Submit Yourselves to God: Christ as the Key to Submission
[[This is the text of a sermon I preached recently at South Hanwell Baptist Church in the London Borough of Ealing. While the topic is a standard one (submission) I hope you’ll find that I do something a bit different than most preachers when it comes to understanding what it all means. Sadly, as always, the manuscript cannot recreate the preaching moment, but I hope those of you who weren’t there can still find this useful and edifying.]]
“Beautiful Lord, mighty barrier-breaker, we come to you tonight admitting that we have not been submissive, that we have rebelled against you. We are afraid of submission, but we know that you can grant us the courage. Break down the walls in our lives that keep us from following you, from submitting ourselves to you fully.
Dearest Christ, great and submissive one, we come before you this evening desiring to be submissive. We recognize the abuse of the term, but we also recognize that you have modeled for us perfect submission. And so tonight, as we attempt to understand just what this word means, we pray that you might illumine our hearts and quicken our minds to comprehend your example. Be present among us tonight and teach us holy submission.
Whispering Spirit, be present among us tonight. Flow through our lives and empower us to submit. Remind us of what we know and help us learn what we do not. Unite us in submission with you. Amen.”
Good evening, friends. It’s so good to be with you here at South Hanwell. If you’re visiting tonight, I pray that you would bring my greetings and the greetings of this congregation when you return to your home churches. If you’ve been here the past few Sunday evenings, you know that Shacky’s been preaching a sermon called “Life in the Real World,” and he’s asked me to continue the series by spending some time tonight discussing the topic of submission.
Submission is both a scary and complicated topic. We don’t like it here in the west because it implies the removal of liberties. And in all fairness to ourselves, submission does have a nasty history. The word itself – and theologies of it – have been abused and mutilated for centuries. Twisted theologies of submission have been used to abuse women and children, to justify slavery, and to defend political hegemony. It will be a miracle if we all leave here tonight simply comfortable with using the word itself. I know it took me a long time.
But submission is not any of those things I just talked about. It is not concerned with gender or age or social class. Submission is not an issue of political parties or ideological positions. Submission is, in the most general sense, the surrender of one’s will to another authority. It does not mean demeaning oneself or being made to seem less than one is. It doesn’t mean blindly following wherever and authority might lead. And, most importantly, it does not mean sacrificing the ability to question. Submission is positive! And it’s so much more than we tend to think it can be.
Now, there are four key areas where I believe scripture has called us to submit – and to understand what submission means in those contexts. We are called to submit to God, to others in our relationships, to civil authorities, and to the church. As we move through these four areas, I hope to unpack just what it means to submit in each of them and demonstrate how Christ is the key to understanding them all.
First and foremost, we are called to submit to God. In fact, that very phrase, “Submit yourselves to God,” can be found in James 4:7. Great. We’re called to submit. What does that mean? Beautifully, God doesn’t leave us to figure out that answer on our own. He answers that question in His own person, by sending Jesus to this earth. In the very act of incarnation, we learn something of submission. Paul describes it beautifully in Philippians 2:5-8.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”
Could there be a more perfect picture of submission? Could there be anything more beautiful than the fact that Christ, though he was himself God, humbled himself for the sake of our redemption? He did not exploit his equality, nor did he allow himself to follow his own desires, but the one who is himself perfect freedom became our slave unto redemption. The one who is utter fullness emptied himself out for our sake. He came and lived a life that modeled submission, a life that returned us to full communion with God. There is nothing more beautiful than true submission.
And for us who are called to be imitators of Christ, there is no more moving example. The primary lesson we learn from this Philippians passage is the surrender of the will. Christ demonstrates to us that the key to understanding submission to God is the ability to surrender our will to him. Christ shows us that we are to let go of our baser desires and to follow the desires of God. This is not easy. In fact, it demands prodigious sacrifice, the sacrifice of freedom, something the West cannot abide by. But in surrendering our wills to God, we do not become automatons or robots. We are still active participants in our lives, indeed, we become active participants in the Divine Life, but our wills are no longer our own.
How does this play out in the real world? Well, with Christ as our example, we can see it doing so in diverse ways. In the first place, we see submission as the surrender of vocation. Christ became an itinerant evangelist, rather than a carpenter. We should submit our careers and vocations to God. Second, submission to God involves the surrender of desires. Christ never sinned, because he was so submitted to God that he never desired to. As we continue to submit ourselves to God, we desire sin less and less. As we submit ourselves, we become more like Christ, who is also the key to our submission.
The second area scripture calls us to submission in is marriage relationships. Here we must be careful, as this form of submission has been one of the most abused. Let me say at the outset that a theology of submission that requires the dominance of one partner, enforces the inferiority of the other, or entails physical or mental abuse in any form is utterly abhorrent and has no basis in the reality of scripture or human experience.
Why then, does the writer of Ephesians, in chapter 5 verse 22 “Wives, be subject to your husbands”? Another excellent question. The key to understanding this passage is language. The word here for head is κεφαλη, and it simply means the physical head. Men cannot use this passage to claim leadership or rule over a woman. The same is true of the submission verb, υποτασσω which means submit. It has no connotations of inferiority or unjust submission. One also has to understand that Paul and his disciples lived in a world that viewed women as physically and ontologically inferior. He demands that the man be the head because he believes the woman incapable of defending herself. We in the modern world know that this is simply not true.
So, instead of getting lost in the idea of sex or gender, let’s move back just one verse to the beginning of this section on the Christian household. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This is the part we always miss. Feminists and Patriarchists alike, we all gravitate to the gendered language and miss the beauty of this idea of co-submission. 1st Corinthians discusses this in a physical aspect, that the bodies of a couple belong to each other, but Ephesians spiritualizes the topic. We are called to love each and other and sacrifice for each other, the way that Christ loved the church and gave himself completely for it.
Here again, Christ is the example for our submission. Though he was never married, we can glean much from his example. In the first place, Christ reinforces the idea found in Genesis that a husbands shall “cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Elsewhere, women feature prominently in Christ’s parables, almost always in a positive light. Women support his ministry, and it is women, not men, who first discover and believe his resurrection. He takes great pains to honor his own mother and see that she is cared for before he dies. He is even persuaded by the reasoning of the Syro-Phoenecian woman in Mark 7. In short, Jesus honors and respects the women that he meets in his ministry, and when he discusses marriage, he implies total unity, not male domination.
Relationships characterized by this type of self-sacrificing, united love are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. They stop being primarily about the two people involved and instead become about reflecting the love of Jesus to the world. And if we look to Jesus, to his example relationship with the church, we see one who treats us as equals, as friends. He gave everything he had to bring us into the divine fellowship. So we should give ceaselessly of ourselves to our partners and strive to love them as Christ loved.
Our third responsibility is found in submission to civic authorities. One of the primary discussion of this is found in Romans 13. Paul writes “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4for it is God’s servant for your good.” Simple enough, right?
Honestly, at first blush, such an attitude seems ridiculous. Not only did Paul know how foreign powers had abused and ruled over Israel, but he himself would eventually see the result of Rome’s benevolence at the edge of a sword. But it makes sense for Paul to behave this way. Not only had the Roman justice system saved his life more than once, but he also believed in an immanent parousia. There’s no point in bucking the system if Christ is coming back by the end of your lifetime. Keep calm and carry on, to borrow a phrase from your culture.
But the author of Revelation saw things very differently. For John, Rome was a cruel and hideous beast, the servant of the Dragon and a conspirator with whores. The Empire was set completely at odds with the community of faith and set out to destroy it with all available haste. And as one who lived through the fierce and furious persecutions of the emperor Diocletian, it makes sense for the Revelator to view the world this way. Even Paul elsewhere admits that the world is run by demonic powers.
Now, some people find these divergent viewpoints disturbing. I take comfort in them. They demonstrate that the relationship of the Christian to the civil government is a massive question, a question that the church has been dealing with since the beginning. The Jewish leaders even dealt with that question and asked Jesus (somewhat dishonestly) “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” (Matthew 22:21)
Again, Christ is our example that illuminates submission. Here, he recognizes that civil authorities have a modicum of power. Since they minted the money and distributed it, they have the right to ask for it back in the form of taxes. Jesus goes further and recognizes Pilate possess the authority to kill him. Judged by the standards of human courts, Christ submits to their human judgment. But Christ was not a part of the empire, nor are we. We are citizens of the kingdom, and as envoys in the Empire, we are asked to abide by the rules where we are able. But we are never called to follow unjust laws.
What we sometimes miss out on is the idea that submission can include disobedience. Jesus gives us an example when he says “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two.” Divorced from the context, we often miss the political meaning. This was a soldier forcing a man to carry his pack for one mile, which he was legally allowed to do. By going the second mile, the individual is demonstrating the legitimacy of the soldier’s temporal authority, but emphasizing that he exists outside of that authority. In going the second mile he forces the soldier to realize that the man he is treating like a slave is indeed an equal, a man loved in the eyes of God, a man with a will and freedom. And in this submissive act of disobedience, he demonstrates the injustice of treating any human like a slave. Remember, even Jesus disobeyed. He ignored unjust Sabbath laws and refused to deny who he was. Are we willing to disobey submissively? More importantly, are we rendering to God what is God’s? Are we willing to concern ourselves less with Caesar and more with Christ? For it is there we shall learn true submission.
Finally, we are called to submit within the church. The 13th chapter of Hebrews contains this exhortation: “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.” As members of this living organization called the Church of Christ, we are called to submit ourselves to the leaders and clergy of the Church. We are called to imitate their lives and support their work and to not be a burden on their lives. This is a hard task and a difficult calling.
But Paul insists in many places that the unity which can be created by Godly submission within the Church should also be the hallmark of the body of Christ. When congregations submit themselves to the leadership of their church and denomination, they show a willingness to stand together for the vision that Christ has given them and to support their clergy’s leadership in attaining that vision. Moreover, we submit to our leadership because we recognize both their calling and their training. We believe that God has called them and that the denomination has adequately prepared them for leadership.
But we must be wise as serpents. We need to realize that sometimes people take advantage of our trust and submission. There are ministers out there who would use the church for their own personal gain or who would ignore the high calling that Christ has placed upon the leadership of his church. There are those who lead who should actually be followers. There are those who are unfit for leadership. There are those who would subvert the vision of Christ for his church. And these we should not follow. We need t be wise enough to understand when our churches are being inappropriately led.
So what does it mean to submit within the church? Again, the key is co-submission. Paul tells the church in Corinth that they are co-workers in the cause of Christ. Paul has constructed the foundation, but others will construct the building. As we have a responsibility to our leadership, so our leadership have a responsibility to us. And we to each other. As Christ lived among and carefully taught his disciples, so should our leaders be teaching and living with us. As the disciples respected Christ’s leadership enough to ask him questions, so must we also question our leaders. This is the only way we shall learn. As the disciples supported each other in the first years of the church, so should we also support our brothers and sisters in ministry. And as the Church submits to Christ, we should all submit ourselves individually. In this way, we might learn true submission.
Now, I’ve packed a lot into this half hour. We’re going to finish with a time of reflection as a way of review. I want us all to sit in the silence of these next moments and examine our lives. Then, I’ll recap the areas of submission and begin to ask you some questions. Think about them. React to them. And for goodness sake, let them change you. Don’t leave this place unaltered by the encounter you’ve had with the living God, the God who submitted himself to save you.
Now, firstly, submission to God. Does your life imitate the submission modeled by Christ? Whose desires dominate your life, yours or Gods? Are you submitting to something else? Are you attentive to God’s calling? If he asks of you, even in something radical, would you obey?
Next, submission in relationships. Have you ever abused the spousal relationship? Have you required something that is not submission? Have you allowed yourself to be treated that way? Are you submitting to your partner in love? Does your relationship reflect Christ to the world?
Third, submission to civil authorities. How do you submit to civil authorities? Do you give what is Caesar’s to Caesar? More importantly, do you give to God what is God’s? Are you blindly following the Empire? Are you prepared to submissively disobey?
Finally, the church. Are you submitting to your leadership? Are you submitting to the congregation? Are you striving for unity? Or do you thrive on controversy?
And the most important question: Is Christ always the model for your submission?