As I’ve said before, stories matter. And the stories shaping our perspectives on obedience and submission matter, too. These stories impact the way we communicate, and the baggage others carry with these words matters, too.
Reading news and social media the last few months, submission and obedience are trigger words for me — regardless of the position supported. Whether it is government or religion, I flinch. They are power words.
Too often, the act of obedience and submission dominates the conversation, while ignoring critical questions like obedience to whom and for what end.
For some, submission and obedience are words bringing peace and order to chaos; hierarchy and command brings feelings of stability and comfort.
For me, they smother and trap. They are trigger words. They smack of control and compulsion, instead of freedom. Obedience and submission rarely sound like freedom or love; they feel like begrudging obligation. They’re wielded to compel another to meekly step in line, no intelligent thought required.
And these words have been thrown like rocks at women to shame them into sitting down and shutting up. They silence women, instead of respecting, loving, and listening to them. They’re commands thrown at women justifying abuse as God’s will. (It’s not, in case you were wondering.)
When the command to submit and obey leaves no room for questions or critical feedback, I am deeply suspicious. Given Abraham, Job and the Psalms, God handles questions and human anger just fine. God, in His abundant grace and mercy, creates space for us to cry out and question. God’s identity is secure, and God is not threatened by human questions.
When humans want to shut down dissenting voices, regardless of side, that feels like an unhealthy power trip — not love. The pull to have power over others — to lord it over and control — seems to pull out the worst of human nature. We make others small to make ourselves feel big.
We shut down questions as threats, and we refuse to hear anything that might hammer a much-needed chink in our armor. We keep our thoughts on repeat, only absorbing those perspectives that think like us and agree with us, instead of respecting and seeking out the stories of others. Suddenly, we divide ourselves into groups: “my people” and “not my people.”
Once we move to labeling others, we’re on the road to seeing them as less human, less beloved than we are. And friends, this is not okay. Nor is it consistent with the message of Jesus (Mt. 5:43-48, Lk. 6:27-36, Lk. 15).
At the heart of the submission and obedience question is this: am I choosing to love people or am I trying to control them?
On looking to others instead of Jesus
Ever been terrified God’s going to drop you? That somehow if you do the one thing wrong or get that point of doctrine wrong, God’s going to drop you like a hot skillet?
I spent the bulk of my life allowing others to draw circles around me: here are the rules and the right thoughts to be part of our Christian club. I wanted to fit into the safe, “orthodox” circle of Christianity.
I wanted certainty, but I made confidence dependent on the approval of others, instead of God.
My undergrad evangelical theology courses were a cake walk. Here are your fast food menu options, pick one. Calvinism (T.U.L.I.P., anyone?). Arminianism. Regurgitate your choice and supporting Bible verses. I can do that. Memorizing facts and verses comes quick for me. I only need to repeat what was given to me instead of contributing to what could be.
Here’s the “safe” theology where I can stand confident in my correct interpretation. Here are the beliefs that lead to people wagging fingers at you and casting you out of the club. Don’t ask deeper questions, just stay in the realm of group think.
I like safety, but the safety I like is generally a kind that’s unhealthy for me.
Seminary turned my world upside down.
Instead of pick-a-system, use the Bible and tools available to you (along with your life experiences), and then write your theology instead of merely repeating what you’ve heard. That was terrifying for me who likes right answers and conventionality.
The process revealed a crack in my foundation: my desire for everyone else to consider me “orthodox” or “Christian” hindered my actual pursuit of Jesus. I was looking to prove myself to others, instead of resting in faith. I compulsively sought to earn and prove my place by looking to others for affirmation, instead of resting in what already was.
All of my life I hungered to belong. I thought belonging meant rigid compliance in thinking right thoughts and following ALL the rules. Right thoughts and rules were determined by everyone else around me.
Pharisee logic worked for me. I liked clear rules and expectations (Still do, if I’m honest), and I was looking to everyone else to determine whether I measured up. Submission and obedience in this context is not particularly healthy. Nor is that kind of submission about love of Jesus — it’s about the terror of rejection.
While chatting with my dad about my infancy a few years ago, Dad mentioned, “It took me a bit to figure out your personality. You were the compliant one.”
And I am. Eager to please. Quick to wilt under stern or critical words.
I follow rules with relentless precision, as long as I know of their existence. I research new places and experiences fastidiously ahead of time, afraid of accidentally violating rules. Signage and directions matter, people. Receiving rebukes for rule-breaking devastates me because 99.9% of the time it is not on purpose, and I strive to comply.
Before adventures and shenanigans, I’m that annoying friend who says, “But the rules say…” or “But the sign says…” or “But so-and-so said…”
I am an excellent rule-follower because I hate conflict. For me, obedience is not about love, it’s about fear.
I thought I had to do everything perfectly to be loved (and that loving others also required compulsive perfection). Follow all the rules. Meet all the expectations. Always be in agreement. Never shake the waters.
I was wrong. Because grace is actually enough for me. Not because I live up to it or earn it (Not possible. Ephesians 2:1-22). But because encountering grace changes me.
Love is freedom.
Instead of trying to fit into a tidy label or looking to everyone else to decide whether I belong, I narrowed my focus.
I turn my eyes toward Scripture and the Apostle’s Creed. I don’t ignore history — I come from a particular context after all. But, I am less inclined to live up to a label or fit into a box — particularly when the container becomes my focus, instead of Jesus.
Instead of giving equal weight to all the voices clamoring for attention, I narrowed down whose critique matters. I prioritize marginalized voices and people who genuinely love and invest in me. People who point me back toward Jesus instead of molding me in their image take precedence.
When I’m so concerned about fitting into the “club,” I lose sight of freedom. And it is for freedom that Christ set us free according to Paul (Gal. 5:1), and what counts most is “faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6).
I want freedom. I want to invite others to freedom.
The question I have to ask is this: am I obeying because this is the loving and just thing to do? Or am I obeying out of cowardice regarding conflict?
If I’m obeying merely for the sake of obedience (and conflict avoidance), I can opt out of personal responsibility. That’s a problem. Unquestioning obedience is dangerous.
We can justify evil and avoid our culpability by pulling the Adam-and-Eve blame game, “So-and-So told me to do it.” God didn’t fall for that baloney, and we shouldn’t either.
Obedience in and of itself is not the goal. Love is — love for God and love for people. And sometimes love looks like questions and dissent, rather than docile acquiescence.
What does love look like in this climate?
I worked on this post for weeks. Drafting, editing, deleting, starting over, revising. Walking away in frustration.
I struggled with this question: how do I hold God’s radical grace in tension with God’s loving justice as I write?
The Spirit of God invites me — instead of lording it over me. God holds the power; God knows it, and I know it. But, like with Mary, Zechariah, Ezekiel and Isaiah, when my knees are shaking and I’m falling over, God pulls me back up to my feet and tells me not to be afraid.
God’s voice sounds like a gentle nudge, “Hey, you didn’t do quite right by so-and-so. Reach out and make amends.” Or “Hey, instead of being scared of somebody, why don’t you get to know him?”
Instead of my begrudging obligation and compulsive people-pleasing, God frees me to love. Love God. Love people. And even, love myself. Yes, the Bible has rules. But the rules teach us what love looks like lived out. The rules by themselves are never the end point.
I notice a difference in the way Jesus and the prophets speak. They’ve got harsh words for those abusing their power, but Jesus in particular has gentle ones for the masses struggling under the weight of the empire. And the prophets and Jesus spoke directly instead of indirectly through the internet.
In harshly declaring our truths on the internet, are we really challenging those in power or are we throwing rocks at our friends and those who already feel marginalized?
What does it mean to create freedom for other perspectives (recognizing I don’t know it all), and how do I reconcile that tension with my commitment to love, mercy and justice for all?
How do I speak my truth boldly, and yet create space for others to respond freely — not as though they need to jump through a hoop to find welcome with me?
For me, it means recognizing when anxiety, instead of faith and love, drives my writing. When I start seeking to control others, to have power over instead of solidarity with, I need to take a step back and listen more before I write.
What are the stories that shape your views about the world? Tell me how you got to the perspective instead of bossing me or demeaning others. Tell me your agenda and your bias instead of pretending objectivity.
Bias isn’t the problem. We’ve all got it. We’ve all got stories and personalities molding the way we view the world. The question is whether we’re conscious of it and whether we’re willing to acknowledge that our filters might be cloudy and limited.
Even while I’m anxious about politics and will continue writing about justice issues, I’m less interested in directing others on what to think, and more interested in pulling out the stories shaping how others think. I need to see people as people and not merely the fronts and labels they project.