Old Woman Praying by Jacob Cornelisz Van Oostsanen
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. - Ephesians 5:22 (NKJV)
Few Biblical subjects are more controversial with women than Ephesians 5:22. The concept of submission is almost foreign to the American individualist mindset. Submit? Tell that to the American revolutionists who courageously stood up to King George III and told him to pound sand. Tell that to those who fought for the end of slavery. Tell that to the brave men and women who fought in World War I and II. Submit? In the words of a wise man, "In a pig's eye..."
Although it is admirable to fight against injustice, St. Paul's admonition to women and men (in Ephesians 5) does not pertain to righteous battles but toward the battle of the flesh. This battle is one that all of us are locked into until the day we die. We have come before God to surrender ourselves, to declare that we are sick and in need of the Great Physician, and in doing so, submit ourselves to His will as Jesus Christ did during that very difficult night in the Garden of Gethsemane.
I remember my first confrontation with submission. It was 1982. I was 20 years old and had just joined an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter on campus. I was excited to discover students who, like me, wanted to dig into the Bible. It was during one Bible study that started my journey toward the topic of submission.
One of the Bible study's leader was a strong young woman who was only a few years older than myself. We were engaged in some type of Biblical exercise but for some reason, I didn't want to play along. She insisted. I resisted. We went back and forth until finally I did what she wanted but I was digging in my heels every step of the way. Afterward, I started to ponder the concept of submission. When was it required? How were we to respond? What did we do when every fiber of our being was shouting, "No!" to what was being asked?
Looking back, I still hold the view that the leader was slightly heavy-handed. However, it did start my journey. One of the things I've learned about submission is that if the Biblical pattern holds, we are to submit in spite of the conditions. For example: we are to trust our leaders and submit to them, even when we see their weaknesses. Unless they are asking us to do something that goes against our conscience or is in direct disobedience to Scripture and the Church, then we must prayerfully ask for God's grace to submit.
My favorite teacher for submission is Elisabeth Elliot, a beautiful Protestant woman who was one of the few brave enough to talk about submission. I used to listen to her radio program years ago and she would discuss this topic on occasion. One of her books, Let Me Be a Woman, tackled it but she'd mention it in other books, too. She would often say that a wife was to submit to a husband but to remember that his authority was not earned but received from appointment. She also was the first woman I heard say that the woman actually had the easier job. A woman is to submit to her husband but it is her husband who is to love his wife as Christ loved the Church, sacrificing Himself for her.
Submission is trust. Again, this is a difficult concept for many women who were raised in a culture of "I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan..." Women of my generation grew up with feminists telling us there was nothing we couldn't do once we freed ourselves from the "oppressive" chains of men. So there is a very real perception that if one "submitted," she would be exploited and used. The defiant stance of feminism therefore provided a strong wall that promised to protect women. But for many, it only made them suspicious of men and untrusting in relationships.
It took me some time to trust people in general. I went through a difficult time in grade school where I was teased and mocked. Although it was not the most enjoyable time of my life, I learned many lessons. Because of the teasing, I withdrew but explored my own interests, which at the time were reading and drawing. Many of us have similar stories where we thought we could trust someone and they disappointed us, sometimes hurting us deeply. It is always a challenge to forgive and move past such experiences, but through Christ, we are called to do so.
And, we are called to submit to the leadership in our lives, despite having flawed leaders. This is probably one of the most difficult callings of the Christian. Because I was single for so long and did not have a husband, I found myself praying often for God's wisdom in submitting myself to the leadership of my church. One incident in particular stands out.
I was the main intercessor for my small church and had a few other women join me during scheduled times of prayer. One day, I was praying alone in my apartment and felt very strongly that God was giving me a very specific message for my pastor. I felt such a strong sense of urgency about it that I wrote it down in a letter, got on my bicycle and rode to the pastor's home, which was nearby. I arrived breathless and talked to him briefly. Then I gave him the letter. During the prayer time, I sensed that I was to give the letter to my pastor but not talk to him directly about it. I also got to very clear impression from God that after I did this, I was to "let it go." No follow-up. No asking my pastor what he thought. Nothing. I was to completely let it go. And I did.
This definitely was not my usual mode of communication. I was a leader in the church at the time and often would offer my views on various topics and church developments. Along with a small group of six leaders, we would gather frequently to discuss the vision and mission of the church. So this kind of approach was not a usual one for me.
I think the entire episode was an exercise of submission to both God and my pastor. I submitted to what I believed God was calling me to do and also submitted to my pastor's leadership. My pastor never spoke to me about the letter and I never brought it up, even though what the letter addressed was a potential powder keg at the time within our church. For reasons I will never know, my pastor did not diffuse a divisive situation and eventually, the keg blew up and some people left the church. I could see all of this clearly but yet felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to not speak of it at the time to anyone. It was hard-core submission for me, and one that broke my heart. My only consolation was knowing that I had obeyed God to the best of my ability and if I my heart was broken, what of His? I prayed for His grace for the rest of that week.
In Ephesians, the Greek word for "submit" is hypotassō, and it means "to submit one's control, to yield to one's admonition or advice." When I look at the verse about wives submitting to their husbands, my eyes are immediately drawn to the following words: as to the Lord. It's a two-parter. As wives, submission isn't supposed to be a foreign concept. We already are called to submit to the Lord - both women and men. Yielding is not easy for anyone. However, when we do yield to God's will and obey His commandments; when we yield to the Church and the Magisterium, when we yield to our priests and bishops -- something miraculous occurs. Our hearts are softened and God now has a pliable soul to shape and mold for His purposes, not ours.
We wives may never fully understand what it means to our husbands when we show such trust. However, I think one of the benefits can be seen over time. This type of submission leads to a peaceful home. As a wife places her trust first in God and then in her husband, she is saying that God is in control. And when we accept that truth, we find rest.
I do not say such things without a bit of a tug-of-war still playing in my heart. I know such things are not easy but yet there is a blessing to obtain that overcomes my resistance. Doing the will of God will reap enormous rewards in our lives and in my opinion, the greater the reward, the greater the opposition to it. Jesus Christ submitted His own will to His Father's because He could see the glory that awaited Him. As Hebrews 12:2 says: "...looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."
That is what I hope to focus upon during this Lent. Whatever I am asked to submit to, may I see ahead to the "joy that is set before me." Submission, in the vast scheme of things, seems to be wildly disproportionate to the reward we'll receive when we trust and yield. Praise God He has given us His Son to show us the way.