Submission is always a hot topic in Christian circles, especially when it comes to marriage. Critics are quick to point out that the word “submission” is not used in the original Greek in Ephesians which covers the marriage relationship. Still its use is strongly implied by the context. For good or ill, many Christian who favor submission try to soften its emphasis in the Bible. I believe that part of our problem lies in the word submission. We live in a time where submission has come to take on negative connotations. Americans in general have a negative view of authority. No one submits voluntarily anymore, only to someone who is more powerful, a boss, judge, or police officer. It makes me uncomfortable to use it in relationship to marriage. The word needs to be redefined to more accurately reflect its real meaning and stories are often the best way of doing this.
Some readers of the Lord of the Rings are bothered by Sam being Frodo’s servant. They view it as an archaic idea that Tolkien included in his work. Yet any enthusiast of Tolkien’s work will tell you, Sam is the unofficial hero of the story. Those who are bothered by Sam’s role as a personal servant take this as a social commentary, a use of irony to attack socio-economic inequality. I can’t tell you how wrong I think that interpretation is. Tolkien doesn’t take the deal with servant hood and submission to criticize them, instead he uses his story to ennoble servant hood. The mission to destroy the ring is Frodo’s alone; Sam’s is to take care of Frodo where ever he goes, a mission which Sam initially takes on simply because of his love for Frodo. The picture painted of Sam’s submission to Frodo is beautiful. I think the movies do a disservice to Tolkien’s story by downplaying that aspect of Sam and Frodo’s relationship. They emphasize the friendship aspect, while downplaying the master-servant one.
Notice what holds it together. Sam follows Frodo because of his love for his master. For him, the mission to destroy the ring is secondary to the primary mission of looking after Frodo. Frodo dearly loves Sam as well. They are in our modern sense best friends, while at the same time retaining the roles of servant and master. Such relationships are almost non-existent now, though I think were more common in other ages. Tolkien makes it beautiful. Sam is great not in spite of being a servant and submitting, but because he is a servant.
In the relationship of marriage, which is not master-servant, yet involves submission, there exists a deeper and more mysterious beauty. (To avoid being stoned I want to make clear that I do not believe that submission in marriage is the same as that of a master-servant). Genesis does make some interesting statements about marriage. One that makes feminists and egalitarians bristle is that Adam gives Eve a name as he does to the animals. Another is when God says that Adam needs a helper. The word that is used is significant. That Hebrew word for helper is almost exclusively used of God in relationship to Israel. God is Israel’s helper, the only one that can help him and save him. It gives a whole new meaning to the word helper. Both men and women would benefit from chewing that meaning over. As a nod to lovers of Middle Earth I will say that women often fill this role in Tolkien’s mythology. Almost every famous couple in Middle Earth’s history contains a woman who is exponentially more powerful than her lover, yet devoted to him in the best sense of the word (Beren and Lúthien, Melian and Thingol, Celebron and Galadriel, Aragorn and Arwen).
Now I need to make some confessions here. I haven’t mentioned anything practical here. My real goal is not to settle a dispute, but to make us all think about the connotations we attach to the word submission. Also I fully confess that I am a male, which I suppose makes me biased. This assumes of course that all men naturally favor submission and feel perfectly comfortable with it. Still I felt it important to note and it would be interesting to hear a female’s perspective.
Finally, understanding submission is important because all Christians are called to submit to one another. Submission between believers has been abused as it has been in marriage. It is vitally important however. If more people could see the beauty and grace in it, maybe more would practice it.