Thursday, March 5, 2015


Coming to terms with submission.

Submission vs. Liberty

Most Americans and probably most of Western Civilization struggle with the concept of submission. We love freedom and liberty. We believe that, while some people may gain power over others through various means, all people are created essentially equal. No one really has the right to tell us what to do. They may negotiate with us as free citizens to do something for them if they are willing to do something for us, but they are not able to order us about without some kind of compensation. There will be no taxation without representation. We all have a right to a fair hearing. We have equality before the law. If we do not, we are being treated not just unfairly, but unjustly. Justice requires liberty and liberty requires justice. I could keep on going with the clichés indefinitely, but they reflect a basic notion of how we think.

Most American Christians and Western Christians agree with these notions on some level. Congregationalism is the norm within American denominations and every where governed by a presbytery or some other council, the choosing of principals is somehow democratically governed at some level. We choose an equal to rule us because, practically, someone needs to be in charge. We don't like it but there it is.We try to choose the "best" person for the job, but recognize that there is nothing that makes this person inherently better. When we can we argue for appointment on merits; a person has earned his or her place and that's why we put them there.

So, we don't like it when we see verses that imply some sort of non-egalitarian relationship. We bristle when we see that wives are to be submissive to their husbands (1 Cor. 14:34, Eph. 5:22, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, I Peter 3:1, ), that we are to be submissive to governing authorities (Romans 13:1,I Peter 2:13, ) , that slaves are to be submissive to their masters (Titus 2:9, I Peter 2:18), that people should be submissive to their elders (I Peter 5:5) and that we are all supposed to be submissive to one another (Eph. 5:21). Well, maybe the last we can handle because it sounds fair in a way. Most of us also don't have a problem being told to be submissive to Christ (James 4:7), after all, He's God, but to each other, that's a different story. It seems unjust. It even seems unwise. I mean, have you looked at some of the governing authorities lately?

So, are contemporary western Christians wrong to believe in freedom and liberty? 

I don't think contemporary western Christians are wrong in their beliefs in freedom and liberty. I don't think that they are wrong in the essential equality of all human beings. There are scriptures to point to this as well, that talk about our liberty in Christ, that explain that God is "no respecter of persons" (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11). Probably the most powerful of these verses is Galatians 3:29. This seems to fly in the face of people being forced to submit to others on the basis of some arbitrary signifier. 

When we come to a situation like this, where the Bible has apparently contradictory exhortations, we are left with a choice. One side's wrong. The other side's wrong. They're both wrong. We don't understand. The choice to always choose the latter is part of what makes essential Christian thought. I would say that if you choose any of the other choices, you are not reading the Bible in a Christian way. It is how we can read the Bible without picking and choosing our passages. It is the means by which we can come to know the Bible and God better. It does not leave us in a type of holy paralysis, however. Once we realize that we don't understand, then we are given the responsibility of reasoning with God and figuring it out.

Submission as arbitrary signifier

I would submit to you (get it, ha, ha) that part of the reason for this difficulty is an understanding of submission that is a little different than the meaning that comes immediately to our heads when we say or read the word. 

When I hear the word, I think about training dogs. Sometimes a dog will be headstrong and unwilling to take training. However, eventually, after a battle of wills and sometimes brute force, a dog will submit. Often, they show their submission by rolling over on their back and peeing on themselves. The dog has accepted their secondary state. They have accepted that they have no power in the relationship. This is a necessary state to begin training in which the dog's desires and needs take a backseat to the desires of the trainer. The dog becomes obedient. A dog in such a state will forgo its natural inclinations to fulfill the whims of the trainer. For English Cockers, the breed with which I'm most familiar, trained dogs are supposed to be "steady to wing and shot." That means that they wait for permission after a bird has flown to go chase it. That's not natural. That's not the dog's will. Thier will has been broken. Every trained dog has had its will broken in some way. 

And I have no moral problem with dogs being treated like dogs. I know there are people who do. Maybe I'll write a blog someday addressing you, but for now, you're wrong. I do have problems with people being treated like dogs. I even have a problem with people willingly allowing themselves to be treated like dogs. No adult has the right to arbitrarily order another adult around. In fact, I honestly think that the orders we give to children and dogs should not be arbitrary, but it's not always possible to explain given the lack of verbal ability. But once a person can speak and understand speech coherently, that has to end. 

I also don't think that arbitrary rulership is the meaning of the passages on submission. I think we have to think about the word in a different way. 

Etymology of Submission

The basic concept that got me to reconsider my understanding of submission came from my pastor in our Wednesday night service. He asked us to think about the word "submission" and take it apart. You'll notice a root, a suffix, and a prefix. The root word is the same as the root of "missive," a letter sent to a place or "missile," a projectile aimed at something. While a missive or missile is on its way to a person or place, it is on its mission, which is part of the word above. People can also be on missions. In fact, we should be. Each one of us has been given a mission from God. Several years ago, God revealed to me (I'd rather not get into the whole process, but it wasn't a booming voice) that His mission for me was to become a Christian Man of Letters. That's my mission. It's also a submission.

A submission would be a mission that fits within another larger mission. That's what the prefix "sub" means. Yes, it means "under" but not in a "less than" role. A person without substance has nothing to stand on. They are empty "shallow" people. There has to be something to hold it up. 

I am in a number of submissive relationships. I work at a university where I have above me a chair, a dean, a vice president and and president. I have a church with a pastor and elders. I live under a government and among a people and a nation. They have their missions as well. Sometimes they are more or less clear to me. Still, it is my responsibility to make sure that my mission fits under their mission. My university and even my country needs men of letters to teach and to write. So, it works. I believe that a Christian man of letters is beneficial to my church. So my mission fits there. If it doesn't submission doesn't mean I change my mission. My mission is from God. If I am at a job where my mission and their mission are at odds, it's time to find a new job or perhaps, time for them to find a new employee. Perhaps I should evaluate whether or not my mission really is from God, but if it is, it's my mission and I am in submission as long as my mission helps them accomplish their mission. 

So when the Bible says that women must "submit" to their husbands, it is not placing them in a servile role or arbitrarily placing a man over them because he lacks ovaries. Rather, it is saying, ladies, the mission that God gives you, your mission in life, is a unique mission just for you. That mission should be a mission that supports your husband's mission. If your husband goes off drinking and wants you to make sure there is money for booze rather than paying rent, that won't aid you in your mission, and if he were following his mission, it wouldn't aid him either. So, don't. Your mission is included in as a submission for him, but if he leaves the mission behind, you are still on your mission. Your mission is from God.

But it's Greek.

That's all a beautiful thing, you might think, if the Bible were written in English. It wasn't. It was written in Greek. The etymology doesn't work in Greek. This was my concern after considering the Pastor's sermon last night. I thought that perhaps if I went and looked it all up in the Greek, I might not find the same argument. Submission might not mean a mission which supports a mission. 

Except that it does. In the passages translated "submission" that I cited earlier in this piece all use the same Greek word which we translate as "submission." That word is ὑποτάσσω (hypotasso). That word functions semantically just like the English word submission. The prefix, ὑπό, is also a preposition. Prepositions are weird in any language, but ὑπό usually translates "under." The second part of the word is τάσσω, which was a military verb meaning "to order." A person who has been ordered to do something is on a "mission." So, it's exactly the same. In fact, to the original readers of the Bible the relationship would have been even more clear because the etymology is less obscure. You have orders. You have orders that fit within his orders.

Not servility.

So, the call to submit is not a call to be ordered around and treated like a dog. It is a call to check and make sure that your mission is supporting those to whom you are submitted. If not, you might need to either change the relationship (and get out), or make sure the other person is fulfilling their mission, or to really consider whether or not your mission is a mission from God.

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