The reality is that we don’t really want to talk about the spiritual practice of submission much anymore. It’s understandable. The first reason, I think, is the long and disturbing history of spiritual abuse in the life of Christian community. We have seen it in the news, and many of us have personal experiences as well. Even someone like Richard Foster, the spiritual disciplines guru, can freely admit: “Of all the Spiritual Disciplines none has been more abused than the discipline of submission. Somehow the human species has as extraordinary knack for taking the best teaching and turning it to the worst ends.” Because this originally good practice has been so misused, we have largely turned away from it.
A second- and perhaps less legitimate- reason for our distaste for submission comes from the cultural waters we all swim in. We are now several hundred years into a Western philosophical development that prioritizes two things: individualism and freedom. The individual person has come to be regarded as the most important facet of human existence, possessing an absolute freedom to make sovereign choices for themselves, apart from anyone or anything else. My choices are the most important thing, and my freedom is freedom from- from the opinions, beliefs, and expectations of others. As such, we resonate with Martin Luther when he says that “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” However, we quickly disagree when he continues with “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” A negative freedom- freedom from- is valued, whereas a positive freedom- freedom for service, community, and even submission- is shunned. Absolute freedom from is a myth, however. No matter how much we praise it, it doesn’t really exist. As Bob Dylan once sang:
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
To the Lord and the devil, we might add our employers, our families, or our own stomachs, but the point is that we actually have a limited freedom- a freedom for service. Proper use of the spiritual practice of submission can help us better use that “for,” and to better choose where to invest it.
It can help us, because, frankly, living as isolated, sovereign individuals is exhausting. What may seem like a good idea in principle, wears us down over the years. Serving our self, our opinions, and our whims, we find that we are actually horrible dictators. Proper and healthy submission can liberate us from this tyranny of self. Foster says that submission is “the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way.” John Alexander adds:
Submission means knowing you don’t know everything. It means knowing that the people of God gathered know more than you do by yourself. It means being willing to listen with an open heart when the body has the audacity to differ with your views. It means being willing pretty often to try out others’ views for awhile to see if maybe your the one that’s confused… That’s all submission is…
If you are exhausted from being your own emperor all the time, a return to a healthy practice of submission may be for you. If, like me, you have begun to suspect that when we think we are serving ourselves, we are in fact in bondage to the culture and to consumerism, a healthy return to a specifically Christian practice of submission may help liberate you from the principalities and powers of this age. What follows are some thoughts about what a healthy practice of submission can look like.
A Checklist for the Practice of Submission
Having chosen to live in an intentional Christian manner, here are the areas where we might ask ourselves “Am I submitted?”:
1. Jesus (and the Bible)
Once one is a Christian, the first area in which we should practice submission is the surrender of our lives of Jesus. Increasingly, Jesus has become an “add-on” to modern lives, as opposed to the Lord of our lives. Yet the expectation is clear: “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.” Although our allegiance and submission is to Jesus, this secondarily means that we must also take seriously the Bible as our standard for living. Space does not permit anything more than to say this is complex- an acknowledgement that there is an ongoing debate in the life of the church as to the authority of Scripture, its’ interpretation, and the implications for our ethics and moral behavior. Nonetheless, for most of us that is not really the issue, if we are honest. Rather, it is that we remain the master of our lives and subject Scripture to our own preferences. The ancient wisdom of Saint Augustine comes to mind: “If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.” Does this describe you?
2. Neighbors (including our family)
“Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus says, going so far to say that it’s a key summary of the Law and Prophets. Submission, then, is to our neighbors as well- in love and service. And this can be liberating: “We discover that it is far better to serve our neighbors than to have our own way.” Remember the truth that your primary neighbors are those closest to you- certainly family, and perhaps some friends as well. How are you doing in submitting to your commitments, roles and promises to your family and friends? In serving your neighbors?
3. The Church
If we are not already nervous, here is where we usually begin to become so, Again, this is often for sad and legitimate reasons. Looking at this kind of submission in terms of relationships, as opposed to power and authority may help.
We need a relationship with the proclamation and teaching of the church. For many of us this will mean learning, appreciating and conforming our lives to both the theology of the faith and also to the wisdom of our particular Christian tradition. This can help free us from the despotism of our own thinking and wants. For others, it may help us discern that, truly, we need to find another place in the church that speaks more honestly to our conscience and sensibilities.
We also need a relationship to those wise sisters and brothers who can help to guide us. Pastors, teachers, spiritual directors, and accountability/support groups can help us conform our lives to the pattern of Christ, if we are willing to humbly submit to good counsel and discernment.
Submission to the gathered community is also beneficial. When we have regular relationships to our community of faith (whatever form it takes), gathering regularly for worship, fellowship, teaching and service, we begin to break free from the tyranny of individualism, and the loneliness, depression, and exhaustion that comes from being a “lone ranger.” We are more authentically the selves God designed us to be when we are part of a “we,” as opposed to merely an “I.”
Is it possible that submission to the relationships that make up the church could be beneficial to you?
It can’t be emphasized enough that the practice of submission needs to be safe. Otherwise, truly nothing positive can still be said, and the practice should be abandoned. Here are some reminders to keep the practice healthy:
- No power plays or manipulation. Christian submission is a mutual submission and subordination of one to another in love. There is no leader or authority who exists above the call to mutual submission.
- True spiritual authority is marked by both compassion and power.
- The limits of the discipline of submission are the points at which it becomes destructive.
Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.
- Foster, Richard J. (2009) Celebration of Discipline. (3rd ed.) [Kindle iOS version], p.110.  - Luther, Martin (1520) On Christian Liberty. In H. Cole (Trans.), Select Works of Martin Luther, vol. I. London: T. Bensley, p. 10.  - Dylan, Bob, (1979)Gotta Serve Somebody. Slow Train Coming, Columbia Records. - Foster, Richard J. (2009) Celebration of Discipline. (3rd ed.) [Kindle iOS version], p.110. - Alexander, John (2016) Submission. In C.E. Moore (Ed.), Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, p.208. - Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Mk 8:34). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers. - St Augustine. Sermons. [20,2] inter. AD 341-430. - Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Mt 22:39–40). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers. - Foster, Richard J. (2009) Celebration of Discipline. (3rd ed.) [Kindle iOS version], p.112. - Foster, Richard J. (2009) Celebration of Discipline. (3rd ed.) [Kindle iOS version], p.123. - Foster, Richard J. (2009) Celebration of Discipline. (3rd ed.) [Kindle iOS version], p.120.