Objections to Submission
Written By Joseph Luigs
Over the years the Lord has given me the sacred privilege of listening to the stories of abuse victims. Abuse is more than injustice. It leaves personhood in the wreckage, requiring piece by piece reconstruction of image-bearing worth. The hardest stories to hear are the ones where abusers usurp the majesty of God’s word for evil: “wives submit to your husbands” is distorted; “children obey your parents” gives credence for violence. And all this begs the question, how does the discipline of submission relate to this imago Dei destroying action? Is the practice of submission enabling abusers?
Today we deal with the objections to submission. The questions above help us refine our understanding of Christian submission and how it is antithetical to abuse. But as we refine our understanding of submission, we find there is an objection to Christian submission that is not about abuse at all, and it is something within all our hearts.
So first, to understand how the spiritual discipline of submission is not a call to perpetuate abuse, we need to understand what spiritual disciplines are for.
Ultimately, spiritual disciplines are about worship. We engage spiritual praxis to help our inner life become directed toward glorying in God. Our inner lives are infected by a congenital disease, and God is the only one who can perform the necessary surgery. Thus, we take up the practices of Jesus to open up the cavities of our hearts and minds to God’s loving work.
Adele Calhoun notes with acuity, “God is more concerned with who we become than what we accomplish.” Thus, spiritual disciplines are modes of changing being. In a real sense, becoming is the defining work of following Jesus, doing the practices he did. He is the true human, in whom the radiance of God’s glory rests (Heb. 1:3). And our faith walk leads us to become like Jesus, the perfect exemplar of humanity and the image of God. The hope for ourselves is that, “when He appears, we will be like Him” (1 Jn. 3:2). Therefore, each day we must “put on the new self, the one created according to God’s likeness” (Eph. 4:24). The disciplines help us become more like Jesus; they help us put on the new, true self that God has gifted to us.
If then, the spiritual discipline of submission is to work towards this end, it rules out abuse and oppression for two reasons. First, spiritual disciplines are the work of God and humans to become our true selves in Christ. Oppression and abuse tears apart human personhood (the self) and are therefore diametrically opposed to the goal of spiritual disciplines, including submission. Second, practicing a spiritual discipline requires human volition working with God’s Spirit (Phil. 2:12b-13). We’ve been enabled by God to choose to engage spiritual practices in order to open ourselves up to his work, including the spiritual practice of submission. On the other hand:
Abuse and oppression work against human volition.
It steals it. Ignores it. Tramples it.
Forced submission is oppression. Not submission.
Thus, practicing submission works with our wills and against abuse and oppression.
Then what is Christian submission? It is to relinquish our control and rather desire “to have Jesus as the Master of my life in absolutely every way.” This means that the true objection to the submission Jesus taught is the insatiable desire we all possess to have things go our way. And that infects every relationship we have.
We practice submission not because we are forced to, but because we desire to let Jesus master our lives—a practice we will and work in all kinds of relationships. It is active work in us, not passive acquiescence to our subordinate positions in life.
For example, the spiritual practice of submission would not merely be following a boss’s orders because of positional structure. That would be like saying I practiced fasting because I forgot to eat lunch.
Instead, submission is the active work of true freedom. It is a reorientation of the heart put into physical practice. A truly free person is able to say I don’t have to have it my way. I don’t have to control the outcome. I am not controlled by my desires. Active freedom and submission work together. And in the Gospel, freedom is most truly expressed in submission. This is the example of Christ: though being in the form of God, he did not take advantage of his divinity; instead, he freely submitted himself to death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-11).
Submission is becoming free from our enslavement to control and to self, which ultimately is self-worship. Free submission is becoming mastered by Jesus, letting Him have His way, which ultimately is true worship.
The spiritual discipline of submission repudiates abuse and oppression, leaves behind the old self who always needs control, and embraces Jesus as Master of our lives.