Submission is a dirty word in our culture. It conjures up images of abuse, enslavement, or oppressive control. We have a strong aversion to anything that smacks of authoritarianism or autocratic control. Yet, the Scriptures call us, again and again, to be submissive. What does that mean?
What is Submission?
Our natural aversion to the spiritual discipline of submission is well-founded. No other spiritual discipline has been more abused and misunderstood. We have a knack for taking something good and turning it into something bad.
Religious dogma has a well-documented history of oppressing people under a legalistic and authoritarian ruling system. Nothing can be more manipulative, demanding, and manipulative than exercising power over people in the name of religion. Therefore, we should approach this spiritual discipline with great care, understanding both its benefits and its limitations.
We start by reminding ourselves that the spiritual disciplines are tools for a greater goal. They have value only as a way to get us connected to God so that he can liberate us. Freedom in Christ is the end goal. The Spiritual Disciplines are not an end to themselves, but a means to that goal.
Remember also that every discipline has corresponding freedom. What freedom corresponds to submission? It is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way. The obsessive demand that things go the way we want them to go is a form of slavery. People will get ulcers because something didn’t go their way. The spiritual discipline of Submission frees us from that.
Submission in the Bible
The Bible teaches submission from cover to cover. It doesn’t attempt to create a hierarchy of relationships but calls for an inner attitude of mutual submission. Its focus is on the spirit with which we view other people.
Foster puts it this way:
In submission we are at last free to value other people. Their dreams and plans become important to us. We have entered into a new, wonderful, glorious freedom—the freedom to give up our own rights for the good of others. For the first time we can love people unconditionally. We have given up the right to demand that they return our love. No longer do we feel that we have to be treated in a certain way. We rejoice in their successes. We feel genuine sorrow in their failures. It is of little consequence that our plans are frustrated if their plans succeed. We discover that it is far better to serve our neighbor than to have our own way” (Celebration of Discipline, Foster, p.98).
When you practice submission you are free to obey Jesus’ command, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). It means that for the first time you understand how it is possible to surrender the right to retaliate: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39).
These are hard words from Jesus that teach a radical love ethic based on the practice of submission. The basis for the biblical understanding of submission is Jesus’ astonishing description of what it means to be his disciple: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
The most radical social teaching of Jesus was his total reversal of the cultural understanding of greatness. Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet he said, “I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). This was the ultimate symbol of submission.
When Submission Goes Bad
The limit of the discipline of submission is at the point at which it becomes destructive. It then becomes a denial of the law of love as taught by Jesus and is at odds with the concept of biblical submission (Matt. 5, 6, and 7, and especially 22:37–39).
For instance, Peter calls Christians to radical submission to the state when he writes, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be the emperor as supreme, or to governors …” (1 Pet. 2:13, 14). Yet when the properly authorized government of his day commanded the Church to stop proclaiming Christ, it was Peter who answered, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19, 20). On another similar occasion, Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
So, there are always limits to submission. Those limits begin when to submit to something or someone becomes a denial of God and his will for your life.
Six Ways to Practice Submission
Here are the different ways we can practice submission.
1. Practice submission to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jesus said to God, “Not my will, but your will be done” (Matt. 26:42). He modeled ultimate submission to God. God’s will for our lives always takes precedence over all other forces or powers.
2. Practice submission is to the Scripture.
The Apostle Paul views Scripture as authoritative when he said, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
3. Practice submission to your family.
Paul begins his family code with “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).
4. Practice submission is to our neighbors and those we meet in the course of our daily lives.
Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan to teach us that we are to place others ahead of ourselves (Luke 10:33).
5. Practice submission to the believing community, the body of Christ.
Jesus washed the feet of his disciples to model the way they were to submit to each other (John 13:14).
6. Practice submission to the broken and despised.
Jesus called us to care deeply for those less fortunate than us (Matt. 25:45).
The answer is not simple, but neither is it impossible. Revolutionary submission commands us to live in submission to others, placing them first, until to do so becomes destructive to us or them.