No, not that S-word—though the mainstreaming of 4-letter words into “civil discourse” is something worthy of notice, and not as praiseworthy! No, I’m talking here about the other S-word that is truly offensive to all Americans. This is the other word that flies in the face of what Timothy Keller says the real “American Idol,” which is to be the master of your own destiny. It’s a word that screams inequality, hierarchy, exploitation and from our cultural history, even slavery. That word is “submission,” and we hate it.
Although it goes against every fiber of our being, the Bible not only has a lot to say about this S-word, it truly thinks differently about it than our culture and our hearts do.
It’s Human (and Divine) to Submit
The beginnings of the Bible’s account of the S-word for the human life takes us to the Garden of Eden. This may seem a bold claim right off the bat, but submission is part of the Imago Dei. That’s right, I’m suggesting submission is a component of the very essence of what it means to be human. And what’s more, because it’s part of the image of God, I’m also saying submission is part of the being of God himself! The created “apple” doesn't fall far from the Creator tree in this case.
While we sit a moment with such seemingly absurd claims, it would be best to get some definitions in place. The primary Greek word in question here, hypotassō, will already help us dig out from beneath our culture baggage. It is literally about an “order,” literally, it’s “to order under.” In the Bible, to submit or subordinate oneself or even to be submitted is ultimately about satisfying an order or an arrangement of things. It’s about proper disposition in relationship. Since the time of the early church Fathers, theologians have talked about this kind of ordering when they speak of the Trinity’s eternal processions, that is, the “flow” of their life and work. Their ordered flow is clearly visible in the work of salvation: Father – Son – Spirit is always the order of their work in creation and redemption. It also works in reverse. That is, as the Spirit’s Trinitarian distinction is that of immanence or application of the Father’s intention demonstrated in the Son, so His work is to first shows us the grace of the Father that is toward us in Jesus Christ (1 Cor 2;12; cf. Gal 2:21 ). Thus, it is that, as James Dunn puts it, “the Spirit is always experienced in a Christ-shaped way.” Then the Son comes in as the only way to the Father (Matt 11:27). Everything from and back to God has this ordered flow.
From these observations of Scripture comes the general trinitarian rule: modus agenda sequitur modus essendi, or the mode of doing follows the mode of being. The ordered flow the Trinity has in their work reflects an “ordering” they have in themselves. But here’s the thing: in their internal “order” there is no hint of inequality, no hint of difference in power, glory or honor. And here’s the way the submission conversation of Scripture for us begins, too. Namely, the orderings we are called to in the Bible—and they are many we will see—are not about our value or worth, but our disposition, our place, in community.
Equality in Difference, Not Sameness
Back to the initial claim that submission is part of the Image of God for us: we were made to exist in a submitted “order.” That order, of course, begins with God, and Scripture is clear about this (Mic 6:8, Is 66:2, e.g.). We were made to be in submission to Him and rebellion to this order is the very essence of sin. See the rebellion of the first sin in Genesis 3:1–8. That’s also why our bent toward autonomy from God that Paul calls “flesh” does not submit (hypotassetai) to Him (Ro 8:7)—indeed, he says, it cannot.
However, the human “orders” that Scripture calls us to are different. Whereas there’s no question of an essential difference between the Living God and his creatures, that is not true for our human “orders.” But like the Trinity, the call for us to submit to our church leaders (Heb 13:17), our political leaders (1 Pet 2:13), our employers (Titus 2:9), our parents (Eph 6:1), our husbands (Eph 5:22), and our brothers and sisters in the family of God (Eph 5:21) is not a matter of personal worth or value, but our “disposition” in community life. To be sure, this is where it already gets hard for us in egalitarian societies. To some degree we get the limitations of “it’s above your pay grade” or “you don’t have clearance for that,” but it is also easy for us to fall into the cultural meme that subordination and submission to another person means you’re “less.” It screams victim. It means powerless. It means hierarchy where we crave equality. Without question, there is much sinful abuse in these orders funding this “less than” meme, but unlike the equality of the Trinity, equality for our culture is a matter of radical sameness. Same access, same opportunities and for some even same results. Anything less is unacceptable.
The Trinity’s life means difference can still be a matter of equality. Difference in responsibility does not mean difference in value or worth. Another biblical example of this idea within the human “orders” is God’s preference for the nation of Israel. Of all nations, this people is called “Yahweh’s special possession” (Ps 135:4), “prized above all others on the earth” (Deut 7:6, 26:19!) and if the prophets are right, their specialness will show up in a future world order (Is 60:12), too. “But that’s not fair,” we grouse, “God shows no partiality!” (we love that verse wherever it is!) Indeed, jealousy against such “particularist” readings of the Old Testament has funded the theological supplanting of a Future Israel in the church’s eschatology especially since humanist egalité of the Enlightenment. But if we think God’s partiality to Israel means Gentiles are trash, we show we don’t understand the ways of God very well. For God’s choice or differentiation of anyone is always aimed at a service or good he wants to provide to the rest of us. In God’s ordering, Israel’s election is all about their service to the nations (Is 42:6–7), not their excuse for craven lording. Same goes for the other orders God has ordained—church leaders, political leaders, family leaders, employment leaders—none of this difference is for the self-promotion of the leader. Rather, differences between us are always a matter of equality, and more, they are also the grounds of service to those “ordered” underneath. At least that’s God’s way in the matter.
Submission a Gift Offered from Real Power
But we know well the pain of sin in the orders. In our sin-wracked world, governments pervert their commission to punish evil and praise good. Church leaders prey upon the flock they should protect. Bosses exploit for the sake of the sacred bottom line. And the age-old one of men boorishly using women that has well-earned Feminism’s “Enough!” Yes, the Bible knows all of this, too, so it is eminently realistic when it discusses our life in the orders in the present age. But the Bible’s answer is not to destroy the orders and level everything in autonomous equality, sameness and anarchy. No, the orders and differences are useful, needed and still ordained by God. Instead, the answer to the abuse of order is found by leaning into the basic order that is submission to God. Not in the sense that we should think, “Well, God wants me here, so I’ll stay and submit to this tyrant.” No, it’s more the idea that when we submit ourselves to all that God is for us in Christ, we are strong and secure enough to brush off the daily perversions of the tyrants of this passing age. Note well: this is not a call to never seek justice by the law, to never say "no" to one above you, to never work for proper functioning of the orders, or to submit to a physically abusive higher up. No, we’re talking about Scripture’s realistic counsel of how to thrive when there is no legal or physical option for release and when there are consequences to saying No. It is counsel that is sufficient for when you can’t change your job or for when you can’t change your parents. It’s counsel that is sufficient for you even if you are a slave.
Jesus’ example is the way out. Peter tells us how this works in his first letter by reminding us of Jesus’ encounter with a perverse government order. Tried, sentenced, and even executed by those ordered “above” him, Jesus offers submission because of the security he knows from the basic order, the one of submission to his Father. Namely, because he was so confident and safe in this primary “order,” —Jesus “entrusted himself” to God, Peter says (2:23)—he could offer submission to even the most unjust, dishonoring, and humiliating abuse of the order he faced. Peter then applies Jesus’ model directly to the order of marriage for a woman with a man who is “disobedient to the word” (1 Pet 3:1). How does she wield the S-word? Is she the victim, submitting from a position of weakness and vulnerability? No, Peter says it’s the opposite—that holy women have always managed the marriage order from the position of power they have from “hoping in God” (3:5). Secure in God’s profound ability to take care of them— to “work all things for good,” and even to secure it through a disobedient husband, they can offer submission.
And that’s the key, they offer it. Submission is not coerced or pried from anyone in this scenario. It is offered as a gift from the one with the greater power to the one with less of it. For the disobedient have only the power of earth and flesh where those secure in God have the power of heaven and Spirit. This is the power of submission. Sounds completely upside-down by our culture, I know. But there’s more. Submission power is the winning power. Peter says the one who is changed in this scenario is not the one wielding the submission-gift, it’s the disobedient who get worked (1 Pet 3:1).
This is the same upside-down power Paul spoke of for himself in his ministry of the Gospel—the power of weakness (2 Cor 12:9). And weak was exactly how his world saw him. He was “the dregs of the earth” (1 Cor 4:13) spouting a message of foolishness and powerlessness (1 Cor 1:18–23) by their judgment. But Paul knew different. He knew the real power behind his message and “weak” condition. It is power utterly sufficient and timely for his own run-ins with perverted orders.
But it was more than sufficient and overwhelming power for the moment, too. Here we need to lean in to one last aspect of the S-word. We can offer submission to even perverse orders because we are secure in God’s ability to work good from this now, AND because we know how God’s Story ends for us and the perverted in the future. It was for the “joy set before him” that Jesus submitted to the cross (Heb 12:2). Jesus knew that even the worst suffering in this world of earth and flesh was still just “momentary light afflictions” (2 Cor 4:17) in comparison to the glory that was coming (Ro 8:18). Same for us. Unimaginable glory awaits. And so does justice. Sufferings encountered through perversions of the orders are marked by the heavenly Accountant, and he will pay back. As the image of the God of Israel, the God of mishpat (justice, see Ps 89:14), we also love and need justice. We want to make cultures of it for the world and we want to know it’s coming when injustice strikes us. Like the saints under the alter in Revelation 6:9, we cry “how long, O Lord, until you avenge?” And God hears this cry. This is why he says that the coming reversal of this world’s perversions of the orders will be paid back (double even, see Rev 18:6), and that it is pay back God gives for you (Rev 18:20).
In this world, the S-word is an equal opportunity virtue, as God sees it. No one escapes its net, which means there is no one for whom God has not provided means to learn to be fully human in submission along with the real power from relationship with Him that funds it. No matter how much it might feel like a four-letter word to our heart and the world we still live in.
- Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (Penguin, 2009), 75.
- Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: in Scripture, History, Theology and Worship (P & R, 2004), 399–404.
- The parallelism in Gal 2:21 between “the grace of God” and “Christ died” establishes the notion of “grace as event” (i.e., the crucifixion) for Paul.
- James D. G. Dunn, The Christ and the Spirit (Eerdmans, 1998), 78.
- Anders Gerdmar, Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism: German Biblical Interpretation and the Jews, from Herder and Semler to Kittel and Bultmann (Brill, 2010).
- “Israel is to have the role of the priestly member in the number of earthly states. Israel is to do ‘service’ for all the world (cf. also Is 65:5f.); this is the purpose for which Israel has been chosen” (Martin Noth, Exodus [Westminster, 1962], 157).