In my post on Theology and Submissive Women, I realized that I did not entirely define submission. I said what it was not,  but never what it is. So, in this post I will attempt to define what I mean by submission and where I see it playing out, not only in the lives of women, but in the daily living of the Christian. Note:  This post has been heavily influenced by the series my Church is going through in Sunday School, James MacDonald’s Book (though in Sunday School it is a video series) Lord, Change My Attitude. Also, please be aware, my thoughts on this are much fuller than this, but I would like to avoid being overly verbose (which at over 1500 words I evidently failed to do) and thus am relying on my readers to look at the texts, which in most cases, I think are self explanatory. If not, I will do my best to interpret.

I think it is safe to claim that “Submission” is a term that has a highly negative connotation in our modern context. As you read the term, there is probably a host of thoughts and images that jump to your mind, most of them negative. People have commandeered the word for their own purposes and twisted it to its ugly usage today. Despite the bad rap that this word has, it seems that this is no reason to discontinue its use. Rather it seems imperative that we have a correct understanding of submission and to follow it under that proper usage. So, here’s my thoughts on what submission is:

I liked MacDonald’s working definition which is, “To operate within the established authority; to be under the chain of command that God has established.” In the majority of my post, whenever I use the term “submission” this is what I am thinking of. The question that comes after this, necessarily, is what authority structures has God established? My short list:

– The Governing Authorities (see Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 – this included elected officials, police men, judges, etc.).

–  Employment Authorities (see 1 Peter 2:18-20Ephesians 6:5-8 and Titus 2:9-10 this includes Your direct supervisor, department head, the CEO, owner, etc.).

– The Church (This includes Elders, Pastors, [No specific passages really say that outright, but I think there is enough attestation in the New Testament of churches submitting to leaders and of the establishment of leaders for that purpose to substantiate this claim] and Family [i.e. your parents (Ephesians 6:1-3) and for wives: husbands (Ephesians 5:22-33) and to some extent husbands to wives (see previous and 1 Peter 3:7)]).

This seems to be adequate on the topic of whom God has appointed as authority over us. There is a more general category that I think is overlooked: the submission of all Christian brethren one to another. (As this is somewhat different than the systematic submission outlined above in the definition, I think that I will tweak the definition in this paragraph). To some extent, this falls under the heading of church, but I think it bears noting on its own. We see it said straight out in Ephesians 5:21, but the passages that discuss the unity of the body and on loving one another also speak to this. I am firmly a believer that the call of everyone in the Church (but particularly her leaders) is to follow the example of Christ in Philippians 2:5-11. There, Christ put the needs of the world above his own and died for the church. Thus Christians are to likewise put others needs above their own. In Philemon, Onesimus (Philemon’s slave) was to be treated as a brother by Philemon and no longer as a slave. Further, husbands are called in 1 Peter 3:7 to act “likewise” as the servants and wives. Since the action demanded before is submission, it seems to be the same here, albeit a little different. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (i.e. died for the Church!!). Thus, they ought to defer to their wives’ needs. Thus, submission in this context would be putting the needs of others ahead of our own and deferring to them. The difference then, is that this isn’t a structural and authoritative submission, but a command to love one another as Christ has loved us. Thus, a husband does not defer to the authority of his wife (since he inherently has the authority), but he counts her needs above his own.

Here then are my general conclusions on submission:

1. We do it for God’s sake. 1 Peter 2 talks about submitting to every earthly authority for The Lord’s Sake. What I conclude from this is the above institutions are put in place by God. Thus if we submit to them, we submit to God. If we choose not to, then we rebel against God. Our duty then is to submit and ultimately, the question is whether we will humble ourselves enough to submit or be stubborn and hold onto our pride and rebel.

2. Submission is part and parcel of the fabric of daily life. We are called to submit daily to the authorities in our lives, and we willingly do to most of them. Somewhere we have gotten misguided notions that authorities ought not to be submitted to. In general this is false, though there are exceptions (see below). The Speed Limit is to be obeyed, regardless of whether the Officer does or not. The Employer is to be obeyed, even if they play favorites and promote someone less qualified over you. Wives are to submit to husbands, even if they do not hold up their end of the bargain or even if society has concluded that for women to submit is a barbaric notion.

3. God protects and blesses us when we submit to him. I am not suggesting that every harm will be diverted from our lives, but 1 Peter 5:5b states quite plainly that God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. It seems clear just from everyday experience that when we do not submit to authority that calamity befalls us. Peter further points out that God gives grace to the humble. In the passage, those who humble themselves are submitting to an authority. Thus, contextually Peter is saying that God gives grace to and blesses those who submit to authority.

4. Submission to anyone but God has limits. In the same section that Peter instructs his readers to Submit to various and sundry authorities, he also says, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” In other words: Ultimately you are not a slave to the people you are called to submit to.You are to act as a free person with respect to men. You are not to be treated as a slave, you are a slave to God, and God alone. Thus, you have to set limits for what you submit to. Acts 5:29 instructs us that it is better to obey God than men. Thus, you should not submit when you are being asked to do something that would cause you or someone else to sin, that would violate your conscience, or might cause harm to you or another person. Here are some of MacDonald’s suggestions for how to decide where some of these lines are:

  • Prayer. Ask God whether it is appropriate in certain situations to not submit.
  • Advice. Go to your Elders and ask for advice. They have wisdom (since they are not to be young believers) and should know their Bibles. Thus they should be able to guide you towards a correct decision.
  • Consider the source. There are somethings your boss asks that you would never do, but you would for your significant other.
  • Consider whether its abusive and if so, its severity. Is it Passive abuse vs. Active abuse, Verbal Abuse vs. Physical Abuse, is it your Own Well being vs. Someone else’s well being? Some of these things it might be appropriate to endure for a period before throwing off the authority. One might endure verbal abuse toward one’s self for a longer period than physical abuse, or endure abuse toward oneself longer than abuse towards one’s children.
  • Consider the frequency. You should still submit to a husband that hits you once in a lifetime. But if he hits you daily, you should take steps to protect yourself.
  • Remember that Submission should never be used to stay in an ongoing, severely abusive relationship.

Finally, one might ask: how does one get out from under bad authority?

1. Appeal to the authority structure. Jesus entrusted himself to the Father when he was crucified. He appealed to the only higher authority over him, his Father. This is one step for us to take. Further, we should appeal within the structure that the abuse is happening in. In the government, the courts are designed for these sorts of things. In the office, appealing to your supervisor, the department head, HR, or even the CEO or owner might be the proper action. In the Church, this means the Elders.

2. Sometimes we just have to endure. Fortunately this should rarely be the case for those who live in the United States. We live in a Government that currently is reasonably just and does not persecute us. We can always quit the job if necessary. We have the freedom to leave a church. We can get divorced. But these should be last resorts.

So, there you have my thoughts on Submission. Thoughts? Rebuttals? Requests for Clarification?

Grace and Peace.