Humility Without Hierarchy: How Submission Works for Us

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

People are often surprised to find out that I submit to my husband…or at least I try to. 

They are surprised because, as a self-described “liberated woman” who champions women in church leadership and an egalitarian interpretation of Scripture, I don’t fit the perceived mold for the submissive wife. The word “submission” has become synonymous with “subordination” and so it is assumed that only conservative complementarian wives submit to their husbands. 

It’s too bad because I’m pretty sure that submission—a willingness to yield to another person’s ideas and desires—is almost as important to a relationship as a shared sense of humor.

I know it is for us. 

What has emerged in our eight years of marriage, (perhaps accidentally), is a pattern of submission that is a) mutual and b) characterized by humility rather than hierarchy. It’s not a perfect marriage…I still forget to put new toilet paper on the roll…but it’s a happy and healthy one.  

I can’t tell you what will work in your marriage, but I can tell you what has worked in ours. 

The problem with hierarchy 

The contrast between hierarchy and humility has become more clear to me this year as I’ve been altering some of my behavior for my year of biblical womanhood. As I’ve tried to apply passages like Ephesians 5:22  and 1 Peter 3:6  hyper-literally (even going so far as to call Dan “master” for a week!), we’ve both noticed how awkward it is to try and institute hierarchal gender roles into our daily routine when, really, we’ve never found such roles to be practical. For us, it’s just always worked better to let the person most suited for a specific task or venture take the lead.  

A lot of Christians appeal to Ephesians 5, 1 Timothy 2, and 1 Peter 3, (the “wives submit to your husbands” passages) to suggest that every husband is the God-ordained head of his household and that every wife is to be submissive to his leadership. But relying on the letters of Peter and Paul is problematic because in nearly every case, the admonition for wives to submit to their husbands is either preceded or followed by the admonition for slaves to obey their masters. In fact, phrases like “likewise” or “in the same way” are used to link the two. So to say that the hierarchal structures presented in these passages are divinely instituted and inherently holy, raises some troubling questions about God’s view of slavery. 

What if it isn’t the structure that is sacred, but the attitude? What if submission can both inhabit and transcend culturally constructed hierarchal categories? 

After all, didn’t Paul instruct Christians to submit to one another?

 I don’t submit to Dan because he is a man and I am a woman. I submit to him because I love him, because I deeply respect him, and because I made a promise to put his needs before my own.  I would hope that he would find that more meaningful than if I submitted to him simply because it was my “place.”

That said, I know plenty of couples who find that identifying an official leader of the family helps them make decisions faster, stay on the same page better, and move through life with more harmony and peace. If such an arrangement works better for you, GO FOR IT! This post is not an indictment against hierarchal marriages. I am convinced that God can work in both complementarian and egalitarian relationships and that both have the potential to be happy, healthy, and Christ-honoring. 

Hierarchy may work for some people. I just don’t think it is biblically mandated. 

The challenge of humility 

I suspect that both egalitarians and complementarians would agree that an attitude of humility is necessary for true, heartfelt submission.  We are to imitate Christ, who “although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant…” (Philippians 2). 

The essence of submission, then, is not the absence of power but the voluntary relinquishing of it. 

It’s not about sticking to a prescribed hierarchy; it’s about walking in humility. 

Dan and I are equals. But for our marriage to thrive, we both have to relinquish our power now and then.  Sometimes I submit to Dan, sometimes he submits to me.   Sometimes submission is easy, sometimes it’s hard. 

But I can only be responsible for my actions.  It’s not my job to try and force “mutual submission;” it’s my job to humbly submit.…which may mean watching “Mad Max” instead of “Persepolis” on Netflix Instant Play (not that I’m holding any grudges about that one). 

A note on “spiritual leadership”

Back in college, my friends and I were constantly fretting over how to find a guy who exhibited enough “spiritual leadership” to qualify as a potential husband. I remember flipping through the college directory—affectionately dubbed the “ugly book”—and rating the guys based not on looks, but on spiritual aptitude.

In talking with campus ministers, I’ve found that this whole “spiritual leader” thing is alive and well on Christian college campuses today.  Perhaps because “submission” has been understood in terms of hierarchy, young women assume they must marry men who are more assertive, driven, and knowledgeable than they. 

I wish I could send out mass email to college girls everywhere reminding them that if Christ is our example of leadership, then what they should be looking for are men who are servants. It matters not whether a guy likes to take charge or work behind the scenes or whether his prayer time lasts longer than yours. What matters is that he is willing to put other people’s needs before his own.

What matters is that he too is willing to submit. 

I'm so glad I found that kind of guy. 


What comes to your mind when you hear the word “submission”? How does submission work in your relationships?

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