Freed for Submission
This week I reached the chapter on the discipline of submission. It’s the first of the disciplines that seems likely to cause a response of outrage among many readers (unlike, say, the urge to pray more, or live more simply, or engage in study), and Foster approaches it through the ‘back door’, emphasising the fact that it - like all the disciplines - is supposed to lead to freedom.
I am incredibly thankful that my experience of life - from my parents to my teachers to my bosses and friends and coworkers - has wonderfully borne out the truth of this principle. I have experienced great joy, freedom and fulfillment in submission to those in authority over me and in mutual submission to other members of the body of Christ. I know that that isn’t universally the case, though, and I think in attempting to be sensitive to the pain that has often been caused, many preachers have trodden so cautiously around, say, Ephesians 5:21-6:9, that they cheat us of the joy and power of this radical teaching.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never grasped this, for example, before:
The Epistles first call to subordination those who, by virtue of the given culture, are already subordinate. ‘Wives, be subject to your husbands… Children, obey your parents… Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters…’ (Col. 3:18-22 and parallels). The revolutionary thing about this teaching is that these people, to whom first-century culture afforded no choice at all, are addressed as free moral agents. Paul gave personal moral responsibility to those who had no legal or moral status in their culture. He made decision-makers of people who were forbidden to make decisions.
It is astonishing that Paul called them to subordination since they were already subordinate by virtue of their place in first-century culture. The only meaningful reason for such a command was the fact that by virtue of the gospel message they had come to see themselves as free from a subordinate status in society. The gospel had challenged all second-class citizenships, and they knew it. Paul urged voluntary subordination not because it was their station in life, but because it was ‘fitting in the Lord’ (Col. 3:18). (My emphasis)
Submission is only submission when it is chosen. Freedom is found when you make a choice about things you have no choice about.
If you’ve never met me, you may not be aware that I am very short - 4’11.5” to be precise. For years I raged against that. I hated being short, hated not being able to see anything at events or in crowds, hated not being able to find trousers that fit, railed in frustration at the injustice of not being able to fully participate in a society designed for people 8” taller than me.
Then one day God pointed out that he didn’t make a mistake when he made me this size. It might come with challenges, but I had a choice about how I saw my shortness. I was stuck with it, there was nothing I could do to change it, but I could choose to live in bondage to it or in freedom within it. Nothing has changed, but at the same time everything has changed. By choosing to submit willingly to this part of God’s plan for my life, I have been freed from the misery of feeling rejected, left out, and - it’s no exaggeration to say - a sense of being a second-class citizen.
I know my former struggles with shortness are nothing compared to the abuse that many people suffer at the hands of those they are forced into submission to, and I don’t mean to make light of those situations. I found this perspective from Richard Foster to be hugely helpful, though, and having seen the principle work in real life, can affirm that it is not just an interesting intellectual exercise, but a genuine path to a new level of freedom.
Of course, Foster then goes on to speak about submission to those in society who do have a choice about it - the husbands, parents and slave-masters to whom the call to submission was not a laughable command to do that which your life already demanded, but a shocking instruction to voluntarily submit yourself to people your culture considered worthless. But you’ll have to read that part for yourself.