(In)voluntary Submission

I’ve noticed a lot of comments on No Longer Quivering recently claiming that there’s a difference between “voluntary submission,” which is godly, and “involuntary servitude,” which is not. The arguments usually run like this:

  • Submitting to my husband fulfills my God-given desires for leadership.
  • I don’t mind submitting to my husband; he doesn’t lord it over me like a tyrant.
  • I choose to submit to my husband to glorify God.
  • I submit to my husband because Jesus likes it and I want to please Jesus.

There’s a problem with all four of these arguments: they are fundamentally contradictory to the more baldfaced justification used by people who aren’t trying to win over the nonbelievers with sweet words like “love,” “peace,” and “fulfillment”:

  • The Bible tells wives to submit to their husbands.

The idea that submission is voluntary and that it is also a Biblical commandment is nonsense. If it’s a commandment, it’s not optional. If it’s voluntary, it is.

Regardless of how you personally feel about a command, it is still a command. The law tells me to wear my seatbelt. I don’t mind wearing a seatbelt, so I might feel like I’m doing it voluntarily, but I’ll still be punished if I don’t wear it. The law tells me not to kill anybody. I am very happy not to kill anybody because I don’t want to hurt other people. That doesn’t mean it’s just a guideline – it’s still an actual rule.

Even if you break it down further, and distinguish between laws that punish (“If you do this, you will be punished this way”) and prohibitive commands (“Do not do this,” but punishment is not specified), “voluntary” is not an adequate way of characterizing compliance. When the “choice” involved boils down to “do this or go to hell,” or “do this or receive a lethal injection,” it’s a bounded choice of such magnitude that it might as well not be a choice at all. That’s why the law makes exceptions for things like self-defense. If your options are “kill your attacker” or “be killed,” the law accepts that your actions are not the same as willfully killing someone without provocation. When you don’t really have a choice, it’s involuntary. Women who believe that the Bible commands wives to submit to their husbands do not have a choice but submit.

If you assert that you submit to your husband to please Jesus, you ignore the fact that your own religion dictates that not pleasing Jesus seriously jeopardizes your salvation. Message people say that “grieving the Holy Spirit” does not cause you to lose your salvation, but does cause your spiritual life to stagnate and probably indicates that you won’t go in the Rapture.

The “pleasing Jesus” argument also ignores the social consequences of not submitting in a culture (yes, culture) that demands such conformity. Many a woman has submitted “willingly” because she knows that she will be universally condemned for doing anything different.

Women who assert that they submit to their husbands in a way that does not damage them, because their husbands are keeping up their end of the bargain (loving their wives “as Christ loved the church”), are not really making a valid argument. If I have to submit to my husband because God tells me to, and my husband is a nice guy who lets me make my own decisions, I’m just lucky. My luck and happiness do not make my situation “voluntary,” just pleasant.

As for the claim that submitting fulfills a woman’s innate needs: that’s irrelevant. And wrong. But for the purposes of this discussion, it’s mostly just irrelevant. Either God commands you to submit or you do it naturally. If you think both coincide, that again just makes you lucky. If submission is a command, it doesn’t matter that you like it: it’s still involuntary.

The problem with complementarian arguments that real submission is voluntary (contrasted with the specter of soul-crushed servitude) is that they are just veils to mask the ugly bottom line: complementarians believe that God commands women to submit to men. It’s really just as simple as that. Complementarianism is a soft worldview with an icy, hardened core. Submission is “beautiful,” they say. They talk about harmony and order and peace and fulfillment and the joy of letting somebody else make decisions. They talk about God’s commands to men to love their wives. Some even posit magic formulas that claim that if the wife submits enough, God will honor her by changing an abusive husband into a kind, godly leader. Submission only goes bad, they say, when one partner is “out of the will of God.” By making these excuses, however, they implicitly acknowledge that submission is actually a very ugly thing. Submission without rewards like a loving husband and supernatural blessings is not so different from involuntary servitude at all.

Complementarians are the salesmen of patriarchy. Their pastels and Victorian paintings and talk of smoothly functioning households is a great big, beautiful storefront display for a theology that dispenses poison.

If you believe that wifely submission is not a command from God, great! Then it is voluntary. Then there will be no spiritual repercussions for rejecting it. I reject it happily and fearlessly.
If, on the other hand, you do believe that wifely submission is a command from God, don’t lie to yourself. It is the very definition of involuntary servitude – which, by the way, is just a wordy way of saying slavery.

The moral wrong of slavery ought to be self-evident.

Blogging update
Activism fatigue and the work of changing minds
We are not the enemies of our best selves
The Fistfight Fallacy: rape culture’s ahistorical premise
  • herewegokids7

    “Complementarians are the salesmen of patriarchy.” Bingo. As a soon-to-be-practicing Catholic, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that my Church espouses (elbow nudge) what I’ve come to call ‘complegalitarianism’. I was wary of it at first….for a long while in fact. :) But I do believe it’s significantly different from Protestant complementarianism, as well as Protestant egalitarianism. In a nutshell, it wants women to realize that being equal to man is not the goal. Neither is being subject to him, in any way other than that that in which he is also subject to her as his partner. The goal is to become fully woman, because a man cannot do (at least, not as well) for the Kingdom what we can do. The only ‘headship’ Catholicism ascribes to a husband (and it does) is that of increased responsibility to give of himself. But a wife is never expected to step aside and allow disaster to happen in the interest of ‘following leadership’. Au contraire, she is expected to push back if she sees the need. To cause him, by her expectations, to deserve her. Not in a morally superior sense, but holding a line of moral integrity. The grey area for me as a Protestant came about b/c of the consistent counsel I received both in and out of the pulpit that wives should obey in all matters except for sin. And sin was defined as grave sin. Now I understand it as, my husband, although the functional leader of our family (who should be loathe to act without my full agreement) is also and perhaps first my brother, and as such, I have a responsibility to him to call issues to his attention, whether of a personal nature, or such things as affect the family as a whole. This is *not* me trying to be the Holy Spirit, but me fulfilling one of my “roles”, which is helper. The minute he veers off into the danger zone (according to my own judgement) I need to be there speaking the truth in love. And vice versa!! I ought to respect him enough to hold him to high standards, and he should return the favor. With copious amounts of forgiveness, longsuffering, and mercy. But never standing for foolishness. Because that would be to treat him as a child. Which is what so many of these patriarchal buffoons are.

    • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

      Great insights! I think Protestant complementarians have really gutted the “helper” concept to a point where a wife ceases to be helpful at all because she is simply an echo chamber for her husband’s whims. In the original Hebrew, the word for a helper (ezer) is much stronger. It’s as much a sense of “rescuer” as “helper.” The word “ezer” gets attributed to God himself, and it bears connotations of one army coming to the aid of another in battle.

      I think complementarians must be secretly terrified of this, which is why they’ve put together the nonsense word “helpmeet.” It’s practically the opposite of a strong aid in times of need.

      • herewegokids7

        Yes. Most of conservative Protestantism has actually inserted the husband between the wife and God. And in my experience at least, what ends up happening on a practical level is that the wife bears the bulk of the responsibility for implementing the decisions her husband has made, but very little of the say in those decisions. Pretty sweet deal, isn’t it? *eyeroll*

  • http://www.ramblingtart.com/ ramblingtart

    Thank you for this, SO much. I’ve been inundated with these “salesman of patriarchy” lately and my soul is weary and sad. Thank you for writing these glorious words: “I reject it happily and fearlessly.” Wonderful!!! I shall take heart. :-)

  • http://godswordtowomen.wordpress.com/ Charis

    The verses which speak of wife submission have been translated and taught in “COMMAND” language, but the truth is there is only one spot where the grammar is imperative and that spot has a HUGE litmus test. The rest of the occurrances are DESCRIPTIVE not PRESCRIPTIVE.

    IOW, “wives are subject to husbands” is a description of the fact that “wives are vulnerable to husbands”.

    In the Ephesians 5 context, Paul repeatedly emphasizes to husbands that they need to LOVE their wives (using imperative verbs). Every wife of every culture of all time is vulnerable to her husband in ways she is to no other human being on earth. Do you suppose we could think of this as “involuntary submission”? Kind of like you are involuntarily submitted (“subject to”) gravity? Hence Paul’s emphasis on husband love.

    • herewegokids7

      Yes! Wives generally ARE subject to husbands. Even more so in Jesus’ day, which is presumably why so much emphasis was put on the husband loving and serving his wife.

  • Verity3

    Thank you for putting into words what I have been trying to say for a long time!

    If you believe wives are commanded to submit to the leadership of their husbands, then you may with integrity instruct them to be cheerful about it. What you may not do with integrity is instruct them to be voluntary about it.

    If you believe wives are not commanded to submit to the leadership of their husbands, but that it’s often a good idea, then you may with integrity suggest that they be voluntary about it. What you may not do with integrity is suggest that it is a command from God.

    If you don’t know what to believe, then you may with integrity admit that you do not know. What you may not do with integrity is pretend to go along with those who claim it is clear. That is not godly submission to leadership. That is enabling poor teaching at best, and potentially enabling false teaching.

    We never know what our sisters and brothers are going through. We need to think about what we may be pressuring each other to “submit” to, whether through action or neglect.

  • http://gravatar.com/donjo Don Johnson

    Submission is to be voluntary and mutual among believers according to the Greek of Eph 5. A believing wife’s submission to her believing husband is an example of that, but just one example.

  • sabahmom

    Glad I read this today – linked from another blog I read. I especially appreciate your comment, herewegokids7. I have begun to feel drawn to the Catholic Church in recent months and begun to do quite a bit of reading and thinking. What you said about the catholic view is reassuring to me – that this is not just one more distortion of women to grapple with – but that it is wholistic and freeing and honoring of who we are as people before God and here on earth with men.

    • herewegokids7

      Sabahmom, I’d be happy to walk alongside you in your searchings. I didn’t really have anyone myself and in a way it was exhiliarating but kind of like walking a highwire without a net. ;) I might have book recommendations or doctrinal clarifications that would help. JP2′s New Feminism is full of such respect and understanding of women. Shoot me a note, herewegokids@yahoo.com

  • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

    In response to some feedback, I have changed the last line of this post to better reflect my meaning. The original line said “I don’t need the Bible to tell me slavery is wrong.” This doesn’t mean that I reject the Bible as a source of anti-slavery morality. Indeed, I think the core of Jesus’ message is release from bondage (of which patriarchy is a kind). I’ve therefore clarified my last sentence. It was not meant to be a snipe at the Bible, but rather at the kind of religious worldview (found within all actual religions) that pretends human beings do not have an innate sense of justice and right (which I think we do). To me, murder is wrong because it hurts others, not because anyone told me so.

    • herewegokids7

      Exactly. The uniqueness of Christianity lies in the incarnation, not in it’s moral code, which can be arrived at naturally to an extent. Do unto others, etc. I used to bristle at this idea in my fundagelical days (that non-Christian worldviews can produce a Christian-like morality) but it’s pretty evident to me now.