What does submission look like?
by Jack Wald | January 29th, 2017

Ephesians 5:21

Muhammad Ali is viewed as the greatest boxer of all time. Certainly, he was the most charismatic of all boxers. He was not a shy person and bragged that he was the greatest. Among his many famous quotes are these two. “I’m young; I’m handsome; I’m fast. I can’t possibly be beat.” He asked one opponent, “How tall are you? So I can know in advance how far to step back when you fall down!”

There is a story, perhaps true, that Ali once told a flight attendant that he refused to wear a seat belt because he was Superman and “Superman don’t need no seat belt.” Her brilliant response was “Superman don’t need no airplane.”

Ali thought he was the greatest. He said, “I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.”

The Oxford Dictionary is holding a global public vote to find English speakers’ least favorite word. Surprisingly, “moist” is a leading contender in the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia. “Brexit” is a much disliked word in the UK. For some reason, “hello” is disliked in Spain.

I would suspect that high on the list of disliked words would be “submit” or “submission.” We want to be great; we do not want to submit.

If you look up submission on the internet, the first place it takes you is into a dark sexual world where love, tenderness, and kindness are smothered. It is not a good place to go and it distresses me to see that this is where the internet first takes us when we look up submission.

Submission is also a disliked word because it describes what happens when a superior force uses its power against a weaker force. The stronger person forces the weaker person to do whatever the stronger person wants.

Erich Fromm, in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, wrote about the destructive human personalities that allowed the Holocaust in WWII to occur. In this book he describes the sadomasochistic bureaucrat who is controlled by those above him and controls those below him.
One only has to look at the facial expression and the voice of a certain type of bureaucrat criticizing his subordinate, or frowning when he is a minute late, or insisting on behavior that at least symbolically expresses that during office hours, he “belongs” to the superior. Or one might think of the bureaucrat behind the post office window and watch his hardly noticeable thin little smile as he shuts his window at 5:30 sharp, while the last two people who have already been waiting for half an hour have to leave and come back the next day. The point is not that he stops selling stamps at 5:30 sharp: the important aspect of his behavior is the fact that he enjoys frustrating people, showing them that he controls them, a satisfaction that is expressed in his facial expression.

I experience this in Morocco from time to time and I am powerless. I have no other option than to sit, wait, and come back another time until I get what I need. Sometimes decisions are made that are unfair and unjust and I have no choice but to submit to the authority of the bureaucrat in charge. It does not feel good to be forced to submit.

In our relationships we are being constantly challenged. Will we assert our rights or will we submit? When someone cuts in line ahead of us, we are angered and sometimes protest. When we sense that someone is taking advantage of us we rebel and think about our rights. We may not verbalize it, but we think it. Submission does not come easily to us.

In the next three sermons I will be talking about the relationships of husband and wife, parent and child, and master and slave. In these three relationships, in the way the world thinks about these relationships, the husband has power over his wife, the parent has power over the child, and the master has power over his slave. In all three of these relationships, the person in the weaker position has to submit to the one who has more power.

The reason why there is a lot of contention about these three relationships is because too much of the time, the one with power unfairly and unjustly exercises it over the one without power. 31% of American women report being physically abused by their husband or boyfriend at some time in their life. There is a religion whose holy book says a husband may beat his wife if she is disobedient. It is difficult to get statistics about worldwide abuse of women because in many cultures men beating their wives is the norm.

Raising children is not easy and we are all amateurs when it comes our turn to raise children. So we are all imperfect parents. But there are too many stories of children being beaten by their parents. Even parents who love their children can unintentionally inflict psychological harm on their sons and daughters.

Masters and employers too often use and abuse those who work for them. The welfare of the workers is too often not a concern for the employer.

I would imagine each one of us could share a story that talks about having been abused by someone stronger and more powerful than us.

Because of all the negative examples of those with power using it against those without power, we have a negative view of submission. We don’t like the word “submit” or “submission.”

But submission in the Bible is a beautiful word.

What does Biblical submission look like? Like everything else in our Christian life, to see what submission looks like, we need to go back to the Trinity, the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Trinity is not simply a theological explanation of who God is. The Trinity is a true description of God who existed for eternity before creating this world. We get a glimpse into the relationships of the Trinity when Jesus prayed for his disciples in John 17. (John 17:22–26)
I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

The doctrine of the Trinity helps us grasp the nature of divine love.

First, it makes it clear that God’s love for us cannot be based on his need for love and fellowship – as if we were necessary for a God of love to be complete. The love experienced in the relationships of the Trinity is complete and perfect. The needs of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are perfectly and completely met within the relationships of the Trinity. This creates a unity that is so complete that we worship one God.

It is in this perfect relationship that we see submission as it is meant to be. In the relationships of the Trinity, each person in the Trinity defers, submits to the other two. The Son submits to the Father and the Spirit. The Sprit submits to the Father and the Son. The Father submits to the Son and the Spirit.

The Father and Spirit want to bring glory to the Son. The Son wants to bring glory to the Father and Spirit. The Spirit wants to bring glory to the Father and Son. When the Son suffers, the Father and Spirit suffer. When the Spirit is resisted, the Father and Son are resisted. When the Father is mocked, the Son and Spirit are mocked. There is a complete unity in the mutually supportive relationships of the Trinity.

Jesus taught about the Spirit. (John 16:12–15)
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”

Dale Bruner wrote about this. He said that the Spirit could be pictured by my drawing a stick figure (representing Jesus) on a blackboard. Then, to express what the Spirit does, I stand behind the blackboard, reach around with one hand, and point with a single finger to the image of Jesus: “Look at him, listen to him, learn from him, follow him, worship him, be devoted to him, serve him, love him, be preoccupied with him.”

But when we look at the Son, oddly enough we see that he didn’t walk around saying, “I am the greatest.” He said, (John 8:54) “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing”. He said he came not to be served but to serve. He submitted to the Spirit, who Mark tells us “drove him into the wilderness.” He told the Father in his climactic struggle, “not my will, but yours be done.”

Then there is the Father. Twice in the synoptic Gospels we hear the voice of the Father: once at the baptism of Jesus and again at the Mount of Transfiguration.

Both times his words are a variation of this message: This is my priceless Son. I am deeply pleased with him. Listen to him!

It is worth noticing, Bruner writes, that this voice does not say, “Listen to me too, after listening to him; don’t forget that I’m here too; don’t be taken up with my Son.”

Each member of the Trinity points faithfully and selflessly to the other in a gracious circle.

There is no positioning for power. There is no assertion of individual rights. Each person of the Trinity is valued, encouraged, and loved. In that relationship, there is no cost of submission. The persons in the Trinity do not have to worry or be anxious that they will be taken advantage of. They do not have to worry that they will be used for the ego needs of the other two persons in the Trinity. There is complete trust in the love relationships of the Trinity.

This is what Richard Foster, in his book, Celebration of Discipline, calls the freedom that comes in submission.
 What freedom corresponds to submission?  It is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way.  The obsession to demand that things go the way we want them to go is one of the greatest bondages in human society today.  People will spend weeks, months, even years in a perpetual stew because some little thing did not go as they wished.  They will fuss and fume.  They will get mad about it.  They will act as if their very life hangs on the issue.  They may even get an ulcer over it.
    In the discipline of submission we are released to drop the matter, to forget it.  Frankly, most things in life are not nearly as important as we think they are.  Our lives will not come to an end if this or that does not happen.
    The biblical teaching on submission focuses primarily on the spirit with which we view other people.  Scripture does not attempt to set forth a series of hierarchical relationships but to communicate to us an inner attitude of mutual subordination.
    In submission we are at last free to value other people.  Their dreams and plans become important to us.  We have entered into a new, wonderful, glorious freedom – the freedom to give up our own rights for the good of others.  For the first time we can love people unconditionally.  We have given up the right to demand that they return our love.  No longer do we feel that we have to be treated in a certain way.  We rejoice in their successes.  We feel genuine sorrow in their failures.  It is of little consequence that our plans are frustrated if their plans succeed.  We discover that it is far better to serve our neighbor than to have our own way.

That is the beauty of submission and as I read what Foster wrote, there is a deep longing in me to live my life this way. I long for this freedom. I want to be set free from my selfish need to protect myself.

The difficulty for us is that we are not in relationships that value us as much as the other person values him or herself. When we submit to others, we pay a price. There is a cost.

To submit is to become vulnerable to the other person in the relationship who can take advantage of our submission for his or her own benefit. That does not happen in the Trinity but it does happen in our relationships.

Where do we see examples of submission in the Bible and what can we learn from them?

Not surprisingly, we see it in Jesus. When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane the night he was arrested, he prayed (Luke 22:39–44)
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

Not my will but yours be done. That is submission.

After Jesus met with Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, the Gospels say, (Luke 9:51)
Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.

Jesus had a choice. He knew his work was to go to Jerusalem and be crucified. He could have said no, but he submitted and voluntarily set out for Jerusalem and the cross that awaited him.

When Peter drew his sword to protect Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told him, (Matthew 26:53–54)
Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?

Jesus chose not to exercise his power to protect himself but submitted.

Submission is voluntary. It is not forced on us. We have to choose to submit. If we are forced to submit, it is not submission, it is oppression. Jesus chose to turn his face to Jerusalem. Jesus chose to go to the cross. Jesus chose to submit to the Father’s will for his life.

The early church sang this song in their worship. (Philippians 2:5–11)
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Jesus who existed in the relationship of the Trinity for eternity before the universe was created, gave up all his rights and made himself nothing. He chose to give up his  rights and privileges. He humbled himself. He sacrificed himself for those he loves.

What Jesus did is also what he taught us to do. He said to the crowds and his disciples that the Jewish religious leaders demanded to be treated with respect. He said that everything they did was done for people to see. But, Jesus said, this is not how we are to live. (Matthew 23:8–12)
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

In Mark 8:34–35 Jesus called us to submit to him.
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.

Abraham submitted to God. He went where God called him to go. He did what God asked him to do. Even when he could not make sense of why God was asking him to go somewhere or do something, Abraham submitted to God.

Mary submitted when the angel Gabriel came to tell her she would conceive and bear a son. (Luke 1:38)
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”

The disciples submitted to Jesus and went on to take the gospel of Jesus to the world. After Peter failed as leader of the disciples when he denied knowing Jesus three times, Jesus restored Peter to leadership and Peter submitted, giving up his shame and failure and renewing his leadership with a new sense of humility.

Saul, the persecutor of the followers of Jesus, met Jesus on the road to Damascus and submitted to the risen Lord Jesus. He took up his new call and became an evangelist to the Gentiles.

Submission is voluntary. Submission cannot be forced.

Mary could have said, “no.” Saul/Paul could have said, “I will not take the treasure given by God to the Jews and scatter it among the Gentiles.” Peter could have refused to take his Jewish faith and share it with the Gentile Cornelius. In each case, Mary, Paul, and Peter chose to submit to what God told them to do.

In our human relationships, submission is also voluntary. It cannot be forced. I will get to this in the next three weeks, but the husband, the parent, nor the master can force the other person in the relationship to submit. That is, once again, not submission. It is oppression.

Submission within the relationships of the Trinity is mutual. That is also true with us. Paul, in Ephesians, begins this section about relationships between husband/wife, parent/child, and master/slave by saying,
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Submission is voluntary. Submission cannot be forced. Submission to others comes from our submission to Jesus. Why do we submit to others? We submit to others because this is the model Jesus set for us. We imitate the life of Jesus. We live life the way Jesus lived life. He is our example. Out of reverence for Christ, we submit to one another.

How do people in the world lead? The president of Gambia refused to accept the election results and stayed in power. He was unwilling to accept the verdict of the people in Gambia. My cynical side says he stayed in power long enough to gather as much money as he could get his hands on before he left.

I have heard many stories about US politicians who come to Morocco on buying trips. Some years ago a man from our church went to Marrakech to oversee one of these visits. When I asked him how it went he told me, “No matter how much you do for them, it is never enough.” These political leaders project an image of caring for the people they serve while they work to accumulate wealth and power. Actually serving the people that voted them into office seems to be a distant afterthought.

We say that our public officials serve the people who elected them, but the politician who truly views himself or herself as a servant of the people is very rare.

One would hope that in the church this would be different, but unfortunately it is not. There are many, many stories of pastors who accumulate wealth and power to benefit themselves. They want to be served. They demand to be served. They demand they be called by exalted titles. They demand to be treated with respect.

What is the example Jesus set for leadership in the church? He got a basin of water, took off his outer clothing, put a towel around his waist as a servant would do, and washed the dusty, dirty feet of his disciples. When he had finished he asked his disciples (John 13:12–17)
“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

A few years ago a couple from West Africa were leaving Morocco for the US. We had a small party for them and as they were leaving I noticed that the wife, who was holding her young son, had a shoe that was untied. So I knelt down and tied her shoe for her. To this day they still talk about that. They had never imagined that a pastor would do something like this.

This is a tragedy. Pastors and other leaders in the church, above all people, should be servants, following the example of Jesus.

The example of Jesus calls us to love without demanding submission. Submission is to be voluntary. By the example of Jesus we learn how to lead. We lead by serving. We lead with humility. When we are loved by God we respond by submitting to him. When we love and serve others, they are encouraged to submit to us.

Submission begins with me. I am not to wait until the other person in the relationship submits to me. I submit, even if the other person does not. John wrote (1 John 4:19)
We love because [God] first loved us.

God did not wait for us to submit to him; he loved us first. As Paul wrote in Romans 5:8
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Submission is voluntary. Submission cannot be forced. We submit to others because Christ showed us the example of submission and told us to follow him. Submission begins with me. I do not wait for someone else to submit. I initiate submission.

I am fully aware that what I am talking about is not easy. I have failed in all my relationships to submit to the other person in the relationship. I have failed as a husband. I have failed as a father. I have failed as an employer in a company. And I have failed as a pastor of RIC.

I am a sinner who is loved by God even when I have a difficult time loving God in return. I am a broken and flawed man. Jean Vanier is the founder/director of l’Arche, where Henri Nouwen worked in Montreal. He writes:

 All that is dead in us, more or less hidden in our unconscious self, in the shadow areas or the “tomb” of our being, provokes a kind of death around us. We judge and condemn and push people down, wanting to show that we are better than they. We refuse to listen to those who are different and so we hurt them. All these destructive acts have their origin in all that is dead within us, all that creates a stench in the hidden parts of our being, which we do not want to look at or admit.
    Jesus wants us to rise up and to become fully alive. He calls us out of the tomb we carry within us, just as God called Ezekiel to raise up from the dead all those people of Israel who were lying in the tomb of despair:
    “Thus says the Lord God, ‘I am going to open your tombs and raise you up from your tombs, O my people…I will put my spirit in you and you shall live’” Ezekiel 37:12, 14.

Jesus, who loves us, who loved us before we were born, calls us to open ourselves to his love. He wants us to be healed of our brokenness and be made whole. He calls us to live in the freedom of mutual submission as he lives in the beauty of mutual submission. He calls us to love others even when they seek to harm us.

How can we do this? It seems too hard and too difficult. But the Spirit is at work in us which gives us hope. We will be made whole. We will be healed. We pray that we will experience this in our earthly years and not just in our heavenly existence. We pray that we will experience in our relationships, more and more, what the Father, Son, and Spirit experience in their relationship.