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SUBMISSION is chapter 8 in ...and He gave them... a foundational teaching manual by Kirby and Sandra Clements.  The book may be purchased by contacting Sandra Clements atsachcl@aol.com  For Sandra's testimony, click here.


by Sandra Clements

Submission is a term that has been greatly misused within the church world.  It is a term that has been used to elevate one person over another, particularly in reference to men as they relate to women.  In order to understand the term and its application in scripture, we must first get a proper definition of the word and then place the term in its proper setting and context.

According to Dr. Katherine Bushnell, the noun "subjection" is not found (in classical Greek), outside of the New Testament.(1) This term, therefore, was coined to describe relationships peculiar to believers.  Upon careful analysis, we can see that the true sense of the word describes the Christian grace of voluntarily yielding one's preferences to another.  Traditional principles are not involved, nor is the assertion of one's individual rights.

Schleusner's Greek-Latin Lexicon to the Septuagint declares that the verb form, "to submit," does not always convey the thought of servile subjection.  For example, Jesus, as a boy, was subject to His parents, yet we know that He did not even consult them when He was "about His Father's business." (Luke 2:49,51).  From this account, one can clearly see that to be in submission is volitional and open to one's individual discernment.

Finally, submission does not mean "to obey." The Greek word for "obey/obedience" is hupakoe, which means to listen to or to harken to.  Submission (hupotasso) means to get under and lift up, or to put in order.  It does not mean obedience.  Gundry well defines this equalizing principle as a sort of voluntary raising everyone else to your own personal level of importance and worthiness.(2) It is interesting to note that other languages further reinforce this concept.  For example, Kluane Spake, writes, "The German translation of that word, sich unterstellen, means to place oneself at a disposition of another."  It can also be a military term referring to the equal sharing of tasks, to support, to fulfill one's part of the assignment." (3)

Let us go deeper to the root of the controversy surrounding this term.  In our society, churches, and homes, we have been exposed to several types of submission: cultural, traditional, and contemporary.  Basically, we have been taught that each of these focuses on one message, i.e. "women are to submit always and without qualification."  However, the Bible says that women are to submit "in the Lord," which brings about a new dynamic of relationship.  Women are now free to judge what is "in the Lord."  However, if we are to be well studied, we must also examine the fact that the Bible also teaches that we are to "submit to one another" (Ephesians 5:21).  Submission, then, is volitional, and the sole purpose is to reflect Christ Jesus.  It is without respect to age, gender, sex, nationality, and economic status.  This submission I call Biblical Submission because it reflects the character of God: it is totally inclusive.  And this is where we are ultimately called to live: inclusively and beyond gender.

Now, let's directly address Paul and Peter.  When they were using the word "submit," they were giving Christians a way of coping within a culture hostile to the teachings of Jesus.  Paul writes, ...subjecting yourself one to another in the fear of Christ" (Ephesians 5:21).  Peter likewise addresses the same societal situations writing, "Yea all of you be subject to another, and be clothed with humility" (I Peter 5:5).  Being subject to or subjecting oneself to another deals with mutual respect one for the other, and it should not convey the loss of one's right to make choices.  It should not be taught as an attitude or action required only for women in relation to husbands or any male figure.

Peter's theme for writing his first letter centers around Christian life and duty.  Christians at that time were a minority.  Peter encourages them to realize that they are to be a demonstration to the world, and that the power of God within enables them to live in a hostile world.  In I Peter 2:13, Peter writes, "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution . . . , for such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men."  Peter further tells servants to submit to their master whether good or evil as witness proving who the greater master is.  He tells them that they are not bound by the values of the world, but they have a higher value because they believe in and are under the Lordship of Christ Jesus.  Therefore, the people observing them should see an evident difference.  Followers of Christ show 1) obedience to and 2) respect for authority.  They should not use their spiritual freedom for an occasion to sin; rather, they are to live as servants of God. I Peter 2:11.  "Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God..." Peter continues to emphasize his point in verse 13 of chapter 2, "For the Lord's sake accept the authority of every human institution."; and in verses 15 - 17, "For it is God's will that by doing right you shall silence the ignorance of the foolish.  As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.  Honor everyone.  Love the family of believers.  Fear God.  Honor the Emperor."

Next, Peter elucidates proper behavior of slaves who are believers towards their masters: Verse 18 - 20, "Slaves, accept the authority of your master with all defense, not only those who are kind and gentle but also, those who are harsh.  For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly... but if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval.  For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps."

Now, following the elucidation for slaves, in the same mind, Peter speaks to the women.  The ultimate emphasis to the women in chapter three is for them to win their husbands to Christ.  Women at that time were in a precarious position - the culture demanded subservient submission to the husband.  However, when women became believers, they were not bound by the cultural traditions - they had a higher law - the law of God which gave them a new freedom and independence.  Peter basically says to them, "if submitting to your husbands will win them to Christ, then do it."  However, nowhere does the Bible suggest that they were to submit to abuse.  These women joined to unbelievers, by their demonstration of love, forgiveness, character, prayer, and integrity, were to win their husbands to Christ.  Peter urges them not to spend all of their time adorning their bodies, but the adorning of the inward man.  He considers lasting beauty a "gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God."  Again, this did not mean that a woman should accept abuse in her gentleness and quietness.  Nor should this statement lead one to assume that the women were in an uproar, loud and not gentle.  Such assumptions provoke us to misinterpretation.  Finally, Peter uses Sarah as an example.  Sarah is recorded as referring to Abraham as "lord."  She used the word, "lord" when she had been informed that she would bear a son, Isaac, from her own body.  She did not use the word to convey subservience, but it is used in respect to her husband.  Historians report that the term as actually one of endearment as in "honey" or "Sir."  It did not mean rulership.  Keep in mind that scriptures also says that "Abraham obeyed Sarah," mutual respect and submission.  Peter in 3:7 reinforces his point of mutual submission by informing the men that in the same way the women are to live, "...so are you."  You show consideration to your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the "weaker vessel, since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life - so that nothing may hinder your prayers."  The term "weaker vessel" is a cultural term; women of that time were considered weaker in every aspect: physically, intellectually, and spiritually.  Peter says that men were to pay honor to this person whom they have always considered weaker.  But now, she is an heir, and if they fail to respect her, their prayers will be hindered.

History and science have shown that women are not morally or mentally weaker than men.  Women more often than not were, indeed, physically weaker in Biblical days.  However, in modern society, women have entered many areas of what has been termed a man's domain.  Today, women body build, play professional tennis, basketball, golf, and many other physically demanding sports.  Women have entered the business world, the scientific community, the law enforcement community, the medical community, and many other male dominated arenas.  Thus, this statement of "weaker vessel" is a culturally specific one and not a judgment upon women's abilities to function in independent excellence.

Finally, as we re-read and re-study I Peter, we must understand that Peter, in this letter, is addressing the conduct of Christians: 1) conduct of all, 2) conduct of those who suffer for Christ, 3) conduct of Elders (I Peter 5:1-4), and 4) conduct of Young Men (I Peter 5:5-10).

When Paul used the term "submission" in reference to women, he was addressing specific situations.  Paul was not giving blanket instructions for the behavior of all women in the Church Universal.  I would also encourage you to study Colossians 3, but study in the context of "putting on the new man in Christ Jesus" and also in light of the cultural challenges that every early Christian faced.

This scripture passage of I Corinthians 11: 2-16 has been used to subjugate women and to imply that man is her "covering." Without knowledge of the Genesis story and the culture that Paul was addressing, one could conclude that misconception.  However, to clear up any misconception let's review this scripture in light of its true meaning.  Paul is addressing the traditions that he had given them in reference to the traditions and practices that they lived by.  He is giving instruction in deportment during worship services.  He begins, "Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.  Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you."  In verse 3, Paul begins to discuss their concerns, some of which require his establishment of the Source of all things, Christ.  We must remember Paul is speaking to a Gentile congregation, which would be ignorant of much Jewish history.  Thus, the fact that God is the source of all is primary to their understanding of their faith.

Paul wants to remind them of a Jewish tradition delivered to them wherein the term "head" is used, "But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ"

This term "head" is consistently misunderstood today.  First, let us understand that the term is non-hierarchical.  Paul is elucidating the point of origin for each.  His purpose is to address disorder in worship within the Church.  Were he setting up a hierarchy, God would not be listed last.  He simply says the origin or source of man is Christ, and we know Christ was involved in the creating and forming for scripture says, "Let us make man."  And John 1:3 likewise affirms this point.  Already we have established that the woman was taken out of man, and that Jesus came in His incarnate form from the Father.  (He was, in the beginning, with the Father; but in the form of a human for the mission of redemption.) Paul, then, is showing this order from a relational perspective not hierarchy.

From verses 4-15, Paul discusses their own traditions and practices, not the ones he delivered to them.  We can conclude this based on verse 16: "But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.  But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you because you come together not for the better but for the worse."  Now, let us examine the cultural context of that which Paul says is not actively practiced: head coverings.

Paul is speaking of the literal, physical head of a man and a woman.  In some local congregations of Jews, the priests were required to have a head covering.  The Woman's Bible suggests that on Jewish traditions the priests were required to have a head covering.(4) Those traditions are recorded in Exodus 28:4, 37-38; 29:6,9; 39:28,31; and Leviticus 8:9.  Kluane Spake writes in You are Acceptable to Me that Jewish men, not Jewish women, covered their heads to worship with a garment called a "tallith."(5)  Some men wore a tallith all the time.  In contemporary culture, orthodox Jewish males wear head shawls during prayer.  Greek and Roman males also usually prayed with covered heads except before the Father of the gods and before a deity known as "Glory."  Thus, head coverings are common to the culture of the geographical area, Christian and Gentile.(6) Spake also asserts that Jewish women wore their hair bound up in public because unbound hair was almost considered as nudity, or immorality.(7) In the Greek Christian church, men who covered their heads with a tallith would be indicating that Christ was not as divine as a Greek god.  He would "dishonor his own head" or his source, Christ, by praying to God with his head covered.  Thus, we can plainly see that covered heads in worship meant different things to different groups.(8)

In order to fully understand the verses here that address women, we must outline the cultural attitudes towards women.  First, the time between the Old and New Testaments is depicted by moral decay.  During the four centuries that elapsed, the Jews were subject to the rulership of people who did not know God.  The seventy years of Babylonian Captivity and their primary interaction with pagan natives left its impact on Jewish laws and customs even though during that time span there was consistent worship of God.

Within the worship of God, sexual gratification became a part of the central focus.  This demanded the devaluation of women.  While in Babylon, women were required to enter the temple and to prostrate themselves in the presence of idols.  It was considered a merit for parents to devote their daughters to a life of sexual commerce for the enrichment of the sacred coffers.  Babylon the Great opened the market for the sale of women.  This then led to the classification of women into five categories.

The first class of women was wives.  They were totally confined and had little or no exposure to the world beyond their homes.  Their purpose was to birth Greek citizens.  They had no rights or privileges.  They were the sole property of their husbands.  They could not even sit at the table of their masters.

The second class of women was the Hetarirai.  They were the only free women in Athens.  They were the intellectuals who delivered public address, taught rhetoric, elocution, and founded schools of philosophy.  These women associated with men in public and had tremendous influence in the affairs of state.  Married men would take these women to social events, not their own wives.

The third class is called the Auletride, or flute players.  They were usually imported slaves.  They were the entertainers at banquets, and they could be sold at any time during their performance.

The fourth class consisted of the concubines.  They too were purchased slaves who became a part of the household with the knowledge of the fact that there was a lawful wife.

The fifth class of women was the Dicterides.  They were state prostitutes who rarely came out during the day.

Now, in reference to our scripture, while women did not use a tallith, Jewish and Gentile women did veil themselves.   Some Rabbis demanded a man divorce his wife if she was seen in public unveiled.  In some pagan ceremonies women would discard their veils as a sign of freedom from their oftentimes oppressive husbands.

Verse six, then should be examined.  Here, we must understand that if a woman's head was shaved, it was a mark of disgrace.  The shaving of a woman's head was used as punishment and reprisal.  Therefore, if a woman had a shaven head, Paul suggests she cover it.  Furthermore, women who did not wear veils and who had bald heads or short hair could be mistaken for prostitutes or entertainers.  The Hetariai wore their hair shorter than the men.  As a final blow to the value of women, the Greeks held that woman was created from a substance inferior to that of man.  The philosophers held that woman could never be equal with man in moral or spiritual qualities and was, therefore, unworthy to be his true companion.  Thus, as you can surmise, it is necessary that there be an understanding of the customs, values, and culture of the times in order to fully understand Paul.  Without such study, it is easily plausible to misappropriate the truth.

In verse 7, Paul is saying to the men that since you are in the image of God, you should not have your head veiled.  Woman is in the image of man (when God formed woman, she was taken out of man) - she reflects both God and man.  In the beginning when God crated man and woman they both were in His image and likeness.  When God formed man from the ground, he reflected God.  When God took woman out of man, she reflects man.  ("She is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.  She shall be called woman because she was taken out of man.") Verse 8 reaffirms that woman was created for man because we know from Genesis 2: God had judged that man needed help to carry out God's commands to tend the garden and to keep or protect it.  Woman was made for man as an equal partner to accomplish the purpose of God.  Man alone (in his separation) could not comply with God's command.  Verse 10 finishes by saying woman "should have a symbol of authority on "her head" because of the angels.  The Greek New Testament reads, "A woman should have power over here head (physical head) because of the angels."   The word "power" is exousia, which means a freedom of choice.  Therefore, the verse says that a woman should have the freedom of choice to cover or uncover her head, and she should not be judged or categorized because of her choice.  Additional scriptures using the same language, "power over," include: Luke 9:1 "Power and authority over demons"; Luke 10: 19 "Authority over all the power of the enemy"; Revelation 2:26 "Power over the nations"; Revelation 6:8 "Power over the fourth part of the earth?"; Revelation 14:18 "Power over fire"; and Revelation 16:9 "Power over these plagues."

Some writers have inferred that to the Greeks, the uncovered head of the woman made her a seduction to evil spirits.  They were a very superstitious people.  However, the word "angel" also means "messenger." Possibly, one observing a woman with an uncovered head would judge her not to be virtuous, suitable for marriage.  Such a judgment could discredit the woman.

Verse 11 depicts the mutuality of male and female in the scripture.  Man and woman are interdependent on one another.  They together reflect the image of God.  Verse 12 reveals that man and woman find their origin in one another realizing that all comes from God the creator and former of each person.  Galatians 3:28 declares that in Christ there are not natural distinctions made based on calling and service to God.

If we were writing an epistle today to show the difference between proper Christian deportment and culture, those who would read our work void of understanding the times in which we live might also make laws that would not reflect the true meaning of what we were addressing.


1. Katharine Bushnell, God's Word to Women (Crossroad Publishing Company, 1923) p. 292.

2. Patricia Gundry, Neither Slave Nor Free (New York: Haxper and Row, 1987) p. 47.

3. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (New York: Harper and Row, 1988) p. 47.

4. Catherine Clark Kroeger, Mary Evans, and Elaine Storkey, Study Bible For Women (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1995) p. 344.

5. Spake, lbid p. 79.

6. Fred Wright, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, Chicago:MoodyPress, 1953) p. 96.

7. Spake, lbid p. 80.

8. George M. Larnsa, New Testament Commentary (Philadelphia: A. J. Hohnan Company, 1945) p. 272 .


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