Not under compulsion:  Is submission voluntary?

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One of the key tenants of complementarianism is that submission, especially the wife’s submission to the husband is voluntary.  In other words, she is not under compulsion to submit to her husband but rather, she may willingly choose to do so. Primarily when making the point, complementarians are seeking to address two groups of people. First of all, they wish to address critics who argue that complementarianism lays the foundations for abusive relationships.  Secondly, it is to address husbands and to make it clear to them that they are not permitted to use headship to force their wives into submission.

The Biblical case for voluntary submission

There are two reasons for this argument. First of all, when we look at the key passages like Ephesians 5:21ff we discover that although husbands are described as “the head of the wife”, they are not told to make use of or enforce that headship for their own benefit. The instruction to husbands is not “Be the head, establish authority, ensure your wife submits.” Instead it is “love your wife.”  Husbands are heads, the idea that Paul wants to undermine/reverse that is rather missing from the text and the fact that he roots husbandly headship in Christ not in the culture of the day reminds us that the idea is Biblical and transcultural. However, this also means that if husbandly headship is modelled on Christ’s headship then husbands are meant to be like Christ who humbled himself and came as a servant. Hence men are to “love your wives as Christ loved the church…”

Secondly, we establish the idea of voluntary submission from the wider context of Scripture and what it teaches about relationships and obligations. So, first of all, in the immediate context we see Paul’s instructions to slaves and masters.

Bondservants,[a] obey your earthly masters[b] with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master[c] and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.

Ephesians 6: 5-9

Note that slaves are to willingly serve, not only when they are being watched (eye-service) and this would suggest that they are to serve even when their masters are not closely managing them, compelling them to work.  Furthermore, masters are forbidden from “threatening” in other words, they cannot rely on their tried and tested methods to cajole and compel their workers into service.  If they cannot threaten and force then they are rather dependent on the worker’s goodwill and willingness to serve.

Then we have the wider pattern of New Testament duty and service which the title of this article is based on that Christians act “not out of compulsion” but rather from the heart. The reference here is from 2 Corinthians 9:7 which is talking specifically about giving. However, the principle has a wider application because this is a movement from legal compulsion -the requirement to tithe to a willing heart response.

Is the idea of voluntary compulsion anachronistic?

It has recently been suggested to me that the concept of voluntary compulsion is an anachronism, that it attempts to use concepts rooted in contemporary western culture that are simply not present in the culture of Paul’s day.  The argument for this is that the culture was different with an emphasis on honour-shame and norms and laws which implicitly and explicitly made it clear that wives were little more than possessions/chattels and so had no choice in the matter, they were obligated to submit. Therefore, Paul’s initial readers would have no concept of voluntary behaviour and the idea of voluntary submission would be meaningless to them.

I want to challenge the assumptions here for three reasons. The first is that I think we too often emphasise a gap between the culture of Bible times and the culture of today. Of course, we can miss that there are differences and that’s where anachronisms arise but when we assume that the culture is completely different we miss two things. First, we miss that modern western culture (or even postmodern western culture) is a minority position out of line both geographically with the majority of the world and historically with what has been the cultural norm.  This means that many cultures around the world and throughout history have been much closer to the cultures of Bible times than we often appreciate. Such cultures may find many of our debates perplexing. Secondly, I think that we overestimate the gap even between Western Culture and Ancient Near Eastern Culture. For example, significant elements of honour-shame culture remain substantially present in much western culture today. Consider for example the English concept of keeping a stiff upper lip. Loss of face, embarrassment, a sense of shame are very real in the West.  The behaviour of a rogue Prime Minister or President, a sporting failure, a shocking violent crime are all seen as  bringing shame on a nation or community.

The second reason is that whilst it is true that Greco-Roman culture did treat women as chattels that the picture is a little bit more complex than that. For example Balsdon writes that:

“In the last fifty years of the Republic, when we have plenty of contemporary evidence – for good or ill – in the smart, corrupt society of Rome itself, the New Woman has arrived. Her interests lie outside the four walls of her home. In politics, she is a power in her own right. She is perhaps the centre of notorious scandal.”

JPVD Balsdon, Roman Women: Their History and Habits (Rpr. London: The Bodley Head, 1963), 48.

There seems to have been a level of upheaval in society at that time so that social norms were being overturned. Indeed, it is often assumed that this lies behind some of the instructions in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Peter 3 about dress, hair and head coverings.  Removal of head coverings may have been seen by some as identifying with a freedom movement which whilst it would be anachronistic to see as identical to the modern feminist movement was certainly pushing against the assumption that husbands and fathers held absolute authority over wives and daughters.  So, Keener, an egalitarian argues that:

“Members of the Roman elite suspected Christians like several other non[1]Roman religions of subverting Roman family values. By upholding what was honorable in Roman values, the Christians could try to protect themselves from undue persecution and from misunderstandings of the gospel.”

Keener, Paul, Women & Wives, 133.

Note, from an egalitarian perspective Keener sees the household instructions regarding headship and submission as culturally contextualised advise rather than trans-cultural commands.

What this means is that there is strong evidence to suggest that the question of compulsion was in some quarters up for grabs and that there were some who were entertaining the notion that submission could be withheld. Christians may have considered that they were now free and therefore at liberty from a range of obligations. Indeed, that is a significant theme in Paul’s letters. Yes, Christians have freedom but that freedom is not to be used for selfish ends.

My third reason comes back to the principle I’ve found so powerful and helpful. We must allow Scripture to disagree with us. That’s what the emphasis on transcultural application is all about. Scripture will disagree with and challenge both the culture of our day and that of its initial audience.

This means that just as Scripture will say things that are bewildering to modern hearers because it goes against the grain of our culture, so too will it say things that were shocking, disturbing and confusing to its initial audience.  Just as Calvin insisted that despite it seeming counter intuitive in his day, that yes, mutual submission with those in hierarchical authority were required to submit to those under them, so too that the idea of voluntary submission may have sounded impossible to Paul’s hearers does not negate his teaching.

How Voluntary is voluntary?

One last question about voluntary submission might be the extent to which the word is exactly the right one to describe our motivation for submitting to one another.  Voluntary behaviour implies a level of free will and choice.  Now, there are two dynamics to that.

First of all, if someone was living in Greco-Roman society and those revolutionary tendencies mentioned above hadn’t yet touched their neighbourhood then did they really have any choice about submitting? Well, I think the point is that even if you are compelled then you have a choice between responding as though you are under compulsion, begrudgingly, protesting and doing the bare minimum.  Alternatively, even if you are under compulsion, you can behave in a way that shows that your compliance is willing. In that sense it is voluntary. You would act the same if not under compulsion.  You not only do the bare minimum but to borrow from Jesus, you go the extra mile.  In other words our submission to one another and to authorities should be willing, easily given and lavish or abundant.

Secondly, are we truly free? Aren’t we under obligation to Christ? Isn’t that the point, our obligation transfers from men to Him?  Well as reformed/Calvinistic Christian I can’t ignore the point at one level. However, at the human level it is clear that we do exercise our will, we do make decisions.  Further, I think the word “voluntary” makes it clear that we act willingly and not under compulsion, specifically in relation to the expectations of other human beings (otherwise if we extend the meaning of the word beyond this then nothing is truly voluntary).

When we act in a voluntary way, we do so because this is our heart’s desire to do so. We are not forced, coerced or manipulated.  We act not expecting reward or reciprocal behaviour.  So, I think the word works reasonably well.


It is right to talk in terms of voluntary submission even though the culture of Paul’s day made such acts difficult.  It is right because this was what Paul was expecting of his hearers then and because that is the best application to life today.

For a more detailed engagement on complementarian and egalitarian approaches to marriage see Marriage at Work

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