Institute for Global Engagement Search


Submit to Serve

  • Chris Seiple
  • May 30, 2013

It is well-understood in development circles that community transformation cannot begin until the girl-child has been educated to at least a fifth-grade level of literacy and understanding. In other words, change only occurs when a mother has the education to understand and seek a better life for her kids. (Obviously, men are also capable of such conclusions, but they are historically less likely to come to let alone implement them.) More unfortunate, it is also a well-established fact that religion has played, and continues to play, a role in preventing women from becoming educated, while, worse, encouraging inequality and a sense of inferiority.

Two imperatives result.

    1. The development community needs to more fully examine the interrelationship between and among gender, development, religion, and religious freedom. Fortunately, some ground-breaking scholarship is now taking place, led by such women as Katherine Marshall (e.g., see her recent article in the tenth anniversary issue of The Review of Faith & International AffairsReligious Freedom in U.S. International Development Assistance and Humanitarian Relief: Ideas, Practice, and Issues,” as well her 2010 article in the same journal, “Development, Religion, and Women’s Roles in Contemporary Societies.”
    2. It is incumbent upon all religious adherents, especially those of global religions and impact, to think through clearly what their faith teaches about gender relations, and what that “looks like” in practice: from marriage and the family to the workplace to policies that one’s government pursues. While various positions have been and will be articulated, it is more imperative still that such conversations take place in a manner that edifies and encourages both genders, within the faith, among faiths, and between faiths and the world we live in.

What follows below are some reflections on the second imperative, from three, interrelated, perspectives. First, I write as a married Christian man with two sons and two daughters (all under the age of seven), each of whom I pray will experience a model of mutual submission between man and woman. I also write as someone who works for religious freedom worldwide because of his faith — that is, as someone who tries to love his neighbor better each day, in part by working for my neighbor’s opportunity to freely choose what s/he does (not) believe, and therefore how s/he behaves.

Foremost, however, I write as someone who understands the relationship between belief and behavior not as a moral discussion unique to a particular culture from a specific time. Instead I write as someone who understands the relationship between his belief and behavior as an opportunity to testify to the timeless message of Christ across time, a chance to bear witness to the new reality of the Kingdom of God through the mutual submission He requires of every relationship, every discussion, no matter the issue at hand.

In other words, I seek to share some thoughts amidst life’s journey to better understand the majesty, mystery, and mercy of Christ. I welcome your response, and rebuke.


“During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” — Acts 16: 9-10

Once in Macedonia, in the town of Philippi, Paul could not find a synagogue because there were not enough Jewish men (ten) to convene one. So he met with Lydia, a Gentile community leader and businesswoman, by the river, a place she and the other women had chosen to worship and follow God. Lydia listened to the Apostle’s message and accepted Christ as God’s son, becoming the first disciple of Christ in Europe, enabling its first church.

Later, Paul would write a letter of joyous partnership and gratitude to this church in Philippi, encouraging two factions — each led by a woman who had each worked with Paul as his equal partner in advancing the gospel — to be reconciled in Christ. Such reconciliation, Paul wrote, would guard their hearts and minds, but it first required gentleness and prayerful petition for the “peace of God,” which transcends human understanding (Philippians 4:2-7). Such a result came only through common submission to the Spirit, enabling consensus and action in service of the other. (Philippians 2: 1-8)

Two lessons emerge. First, Paul the strategist had not planned this trip. Nevertheless, Paul listened to the Holy Spirit, submitted, and left Turkey immediately for Greece. Second, Paul the man did not hesitate to submit to and work with the leadership that God revealed to Paul upon arrival. So much so that later when two factions developed in the church, Paul did not question the gender of the leadership but begged (not commanded) these two church leaders to submit to one another “in the Lord.”


Of course, Paul was inspired by the example of Christ, who first submitted in order to serve. In the cases of the adulterous women of John 4 and John 8, for example, Jesus submits to the first by asking her for a drink of water, and to the second by literally stooping before her (and her male accusers). And when no man would be seen with, let alone talk to, these women, Jesus does both, speaking with loving honesty, telling them to sin no more. Jesus’ example — of forgiving when no one asks, of going against every social-cultural norm of the day to show respect to the least respected of women — spoke to His time, and to all time.

Christians believe, as Jesus and Paul teach, that scripture “cannot be broken” because it is “God-breathed” (John 10:35, 2nd Timothy 3:16). So how do we apply Jesus’ example, and the seemingly contradictory teachings of Paul that while there is “no male or female” in Christ (Galatians 3:28), women should nonetheless “submit” to the “head” of man (Ephesians 5:22, 1st Corinthians 11:3, 1st Timothy 2:12)?

It is a millennia-old discussion and an untrained theologian perhaps has little to contribute. But as someone who has sometimes experienced the timeless relevance of Christ outside my own cultural context, some interim reflections have formed.

I believe it is possible, although not easy, to speak simultaneously to a particular context and to its larger context. And, if one is inspired by God, I believe it is possible to speak to a particular time, and across time. And so, it is important to discern with Paul what is a local context; i.e., what was meant for a particular church in a particular place at a particular time (mindful that even Jesus seemed contradictory depending on the particular context — compare Mark 9:40 vs Matthew 12:30). And, it is vital to further discern with Paul what is a universal context; i.e., what is meant to govern all contexts, to speak to the Church “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.”[ii]

My own understanding is that Paul’s letter to the Ephesians — which was actually a letter meant to circulate to all the churches in western Turkey — is the governing point of reference for understanding the Church in any context, at any time. In fact, the Ephesians epistle is nothing less than a subversive samizdat,[iii] challenging the very order of state and society, then and now, reminding Christians at the time that the Roman Empire was absolutely nothing compared to the Kingdom of God that Christ had ushered in with His resurrection.

At a time when:

  • the emperor was being worshipped as a god;
  • the culture was based on the pater familias (“father of the family”), who had the unquestioned authority to kill and enslave his own children;
  • Nero was beginning the systematic persecution of Christians; and,
  • Jew and Gentile were about to enter into open warfare in Judea (ending with the Gentile destruction of the Jewish temple)…

Paul dared to proclaim that:

  • Christ was the head of the family (not the emperor), and that reconciling peace came through Him (not Pax Romana);
  • Christ asked His family to submit to one another across ethnicity, gender, and geography (especially Jew and Gentile); and,
  • Christ asked His family to serve Him through mutual submission to one another, an example that should be modeled foremost by the man of the household, especially in the context of marriage.

Regarding this last point, Paul makes his case through the format of the “household rules,” something very familiar to each home in the Greco-Roman world. In fact, the idea was rooted in 500 years of thinking, dating back to Plato and Aristotle, and found reflection in the “Twelve Tables,” the foundation of Roman law. The household was regarded as the cornerstone of state and society: if there was an orderly household — ruled by the unquestioned father — then there was order in society, and the state was stable.

It is in this larger geo-political-social-cultural context that Paul wrote, expecting Christ’s followers to be unified in the Spirit, bearing public witness to the in-broken Kingdom of God through their changed behavior. Just as Christ used the Passover to explain what was intended and completed in Him (introducing Communion), Paul used the familiar format of the “household rules” to turn every social-culture norm upside-down by naming the new Father of the family, and His new rules. The letter to the Ephesians, in short, was a radical, counter-cultural manifesto that understood personal change as the first step toward an enduring public witness to the Kingdom of God.

Paul reminds the Christians that a new set of beliefs requires a new way of behavior; that their Hope asks them to be holy. Holiness, in turn, seeks a corporate body of believers unified — and mutually accountable — in the Spirit. And the way to do that was to “speak to one another in psalms;””sing and make music in your heart to the Lord;” give “thanks to God the Father for everything;” and “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:19-21)

The anchor of Christian life and unity in the Spirit is submission: to Christ, and therefore to each other. In reflecting on the gift of freedom of conscience, and unity in, and submission to, Christ, Dietrich Bonhoeffer provided the following summary of the Christian alternative to a broken world (i.e., the Kingdom of God):

The freedom of the other person includes all that we mean by a person’s nature, individuality, endowment. It also includes his weaknesses and oddities, which are such a trial to our patience, everything that produces frictions, conflicts, and collisions among us. To bear the burden of the other person means involvement with the created reality of the other, to accept and affirm it, and, in bearing with it, to break through to the point where we take joy in it.[iv]

Sacrificial submission enables sanctifying service, meekly. Christians do not seek to change the world, but to live the change requested of them. In pursuing this service born of the change brought by submission, Christians come alongside the ongoing work of the One who has changed them, in service to the other. In so doing, Christians of every vocation and location — that is, as His global Church — bring the in-broken Kingdom of unconditional love as a “more excellent way” than the brokenness of a hurting world.

Service without submission is idolatry. As Mortimer Arias has argued: “Do we really expect that the world will be won for Christ just by cheap evangelism?”[v]

I am convinced that Ephesians teaches the 1st century churches of western Turkey, and the Church across time, to take its beliefs so seriously — according to the submission and service of Christ at the Cross — that it takes joy in behaving as He does, bearing public witness to a new order.

Only in this overall and multi-layered context, it seems to me, can we begin to understand what Paul is saying with regard to married women and men. In Ephesians 5:22-33, Paul asks the wife to submit to the husband (verse 22), and then asks the husband three times to love his wife (as Christ the head, loves the Church). In making the request of the woman, it is important to note that there is no hint of inferiority in the original Greek, and that Paul uses Greek’s “middle voice,” which implicitly asks for voluntary submission. Indeed, the word “submit” does not exist in verse 22, because it has already been stated in verse 21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In short, verses 22-33 are governed by and submit to the mutual submission of verse 21.

More curious, at least to me, is that Paul uses 40 words to ask the wife once to submit, but uses 115 words to ask the husband three different times to love.[vi] In words and commands, Paul sees fit to tell the male three times more what the proper behavior is. Is that because males are three times as stupid as women? Perhaps, but I feel that Paul — through the culturally accepted format of the “household rules” based on the unquestioned rule of the father — is simply making clear what the counter-cultural expectation of the Cross is for the Christian man as he bears public witness to the Kingdom of God: submit more, precisely because everyone does not expect you to submit at all.

F.F. Bruce reminds us that Paul’s request that men love their wives as themselves (verse 28) is a clear echo of the Leviticus 19:18 command to love God and neighbor as yourself. Bruce also notes that the Old Testament love poems between man and wife (The Song of Songs), uses the feminine form of neighbor for the woman.[vii] In other words, men, loving God and loving neighbor begins with your wife, your first neighbor.

In describing the relationship between man and woman in the context of the mutual submission required of the Church, Paul is describing an excellence unattainable except through Christ. Translation: if you depend on yourselves, you will achieve the mediocrity you thought you could avoid.

If, on the other hand, the Christian men and women of marriage try to out-sacrifice each other — unified in and aided by their common and constant submission to Christ and the Holy Spirit — then ideas of hierarchy begin to fade. Roles are not defined according to gender, but according to gifts, as each spouse tries to out-enable the other’s gifts in service to their marriage, their family, the Church, and the world.

I further believe that such a process is not only testimony to the in-broken Kingdom of God — to their children and their neighbors, local and global — it is how truly sustainable change takes root, and grows. But that is my opinion; Christian husbands and wives should, together, seek their own understanding from the Holy Spirit about what mutual submission looks like for them, and how it should be lived out.


In conclusion, the Christian who seeks to know Christ better today than s/he did yesterday must submit to Christ, and therefore the other, irrespective of gender. If identity is not recognized and realized in the mutual-rootedness of neighbor — beginning with the first neighbor of spouse — then Christians cannot become what God intended…nor can they bear witness to an alternative lifestyle starkly different from a fallen world. Spiritual unity begins at home for the Christian. If unity through submission and service can be learned and lived there, then there is the possibility that it will be lived in a hurting world that yearns to be developed in a more excellent way.

If we bark too loud and too long at the gender tree — for or against a “traditional” understanding of gender roles, even with the best of intentions — we will miss the Kingdom forest of mutual submission, out of reverence to Christ, and therefore true service. We will miss the opportunity to surrender to the serenity that comes when we testify to the Kingdom of God.

As my friend Lou Huesmann reminds me, we should not ask “What do I believe and therefore how should I then live?” but rather, “What has God revealed about this new reality that’s been inaugurated in Jesus’ resurrection and how do I bear witness to it as someone who belongs to this Kingdom?”

The consequences of this perspective are enormous. No longer will Christians conduct domestic discussions of how to live in the Church, but they will equip each other to live as the Church — bearing a winsome, irenic, practical, and public witness to the return of King Jesus.

For example, please see Carol McMullen’s thoughts as she reflects on the recent Davos meeting:


[ii] Screwtape, in C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Touchstone, 1961), 22.

[iii] The samizdat was a grassroots form of dissent in the former Soviet Union, a self-published tract, letter or essay that had been hand-typed and distributed to avoid censorship and/or jail.

[iv] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco, Harper One, 1954), 101.

[v] Mortimer Arias, Announcing the Reign of God: Evangelization and the Subversive Memory of Christ (Lima, Ohio: Academic Renewal Press, 1984), 98.

[vi] Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1999), 409.

[vii] F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1984), 391.

About Chris Seiple

Chris Seiple is Principal Advisor for Templeton Religion Trust’s Covenantal Pluralism Initiative, and President Emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement. He is widely known and sought after for his decades of experience and expertise regarding issues at the intersection of geopolitics, US foreign policy, Asia, conflict resolution, human rights, and religion. He earned his Ph.D. in International Relations at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University. His books include The Routledge Handbook of Religious Literacy, Pluralism, and Global Engagement (Routledge 2023), co-edited with Dennis R. Hoover.

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