Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Bible teaches a number of forms of submission to human authority: children to parents, wives to husbands, citizens to governments, church-goers to church leader, and even (yikes) slaves to masters. However, the primary virtue of submission isn’t submission itself. The primary virtue of submission is faith.

By submitting to an authority above you, you’re not saying “this is great because we all know the authorities above us are never wrong.” No, what you’re saying—if you’re submitting in the biblical sense—is that “I believe that although someone is above me, ultimately God is above them.”

Often, people’s complaints about the Bible’s teachings on submission focus on the fact that the person in authority is often wrong about something in relation to the person under that person’s authority. However, this isn’t the point. The point isn’t primarily about the particular authority and the person under authority, rather it’s about God’s ultimate sovereignty over all things. So, in fact, the Bible suggests that there is particular blessing for submitting to an authority that is in the wrong because then it is most clear that you are putting your faith in God’s authority that will ultimately redress that wrong (there are exceptions such as Nazis and abusive spouses); whereas if one takes matters into their own hands and rebels against authority, he or she is trusting in themselves rather than God.

8 comments:

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

I suspect you are quite right about the essence of submission being faith. No, I know you are. That is the traditional view, one that we as a society have so far fallen away from, that even I am taken aback by its demands, altho I would try to justify myself for having some reservations about submission to higher authority, whether good or bad, by means of arguments such as these, all drawn from history.

Starting with the most recent, was I justified in avoiding the draft during the Vietnam War? At the time, I thought, Yes, and I quoted bible verses to prove it. Forgive me, I was only a 17 year old idiot when I went to college as a freshman, and I received ample help from my older peers in becoming a first-class rebel. Looking back, I can honestly say I was afraid of getting drafted because I was never a fighting kind of guy, and I was just following the crowd.

What about resisting, not submitting to, a more obviously evil higher authority, Hitler and the Nazi regime in Germany? Even my hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer, speaking and trying to practice the words of Truth he had received, even he in the end fell from submission into rebellion, and it cost him his life. Do I still venerate him as a Christian martyr? You bet I do!

Fast forward just a bit to late 20th century American churchylvania. Tho there've always been splits in Protestantism, what were the bible-believing Episcopalians supposed to do when their hierarchs started voting their way down the black hole of heresy? I watched many of my close friends struggle with their consciences over such things as women priests, gay priests, and the disinfected traditional-looking but leftist-leaning new looks and sounds coming out of their renewal programs. Many of them became Orthodox or Roman Catholics, because they wanted to be in submission to authority, but could find no authority that was in submission to the Word of God (and what higher authority, except God Himself, is there?).

There seems to be a problem with submission to authority, and this in the face of what the bible itself teaches. How could the Russian Church excommunicate Leo Tolstoy and still support Rasputin? How could the Roman Church in Spain and elsewhere have deviated so critically from the gospel as to create institutions such as the Inquisition and the Crusades? Golly, I'd better shut up before I dredge up the entire history of fallen man's attempt to rule in place of God. (I think I left a comment about this topic somewhere before, was it on your blog?)

I know the question you are posing undercuts all these evidences and, as I said, you are right about submission to authority based on the bible. But in my life I've seen and experienced just about everything, and it seems like a lose-lose situation, or damned if I do (submit), and damned if I don't. Either way there is suffering to be met with. And has Christ promised us anything else in this world?

“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Kenny said...

I definitely believe there are exceptions, but one thing I've noticed is that we spend a lot more time talking about the exceptions than the rule, which often leads to the exception swallowing the rule.

In many instances I think Christianity has a "case-by-case" sort of ethics, that is, it's hard to lay down absolute rules.

I certainly agree that Bonhoeffer is venerable. He discusses his theoretical framework for submitting and rebelling in 'Ethics' and it is utterly remarkable and also difficult to understand, so that I can't reproduce his thought here. But, I know a very interesting punchline was that although he felt he had to rebel, he still believed it was sin to do so. So he bowed down before the law and admitted his sin, yet looked to God's grace to redeem him. This is complicated, I know...and sounds a lot like sinning so grace may increase...but heaven forbid Bonhoeffer not being able to explain it better than me.

Heresy: rebel! (maybe, but I think so). I don't know; case by case is hard.

Anyway, I don't believe there are easy answers. But, I do think it's important to know the rule before we start trying to take advantage of the exceptions.

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Excellent response, Kenny! We're on the very same page. I'm with Bonhoeffer. When I do rebel, I too know it's a sin, but I hope in God to forgive me, just as I forgive those whom I must resist. And yes, no hard and fast rules.

smlwoman said...

One of the hardest things I learned about submission is that it doesn't mean I submit, then if they fail, or fall, grin and say, " I told you so." or "Ha! Guess you got what you deserve!" It means to support that person. Proverbs 31, amongst others, is a great example of submitting with proper support. Great Post Kenny.

smlwoman said...

by the way, didn't you start a more personal blog? If so can you send me the link please?

Jeff said...

The Bible teaches a number of forms of submission to human authority: children to parents, wives to husbands, citizens to governments, church-goers to church leader, and even (yikes) slaves to masters.

Eh? The Bible I know and love teaches no such thing. It teaches the pursuit of justice and fairness, even to the point of challenging God Himself (see: Abraham at Sodom and Gomorrah). Maybe this is from y'all's half...

Anyway, I unsurprisingly disagree with the sentiment expressed in the third paragraph. Remember that God tells us "justice, justice shall you pursue" (from Deuteronomy somewhere, emphasis mine). It's up to us to challenge authority when it's being unjust. God ain't gonna do our job for us.

Submitting to authority, furthermore, is extremely dangerous in a democracy. Our nation thrives because we have people who call bullshit on our leaders, and as such mistakes perpetrated by our leaders can generally be reversed, even if it takes time (see: slavery, segregation, Vietnam...). Authority is people and people are fallible, therefore if we want to make as few mistakes as possible we should point out leaders' errors, not simply trust their judgment. We may be wrong, too, but at least we've given authority something to think about.

Of course, this is coming from someone who listens to John Mellencamp's "Authority Song" and thinks, "hey, that kinda describes me." So do with this comment what you will.

Kenny said...

Jeff -

I'm pretty sure the Hebrew scriptures at the very least teach submission to God, which is the primary form of submission to authority.

You're right that other parts come from the NT, such as 'children obey your parents,' which is from Ephesians 6. However, Paul roots this commandment in the commandment to 'honor your parents,' which is in 'your half.'

What you're addressing in one sense are the nuances and exceptions to this rule of submission to authority. And there are definitely exceptions, I think. But I think the general rule is obey authority. For example, what would the Jewish perspective be on whether one, in general, should obey the law?

As for your points about calling out leaders, that's well within submitting to authorities, at least under the U.S. Constitution, since such activity is legally provided for the First Amendment.

Another point is that submission may be dangerous, but so is rebellion.

As for "justice you shall pursue," I think this certainly creates room for an exception to the general rule of submission, but again, I'd not that it's an exception. Part of the way we seek justice is by submitting to the rule of law; anarchy would in general be much worse.

Jeff said...

Sure, we Americans can call out the government, but what about in nations that don't have the First Amendment? Are we to say people like Aung San Suu Kyi are wrong because she speaks out in favor of justice and against governmental authority in a nation where saying such things is illegal?

The way I interpret it is thus: we are meant to live under the rule of law, but said rule of law must be just. If it is not, we should work to change the laws. In some countries, such as ours (ideally), this can be done by people within the system and without breaking anything but minor laws. But even this is not perfect. There will be times where the pursuit of justice and obeisance to authority are mutually exclusive. In this case, I think the Bible tells us that the former ought to be put above the latter.

Or maybe it's just the Hebrew Bible that suggests that. I note that you compare Paul's "obey your parents" to the Fifth Commandment (Fourth, if you're a Catholic). But "honor" is not the same as "obey" - one can honor without obeying, especially when one is older. This may be the point of contention here - Paul says "obey authority," the Hebrew Bible says "honor authority but obey God."