submission. “But God chose what is foolish in this world to shame the wise.” (1 Cor. 1:27) Believing that God can use anyone, especially people that we are smarter or more competent than, is central to our experience as believers. Submission doesn’t mean that wives do whatever their husbands tell them — it means that they trust God. Because even though your husband doesn’t deserve your submission, God does and wives are called to love and serve their husbands as if they were doing it for God.
The husband’s role also has a radical requirement — sacrifice. Now, is his wife worth dying for? [There is only one right answer here, friends.] It doesn’t matter. The Church was worth Christ’s death and husbands are called to imitate his sacrifice and love. And it really was radical for these husbands in this place and time to be told to love their wives in this way. Who has the heavier burden? Neither. These roles were never meant to be burdens, but blessings. When wives and husbands love and serve each other in a completely sacrificial way, submission can be freeing and laying down your life becomes a joy.
I realize that every marriage looks different and the idea of submission might sound horrifying; laying down your life might seem absurd. Maybe one day, when “they” change, when they become better people, we’d be willing to try those things. Except that Peter doesn’t leave room for that excuse. He doesn’t say that only the wives with the good husbands should do this.
Let me put it like this: when it comes to marriage, Christians should always say “Me first.” Does my spouse need to change? Me first. Christ died for us while we were still enemies of God. He didn’t wait until we deserved salvation, he didn’t ask us to fix a couple of things to make it worth his while. Husbands and wives should follow the example of Jesus, who extended love towards us when we had none for God. Don’t wait for your spouse to be worth your changing. If you change first, I think you might be surprised at what happens next.
Jack Hoey III is the minister of research and theology at Seacoast Church in Mount Pleasant, where he lives with his family; he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.