Submission. It’s not domination.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 September
Submit səb'mɪt verb. Yield to or accept a superior force, authority, or will. Consent to their conditions.
2. Present one’s will to another for their consideration or judgment.
[Submission səb'mɪs.ʃən noun.]

Notice there are two popular definitions of submit in use. The more popular of the two has to do with acceptance, obedience, and blind capitulation. To turn off our brains, do as we’re told. And most sermons instruct Christians to do precisely that. Submit to one another, as Paul ordered.

Ephesians 5.21 NIV
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

’Cause we kinda have to. If we can’t submit to God—if we insist on our own way, our own standards, our own values, our own lifestyles—it’s a pretty good bet we’re outside his kingdom.

Romans 8.5-8 KWL
5 Carnal people think carnal things. Spirit-led people, Spirit-led things.
6 A flesh-led mind produces death. A Spirit-led mind, life and peace.
7 For a flesh-led mind is God’s enemy. It doesn’t submit to God’s law. It can’t.
8 Those who live by flesh can’t please God.

So we especially submit to God. Jm 4.7 And to Christian leaders; 1Pe 5.5 we follow the doctrines they proclaim from the pulpit. And wives, submit to your husbands. Ep 5.22 When he says “Jump,” you ask “How high?”

Then there’s the other definition of submit: The one where it’s not typical of a relationship between a benevolent (or not-so-benevolent) despot and their subjects, but between partners, friends, or coworkers. One where we instead bounce ideas off one another. Find out whether they help or inconvenience one another—and of course try to help as best we can.

One which sounds appropriate for a paráklitos/“helper” Jn 14.16, 14.26, 15.26, 16.7 and the people he’s trying to help. For a teacher and his pupils. For a loving God and his kids.

So… which definition d’you think fits what the authors of the scriptures were talking about?

Oh, the benevolent despot thingy? Well it does work for cult leaders and wannabe patriarchs. But in God’s kingdom, where the king calls us his friends, Jn 15.15 where love doesn’t demand its own way, 1Co 13.5 it’s pretty obvious that definition is entirely incorrect. In many ways it’s kinda the opposite of God’s intent. Almost as if the devil got Christians to flip it 180 degrees, n’est-ce pas?

You need a word study? I got your word study.

The word for “submit” in Ephesians 5.21 is ypotassómenoi/“ones who are submitted.” It’s not actually a verb, and certainly not a command verb, despite how the NIV renders it. But I’ll discuss that in a bit.

Shave off the ending, and the word ypotásso is a compound of ypó/“under” and tásso/“arrange.” Together they mean to arrange one’s things under someone or something.

Which could mean either one of our English-language definitions for “submit.” Could mean subjecting your will to that of a lord. Could also mean presenting your ideas to someone for their consideration. So how can we tell which one it is?

Context. What’s it look like the text is leaning towards? What’s the character of the person one ypotássetai/“submits” to? Bossy tyrant, or loving parent? Fr’instance Jesus:

Luke 2.51 KWL
Jesus went down with them. He came to Nazareth and submitted to them.
His mother kept every word in her heart.

What kind of parents d’you think Joseph and Mary were? Harsh taskmasters or protective, loving people? (Especially in a story where they’d spent three days scouring Jerusalem for Jesus, and didn’t start caning him as soon as they found him.)

Do you imagine Jesus’s parents never unintentionally gave him bad instructions, ones which might lead him to sin if he didn’t already know best? Parents make mistakes, y’know. If Jesus was to lead a sinless existence, his form of submission can’t have been unthinking, blind obedience. It could only be thoughtful obedience. He obeyed his parents as much as he could—but whenever they told him to do something that’d violate his divinity, he had to disregard it.

Same applies to us. If our leaders, pastors, parents, bosses, or anyone in authority orders us to sin, what are we to do? Certain Fundamentalists actually say we should obey ’em regardless, and any sins we commit are really their fault. Of course if that’s the case, Daniel and his friends weren’t heroes for defying Nebuchadnezzar Da 3 and Darius, Da 6 ’cause it was all the Babylonian and Medean kings’ faults for ordering them to sin. And hey, if the government wants to shut down their churches, the Fundies oughta be just fine with that too, right?

You see the serious flaw in the “just following orders” defense. It applies to all forms of blind submission. Whatever submission means in the scriptures, it doesn’t mean that.

So when Simon Peter instructed his churches to submit, that’s the consideration we have to bear in mind.

1 Peter 2.13-17 KWL
13 Be submissive to everything people come up with—because of the Master.
Either the reigning king, 14 or leaders whom the king sent to avenge evildoers and praise do-gooders.
15 For this is God’s will: Doing good silences ignorant, foolish people.
16 Live like free people. Not like those who disguise evil as freedom, but like God’s slaves.
17 Honor everyone. Love fellow Christians. Respect God. Honor the king.

Again: Do you believe government gives us infallible orders which would never lead to sin? I sure don’t. (Christians are awfully quick to suddenly realize this whenever the opposition party is in power.) Was it sin for Moses to confront the Egyptian pharaoh? For Gideon to overthrow the Midianites? For Elijah to stand up to Ahab? For the Maccabees to revolt against the Seleucids? For Christians to refuse to worship Caesar? For Americans to drive off the British during our revolution?

Sometimes rulers are evil. And we can never blindly obey them. Especially in a democracy, where they answer to us. Again, we put some thought into our submission: We take the government into consideration, and obey the laws as best we can, where we can. But when the laws oblige us to sin, we must get ’em changed, and in the meanwhile respectfully refuse.

Last example: Prophecy.

1 Corinthians 14.32-33 KWL
32 Prophets’ spirits are in submission to the prophets,
33 for God doesn’t do disorder, but peace.

This passage has to do with decent, orderly prophecy. Rather than the chaos which you’d see in Corinthian churches, Paul and Sosthenes ordered the people to get hold of themselves—that the excuse, “The Spirit was moving me to speak!” won’t fly, because the prophets’ spirits submit to them.

Which spirits were the apostles speaking of? Well, any spirit can speak to a prophet, but the only ones we ought listen to are spirits sent by God: Angels carrying God’s messages, and of course the Holy Spirit. And these righteous spirits don’t overwhelm the prophet and force ’em to speak, like a demon would. They submit to the prophets.

That’s right: Angels submit to human prophets. The Holy SpiritGod himself—submits to the people he wants to speak through. God submits. And if that idea seriously bugs you, it’s probably because you’re not worshiping God so much as worshiping and coveting his power.

If the Holy Spirit submits to us, we can’t be talking about blind obedience. That doesn’t work in the slightest. We can only mean taking one another into consideration. God can, and regularly does, make us do what he wants. But when it comes to prophecy he’d much rather partner with us, and in so doing he accommodates his prophets. He submits.

Getting the idea? Hope so.

Why do we insist submission is blind obedience?

Bluntly it’s because we want to be obeyed.

Christians claim “submit” means “obey” because we don’t merely want people’s consideration. We want their capitulation. If they ask our opinion, we don’t want it to merely be advice, but an order, with all the might of the Almighty behind it.

So it’s a pride thing. Hubris. Control.

It’s not even how God behaves. If he wanted robots he’d have created some. He doesn’t want our blind obedience; he wants dialogue. Which isn’t gonna happen when we merely yield. God wants us to know his mind—why he commands certain things, why he does things his way.

Imagine if Moses had simply yielded when God spitballed the idea of wiping out Israel and starting up again with Moses’s family. Ex 32.10 Imagine if Simon Peter had simply yielded when God told him to eat the unclean animals; he’d have never learned the lesson that what we traditionally call unclean isn’t how God sees things. Ac 11.4-17

So submission requires us to interact with God. To learn his mind. To sometimes challenge his mind: “I can’t believe you’d do that!” as Abraham responded when God talked about smiting Sodom. Ge 18.25 Message

And that can be intimidating. Telling the Almighty to explain himself? Yikes. No other authority is so willing to take questions. And that’s precisely the problem. God’s patient, gracious, and understanding. Humans aren’t. We immediately assume questions are a prelude to rebellion. God doesn’t; after all, what rebellion against him has any chance of success?

Those who demand we obey, claim it takes strong faith to follow God, do as we’re told, without asking questions. Well, it can; namely when we have our doubts. But the best way to develop strong faith is to deal with these doubts: Interact with God. Work with him. Participate in his kingdom. Learn what he’s like. Know him so well, it’s easy to trust him, and obey him quickly.

If we simply obey without ever wrestling with doubt: That’s actually based on no faith whatsoever. Fear, maybe. Not faith.

That’s the ultimate problem with blind obedience: It’s fake faith. It’s fake fruit, too.

Thus many a Christian has taken advantage of this false understanding of submission. Instead of loving one another, considering one another, and working with one another, they simply dominate one another. Pastors demand their churches obey. Husbands demand their wives obey. Parents demand their children obey. Bosses demand their employees obey. And Christians are instructed to turn off our brains—despite God’s instructions for us to get and learn wisdom Pr 1 —and blindly obey.

It doesn’t work for Ephesians 5. Wanna know the context of “Submit to one another”? It’s to eliminate fleshly works, because they’re inappropriate for Christians. Ep 5.3-5 It’s to let no one trick us into believing otherwise. Ep 5.6-7 It’s to expose evil rather than be part of it. Ep 5.8-14 It’s to be wise, not unwise, and redeem the time. Ep 5.15-20

All these instructions require brainpower. We need to identify fleshly works, avoid tricks, recognize evil, and be wise. If we turn off our brains and blindly obey every authority, we can’t obey this chapter.

So once Paul followed up his previous instructions with “Submit to one another,” obviously he can’t mean, “Use your brain for these previous things—but now wives, cave in to your husbands; children, knuckle under your parents; slaves, bow to your masters. Use your brain for everything but authority figures.”

He can’t have meant blind obedience. The sense is entirely wrong.

Submit properly.

Blind obedience doesn’t foster relationship. It appeals to pride, lust for power, our selfish will, and the temptation to become our own little gods and lords. And many Christians unquestioningly follow their leaders—sometimes to destruction—because of it.

Hence the correct way to submit is to love one another enough to incorporate their thoughts, wishes, and feelings into our daily lives. If I don’t give a rip about other people, I’ve not submitted to them.

When we look at that Ephesians passage about submitting to one another—here, I’ll undo the way the NIV mangled it—

Ephesians 5.21-28 KWL
21 When you’re submitting to one another out of respect for Christ,
22 the women do so to their own men like they do for the Master,
23 because man is woman’s head like Christ is the church’s head; he’s the savior of the body.
24 But like the church submits to Christ, likewise the women do to the men in everything.
25 And men: Love your women like Christ also, who loves the church and gives himself up for it.
26 So he, who’s clean, can sanctify it with baptism in water and the word,
27 and can personally stand by an honored church.
One which shouldn’t have a stain, wrinkle, or any such thing, but so it’s holy and blameless.
28 Thus men are obligated to love their own women: Like their own bodies.
He who loves his own woman, loves himself.

—obviously we’re talking about submitting to one another. Wives to husbands, and husbands to wives. Because Paul held up Christ dying for his church as the men’s example: You husbands need to be willing to submit unto death for your women. Jesus was.

So what’s mutual submission look like? If a wife does as she pleases, without checking in with her husband, she’s not submitted to him. And vice-versa.

Same with the children. If they don’t let their parents know what they’re up to, they’ve not submitted to them. If Christians don’t keep their churches up to date on what’s going on with their lives—in other words, their pastors and fellow Christians have no clue how to help or pray for them—they’ve not submitted to their churches.

Same with every Christian. If we don’t check in with God, or ask his will, or ask him to reroute us when we go astray, we’ve not submitted to him either.

We have to include Jesus in our daily plans. If we haven’t been doing so, or if we’ve only been saving it for the “important” things, we need to submit all things to him.