The “Sin” of Submission

This is a touchy subject. I am American and Americans are not necessarily big fans of submission. Over here in the Philippines, submission is somewhat more appreciated. Confucian relationships (4 of 5) are built around submission (and to a far lesser extent, benevolence). “Islam” and “Muslim” as terms relate to the concept of submission. Some other religions here in the Philippines also take a very high view of submission.

In Christian circles recently, I have seen those who have strongly, even vociferously, pushed a high view of submission as a virtue. A few ways this has been done has been:

  • High submission to government officials based on Romans 13 (primarily).

  • High submission of wife to husband. Complementarian beliefs

  • High submission of child to parent (even after the child is grown up).

  • High submission of church members to church hierarchy.

I would argue that submission can as easily be a sin as a virtue.

  1. Submission in itself is not a virtue… it really depends, in part, on the object of one’s submission. Submitting oneself to God is a good thing. Submitting to Satan or to one’s addictions is not virtuous– far from it.

  2. Submission, even when the object of the submission is Biblically encouraged, is always wrong when perpetuates evil. One should not do evil things because one is submitting to the evil will of another. One should not cover up evil, submitting to the evildoer allowing more harm to be done. “I was just following orders” is no excuse. The OT prophets never commended people for obeying evil rulers. Rulers were responsible for doing evil… but so were the people.

  3. Related to point #2, submission is always ultimately to God. In fact, if God says to submit to someone, we do it because we believe that God is the ultimate one to submit to. However, related to that, if the object of one’s submission is requiring one to break one’s submission to God, than God takes first place, not the other.
  4. (Christian) Submission ALWAYS involves mutuality.

This last point is really important, but perhaps needs a bit of explanation. Ephesians 5:21 says that Christians are to submit one to another. Of course, almost immediately afterwards certain aspects are brought up such as wives submitting to husbands or servants (slaves) submitting to bosses (masters). It would be easy to say that these latter cases negate the first case. I read a LONG article just minutes ago written by a very impassioned Christian pressing this very point… that mutuality in submission is not Biblical. Despite his passion, his argument seemed fairly weak. In fact, the concept of mutuality (including, but not limited to, submission) appears to be a lost virtue in the church, taught over and over again in the Epistles (just look at all of the “one another passages”, and modeled by Christ.  Mutuality, of course does not mean that there is no differentiation of roles. but the one who is served, should also serve. The one who encourages others also has a Biblical need for encouragement by others. Those who are submitted to by others, must also demonstrate submission to others… all within the church family.

Christian submission always involves a certain amount of mutuality. Actually, if one ignored the verse on mutual submission and simply accepted the other Biblical verses on mutuality (serve one another, bear one anothers’ burdens, love one another, admonish one another, etc.) the point would still stand. It would be challenging at best to come up with a definition of non-mutual submission that would be compatible with the other guidelines on mutuality.

It may be true that submission in Confucian, Islamic, or secular models does not have mutuality, but Christian submission does. Sometimes we fall into the trap of defining things based on historical norms rather than what is true. Consider ecological concerns. I have known people to have argued that Christians don’t have to express ecological stewardship and concern because humans are supposed to have “dominion” over the earth. But that argument is, unconsciously, based on a 16th century view of what it means to have dominion over something (divine right to control with impugnity… exercising “droit du seigneur”). But Biblical dominion is understood Biblically in terms of the good shepherd of Ezekiel 34, not the bad shepherds.

Christian submission is built around the fact of equality before God. The brotherhood (and sisterhood) of man is not just a nice thought but is grounded in physical reality (Genesis 1), divine reality (Galatians 3), and ecclesiastical mandate (James 2). Since nature and God place all as equal, when culture/society places one over another, this placement has strong moral limitations. In fact, those in charge have a greater responsibility to serve those in need. Kings who submit to their own greed rather than to the will and needs of their people are condemned (Ezekiel 34 again, as well as I Samuel 8).

Mutual submission is best understood in Christ. Again, I read an article that passionately attacked this view… but to me that person’s argument is highly flawed. Philippians 2 talks about Christ voluntarily submitting Himself. When one combines this with the text of the Gospels, we see a number of ways that Christ submitted. He submitted Himself to the will of the Father. But He also submitted Himself to the limitations of humanity, to human parents, to human laws, to service of those in need, and to death.

Of course, one reason some people get nervous about mutual submission is that they feel that it is a flanking maneuver to negate the Biblical concept of submission. I would argue that it MAY INDEED be a flanking maneuver to negate some people’s mental picture of submission… but not a Biblical view of submission. Mutuality is based on reality and on Christian love. Submission is built on that same foundation… or it is not Christian.

Mutual submission generally implies two different but necessary aspects:

  1. Submission involves  a relationship that is Biblically supported or culturally promoted and dictated within a power structure.

  2. Submission involves a relationship that is voluntary, loving, and sacrificial.

If one only had the first of these two, one definitely has submission. But one needs both to have Christian submission.

It is true that Christians are supposed to submit even in certain situations where mutuality does not exist. The Kingdom of God may be all around us, but does not completely hold sway. We do submit to the power structures of government even when that government in some ways is bad. Wives are to submit in some ways to bad husbands and servants to bad masters. Yet the argument in all of these is in showing good Christian testimony (adorning the gospel as it says in Titus 2:10) not in demonstrating the inherent virtuousness of such submission. Submission is unlimited only to God and even there, God does not assume rulership of all things at this time. If submission was a virtue unto itself, then Christians would have no place to challenge, prophetically, evils of those in power. OT prophets challenged powers and dominions, Christ did, and the apostles did. So submission must be properly grounded in a Christian/Biblical understanding rather than a “Websterian” (based on dictionary definitions) understanding.


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