Practicing biblical submission

April 8, 2011 at 5:57 pm (Spiritual Practices) (, , , )

Below is a talk I recently gave at a men’s event for Sycamore Creek Church. I re-worked it a little into a manuscript so that I could post it on here.  This is one of the last spiritual disciplines we discussed, as I think it may be one of the most difficult.  I see the need for this practice all around me: in my own life, in my marriage, in my relationships, and in the relationships of others around me.  My hope is that others will take this discipline to heart and to begin practicing it.


Almost all of the spiritual practices that we have been looking at are counter cultural. We have looked at fasting and simplicity. Our culture encourages us to consume and teaches that more and bigger are better.  We talked about meditation and silence.  The world around us tries to fill our ears and minds with constant distractions. Out of all the spiritual disciplines or practices though, I think that submission is the most counter cultural. If we explain to someone else at work why we fast, or pray, or meditate, or live simply, they will probably think we are weird.  And they might be right. If we explain to them that we live a life of submission, on the other hand, they are likely to say that we are wrong!

I’m reluctant to call what I’m talking about “submission” because it’s almost as if submission is a bad word in our society.  We make heroes of people who won’t submit to anyone. You’d never hear Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone talking about submission.  The only submission in their movies is from the bad guys. It’s not surprising that God’s values look upside down from the world’s perspective.  We will take a brief look at God’s perspective on submission, and his call on our lives.  As with previous studies of spiritual practices, I rely heavily on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. If you haven’t read his chapter of submission, I think it’s one of the finest chapters in his book.  Read it!

A life in Christ is a life of freedom.  To practice submission is to embrace freedom.  How is that?  Richard Foster writes about it this way:

“I said that every Discipline has its corresponding freedom.  What freedom corresponds to submission? It is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way. The obsession to demand that things go the way we want them to go is one of the greatest bondages in human society today. People will spend weeks, months, even years in a perpetual stew because some little thing did not go as they wished. They will fuss and fume. They will get mad about it. They will act as if their life hangs on the issue.  They may even get an ulcer over it.

In the Discipline of submission we are released to drop the matter, to forget it. Frankly, most things in life are not nearly as important as we think they are. Our lives will not come to an end if this or that does not happen.”

I love that quote!  Foster does such a fantastic job of framing submission for us.  To summarize: In submission, we have the freedom to not always get our way.  We have the freedom to give in to someone else.  Let that those statements sink in because they are huge.  Submission has incredible potential to impact the way we live. With the freedom of submitting we can begin to see where the genuine issues lie and where our stubborn self-will has gotten in the way.  In submission, true humility is allowed to take root. 

Along with the freedom of this practice, there’s also a certain fear of it, isn’t there?  Like I mentioned before, this is radical counter-cultural stuff.  There’s a part of us that wants to say, “That can’t be right.”  It seems too hard to think about not getting what we want.  The predominant message around us is to go for it.  This letting go of always getting our way seems too crazy to even attempt.  That’s when this practice becomes dangerous because we may be tempted to fake it. 

Biblical teaching on submission focuses on the spirit with which we view other people, the inner attitude that we have.  In submission, there is an inner attitude of mutual subordination.  Why is this spirit important?  Outwardly, we can do what people ask, but inwardly we can be in rebellion against them.  When we embrace submission, we are free to value other people, to love unconditionally, to truly serve another person.  It’s only in submission that we, with all our junk and desires and flaws, are able to get out of the way and to really connect.

The foundation of biblical submission is Mark 8:34, which reads, “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.””  Deny.  At the heart of submission is self-denial.  Denial?  As we step into this, there is a part of us that won’t want to believe it.  Our culture doesn’t teach us to say no.  We think of denying ourselves as a bad thing.  On the contrary, Jesus calls us to self-denial.  This is not self-hatred.  It’s not harming yourself or thinking less of yourself than you should.  It’s not losing your identity.  Self-denial is simply a way of coming to understand that we do not have to have our own way.  Our happiness is not dependent on getting what we want.

Living a life of submission involves living, as Richard Foster calls it, the cross life.  What is the cross-life? The cross life is a life of voluntary submission.  The cross-life is a life of freely accepted servanthood.  Service flows freely from submission. Jesus calls us to the cross-life in Mark 8:34.  He calls us to it again in Mark 9:35 when he says “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”  After washing his disciples’ nasty man feet, Jesus added, “I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:15)

It’s appropriate that we talk about submission during the season of Lent as we anticipate Easter and the Resurrection.  I would suggest during this season of repentance and disruption of rhythm that you practice submission and its companion practice, service.  As you do so, remember the cross-life and the submission of Jesus.  Paul wrote about Jesus in Philippians 2:8 saying “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”

How do we begin to practice submission?

Seven Areas of Submission (From Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster)

God: We yield ourselves, our mind, body, and spirit for God’s purposes.

Scripture: We open ourselves to hear, receive, and obey the Word of God.

Family: Philippians 2:4 says “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”  Look out for the interests of your family members.

Neighbors: If others are in need, we help them. No task is too small or too unimportant.

Church: We give of our time, our talents, and our money to the body of Christ, the church.

Broken & Despised: Our first responsibility is to be among them.  We identify with the rejected and hurt.

The World: We cannot live in isolation.  Poverty, hunger, lack of clean water, and lack of medicine affect us. We need to live as responsible members of an increasingly irresponsible world.

We’ve defined biblical submission, begun to establish the basis for it (there is much more to be said about it), and what remains is to go and practice it.  Start practicing the words of Ephesians 5:21 “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

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  1. Tom said,

    Nice thoughts here. I love Foster’s chapter on submission. I wish I was at this reCRASH to have discussed it with other men.

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