Saturday, August 31, 2013

What About this "Submission" Thing?

Today I'm writing a contribution to Rachel Held Evans' Synchroblog on Submission in the Household of God.  The word "submit" or "submission" is defined by the Free Online Dictionary as "To yield or surrender (oneself) to the will or authority of another."  In current parlance it carries some fairly negative connotations, largely coming from animal behavior science; it's not hard to picture a dog rolling onto its back to expose its belly.  But the idea of doglike subservience or fawning slavishness really isn't part of the meaning of the word as Christians use it-- in Christian jargon, the range of meaning of the word goes from "voluntarily yielding to another person" to "accepting the authority structures God has ordained."

The main issue evangelical Christians tend to argue over is whether, and to what extent, God has set up hierarchies of authority, particularly in the areas of marriage and church leadership.  The specific issue which Rachel Held Evans' synchroblog is focusing on is the submission of wives to husbands-- whether it is simply a part of "mutual submission" (voluntary yielding to one another) or whether submission is the wife's duty as the subordinate under the authority ("headship") of her husband.

As I'm sure I've made pretty clear by this point in my blogging career, I (like Rachel Held Evans) do not believe in hierarchy in marriage or in male headship.  So I'm going to talk about submission in the other sense-- the sense of voluntary yielding.  If submission is what all Christians are called to do towards one another (Eph. 5:21), it can't ultimately be about authority, because that would mean each of us is in authority over the other, which is nonsensical.

And yet wifely submission as discussed in the Bible does seem to appear in the context of authority and subordination.  Why is that?

Ms. Evans accurately describes the three main New Testament passages on wifely submission (located in Ephesians chapters 5-6, Colossians chapters 3-4 and 1 Peter chapters 2-3) as a reworking of the Aristotelian household codes, which were well-known to the original New Testament audiences. I have addressed the household codes earlier on my blog as follows:
What we may not understand, reading this from our own cultural understanding, is that the original Greco-Roman audience would already have been very familiar with household codes. Household codes were very common at the time, and were based on the first household code of its kind, set forth by Arisotle in the 4th century BC. . .

The code was expressed in terms of the rulership of the male head of household. Slaves, females and children were spoken of only in terms of being ruled; they were not addressed personally. The pater familias himself was Aristotle’s intended audience, and the pater familias was the intended audience of later Greek and Roman household codes based on Aristotle‘s originals. Men were told how to manage their wives, children, slaves and wealth for the good of society. Slaves, women and children were simply to be ruled. . .
In short, what Paul is really doing is standing the Aristotelian household codes on their heads. He is deliberately undermining the authority structure where the pater familias ruled all. . . 
Paul does not seek to overthrow the authority structures of the culture in which the Ephesian church found itself. But what he does do is teach those in the family of God, a new way of relating to one another “in Christ.” The expected rule of the pater familias over his wife, children and slaves is reset within a paradigm of mutual submission and is re-focused on Christlike humility, love and nurturing rather than control, and on laying down his life rather than taking charge. God’s family is a new kind of family in which we are all brothers and sisters. The highest in society must change the way they relate to the lowest, while the lowest must not take advantage of their new status and disrespect those who are socially higher. All are to voluntarily yield and defer to one another as servants, just as Jesus also said in John 13:12-14.
Paul, Peter and other New Testament authors wrote what they did according to the Christian understanding of two kingdoms (or families): the kingdom of the world and the kingdom (or family) of God. This really needs to be kept at the top of one's mind when reading any New Testament writings. As I discussed in another blog post a while back:
When Jesus preached the kingdom, He was making a radical political statement in His day that God is king and not Caesar. But He also made it clear (by refusing to let them crown Him king, among other things) that He had not come to simply replace one earthly kingdom with another. 
N.T. Wright's book Simply Jesus puts it this way:
"Now there is a completely different way to live, a way of love and reconciliation and healing and hope. It's a way nobody's ever tried before, a way that is as unthinkable to most human beings and societies as-- well, as resurrection itself. Precisely. That's the point. Welcome to Jesus's new world. . . . 
The resurrection of Jesus doesn't mean, 'It's all right. We're going to heaven now.' No, the life of heaven has been born on this earth. . . God is now in charge, on earth as in heaven. And God's 'being-in-charge' is focused on Jesus himself being king and Lord." 
The kingdom of God is about God reigning on earth, in and through the Person of Jesus Christ. But Christ doesn't reign the way human kings reign, or even the way democratically elected political leaders reign-- through making and enforcing laws. . .
The kingdom is [instead] something that happens on the inside of human beings when they come into contact with God, which then begins to make a difference in the world outside.

Following Jesus, He told His followers, is about being servants, not rulers (Matt. 23:11). It's about taking up a cross (Luke 9:23), about laying down your life-- not about acquiring power to make other people do things. 
So when we take, for example, Paul's words to husbands/wives, masters/slaves and fathers/children in Ephesians 5-6, I think he is actually doing two things: first, describing the completely different way Christians were to relate to one another as God's family, and second, giving advice for how to still function as subjects of the kingdom of the world. What Paul was trying to do was show how, while still living in the hierarchy-based kingdom of the world (as Christians had no choice but to do), Christians could act Christlike (i.e., lowly of heart, placing others above themselves) and thus behave as citizens of the non-hierarchical kingdom of God-- whether they were in worldly-kingdom positions of power, or whether they were in worldly-kingdom positions of subordination.

In this way of looking at things, the upside-down kingdom that is the kingdom of God does speak to and challenge worldly hierarchy and social power-- but not by trying to subvert or overthrow them, or even to "Christianize" them. Rather, it is by showing that this earthly kingdom is of no eternal value. In Paul's first-century world, husbands had power and wives didn't. Paul didn't tell Christian husbands or wives to overthrow or subvert those earthly structures, but he did tell them that ultimately, that wasn't where their true citizenship lay. Christian husbands were to act like Christ in laying down power and position within their own relationships with their Christian wives. Christian wives were to act like Christ in not trying to seize power or position in the worldly system, but being submissive to their own Christian husbands.

This is because the kingdom of God simply isn't about hierarchy, and it was the kingdom of God that mattered in Paul's eyes.  And (then as now) when we work to spread that kingdom, it influences the world as well.

Therefore, what I think Christians are doing when they teach male headship, is to impose the mindset of the kingdom of the world onto kingdom-of-God relationships, mistakenly thinking that the worldly hierarchy Paul had to help his readers function within, is actually a divine hierarchy instituted by God, to be carried out in God's kingdom.  But this idea of divine hierarchy is, I believe, part of a Greek concept known as the Great Chain of Being which somehow got grafted into Christian thought during the early centuries after Christ.  Christ Himself, in speaking to His disciples about not seeking authority over one another (Matthew 18:1-3), describes coming into the kingdom of God as "becoming like a little child" -- that is, laying aside social status, authority and power (which children had none of) in order to become the "servant of all" (Matthew 20:25-27).

So-- in the  non-hierarchical family that is the kingdom of God, what does submission look like?

Submission, I think, means doing what the other person wants and needs, regardless of whether it would be your own choice or desire.  It means yielding or giving in to the other's wishes or plans.  It means deferring to the other's knowledge on a subject, and not insisting on being right or having your own way.

Submission looks like Jesus letting a woman who wasn't exactly known for her pure reputation, weep on His feet and wipe her tears with her hair, even though it might have been embarrassing to Him personally. Luke 7:36-50.

Submission looks like Peter letting Jesus dress like a slave and wash his feet.  Submission also looks like Jesus doing the washing.

Submission looks like my husband when the children were young, cheerfully waving goodbye as I went off to a book club meeting, and then getting the children ready for bed and tucking them in.

Submission looks like me letting my husband decide on the route when we're traveling, and lead the way when we're walking-- because I'm that lady who can't find her way out of a paper bag.

Submission also looks like when I saw how exhausted my husband was after giving a major presentation at the end of his time at college, and I stepped up to take the lead and make a decision about where we were going to eat-- because the last thing he needed or wanted to do right then was to have to make a decision about anything.

Yes-- submission often looks like following, but sometimes it actually looks like leading.  Many times it looks like serving.  But there are times when it looks like letting someone else serve you.

That's why it bothers me when some Christians call an act of yielding and service "submission" when a woman does it, and "leadership" or "headship" when a man does it.  Wayne Grudem, a well-known advocate of male headship, is quoted here as talking about how he decided to go along with his wife's desire to move to Arizona, because it would be best for her health.  He calls his decision "loving, humble headship."  But if the positions were reversed, and it had been his wife deciding to go along with a move to Arizona for his health, I'm certain Dr. Grudem would have called that "submission."

For another example, if a headship-believing couple were to find themselves in a situation where the wife's expertise in a particular area was greater than her husband's, and he were to say, ‘She knows more than me about this, so I’m choosing her way’ — when he did that, it would be called "leadership." "He’s such a good leader, he appreciates his wife’s expertise," this mindset says.  But if the husband were the one with greater expertise, and the wife chose to listen to him– that would be called "submission." "She’s such a good, submissive wife, she yields to her husband."

But in both these examples, we are talking about the same action, the same behavior: one spouse voluntarily decides to defer and give in to the wishes or needs or knowledge of the other; to do what the other wants, regardless of whether it would be their own first choice.

It's all submission, folks.

And it's all part of what Ephesians 5:21 is talking about:  "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." 

 We don't have to return to first-century power structures in order to follow the Bible's teachings. The important thing is learning which is which.


Note: There is a balance to submission, even when it's mutual.  The principal of Christian self-stewardship says we are also to take care of ourselves out of respect for our own value as God's creation.  I'll be writing more about this in the near future. 


Donald Johnson said...


Estelle said...

'Brother, let me be your servant.
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I may have the grace
to let you be my servant, too.'

I love this song. I heard it sung at a wedding many years ago and requested it to be sung when we had our two youngest children dedicated. It sums up the Christian walk for me.

Anonymous said...

Well said! Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. This commentary is very freeing...I hope many take heart and take notes.

Kristen said...

Thanks, you two! Estelle, I love that song too!

Anonymous said...

I love this post! Such a beautiful picture of what marriage should be..