A Disturbing DictateDaily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Ephesians’ teaching on household relationships begins with what one might call a disturbing dictate: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In fact, the original Greek of verse 21 doesn’t use an imperative, but rather a participle that’s dependent on the imperative in verse 18: “Be filled with the Spirit.” In the original language, this passage has the following structure: Be filled with the Spirit, speaking worshipfully, singing and making music to the Lord, giving thanks to God, submitting to each other. The imperative sense of “be filled” carries over to verse 21, which is sensibly rendered in English as “Submit to one another.”
When we read this, we might be disturbed. Why? Because most of us don’t talk much about submission anymore. The whole notion of submission can feel authoritarian and old-fashioned, if not a little creepy. I work in an organization where I have a boss and I supervise a team of people. You might say that I submit to my boss and my staff members submit to me. But this isn’t how we talk about things these days. We prefer the language of leadership and followership. We want to empower those whom we lead, not demand their submission.
The first recipients of Paul’s letter would also have been disturbed by verse 21, though for different reasons. From their experience in the highly stratified, hierarchical Roman world, they knew all about submission. It was an unexceptional part of ordinary existence. Submission was how they approached their superiors: fathers, masters, husbands, and, most of all, Rome itself.
But, in the Roman world, submission always flowed in one direction, from down to up, from the lesser to the greater. Now, Paul was urging believers to submit to each other! What did this mean? How was mutual submission even possible?
When we stop to think about it, we might share this additional hesitation. The injunction, “Submit to one another,” could seem as if it were bordering on unrealistic. Workplaces, churches, families, nations need leaders who are in charge, leaders who are followed by others. “Submit to one another” sounds impractical. If everyone is submitting to everyone else, how will organizations, including families, get anything done?
Perhaps you find the imperative “Submit to one another” disturbing or confusing. Perhaps you find it reassuring or inspiring. Perhaps you don’t know what you think about it. I’ll have more to say about it tomorrow. For now, I’d encourage you to reflect on the following questions.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: How do you respond to the imperative “Submit to one another”? What do you think about this? How do you feel about it? Have you ever experienced something that might be called “mutual submission”? When? What happened? Did it work? Or was it a mess? What might God want us to get from this potentially disturbing dictate?
PRAYER: Gracious God, at times your Word is inspiring, at times comforting, and at times just unsettling. When we stop to think about it, the command to submit to each other could fall among the latter times. What does this really mean, Lord? How is it possible? Wouldn’t it have been much easier if Paul had simply moved on to tell some folks to submit and others to lead?
Still, when we say that a part of your Word is disturbing, this doesn’t mean we reject its truth or authority. In fact, when we are stirred up by something in Scripture that we don’t understand, this often becomes an invitation to know you more deeply and to grasp more firmly how you want us to live. May this be such a time as we seek to hear what you’re saying to us through the command “Submit to one another.” Amen.
We have asked some members of our community to share their holy routines. At first glance, these routines may not seem holy at all. However, in this series, Holy Routines, our writers extend an invitation to you to walk beside them in the actions and interactions and spaces that often seem ordinary but also usher them into the presence of God. We hope that spending a few moments in the holy routines of a few friends will inspire you to see and meet God in daily moments you may be tempted to rush through, or where you feel tempted to overlook the presence of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this series will give you permission to savor the sacred in the ordinary moments of your day.