(Much of this content first appeared in a seminar I gave in spring 2018 entitled “Redeemed Womanhood: An Alternative to Cultural Feminism.” You can see the rest of the content in these blog posts on “Why I’m Not a Feminist …”, “Does the Answer to a Woman’s Identity Crisis Lie in Her Career?”, and “Should Mamas Stay Home with their Babies?”)
It’s no secret that the Biblical roles of men and women have been completely rejected by our culture in recent decades, being described as “oppressive,” “the patriarchy,” “demeaning,” and “offensive.” And in truth, many are reacting mostly against a word which has come to have only negative connotations in our society – submission.
I have struggled with this idea myself over the years – wrestling with what it truly means and how it’s practically played out in a God-honoring way, when I feel the tug of wanting to make my own decisions and not wanting to be “ruled” over by a man.
But what I have come to discover is that I – along with so many others in our culture – are reacting not so much to the roles of men and women that God has designed – but to how they’ve been portrayed. We’ve had broken representations of these roles in our society, and because of that, we’ve recoiled from them.
And unfortunately, this has been true even in the church, where men and women have not interpreted God’s biblical design correctly and in sinful ways have corrupted them.
However, when I began studying the roles of manhood and womanhood the way that God designed them – as well as the ultimate example of submission in Christ Himself – the negative shades began to melt into the brightest colors of beauty. When I talked to godly men and women whom I respect and saw the example of their lives portraying these roles accurately, they became something alluring and freeing, not something repulsive and restricting.
And ultimately, I came to see this truth that replaces the lies of the culture: that God is ultimately in charge of our lives, and when men and women both submit to Him and gladly, humbly carry out their roles, He is most exalted and glorified.
Biblical Manhood and Womanhood Defined
Really, we can’t say that we’re the ones in charge of our lives and destinies, when it is God who sovereignly directs the events of our lives, holds our futures in His hands, and designs us to play a specific role in society. And part of His design is in making us uniquely man or uniquely woman.
What do I mean by those specific roles? Let me borrow the definitions of these roles from John Piper, who said it best in his book Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood –
“At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.”
And for womanhood – “At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.”
He then goes on to break each part of those definitions down, but the overwhelming emphasis in these two roles is not in designating which role is “better” or more advantageous than the other – it’s in carrying them both out in such a way that the other person is honored, respected, loved, and built up.
Fairness meters might flair up and the woman might be prone to say, “Well, that’s not fair! Why was the man chosen to lead?” To which the answer might come that one of the roles had to be a leader, and God ordered that it should be the man. It’s only that we’ve seen poor examples of leadership – leadership that is abused or passive or nonexistent – that women have felt that tug to rebel against it.
But Elisabeth Elliot, in her book Let Me Be a Woman, did a beautiful job of describing order in creation like this:
“What is this joy which we feel in order and design? Isn’t it the same kind of pleasure we experience in the rhythm (which is the predictability) of music, the pattern of an Oriental rug, the measured movements of a dance, the unimprovable form of any true work of art? Our joy is in the very discipline of the thing. The discipline doesn’t stifle, it gives power, it makes beauty possible. Why shouldn’t it be so when we consider the glorious hierarchical order too? Each being plays its part in the music, in the pattern, in the dance, and in playing it in accord with the Creator’s instructions finds its fullest joy.” (p. 118)
When you read it like this, and think about the orderly way that God designed every part of creation to synchronize – the ocean to come only so far onto the shore, the birds to fly and not crawl, the rain to fall, the animals to stay in their particular habitats – why is it so far-fetched to believe that men and women, too, have an order which God created for them to live out?
Our ideas of leadership and submission, therefore, have to be carefully defined and understood, if we are to truly know the kind of freedom that comes from walking in God’s design for them.
Qualities of a Man’s Leadership
First of all, the man’s leadership should be rooted in his humble submitting to God as His Maker above all else. He should seek to serve and sacrifice for the good of woman and never assume the authority of Christ over a woman. At the same time, he should “feel the responsibility to provide a general pattern of initiative” (as John Piper says), be the one to pursue the woman romantically, and express his leadership in such a way that shows his maturity and dignity, when making decisions or guiding the family spiritually.
The leadership that I have most respected from men in my life has been the kind of leadership that affirms and honors me in the way that God has made me; it has been decisive and active, not waiting around for someone else to make the move; and it has been loving and godly in all senses – not selfish and harsh.
This kind of leadership makes a woman excited to work with a man who is submitted to God’s plans and actively wants her to be a part of carrying them out with him.
Additionally, just because men are created to be leaders doesn’t mean that women can never be leaders either. The Bible is filled with examples of women who were leaders – Deborah served as a judge over Israel, Esther saved her whole nation from being slaughtered by Haman, Mary was chosen to be the bearer and mother of Jesus Himself, and Priscilla worked closely with her husband Aquila in the early church as a leader. Some of the greatest leadership teams are husbands and wives who seek to set the example by leading ministries or work areas together.
Qualities of a Woman’s Submission
Secondly, when it comes to submission, John Piper defines it like this:
“Submission refers to a wife’s divine calling to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts. It is not an absolute surrender of her will. Rather, we speak of her disposition to yield to her husband’s guidance and her inclination to follow his leadership. […] Christ is her absolute authority, not the husband. She submits ‘out of reverence for Christ’ (Eph. 5:21).
The feminism culture would have us think that submission is the worst possible thing that a woman could do. But they are interpreting submission as being a doormat – allowing a man to abuse you and not allowing yourself to have any voice or personality whatsoever in a marriage context. That is wrong, and it is also a wrong interpretation of submission.
On the contrary, Elisabeth Elliot says,
“With gladness she submits because she understands that voluntary submission is her very strength. Because it is the thing asked of her by her Creator, it is the thing which assures her of fulfillment. It is the task assigned her which, willingly performed, actually strengthens the husband in his weakness.”
The best way that I have come to understand submission is through studying John chapter 17 and seeing how Christ submitted to the Father. For me, this has removed all sense of degradation that usually goes along with the idea of submitting. For when you read the words that Jesus prayed, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed,” you can’t help but be in awe of their relationship.
The Son submitted to the Father not because He was forced against His will – but He did so gladly because He desired for the Father to be glorified. He came to earth, not to do what He wanted, but to do what the Father wanted Him to do – the work that He had been assigned to do. And this is what brought Him the most joy. Simultaneously, as the Son sought to glorify the Father, the Father glorified the Son through His willing submission – all members of the Trinity are mutually committed to each’s glory. It doesn’t erase their roles, but rather it makes them all the more beautiful.
This gives me hope when I think of the role that I have been called to play here on earth as a woman. It is not something second-rate, degrading, or oppressive. It is a role that does not take away my personality, my gifts, or my intelligence. It is a role in which all those things can work together to serve others, especially the men in my life by affirming and supporting their leadership.
Once again, Elisabeth Elliot says it perfectly:
“You can talk about partnership, but it is the partnership of the dance. If two people agree to dance together they agree to give and take, one to lead and one to follow. This is what a dance is. Insistence that both lead means there won’t be any dance. It is the woman’s delighted yielding to the man’s lead that gives him freedom. It is the man’s willingness to take the lead that gives her freedom. Acceptance of their respective positions frees them both and whirls them into joy.” (p. 175)
The Ultimate Submission
Ultimately, both men and women have to submit to God and His authority in their lives. Even in the marriage context, a woman’s final submission is not to her husband, but to God Himself. Both men and women must learn to yield their desires, their hopes, and their plans to God’s will for their lives.
If you’ve had broken examples of womanhood and manhood in your life, I understand. We’ve all had poor representations of leadership and submission in our lives, and I feel sad that we have to fight through the wreckage to find the truth of what God actually says about it.
But I encourage you to keep seeking godly examples of men and women carrying out these roles. Because the more of them you see, the more you will be reminded that it is possible to embrace these roles the way that God intended them to be lived out.
When women are, as John Piper says, “enhanced, […] honored and freed by [a man’s] caring strength and servant-leadership,” and when women “bring nurturing strengths and insights that make men stronger and wiser” ultimately affirming and valuing a man’s leadership, churches, marriages, and society are made stronger and more beautiful. We simply have to trust God’s design and ask for His wisdom and grace to carry out our roles with joy and love.
Additionally, start practicing submission to the Lord right now. Whether we are married or single, our highest act of submission must be to God and His purposes for our lives. If we are constantly fighting against our current stage of life, wishing for something else, and practicing discontentment on a daily basis, we are not submitting to God’s design for our lives. We are in essence telling God, “What you’ve given me is not enough. You don’t know what’s best for my life.”
But when we submit our desires to the Lord and trust that He is working out His purposes for us, the deepest joy and contentment will come our way. And this is when submission brings the greatest fulfillment we’ll ever have in this life – because we are submitting to the Father’s loving design for our lives and obediently walking with him every day.
Choosing to live our lives like this puts Christ on display because it tells the world where our truest treasure and hope is – in Him – and that that will stay the same, no matter what our circumstances are.