Why there are so many New Testament “submission” passages modern egalitarians bristle against?

Why So Many Submit Texts?

In my men’s group we’re up to the submission section in 1 Peter 2:13f

“Submit yourselves to every human authority for the sake of the Lord…” “House slaves submit in all fear to the despots, not only the good and gentle ones but also the crooked.” “Wives in the same way submitting yourselves to your own husbands…”

These texts and those like them: Romans 13, Titus 2, 3, 1 Timothy 6, Ephesians 5, Colossians 3. Why are there so many of these texts in the New Testament epistles?

I’ve never heard anyone address this question in a constructive way. Over much of my lifetime these passages have been criticized or idealized, dismissed or used as prooftexts. You simply can’t help but ask the question, why did the different authors of these letters ALL feel it necessary to comment on this point? They talk about a lot of other things but the commonality with which they approach this stands out to me.

Presumed Narrative of Maintaining Privilege

These passages are often dismissed as an attempt by privileged men to maintain their position of power, control and superiority over subservient classes: slaves, women, children.

OK, I can understand how we are tempted to read these passages in this way especially in terms of the cultural narratives of liberation that are popular but does this really hold historical water? How “privileged” WERE the authors of these letters? What was their social standing relative to the recipients of these letters? What advantage did sending this message offer to the authors of these letters and their social cohort?

We need to ask ourselves “how privileged were the authors of the epistles?”

They may have been big fish in a small pond but their pond was very small indeed. When we hear “the Apostle Paul” and “the Apostle Peter” our imaginations are filled with 2000 years of hagiography. The picture we have of their lives from the New Testament is very different indeed.

  • They were financially poor: Paul tried to make ends meet making tents. Peter left his fishing career and I’m sure got by relying on donations and meals.
  • Their groups were small and beleaguered from many angles. Not only were they kicked out of synagogues and often ostracized by their ethnic, religious tribe, they were increasingly out of step with the Roman and Greek ways of life. By opting out of the assumed civic-religious-economic-political life of the polis their status and opportunities on all four intermingled levels were seriously degraded.
  • In a world where status was everything and status was often achieved by patronage and benefaction they, apart from the small huddles of wobbly and fractious Christians were nobodies. While again, we see them through the glow of 2000 years of fame, in the public spaces they occupied they were simply strange, insignificant anomalies, or in some rare instances disturbers of the peace that needed to be suppressed.
  • Consider Paul in Acts in his return to Jerusalem assaulted by the diaspora Jews with the Jerusalem Christians either unable or unwilling to come to his aid and having to be rescued by the Romans.
  • Consider Peter getting upbraided by Paul as recounted in Galatians. Peter comes with the moniker of “rock” but that doesn’t stop apostle-come-lately Paul from chastising him with respect to treatment of table fellowship with Gentiles. You’d think if Peter had positional authority he could have smacked Paul down at this point. Both in fact seem more concerned about the “Judaisers” who seemed to have real power and influence.

Read the kinds of things Paul and others address concerning the churches. Again, the picture we get behind this is that things were small, chaotic and fragile. Even as late as Revelation we see churches that seem to be in real trouble from inside and out.

Where these apostles big fish in small ponds attempting to keep order over the tiny scraps of authority they could maintain? Were they like the small man who is bullied on the street who goes home to beat his wife and kids because they’re the only ones who he is able to have power and control over? It doesn’t look that way to me.

Why Did They Address What they Addressed in Their Letters?

The fact of the repetition of these “submit” passages might imply that there was a submission problem they needed to address. Given how most of the letter begin I can understand why that would be the case. There were in the new Christian ideas messages that were enormously revolutionary to the world of the apostle’s audience that would likely make the opposite of what they were asserting likely among the believers in the very early church.

Who Did The Romans Say You Were? 

Almost anyone I speak to in church or who would read this blog would see themselves through an egalitarian filter. The enlightenment anthropology that “all men (and women) are created (or just are) equal and endowed by their creator (or atheistic evolution) with inalienable rights (don’t ask me how you arrive at this from an atheistic perspective but that’s not the point right now…) of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (those were Jefferson’s words, Locke said “property). These assumptions deeply shape what we imagine we are, what we have the freedom to do, how we can expect to be treated and what we may become.

For someone in the Roman empire their self-images were very different indeed. You were born to a station in the world. Through fortune or the fates you might be able to improve your station, or you might lose your status, but all of this egalitarian stuff was in most cases not really part of the deal. Your status determined your opportunities and treatment by the world and your birth or fortune determined your status.

The Gospel Changes Your Status

If you start reading the book of 1 Peter from the perspective of someone that Peter might have been writing to in what would today be northeastern Turkey you can’t help but notice that all of the language he is using directly relates to status. He begins by explaining that now through Christ Jesus they have received (because most often in that world your status was received by birth or gift from someone of a superior status) an incredibly new status. Christians through the work of Christ are awaiting an inheritance.

If you’re trying to study these epistles one good rule to follow is to keep your eye on the verbs in these incredibly long sentences. The sentences are filled with participles, dependent verbs and dependent clauses so you keep your eye out of the indicatives and the imperatives. Early in chapter 1 the first important verb is REJOICE!

He goes on to talk about suffering. Why hasn’t this new status changed your experience so that you don’t suffer. He goes on to talk about that. Jesus had status, and look at how he suffered…

He then goes into conduct. With their new status their conduct should change in keeping with their new reality. No longer should they try to live as they did before, now they need to live according to their new status and their new reality. In 1 Peter 2 he will bring in some texts from the Old Testament to highlight a number of issues playing on their new reality as Gentile believers being brought into the work begun by God in Israel.

How Does One With the Status of Christ Jesus Conduct Oneself? 

Everyone he’s writing to understands how people in their world with status often conducted themselves. Today we see each other through a filter of “rights”. You may be the employer of a group of people but the employer-employee relationship greatly limits the kinds of demands you can put on these people. This was not the case in the Roman world. A woman, a slave or a child didn’t have “rights” like we imagine it today. They might have had some “status” that offered protection, but the relationships were different. You can get a sense of why Christianity wasn’t simply something popular with the learned or the elite but why it became so popular among slaves and women. Christ was giving away status for free, even if the larger empire didn’t recognize the new position.

If you start change the “status” of women and slaves in that world in terms of their self understanding, you are playing with dynamite. Now suddenly the Christian slave to a pagan master does not feel he or she needs to service their master sexually or in the field. What happens then? What happens then in that world where the larger societal rules, expectations and laws are colliding with these new Christian teachings? You can begin to see why the book of Philemon is so important in the New Testament.

If this is the case it seems logical why this section would need to be in so many of the epistles. This would be one of the most common issues facing people who had low status like many (but not all) women and slaves.

People of low status would, now imagining themselves of a new status, begin to act like people with high status in their world around them would. You can imagine that this would cause real trouble in their world.

  • The dominant culture had real and brutal means of enforcing the status-relational economy.
  • Christianity doesn’t just want to change who is lording it over whom, the Christ wants to eliminate the lording. Just changing the players is not sufficient, the game itself must be changed.

How the Game is Changed

The game has changed from the top, the very top according to the work of Christ. In fact the assertion is that the game of “my well-being at your expense” was not God’s game but our own. The revelation of Christ was the revelation of the undoing of the game.

The foundation for how those of status must behave in the world again and again in these passages is Christ. Each of these passages echoes the song of Philippians 2. Christ, who had the highest status, made himself nothing through submission and therefore God raised him to the greatest status when he raised him from the dead. This is your story too.

Why then write to those of low status and address them with this message?

In all fairness the epistles do also address those of higher status. It is safe to assume that most of their listeners had lower status, but some had higher. Again, Philemon is an important letter in this case because it illustrates the kinds of change that Christ’s story brought to the status relationships.

What Peter asserts here is basically a kenosis theology for all. Jesus did not have status in the structure of this world but even so he was further emptied and was elevated for it. How much more for those of us without status shouldn’t we also be emptied so that God himself can exalt us. This is the consistent message.

How Did Jesus Submit to the Governing Authorities?

When we read these passages we are brought into the context of Jesus’ story and I think these passages must be read in the light of Jesus’ story.

These passages can be understood as some kind of blank check for abuse and oppression but I think that would misread the texts because such a reading of the text would be out of context to how Jesus managed these subtle status situations in his own life. Did Jesus “submit” to his governing authorities? Yes and no. Jesus didn’t take up arms against Rome nor shout revolution in the streets, yet the implications of his message and his actions undid those oppressive structures. He wasn’t a revolutionary, nor was he a doormat. He was free, but used his freedom for justice and for love which often took the form of stripping down and washing dirty feet.

The crucifixion of Jesus as an insurgent (brigand) is a very complex situation in this conversation. On one hand the pretext for his execution was the assertion that he was an insurgent which he was, but again wasn’t. Christians in their status culture lived in the same kind of ambiguity.

What we see is a dynamic where the Christian has the received status and then for the sake of those who are not in Christ voluntarily empties themselves for the sake of the other. This is the heart of the Gospel story and the mission of the Christian slave or woman is to bring the power of that gospel story into the day to day life of the pagan household.

1 Peter 2:19–25 (NET)

19 For this finds God’s favor, if because of conscience toward God someone endures hardships in suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God.21 For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth.23 When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed.25 For you were going astray like sheep but now you have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

Still A Difficult Narrative

On one hand an ancient seeing what many of us call “abuse” would laugh compared to what the ancients had to endure. Many of our complaints are from first world problems, but not all of course. Still this idea seems far fetched and we much more quickly grab a liberation self-salvation narrative that believes in revolution to set the world right.

What we see, however, is that revolution, while changing the persons on the seats of power does not change the relationship OF the seats of power and this is what the Gospel story is a witness of. The story is that the one who sat in the highest seat of power made himself nothing, suffered beneath those who had low status from whom no one would expect he need to suffer, yet he did so willingly to release those held in the broken status economy into new life as heirs of God.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in Understanding the Bible and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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