There’s something about the word “submit” that hits me like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard. . Though technically the word “submit” means accepting another’s authority or will, it often has a more negative connotation to our modern ears. Dictionaries list synonyms as “capitulate,” “cave in,” or “back down.” Rather than a joyful service, submit rings in our ears as something we do unwillingly, like allowing the conquering army to raid your treasury. This is not the meaning of biblical submission. When we speak of New Testament submission, it is clear that we are talking about a voluntary offering all believers are called to make.
Consider the following:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:9-10)
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3)
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)
According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, “The general rule in New Testament exhortation is that there should be mutual readiness to renounce one’s own will for others.” New Testament submission is never something demanded from or forced upon someone. It is a gift, a voluntary yielding of one’s own rights based on love for one another and reverence for Christ.
I’d like to propose that rather than “submit”, we use the word “yield.” Yielding is a voluntary setting aside of rights, status, and priority to honor others and welcome them as a son or daughter of God. In the early church, it was this willingness to yield that let master and slave worship in the same congregation. Yielding let Jew sit next to Greek in worship; let women become disciples, and recognized that Christ set the example for us by yielding to the Father’s will.
The household codes must be read against this greater New Testament context that calls all believers to yield to one another in brotherly love. Are wives to yield to their husbands? To voluntarily “renounce their own will” for their husbands? Of course. Are husbands to do the same for their wives? Loving your wife as your own body and caring for her as Christ loves the church sounds to me like yielding. Would a husband who loves his wife as himself have to voluntarily renounce his own will? Absolutely.
So practically, how do we walk that out in marriage? We yield. We give preference to one another. We serve. We submit—yes submit—one to another.
What does that look like? After supper I head to our room and lock myself away with my laptop for a couple hours. My husband does the dishes and wrangles the munchkin brigade for bedtime so I can pursue my dreams and calling. He yields.
I do most of the bookkeeping for our family. Though giving is not my spiritual gift, it is one of my husband’s giftings. I honor that in him and respect his generosity. I yield.
Sometimes in these discussions I hear people teach that wifely submission means the husband gets the tie breaking vote. In thirteen years of marriage we’ve never needed a tiebreaker. We talk together. We pray it out. Sometimes it comes easily; sometimes it comes with tension. Yet we act in unity and we seek God together. If we aren’t in agreement on something—particularly something major—it doesn’t mean we need a tiebreaker. It means that we need to keep pressing in and seeking God together. Sometimes I’m wrong. Sometimes he is. But we are in this thing together and we act together, in unity. There is no hierarchy. We are one.
In my view, the household codes are not intended to pronounce a permanent hierarchy on husband and wife any more than they were intended to pronounce a permanent hierarchy on master and slave. Rather, they give specific examples of how believers were to relate to one another in the general context of mutual honor and submission in the body of Christ. Instead of husbands serving as dictators of the home, they were called to sacrificially love their wives and nurture their children. Slaves were called to remember that they have a greater master who they also serve, and masters were reminded that they are also slaves of a God who shows no partiality. The household codes do not impose a permanent system of relationships; they showed believers how to apply the principle of mutual submission in the context of the system in which they lived.
We have to face the same question. We are called not to abuse our power, but to use it to strengthen and serve those around us. We work as if working for Christ, not a paycheck. Business owners are called to respect the humanity of their employees, not treating them as replaceable drones. As parents we discipline our children, yet treat them with honor and respect. We recognize that Christ, our leader, became the servant of all. In marriage, husband and wife follow his example. We yield, one to another.