(note: I wrote this to assist Salem Tabernacle’s Life Transformation Group discussions)
The issue of submission is complex and nuanced, yet at the same time, frustratingly simple. A helpful starting point is, do we trust God to take care of us, even if evil authorities are in place over us?
Does “taking care of us” always mean protecting us from harm?
Is there something of greater value than our physical or psychological safety?
Are we trying to save our lives?
Is it helpful to think in generalizations? Yes! Generally speaking, God gave us life because he thinks living is a good thing. He doesn’t want us to merely survive – Jesus came so that we could have a thriving life! But note: that abundant life of John 10.10 is presented over and against the “thief’s” effort to steal, kill, and destroy [us]. So I don’t think that generally speaking, Jesus wants us to be victims of theft, violence or destruction. He will use those realities to transform us and at the same time, reveal the Age to Come through us. He will use death and destruction to reveal true love: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4.10) The early church blossomed in the midst of great suffering and pain. Abundant life was never meant to be fully realized in this first phase of it!
HOWEVER we must cultivate a spirit of discernment. A young Christian woman being thrown to the lions because she refused to worship Caesar is not the same as a young woman being beaten by her husband because he’s drunk. In the first case, the woman’s submission to the truth of the Gospel instigated the violence she suffered, in the latter, a man’s carnal indulgence instigated it. The call to love not our lives “even unto death” (Revelation 12.11) is unwavering, but generally speaking, exposing the physical body that God gave you to unwarranted physical abuse is just poor stewardship of that gift.
At the heart of godly submission are two essential qualities: humility and hearing. We need the humility to be willing to be inconvenienced, embarrassed, held back, unappreciated, and more or less, deny ourselves at the hands of carnal authority. On the other hand, we need to be able to hear the voice of God’s Spirit who will lead and guide us into all truth. Jesus didn’t evade Judas in the garden, but he did slip away from the violent mobs in Nazareth…why? Because all of his acts were acts of obedience, in humble responsiveness to his Father’s instruction (see John 5.30).
So while I always would encourage someone to be willing to endure the hardship presented by abusive authorities, I would never suggest that we always have to do so. On the contrary, we must learn to differentiate between abuse and “iron sharpening iron.” (Proverbs 27.17) For me, thing get easier, the more extreme they are. Rudeness and an overall lack of consideration on the part of an authority figure are NOT ACCEPTABLE, but can ultimately be used by God to reveal just how fleshly (i.e. “offendable”) we are! In contrast, women and children who are being physically or sexually abused by a man should not stay in that situation under the auspices of “being under authority.” Abuse and suffering that is unsolicited (i.e. the result of the abusers psychological issues, substance addictions, etc.) should be avoided. Suffering that comes as a result of fidelity to Jesus and his Gospel might very well be God’s will for someone. These are two radically different issues.
In the same vain, if submitting to authority requires that we disobey the clear instructions of God, we must reject that earthly authority. Moses’ mother defied Pharaoh, Daniel defied the decree of Darius, the three Hebrew boys defied Nebuchadnezzar – all instances of human authority defying God’s commands (re: murder and worship). Bosses who tell us to lie or be dishonest, husbands who forbid church attendance, pastors who forbid relationships with unbelievers are all examples of authorities that must be defied in order to remain faithful to God. This is where the words of Peter and the apostles speak clearly: “we must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5.29)
In order to obey God, we must be able to hear God. And in order to have any sort of confidence that what we’re hearing actually is God, we must be students of the Scriptures and disciples of Jesus, both directly and through one of his servants. This capacity for supernatural hearing, when coupled with sincere humility, will serve to guide us through the inevitable complexities of submitting to finite authorities.
[Oh, I should’ve probably said, “guide us through the minefield of inevitable complexities”… Yes – I realize this is not a final or comprehensive word on the subject, but I hope it helps some of us move along in it.]