“Submission”: Why Church Words Matter

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My Facebook feed is full of them. Kinda inevitable, I guess, since I have so many Facebook friends who are pastors and religious practioners. Posts, statuses, comments, full of churchy words, theological jargon, traditional King-Jamesy sounding terms. Stuff that passes for Christianese.

And I’m sick of it.

Up till now my reasons have been personal. Those words always sounded fake, cheesy, insincere. And they were over-used and under-understood. They were often meaningless, even to those who quoted them. And, they rang a lot of bells from memories of hostile churches, sermons directed against people instead of words spoken to build up, embrace, and encourage.

Words like … Saved and Salvation. Redeemed. Blood-bought. Sanctified. Righteous. Born again. Blessed. Glory!

And I would frequently mutter under my breath, “if you can’t find another word for it, then you probably don’t even know what it means.” How else is anybody else gonna know what the heck you’re talking about?!

Those words — intending to convey a sense of power and holiness, of awe and gravitas — only sounded empty, cliche, and archane, the secret language of the religiously initiated. “Are you saved? Are you one of the chosen?”

And recently, during table talk over dinner, a friend threw in another one. “Submission.” This is a loaded one, especially for anyone who’s grown up in conservative circles where it was taught that wives should submit to their husbands. In this case it was about submitting to spiritual authority.

“Spiritual authority”? That almost intuitively sounds like a contradiction in terms. Isn’t true spirituality marked by humility? But you want to exercise authority over other people in the name of religion, in the name of a divine calling or holy office? If that doesn’t conjure up images of the Church in the Middle Ages, of Inquisitions, of Tribunals, of imprisonment and excommunication and harsh discipline… Just walk away, baby, walk away.

Those familiar with recent church history will also remember the “Shepherding/Discipleship movement.” People with sincere hearts, seeking God and holy living, surrendered themselves and their wills to pastoral leaders who spoke for God. They allowed pastors to make basic life decisions for them, from what job to take, what house to buy, even whom to marry. And the abuse of power was rampant. Lives were crushed, and the flocks scattered, confused and more lost than ever. Sounds like a cult, right? And that is exactly what it was. But it started out as a sincere evangelical movement based on a supposed biblical concept — no nefarious motives involved.

Yet to this day you’ll still hear “submit to spiritual authority” mentioned in certain churches. It goes hand in hand with that manipulative command, “touch not mine anointed” — that misquoted biblical injunction not to take matters into your own hands against divinely appointed leadership. That somehow, leadership is infallible.

So, it boils down to this: Are we, as bible-believing, sincere Christians, to submit to spiritual authority?

The short answer is NO. At least not in the sense normally understood — and that is exactly why the words we use are so important.

Here’s a famous biblical case in point: In the “Acts of the Apostles” in the bible, the early Christians in Jerusalem lived together in order to live out their faith with a true sense of brotherhood and community. They pooled their resources and lived essentially in communes, with the apostles as their community leaders. Those who had resources shared with those who did not. And people would sell their lands and property, and lay the money “at the feet of the apostles” — basically surrendering their wealth for community use. The needs of the poor, the sick, the widows and defenseless were all taken care of. And in this way, no one was needy.

The idea of abject obedience to some person in religious office is contrary to the teaching of Jesus.

It was a beautiful thing. But human nature can’t stand that kind of sharing for too long. Selfishness is deeply rooted in our DNA. During these idyllic days, a rich property-owning married couple named Ananias and Sapphira sold some land but decided to keep a chunk of the profits for themselves. They brought a fraction of the money, and laid it at Peter’s feet. And because of their deceit, they were struck dead — they had lied to the apostles and to the Holy Spirit.

Here’s the key. Peter states the case clearly: they were under no compulsion to “submit” their worldly goods. “Didn’t the property belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money yours to do with as you pleased?” But because they tried to fool the apostles and community into thinking they were giving their all, they received the harshest punishment. And young men came in and carried their bodies out to be buried. (Acts 5:1-10)

A quick search through the New Testament for the word “submit” or “submission” shows a wide range of contexts and situations where we are to defer to others for the common good and for our own benefit. And the ultimate expression of that is always with reference to God. There are a few mentions of slaves submitting to masters, wives submitting to their husbands as the husbands submit to Christ, and even evil spirits submitting to the authority of the name of Jesus. Paul says we should submit to civil authority so that we can live in peace, and that we should not submit to our evil desires — or even to religious rules (Col 2:20).

The killer text

Where we trip up is the reference in Hebrews 13 about placing trust in our spiritual leaders and “submitting to their authority” because they “keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” In other words, we should cooperate with those given the responsibility for caring for us, so that we may fully benefit from their guidance. Similar to the 5th Commandment, “honor your father and mother, so that you may have a long life…”, it is simply a good idea to heed the advice of those with more maturity and experience than us.

And the Apostle Peter describes what thatshould  look like from the perspective of the leaders of religious congregations. “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them — not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Pet 5:1-3)

Spiritual leaders are to be examples to the flock, and we should follow their example. “In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Pet 5:5).

For our own personal and spiritual growth, we should pay attention (“submit”) to the spiritual advice of those with greater maturity: our spiritual elders. But no where do these apostles suggest that that influence and respect apply outside the realm of spiritual development. Like Peter’s words to Ananias and Sapphira, we are under no physical, material, financial or any other obligation to obey religious leaders, other than what is due out of respect and love. Complete personal obedience was never in the picture.

In that regard, our only obligation for total submission is to God. We are his people, his children. We live in his Kingdom. He is our King.

The idea of abject obedience to some person in religious office is contrary to the teaching of Jesus. He taught that the least will be first, the first would be last, and we should serve one another out of mutual love. In a brief moment of power-play when two of his disciples asked to be seated at his left and right hand when the Kingdom came in full, he rebuked them gently. The pagans rule and lord it over each other. But that is not how it was to be in his kingdom. Why then do we choose this loaded word as a characteristic of the godly life?

The bottom line here on submission is that we are to treat each other with respect, and give honor where it is due. We are to serve one another, to put others before ourselves. It is a reflection of the grace God has shown us, and we in turn show others.

The bottom line here on submission is that we are to treat each other with respect, and give honor where it is due. We are to serve one another, to put others before ourselves. It is a reflection of the grace God has shown us, and we in turn show others. This is proper behavior for those who recognize the God who created us all in his image, as his children. But it is not about slave-like obedience or surrender of our wills. We are to “submit to one another” out of mutual love — it is not just a one-way street where the flock owes allegiance to the shepherds. We are to serve one another, following the example of Jesus who served his own disciples.

Submission is about recognizing the Godly gifts in each other, honoring each other as brothers and sisters in the family of God, knowing that others are created in the image of God just as we are. If you’ll excuse borrowing imagery from another religion, it is similar to the attitude in the Hindu greeting “Namaste” — a recongition of the divine in each of us. “You have value. I will respect you for who you are.” And that is a far cry from surrendering our wills to the wishes and caprices of those with holy titles.

Peter summarizes the entire range of “submission” responsibility in one quick statement: “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” With that basic principle in mind, can we please drop that word from our everyday religious vocabulary? To contemporary believers, it is too suggestive of drone-like obedience, too out of step with the humble nature of our faith, and not at all reflective of the reverential respect we owe each other. Treat each other as you would like to be treated, as fellow children of God, and the “submission” part will take care of itself.

photo credit: “Spanish Inquisition”, Claudia Gold via Flickr, cc.

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STEVE SCHMIDT is a teacher at Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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