Ruth Part 1: The Freedom in Submission

The story of Ruth has been lingering on my heart for a couple years. This semester, I spent two months studying this book for a school project and what I learned has challenged my perspective in a lot of different ways. I want to share a few of those things with you through this blog series because there is so much freedom woven all throughout Ruth’s story. It’s beautiful, compelling, and affirming. I hope your heart will be filled like mine has through taking a closer look at this Old Testament book.

The girl-power was strong in my Old Testament class last week. I was finishing up a research paper on the book of Ruth and the entire class was engaged in a lively discussion on an Old Testament example of submission in marriage. It seemed, for the most part, I was in the minority being in favor of submission.

Some have assumed I’d be more suited to the egalitarian/feminist category. After all, my career goal of writing and ministry essentially means I will be teaching the Bible and running a business: two things society says conservative complementarians are against for women. I get a little feisty when people assume my ministry leadership degree is just a cover to find a job as a pastor’s wife. I don’t like it when people say women are second to men or that we’re limited to women’s and children’s ministry. I am 100% pro-woman. But I’m also 100% pro-submission and pro-complementarian (the idea that men and women are equal, but different).

And I’ve realized that none of these things contradict each other.

Before then, the story of Ruth made me a little uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to do with the fact that Ruth essentially proposed to Boaz – which would be a big black mark on any Christ-loving woman today. She would be labeled as difficult and controlling, or someone who didn’t have any patience or regard for a man’s leadership. Although I’m learning classifying what Ruth did as a proposal is a modern oversimplification of an ancient custom, there’s still an underlying principle we need to address about her story. Ruth is a woman of action and strength.

If Ruth had acted in the way we train Christian women today, I wonder if she would have even followed Naomi back to Bethlehem. She probably would have turned around like Naomi said to do. Her new faith in Yahweh may have been going against the grain in Moab, but at least she’d have her mission field. To the women, at least. If she would ever remarry, she’d have to let God drop him out of the sky while she waited and minded her own business.

That’s not at all what happened, though. Instead, she looked Naomi in the eye and refused to go back. She took on the role of provider for their family of two, knowing there would not likely be the opportunity to remarry. Then, as if her actions weren’t radical enough, she went to Boaz and at least presented the idea that he become her kinsman redeemer, even though he was actually Naomi’s closest relative.

I love this story, but my idea of Biblical womanhood is always challenged when I flip through its pages. The book, The Gospel of Ruth, talks about Ruth’s character being one of a rule breaker. It didn’t make sense to me. Women are supposed to be ruler followers, not breakers. They do what they’re told, especially when God says to do it.

But maybe that’s exactly what Ruth did, in “breaking the rules”.

Somehow we’ve turned “submission” and “Biblical womanhood” into telling women to be quiet and do what the men say. We’ve completely skewed what submission means as we’ve defined it in our own human terms. Submission according to the dictionary means yielding oneself to a superior force; the authority and will of another person.

It sounds like slavery. It sounds like setting aside our heart and identity to dedicate our lives to a man who will forever call the shots and live out his dreams while we enable him to do so by doing his laundry and cooking his dinner.

That is not submission according to God’s definition.

I’d like to think that when the Lord worked through the hands of His followers, He knew we’d need more clarity years later when translation brought us this word: submission. So He inspires Paul to compare the marriage relationship to Christ and the church, leaving no room to doubt what He meant.

He calls husbands to love their wives in the way that Christ loves the church.

Do you know what this means?

Christ’s love lifts others up and encourages. It puts others before Himself. It pursues relentlessly. It loves sacrificially. It guides gently. It speaks sweetly. It convicts through compelling. It is wrapped in kindness. It is covered in grace. It is done in forgiveness. It cherishes and values. It provides faithfully. It serves without ceasing. It defends, fights for, and protects against harm. It is pure. It is never ending. It intercedes and brings others before the Lord.

What part of that sounds like a call for the person being loved to let go of their value and dreams? What part sounds like oppression? What part sounds like a life of enslavement?

What part of Christ’s identity do we find so tyrannical that it leads us to believe submission is designed to rob us of dignity?

Christ’s love enables me. It inspires me. It facilitates sharing the Gospel. It gives me a foundation to declare the words that the Lord has put on my heart.

Why would we ever believe submission demeans us? Christ didn’t come to make us slaves. He made us free to accept love we do not deserve. Christ is the one who sacrificed Himself and what He wanted (to not go through the torture of crucifixion) so that we, the Church, could be restored and enabled to answer the call on our lives to be reconciled unto God.

And what does He ask in return? That we receive this love with both hands open and commit to Him our unwavering devotion. Because He first loved us. To enter into this relationship, He calls us to submit – to receive.

Submission is not about following a man’s marching orders. It’s about receiving love and humbling ourselves to receive it more fully. Our fear that submission equals oppression is rooted in our tendency to be like the Pharisees, acting as if our faith is dependent upon works and not the direct result of love and grace. We make faith about following rules rather than receiving love and allowing that love to transform us. We think it’s about tying our hands and limiting our potential. But it’s about freedom. It’s about graciously accepting something we do not deserve and living a changed life as a result. Our hearts are overwhelmed by this love and mercy and there is no other choice but to take what has been offered, knowing in this place we have the promise to one day live wholly as we were intended to be.

This doesn’t nullify the man’s responsibility of leadership. But in the simplest of terms, the heart of submission is a joyful receiving of love which has been poured out on us.

I love the way the author Darrin Patrick put it to men when he said that loving like Christ, and I believe embracing leadership, has a lot to do with being a wound-washer. Husbands are given the call of continually washing the wounds this world has burned onto the heart of their wife, to soothe and purify her, making her empowered to go into the world and fulfill God’s calling on her life. It’s such a huge responsibility for husbands. It’s also a huge privilege for women to be on the receiving end of this love we don’t deserve.

When I reread the story of Ruth with this new perspective, I saw the beautiful outline of “submission” written all over her life. It started with her submission to God, becoming a follower of Yahweh and bridging the gap between Jew and Gentile, reflecting God’s promise for redemption of all people. As a single woman, a widow, the joy of the Lord washed the wounds of her sorrow so that she could sacrificially follow Naomi and commit her life to providing for her mother-in-law, eventually continuing the family name. She graciously accepted Boaz’s kindness towards her. She was courageous in going before him, offering her heart, and asking him to become her kinsman redeemer. Whether you believe her request was a proposal or the claiming of her right, there’s no denying it’s still a portrait of submission: she surrendered herself into his hands, asking to receive Boaz’s protection and provision.

Boaz’s response is profound and humbling. He was not threatened by Ruth’s unwavering devotion to Yahweh and the call He had placed on her life. He did not run away when he saw that God had brought him this strong and brave woman. He did not condemn her for doing something contradictory to the culture. Instead, he praised her character. In her faithfulness to the Lord she challenged Boaz to love her sacrificially and he accepted the call, making it his concern even though it wasn’t yet his responsibility to step in as a kinsman redeemer. But in this story, Boaz is a leader by being a supporter and server. He champions Ruth’s cause and gets on board with what God was doing.

Becoming her kinsman redeemer was no small act and it was totally and completely a move that put others above himself. It was Boaz who enabled Ruth to also live a life of self-sacrifice, literally allowing them to collectively take the place of Naomi and Elimelek in carrying on the family heritage. It wasn’t Ruth’s family line or Boaz’s – it was Elimelek’s. Ruth had been chosen by God to participate in carrying out this miraculous intervention and continuing the lineage that would lead to Christ’s birth. Boaz took it upon himself to help Ruth become everything she was called to be. The easy thing, the way we’ve trained Christian men to react today, would have been to send Ruth away when she showed up, because she displayed the characteristics of a fierce woman on a mission. But it took a strong and faithful man of God to recognize a strong and faithful woman of God, who could see the vision and call on their lives in marriage, to sacrificially serve Him together.

There is still so much more to this beautiful story! I’ll give you a hint about part 2: Do you know the connection between Proverbs 31 and Ruth?

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