The word 'submission' automatically brings up several negative connotations. And rightfully it should. If it makes you think of things like slavery, or the subjugation of women, or oppressive governments in the world then these are, of course, terrible things which should be opposed on every level. But the New Testament takes a very different route in to the idea of submission. While things like slavery, patriarchy and political oppression are examples of dominance, submission is presented as something different.
Submission is presented as an act of free will. It is choosing humility, fatherhood, and giving up of power. This is rooted in the very basis of what Jesus taught as "the first being last and the last being first," or "Whoever wants to be the greatest among you must become a servant to all." And yet submission still gives us a negative response, mostly because the demand for submission has been at the core of much of the oppression throughout history. And while we must recognize this oppression and the constructs it still supports, it's important to remember that the understand of submission as part of oppression is a misuse of the word. 'Submission' is supposed to describe the free act of making ourselves servants.
Still, even the act of making ourselves servants of others is something that often goes against the grain. But scripture seems to propose that submission seems to be the very way in which we should approach oppression and subjugation in our lives. This is because submission is a way of life which is powerful enough to change the hearts and minds of people. In 1 Peter 2:12 he writes:
"Live such good lives among the unbelievers that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us."
This passage is followed by passages on submitting to governing authorities, slaves submitting to masters, wives submitting to husbands (and in a roundabout way husbands submitting to wives), and later on, the young submitting to elders. Peter's words in verse 12 gives the theme that the purpose of all this submission is so that others will see and glorify God. He gives us some important points to remember.
1) Submission is a tool for social change.
The civil rights movement was kicked off by courageous individuals like Rosa Parks. For a black woman in her society 'submitting to the authorities' in her context meant sitting on her segregated part of the bus, or face the consequences. She chose to face the consequences. It's interesting that in that act of submitting to the government authorities was how she became the mother of the civil rights movement in the United States.
This was a very similar approach to the way that Jesus demonstrated submission in his life. Jesus submitted to the governing authorities of the Roman authorities, and they killed him. He famously instructed his disciples not to rise up to save him. It is even said that he could have called an army of angels to save him, but he did not. His act of submission was an act which reflected his life and teachings, and he died.
The big idea is that submission is a tool for social change, but it is not a tool for social reconstruction. Peter, and Jesus for that matter, were not interested in breaking down and rebuilding societal constructs, but rather they were interested in changing the hearts and minds of people towards good. And I would suggest that this is actually better. If we start by changing structures we will always get push-back. But if the hearts of people are turned towards good the the structures will change, or will even start to matter less.
2) Submission in suffering.
Peter's words to slaves in chapter 2 are some of the most criticized verses in the New Testament. How could Peter talk about slavery without even once condemning the evil practice. Slavery in the first century was a terrible affair as slavery has always been. But again, Peter isn't as interested in changing the social construct of slavery as we might want him to be. The idea of slaves being free from their masters, and in fact free from any kind of worldly power, is already a well taught and accepted concept for early Christians. What he's actually talking about here is the ability for a slave to influence the hearts and minds of their masters through their behavior. This is actually quite empowering to slaves. And the tool that's given is submission.
In the context of slavery the conflict between dominance and submission becomes important. Slaves were dominated by their masters in every respect. However, if the slave chooses submission it becomes a tool of expressing and living a true freedom in their lives. Their work becomes about their choice rather than being dominated.
But most importantly is the idea of suffering. Peter exhorts the believers in this passage that it is better to suffer for doing good rather than to suffer for doing evil. And this is where things become real for us in a way. One of the realities we need to accept in this life is that there will be suffering. Of course it would be better if we could all just stop causing any level of suffering on others and that should solve most of the problem, but the reality is that suffering is going to happen. Peter brings us an important question. What are you suffering for? Are you suffering in your life because you are choosing holiness, or are you suffering for evil? It is an important question to consider.
3 There is a joy in submission
Another piece that Peter takes a lot of flack for are his comments about women. Specifically about how their beauty does not come from their clothes, hair, or jewelry, but rather from what he calls a 'gentle and quiet spirit.' First of all there's a certain disdain for a man making comments on how a woman should feel beautiful, but also why the 'gentle and quiet' woman. Well, as with everyone else he's spoken to in this passage, submission is a powerful spiritual practice for everyone. Of course that would include wives.
Let's remember a few important things. First of all most of the early church, especially in this context, were women. Most of them had unbelieving husbands. Most of them were slaves. There's a very important distinction between these women (generally speaking, which always has it's problems) and the women of today. Women in our culture are generally free to dress themselves in any way they want (even though sometimes they will suffer ridicule from some). However for Peter's audience what they wore would mostly be under the power of their husbands or more importantly their slave masters. Women who were slaves, again a very significant number for Paul's audience, would have been dressed by their masters and would have little, if any chance to dress 'beautifully' in a way they would choose. In fact for some they would be dressed in the 'beautiful' way Peter describes but it would not be by their own choice, but also for the pleasure of the master.
The gentle and quiet spirit Peter talks about is one which finds an incredible joy in a Lord that finds their beauty not in their dress and appearance (something they can't control), but rather in the love and spirit they bring (something they can control).
What Peter really presents to us is submission as a spiritual discipline. It's a lifestyle chosen freely to make ourselves humble and servants of others. It is the tool for social change without worrying about society, but rather worrying about the hearts of individuals, specifically our own.
Discussion: Read 1 Peter 2:11-3:7 together.
1) Which topic, phrase, verse or issue brought up in this passage brings you the most trouble? Why?
2) Has there ever been a time in your life where you have practiced submission?
3) What is your 'next step' for making submission an aspect of your life? Which area of your life do you plan to bring it? How are you going to do it?