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There’s been a right storm a-brewin’ here over the comments of one Anglican vicar on the topic of submission within marriage. As an aside I think it’s a classic case of a sermon preached into the context of a church community not translating well into the equality-at-all-costs media. As a result I don’t feel I have the full picture of what happened. But it has got me thinking about what submission actually is, particularly within the context of a marriage, and in light of Christ’s relationship with the church and how that is depicted in the Bible.

Ephesians 5:24-25: Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

This is often the verse people refer to when they talk about submission. Notably, in v. 21 Paul tells the Ephesians to submit to  one another out of reverence to Christ. He takes a similar tact in 1 Corinthians in the context of gender roles and head coverings when he says “all things are from God.” It should go without saying that any conversation about the roles of husbands and wives within marriage should be set in this context.

It got me thinking, though – what kind of role does Christ have in relationship to the church, and vice versa? And it’s also worth thinking about God’s relationship to ancient Israel as depicted in the Old Testament. And then, what about Song of Solomon? How does the husband treat his wife in that book, and how does she respond? Shouldn’t these emotionally-charged, expressive, poetic depictions of relationships inform our systematic theology about submission and love just as much as Paul’s instructions to the early church?

The Old Testament is full of the imagery of God being “married” to his people Israel. He is constantly trying to woo them back to him when they have turned away or are not listening to him. Jeremiah 3:14 “Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband.” (Interestingly the ESV translates husband as “master” and the KJV translates it as “married unto you.”) In Song of Solomon the bride appears to have a dream where she fears her husband has abandoned her. He then returns to win her back but she doesn’t answer the door. When she finally does he isn’t there, but he’s left a gift of myrrh for her and she is crushed with regret. The whole book is about the bridegroom wooing the bride and the back and forth of praises between them. Then in Christ we find the ultimate bridegroom who calls on the church to respond to the Father, and to be forever united with him. Christ tells the church in Laodicea in Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” The church is called to submit to Christ by listening to him first of all, just like Israel had to listen to God and the bride in Song of Solomon had to open that door.

So perhaps one aspect of submission for a wife is to allow her husband to win her over, to persuade her back to him. I don’t necessarily mean sitting down and having a reasoned discussion about a decision you need to make as a couple. If a marriage is functioning even at a most basic level, the truth is that you are constantly sharing and shaping each other’s opinions every day, and you become less and less two independent individuals and more and more one entity. I’m merely talking about a continually wooing back into a loving, whole relationship where you not only travel in the same direction but you travel together, as one flesh. And the role of the husband is to allow this process to happen, to use persuasion and service to his wife rather than domination to win her over.

People often assume that the wooing of a man for a woman ends at marriage, but nothing could be further from the truth. And this is also not to say that a wife can’t woo her husband in some way – I’m just basing this thought experiment on the imagery that is found in the Bible and not trying to turn the stories in the Bible into an allegory for 21st century life. But it’s such a freeing thought, isn’t it? Submission is not “obey and never question” but it’s “listen and always respond.”

My husband has posted two blog entries related to this topic, if you’re interested. One is about psychology and sociology informing our theology, and the other is about blindspots and how language can influence our priorities.