Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ — Ephesians 5:21
Men and women are designed for a relational posture that points away from self and toward both God and others. Submission is not oppression; it is a self-giving posture that calls men and women to something bigger than themselves. Husbands and wives, men and women, submit to God and one another because they are designed to bear the image of God.
In the theological world, submission has become something of a controversy. The arguments gather not around submission itself but around the nature of human design. Is this design a hierarchy or a partnership? In the debate over that question, two terms surface. Let’s look at them, shall we?
A complementarian worldview says men and women are equal in dignity but different in roles. In this way of viewing human design, the man has responsibility for “loving authority over the female” and the woman has the role of “willing, glad-hearted and submissive assistance to the man.”¹ Antagonism is introduced into this design at the Fall, leading the woman to compete for authority. Complementarians are adamant that the power given to men is to be used only in self-sacrificing ways, in keeping with the character of Christ. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, who have both written extensively on this view of human design,² claim that the male-female hierarchy has been so from the beginning. They argue from Genesis, chapter two, that woman was taken out of man, and that man was given dominion over the whole earth before woman came on the scene. They both lean on their heavy exegesis of the word “helper” to suggest a woman’s supportive role.
Complementarianism emphasizes the distinctions between men and women, as well as their roles. In the healthiest view of this theological stance, men and women bear God’s image equally, with the man having the role of leader and the woman having the role of helper. In its most extreme form, complementarianism may imply that the image of God is given to men alone (“God did not name the human race ‘woman’”²).
Do you see just how dangerous this theology is if you follow its trajectory all the way out? At the very least, the danger of this approach to human design is it emphasizes roles over gifts. Where Genesis, chapter one, paints the picture of partnership, complementarianism introduces a hierarchy.
An egalitarian worldview says men and women are equal in dignity and equal in responsibility. Both men and women are created in God’s image and both are given responsibility to rule over His creation. The emphasis is on responsibility rather than role, on being rather than doing. As Tim Tennent writes, “Submission is not the duty of one, but the call of all.”³
Egalitarians emphasize our common responsibility to live out our design. This worldview is more consistent with all of Paul’s extensive teaching on spiritual gifts. Body and soul, character and ministry, gifts and call, are all interwoven, so that humans are divinely prepared for service and expected to live out that call.
Egalitarianism emphasizes equality while acknowledging that men and women have clear distinctions — physically, emotionally, socially. Their physical differences reflect deeper realities. Men in general are wired to provide and protect; women in general are wired for nurture and community. In this way, both complementarianism and egalitarianism have merit. The problem comes when we limit the roles of women. The differences between men and women do not necessarily equate to roles as a complementarian worldview might suggest.
The real theological test is in the Trinity. Remember that we are made in the image of God. If indeed, Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist as a hierarchy (a notion that destroys unity of essence), a hierarchical relationship between men and women is justifiable. But if within the Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit are equal in both essence and relationship, any other theological stance falls short by limiting a Trinitarian worldview to the same terms we might use to define fallen humanity.
A hierarchy within the Trinity tears at the fabric of unity; likewise, a hierarchy among humans tears at the fabric of created design. Sin set us against each other; Christ calls us to stand together against the real enemies — the powers and principalities of the air.
Submission means placing “self” at the feet of Jesus for the sake of a greater mission — the building of the Kingdom of God. This is the biblical design for women and men and we add dignity to the work of the church when we learn to submit to one another’s strengths, rather than establishing power bases.
When Jesus says, “This is my body, given for you,” he is painting a picture of God’s Kingdom and of human design. When men and women enter into true partnership with one another, they also become a picture of that Kingdom.
1. Ware, Bruce. “Summaries of the Egalitarian and Complementarian Positions.” posted June 26, 2007. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
2. Piper, John and Wayne Grudem, eds. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A
Response to Evangelical Feminism. Illinois: Crossway Books. 2006. see especially loc 2224.
3. Tennent, Timothy. “Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: Egalitarianism vs.
Complementarianism (Part XI)” TimothyTennent.com website.