(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.

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