By Elton HiggsWhat, then, are the practical implications of all of this for our life together within the Body of Christ?
(1) In the first place, we had better all get it right in regard to what power means within the Body. There can be no question about God’s expectation that those in authority will encourage and enhance the ability of those in their charge to realize their full potential, perhaps even enabling them to achieve a fuller potential than they realize is possible. We are one in Christ, joint-heirs and brothers and sisters of Him and of each other, without regard to our earthly, circumstantial relationships. No exercise of authority by husband, elder, employer, or parent is to involve demeaning or devaluing those who, under God, submit to them; and with the exception of parents’ responsibility to keep their children under control, in none of these situations is an individual in power authorized to demand submission from others. (It should be noted that elders may sometimes have to exercise leadership in disciplining a wayward member, but in my opinion this should be done only in cases of disruptive behavior or bringing shame on the church, and never without consultation with other mature members of the Body, so that the disciplined member is the subject of congregational action, not just excommunication by the elders.) If the attitudes of mutual submission and putting others’ welfare above our own governed every member of the Body, there would be no arguments about relative advantages enjoyed by or denied to anyone.
(2) Given our frailty and flaws in the flesh, disputes and accusations will arise, and those in authority will too often abuse their power and advantage. What are those for whom God has commanded submission to do? One form of this question was poignantly expressed to me by a dear sister in Christ: “How do I separate my own continual need for humbling and molding, obey Jesus’ command to ‘bless those who persecute,’ but still stand up against what really, honestly seems to me to be sinful, destructive power structures in our church?” The first thing to be said is that submission doesn’t mean not being able or willing to voice opposition to “sinful, destructive power structures” or to a leader’s obsessive and inordinate use of power. If those involved in such behavior are not willing to listen to respectfully presented objections, then they, like the sowers of dissension, are “self-condemned” for their lack of humility and of concern for those for whom they have been given responsibility. Husbands and church leaders, they must remold themselves to fit the paradigm by which they actively cultivate the ability of their wives and the women of the congregation to contribute to family, community, and congregational life in such a way as to demonstrate and appreciate their value as co-workers in God’s vineyard, not to humiliate them. Precisely what the effects of this paradigm are may differ between specific families and congregations, but what in all instances it must mean is that women are given equal honor with men; that whatever submission they offer is taken as the voluntary fruit of their relationship with God, and not imposed upon them; and that any limits imposed upon their activity within the congregation be determined through communication and dialogue with them, not by edict from the leaders.
In this context, I must hasten to add that women should not put themselves or their children in jeopardy when a husband has proven to be abusive. When a husband so grossly perverts his power and his physical or social advantage over those who are weaker, those who are in danger are not obligated to be enablers of his abuse, and he must be curbed by the discipline and control of both civil and church authorities. As Paul used all legal means to avoid unjust treatment, so in such cases should contemporary women in free societies avail themselves of all legal means to deliver themselves and their children from physical abuse. Preachers and elders who pressure wives to continue to live with their husbands under such circumstances are not reflecting the biblical principle of submission, but are making yet another legalistic application of it which demeans and injures the weak and brings reproach and shame on the church.
(3) The third point to be made here is that joint prayer is a marvelous leveler in the fellowship of the Body. It is very difficult for people to go on their knees together before God, sincerely submitting themselves anew to Him, and at the same time maintain the barriers to communication often raised by perceived abuses of or challenges to power. In times of prayer like this, we have a tangible manifestation of our being “all one in Christ Jesus,” where we are “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female”–that is, where all the distinctions of authority and submission are set aside as we come humbly before the Lord as equals in our experience (and need) of His grace.
I know of no better place to conclude this study than “on our knees together before God,” and this is the prayer that I would leave with you:
Dear Father, enable us to think as Jesus thought, and thereby act as He acted: in humility, servanthood, obedience, and submission to the will of God. Help us also to know the power and strength of allowing these qualities to govern our lives; the freedom of grace that comes from trusting you for the outcome as we obey You; the sweetness of fellowship as You blend us together in the Body of Christ; and the certainty of our final redemption when all submission will be subsumed in our glorious eternal worship together before Your throne. In the Name of Jesus Christ, our King, amen.
Image: “Battle Center Methodist Church” by TumblingRun. CC License.