Headship and Submission – What do they really mean?

master washing servant's feetby Harold and Bette Gillogly

Cindy sloshed her mug of tea on the table with shaky hands.  “You want to WHAT?”  She glared with wide eyes and open mouth at her husband George.

“I want to move back east and take that job Alpha Corporation offered me.  I hate my job here, you know that.  I’ve been complaining about it for the last two years.”

“George,” Cindy gasped unable to keep the sound of panic out of her voice, “that’s three thousand miles away.  I can’t just pick up and move three thousand miles from home!  What about my job?  What about the boys’ school and soccer and little league?  Our church?   Our friends?”

George tried to ignore the high-pitched desperation in his wife’s questions.  “I have a right to work at a job where I’m happy, don’t I?  This is a great offer!  I’d be doing what I’ve always wanted to do.  Cindy, don’t you understand?  This is my big chance?  You and the boys would get used to Philadelphia.”

“Big chance?”  Cindy retaliated.  “They didn’t offer you what you’re making now.  How could we even afford to live in Philadelphia on two-thirds of your present salary?  We can’t go, George, and that’s all there is to it!”

In the trenches where we all live, decisions come up every day.  Granted, they’re not all this big or life-changing, but they have to be faced just the same.  How do we handle them?  Ah, there’s the question.  In this situation, for instance, how should George behave as “head” like the Bible says?  And how about Cindy? What would submission look like in this situation?

Headship and submission…headship and submission.  How many times do we batter those words around or at least imply them in our expectations of one another? And, yet, do we know what they really mean?  Do we really know how to BE the head?  To BE submissive?  These are concepts we (Harold and Bette) have had to wrestle with and come to conclusions with which we can be at peace—both with one another and with God and His Word.  We would like to share with you how we got here.

Let’s start with 1 Peter chapter 2, where the apostle Peter begins to teach all us Christians that we are a chosen people, a called people…called to live like Jesus.  Then he defines that by painting pictures of what “called people” look like in different walks of life.  In verses 13-17, he calls citizens to “submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men.”  So, if we are citizens of a country, then we are called to a life of submission.

In verses 18-20, Peter addresses slaves.  We can bring the word “slaves” up to date by calling them “employees.” (Afterall, we feel like slaves, don’t we?)  He commands employees to “submit yourselves to your masters with all respect.”  Therefore, if Christian employees are to look like chosen, called people, they too must live a life of submission.

In verses 21-25, Peter brings us back to focus on Jesus Christ, and explains why we are called to a life of submission: “because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”  He then describes the “steps” of Jesus.  “…no deceit was found in his mouth….When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.  Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly [the Father].”  These are the steps we are to follow…the steps of submission.  When I (Bette) walked as a little girl with my Mom through the snows of West Virginia, I would have to step very carefully in her footprints or I’d sink in the snow and get stuck.  That’s how carefully we have to follow Jesus’s footprints on this path of submission.  He showed us how to do it.  And He will keep on showing us how to do it.

Now, we get to chapter 3.  This is not a separate teaching but a continuation of what Peter started in chapter 2, that is, Christians are called to a life of submission.

Verse 1 begins with Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands.  In what “same way”?  The way Jesus showed us.  The way Christian citizens and employees are commanded to behave.  We, as wives, like Sarah of old, are called to a life of submission.  We are called to walk in the steps of Jesus.

Peter doesn’t stop there.  In verse 7, he paints the picture of submissiveness for husbands as well.  Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives.  So husbands also are called to a life of submission in the same way that Jesus exemplified.

So far, Peter has declared that God calls citizens, employees, wives and husbands to lives of submission.  But he’s not finished yet.  He wants to make sure he doesn’t miss anyone, so he continues in verses 8 and 9 with, “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.  Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”  These verses sound a lot like the example of Jesus back in chapter 2, don’t they?

Did you notice the italicized words in that last verse?  To this you were called?  As Christians, no matter who we are or what we do, we are called to a life of submission…just like Jesus.  You see, God cannot conform us to the likeness of his Son (Romans 8:29) in a vacuum.  He has to work that miracle within us through the practical experiences of our daily lives, whether we are citizens, employees, wives, husbands or anybody else.

Submission simply means to defer or yield to the wishes of another.  It’s basically a military term, referring to rank.  There’s no thought in it of one person being better or smarter than another.  It is, rather, a non-rebellious attitude of life.  Day by day living with nothing to prove.  We don’t have to make sure we get our rights—we can ‘trust ourselves to Him who judges justly…the Father’…just like Jesus did.  So what is submission?  It’s learning to walk in the steps of Jesus.  It’s letting God the Father make us like His Son as we submit to Him and to one another.

Paul continues this theme in Ephesians 5:21.  Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Then in 5:22 through 6:9, Paul picks up Peter’s paint brush to illustrate again what this looks like in ordinary lives.  First of all, for wives it will look like the church’s relationship with Jesus Christ—a picture of submission to their husbands.  And for husbands,  it will look like Christ’s relationship with the church—which He loves so much that He sacrificed Himself for her.

Verse 23 says the husband is the head of the wife.  But wait, it doesn’t end there. The rest of the verse is, as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.  I (Harold) have seen too many men take the first part of this verse and run with it, without even considering what kind of “head” we’re supposed to be.  If we are to be heads like Christ is the head of the church, then we need to examine what kind of “head” Christ is.  Verses 25-27 make it clear that His love is selfless. He gave His life for the church thinking only of what was best for her.  Verse 28 clinches it by declaring, In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives….

What kind of “Head” is Christ? Philippians 2:5-11 gives us an even clearer picture.  Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross….  The example Jesus Christ gives us of what the “Head” is supposed to look like is not a dictator who demands obedience, but a servant-leader whose strength is displayed in humility.

Jesus displayed His servant-leadership most vividly when He quietly tied a towel around His waist, knelt on the floor before His disciples, took their dirty feet in His hands and began to wash them.  The Master, the One the disciples followed, was serving His followers.  Jesus showed us what a life looks like when it is fully submitted to God the Father…without fear, without rebellion, without having to fight for rights, without anything to prove.

So, husbands, if you want to be “head” as the Bible describes, then you must learn to be a servant-leader like Jesus Christ.  A servant-leader leads by Godly example, not by demanding his rights.  He is not afraid of serving.  He is not even afraid of sometimes deferring to his wife’s wishes.  And, wives, if you want to be the kind of wife the Bible describes, then you must learn to be a servant like Jesus Christ.  A Godly servant defers and serves—not out of fear, but out of love.  Wives and husbands, we have both been called to a life of submission.  We have both been called to be like Jesus.

Do the words “submission” and “headship” still make you a little uneasy?  I mean, what if you decide to adopt the attitude of servant and your wife or husband takes advantage of you?  It may happen.  You may decide to obey God and answer His call to submission while your mate decides to have nothing to do with it. Our instructions are clear in 1 Peter 3:8-9.  No matter what our mates do, we are called to live in harmony, to be sympathetic, loving, compassionate and humble; not to react with insults, but to respond with blessings.  But not only is the command clear, the promise is, as well: …to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.  Not bad, huh?

Let’s go back to George and Cindy. What can they do about the seeming impasse in their relationship? What would happen if they submitted their wills to God and prayed together about what God would have them do about George’s job opportunity?  They would have to be really serious about obeying God instead of fighting for their rights, wouldn’t they? Then they would need to take a non-rebellious attitude toward each other.  They could look together at the pros and cons of moving, being open to God’s leading. They might even go to someone they respect to help them see all the options they have. Their impasse which could have become a wedge driving them apart, instead can become a magnet pulling them together. We’ve come to the point in our marriage that if we cannot agree on a decision, we put it off until we can.  For if we are both submitting to the Lord and to one another, we will find the right path to take.

Something wonderful happens in us and in our marriages when we stop digging in our heels and fighting to get our own way.  When that attitude is transformed into an attitude of submission — both to God and to each other — God is then able to show us what His will for us is. Harmony, sympathy, love, compassion, humility are restored (1 Peter 3:8).  And we really do inherit a blessing just like He promised.

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