The Meaning of Submission

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“Submission” as a word has gained a pretty nasty connotation. It smells of hidden abuse, of extortion, of tyranny, threats to liberty and freedom, and humiliation. When someone uses the word “submit,” it calls to memory scenes from films or from history, when tyrants or others in power command those below them to submit—to bow down, to give up, and surrender to a movement that’s more often than not producing injustice.

So it’s not surprising when the word “submission” or others like it are found in the Bible, it causes people to bristle. Verses that say things like “wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord” or “slaves, obey your earthly masters…as you would Christ” feel offensive. They seem to justify the image of Christianity that many have today—a religion that is narrow-minded, and relegates women and minority groups to second-class citizenship.

However, we have seen in past posts and with further investigation that a full understanding of what the Bible does or does not advocate for, and whether or not it seeks justice, requires taking the scripture in it’s full context. For example, if we investigate these verses further, we see the other half that people often forget to emphasize or even read. Wives are commanded to submit to their husbands, as to the Lord. But in return, husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the church. And how Christ loved the church was to submit and humble himself “by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). Slaves are commanded to obey their masters with sincere hearts. But masters are commanded to treat their servants justly in return, remembering and submitting to their own Master in heaven, who will judge them justly according to what they have done.

So we’re left slightly confused. For throughout the Bible, we get the idea that God is a God who commands and cares passionately about justice being done.

“For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity.” (Isaiah 61:8)

“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them…Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:21-24)

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:1-3)

But then there is still this concept of submission that is still present. The same God who is passionate about justice is also the Christ that submitted Himself to carry the cross for humanity, despite the fact that He was unjustly condemned to die. And He calls those who’d follow Him to do the same.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil… if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…”

“I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?…You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 38-48)

So where does submission end and justice begin? Are they mutually exclusive? And if they’re not, how can they coexist?

Perhaps what we need is clarification of what submission means. Perhaps submission need not mean accepting injustice, but rather rising above it.

Those who have been working for any sort of change in the world know, or will at least realize quickly, that the work will probably not be done in their lifetimes. Slavery was technically ended by law long ago, but it continues in the shadows in new forms. Foster care is an unending tangle of issues that have a long way to go before any sort of real resolution can be reached. And from the recent news we’ve been seeing on our laptop and TV screens, racial reconciliation is tragically still very much a work in progress. Changing the world is not a feel-good quip on a nicely filtered Facebook photo. It is a hard and arduous road, stained with tears and sometimes blood over many years, and even decades.

I’m not saying that we should simply give up on calling for and working towards justice in all areas that its needed in. If justice can be done, then it should be done. But we may need to realize that while justice will be done one day, it may not come to its full fruition in our lifetimes. And when we’ve come to that realization, we have a choice to make. We can despair or give into bitterness and cynicism over the slow arrival of justice. And perhaps that is well deserved, especially for those that are suffering under some sort of injustice.

But injustice need not steal our souls, along with everything else it seeks to take. And I think this is where submission as a concept may be redeemed. I do not believe calling out what is wrong is not mutually exclusive with submission. Instead, perhaps turning the other cheek, loving our enemies even if they may not acknowledge our rights or our humanity, is not so much weakness, but demonstration of strength. For it is easy to be angry and to feel wronged when injustice is present, for injustice is inherently wrong. For that reason, it is ever so difficult to choose to love in the face of injustice. But it sets an example for those that have yet to learn justice and is ever more freeing.

Knowing our own rights and our own humanity, and declaring them to be true is right. But even if no one acknowledges them, we can still know our own value. Bitterness and cynicism towards injustice are pretty chains, for they contain grains of truth. But they are chains nonetheless if we let them rule the affirmation of our value. Submission need not mean giving into injustice. When it comes down to it, regardless of circumstances of justice or injustice, we ourselves have the ability to choose to know our own value, and not let circumstances steal our joy. Injustice can take all else. But that it cannot take from us.