March 26, 2021

Women and Submission: What It Means (and Doesn’t Mean) To Be Submissive

So, I get the pleasure of addressing the really uncontroversial topic of submission. Submission is a word that provokes all kinds of reactions from women. Often women associate it with being a doormat, not being allowed to think for themselves, or being a man’s slave.

Some single women, assuming this applies only to the married folks, think they can simply switch off when submission is discussed. Others think that it’s just something people did years ago. We don’t need to bother with it now—life has moved on, hasn’t it? My aim here is to help us get a clearer understanding of submission and be able to apply the teaching in our own lives.

Here’s the dictionary definition of submission: “The action of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person.” Submission is described as an action, which tells us that it’s a verb—a ‘doing’ word. It’s something that we have to be active, not passive, about. We can’t just take a pill or catch it from someone else. It is a choice that we make. Submission is something we have to learn because it doesn’t come naturally to us. After all, we’re all rebels who want to do what we want, when we want, with whomever we want. We don’t want anyone telling us what we can or can’t do.

What Submission is Not

When we think about submission, our minds often go to negative thoughts about the word. We associate it with living in fear, cowering in the corner, and being afraid to speak, have our own opinion, or disagree with what our husbands say. We think about our husbands ordering us about and demanding that we comply with his every wish and whim. But none of these thoughts are helpful, right, or biblical!

Let’s look at 1 Peter 3:1–6:

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.

Now I want us to use these verses to think about what submission is not.

  1. Submission doesn’t mean agreeing with everything your husband thinks. In these verses, Paul is addressing women who are married to unbelievers. He tells the wives that they can submit without agreeing. They don’t need to renounce their faith in order to be submissive.
  2. Submission doesn’t mean not using your brain. Again, the woman spoken of in these verses heard the truth and responded to it. She has believed it and her husband hasn’t. We understand the importance of women having a good understanding of doctrine and the Word. So submissive women have the freedom—indeed, the responsibility—to use the brains God has given them.
  3. Submission doesn’t mean obeying your husband’s will above the Lord’s. We’ve already said that the foundation for everything we do is our obedience to Him.
  4. Submission doesn’t mean that the wife gets spiritual strength from her husband. Now of course, the husband has a duty to lead, care for, and teach his wife spiritually, but the wife shouldn’t be totally reliant on that. She needs to be relying on God for herself, too. Verse 5 says “Hope in God.”
  5. Submission doesn’t mean living in fear (verse 6b)Submission is a choice. When we submit to our husbands, we do it freely (for more on this, see Piper).

We need to get the negative, worldly thinking out of our heads. When we live under Christ’s rule, we are actually much more free than we were before we were saved.

With all this foundational information, how are we meant to live submissive lives? What does it mean to live in a countercultural way today?

Living Submissive Lives

As we’ve already noted, the first thing we need to get right is submitting to God. This means that we need to spend time in His Word and prayer so that we can determine what He is asking us to do. The greater our view of God, the more we see things with the right perspective. We have a greater sense of who He is—His character, majesty, eternal nature, and sovereignty. As we grow in this understanding, it should naturally lead us to submit to Him and His wisdom. If we don’t get this right, then we do not have a hope of being submissive in the other relationships in our lives.

I hope that we all know how getting our vertical relationship right impacts our horizontal relationships. On the other hand, when our vertical relationship is out of whack, our horizontal relationships will suffer. Now, submitting to God isn’t a pill for an easy, carefree, comfortable existence. But it does help us to get our perspective right.

The other most obvious submissive relationship is the one with our husbands. We should be wives who love and respect our husbands. We shouldn’t be jostling for the leadership position. Rather, we should willingly live under their loving leadership, which is God’s design. Again, this is a byproduct of us submitting to God. We don’t do it because they are perfect men who treat us like Disney princesses. We do it because we are living for God, and this is one of His clear commands to us.

This same attitude can be shown in how we submit to our church leaders, elders, and bosses. This is what we should be modelling and teaching our children also. Whether we like it or not, the Christian life is a life of submission, so we need pray that the Lord will grow us in this area of our lives.

Let me end with this quote: “It’s possible to obey without submitting. Obedience is an outward action, while submission is an inward attitude. God calls us not just to obey, but also to submit. A mother ordered her disobedient son to sit in a corner. After a couple of minutes of sitting, he told his mother ‘I’m sitting down on the outside, but I’m standing up on the inside!’ He obeyed, but he didn’t submit.” (Crockett, 128).


Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from our online course: Titus 2 Women’s Ministry. If you’d like to sign up for this course, click the image below.