Colossians problem texts (2): re-thinking submission

Is it possible that part of the reason many of us find submission, as in “wives submit to your husbands” (Col 3:17), to be problematic is because we, as a church and as a culture, have misunderstood the concept of submission? This is just one of the many insightful and challenging questions posed in Colossians Remixed, Brian J Walsh and Sylvia C Keesmaat. 

While the Bible does not present any examples of Paul participating in submission in the context of households (i.e., wives to husbands, children to parents, slaves to masters), the Bible does give numerous examples of Paul interacting with the authorities, by which we can evaluate how he lived out his understanding of submission. For example, Acts 16 tells the story of Paul and Silas healing a slave girl and being thrown into prison. An earthquake releases their chains, but Paul and Silas refuse to flee, thereby saving the jailer’s life and he becomes saved, he and his whole household. The next day, they are released from jail.

What does Acts 16 say about Paul’s interaction with the authorities? After the healing of the slave girl, the magistrates yielded to the complaints of the slave owners and the mob, ordering Paul and Silas to “be stripped and beaten with rods. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison (vv. 22-23).” Paul and Silas clearly submitted to the authorities in going to prison, including submitting to the authority of the jailer, even though they could have easily escaped (and God seemed to be enabling that!).

The picture of submission gets more interesting the next day.

When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: “Release those men.” The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.” But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.” The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. They came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city. After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them. Then they left. (Acts 16:35-40 NIV)

This does not look like the kind of submission or honoring of the authorities that I’m used to hearing talked about, either in church or society. Nonetheless, Walsh and Keesmaat argue that it is indeed honor:

The authorities “send a lesser official – a cop – to tell them they can leave. And Paul will have nothing of it. ‘You tell those officials to get themselves down to this jailhouse and tell me to my face that I am free to go,’ Paul says. He is saying that after such a public display of injustice, such a disregard for due process, these magistrates can’t get off so easily. They must now publicly right the wrong they have done.” Empire Remixed, 184.

Paul honored the magistrates “by insisting that they exercise the authority invested in them – an authority that he will say in both Romans 13 and the Colossian poem is from God! – in a manner appropriate to their public office. Public officials who misuse their authority must face up to that misuse in public. Paul honors these magistrates precisely by calling them to task. And because he believes that their authority is not ultimately rooted in the authority of the emperor but instituted by God, Paul demands that they exercise their authority in a way that demonstrates that they really are servants of God.” Empire Remixed, 185.

So what does it look like when this understanding of submission is applied to household relationships?  What if submission demands that we challenge and shame abuse, instead of allowing submission to be hijacked as “a theological ideology for abuse in intimate relationships“? I expect that our churches and relationships would change for the better.