The notion of egalitarianism in Christianity (that men and women are equal before God and in Christ and in relationship with one another) is a controversial one that varies in its perceptions and interpretations across an expanse of generations and denominations and theological backgrounds. One's view on submission generally follows based on their view of the former and its place (or lack thereof) in the church (and, subsequently, their marriages.)
When I first became a Christian in 1998, I relied heavily on the ideals and theology presented to me by those whom I had quickly come to respect in the church I was now part of. Having grown up in a denominational church with little talk of God outside of Sundays and holidays, I was completely unaware of what it meant to have a genuine relationship with my creator. All I knew was this set of rules I was supposed to follow and when to sit or stand or kneel during mass. Tagging on the heels of someone else's faith came quite natural to me when I was a kid, and it's what came naturally to me back in 1998. To some extent, I still find myself hitching a ride from time to time.
Along with this new-found "relationship" came the desire to fit in with my new Jesus-loving friends, and I was desperate for their approval. At first, it felt a little like high school all over again, albeit without the caddy games and name-calling of my past. These people genuinely loved me and cared for me and wanted what was best for me; and I, in turn, trusted them. I longed to please them with finding success in my faith, although admittedly at the time I had no idea what success looked like or how it was measured for someone of my new-girl-in-the-pew stature. So when they proposed to me the idea of submission in my marriage, I took their words to heart and did everything I could to find success in the role of suitable helper.
My husband was not a Christian, and I have no doubt that without my church and the women in my life at that time, my marriage would have failed. I don't say that to place blame on anyone or to make anyone think I was a victim. Quite the contrary, I was a total mess; A young mother who married even younger and felt as though she missed out on life despite vowing she would never have changed a thing. I am confidant if it weren't for these women (and the amazing grace of God), I would have failed my marriage miserably a long time ago.
So I listened to the "wisdom" of these women I had come to idolize and had entrusted my faith to. I relied heavily on their direction and interpretation of scripture.
I wouldn't say I wasn't "allowed" to think for myself. I was encouraged to read and study and pray. But being a new Christian with no firm biblical foundation meant I asked questions and sought advice...lots of it...and trusted their answers wholeheartedly and without question. When it came to being a wife with a non-Christian husband, they quoted scriptures like Ephesians 5:21-23 and Colossians 3:18, and encouraged me to put 1 Peter 3:1 into practice so that I could win my husband over "without words."
I tried. Often. Over and over.
I failed. Miserably. Over and over.
My husband was, and still is, a very devoted husband and an incredible father to our children. Despite his baptism in 2004, (which was NOT to the credit of me being a 1 Peter wife) we have struggled to find a balance in our marriage with God at the forefront. We have both spent the past decade muddling through what it means to be a Christian and love God. And for the better part of that decade, I was definitely not egalitarian.
My view of submission during that time was that it was a one-way street. As long as my husband wasn't asking something ungodly of me, I was to submit. If he wanted something done, I did it. If he didn't like it, I didn't wear it. If he didn't want me to do it, I didn't even think about it. And, to be clear, this wasn't because it was the way HE wanted it to be. I doubt he never even knew about this standard I was holding myself to. Nope. I made this bed all by my little self.
With this way of life came a complete lack of boundaries. I held, on my shoulders and on my heart, the weight of my husband's faith (or lack thereof.) I felt responsible for his salvation. (I must watch my behavior so I can win him over.) I felt guilty when he didn't want to go to church. (I must not have been submissive enough.) I lamented over his not wanting to be part of our small family group. (I must not have been loving enough.) After a while, I felt totally hopeless...and, slowly, I found myself tangled in a sticky web of mismanaged submission.
Fast forward ten years. Where had my independence gone? My individuality? My faith? Had I ever even had a faith I could really call my own? Was this the way God intended my marriage to be? A complete loss of the identity of this daughter he created with gifts and talents and desires for the sake of a biblical directive obviously (now) taken out of context? For the better part of ten years I lived to echo this man I called my husband, rather than what I later discovered was my true calling....to "echo the wild love of God." (Addie Zierman)
It took uprooting myself and my family and leaving my decade of relationships behind when we made the decision to change churches for me to realize my view of submission was all wrong. It's not, as I had thought for so many years, a one-way street. God wants us to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21) not out of duty or some misguided theology. It's about loving one another so deeply that your greatest desire is to put them before you, "not by default because you don't know who you are, but on purpose, precisely because you do." (Addie Zierman)
Recently I watched an episode of Cold Case where detective Lilly Rush (I heart her) was investigating the death of a woman killed in 1919 because of her activism for women's rights. I remember a scene during the backstory where the mother and daughter are arguing over women's roles in marriage and politics. The mother said, "A woman's first obligation is to maintain domestic harmony." (To which the daughter later called her mother out for being content to live in a cage where men decided how she should live. Score one for daughter Francis!)
But what the mother said really got me thinking about the phrase "domestic harmony." Aren't we called to pursue peace and harmony with all people in all places and in all circumstances (not just our domiciles?) Shouldn't the reason be far greater than because its what the bible tells us to do? And is a woman who is constantly sacrificing herself and the individuality given to her by God - her gifts and talents and abilities to think and contribute and persuade for the kingdom - really capable of keeping such "domestic harmony?" Speaking from experience, the answer is a resounding NO.
I believe God created each of us equally with our own set of unique gifts and talents, and he desperately wants us...or, rather, he expects us...to use them for his glory. I'm pretty sure he rejoices when we do so. But he doesn't get any glory when we tuck them away deep inside out of our own fears or misunderstandings.
At it's core, egalitarianism is about understanding the true biblical definition of submission and how it relates to boundaries; boundaries within the church, within your relationships, within your marriage. On the other hand, dutiful submission is without boundaries and can lead to resentment, bitterness, and the potential destruction of one's relationships (particularly when you spend ten years of your life living one way and then decide to swing the pendulum the other direction. Ask me how I know.)
The boundaries you set for yourself (with God as your director) ultimately protect your individuality and relationships with others and sow the seeds for reverent submission. When we add wisdom and the decision and desire to love all people in all places wherever they are on their journey, these seeds grow into beautiful relationships, mutually beneficial and filled with respect for others regardless of gender, race, or religion.
In the interest of full disclosure, I still don't have this submission thing down perfect and I don't expect I ever will. I'm an utter mess on most days and I struggle daily to find and maintain a balance between submission and self-preservation. But I find peace in knowing that, in the end, we are all equal at the foot of the cross. And I believe there is great redemption to be found when we put that over what I believe is a greatly misunderstood and less-than-perfect biblical hierarchy.
Go find some harmony.