When Aída and I were living and ministering in the center of Newark, New Jersey, first as interns in the summer of 1970 and then as missioners in the years between 1974 and 1978, we slowly came to realize that the complex set of social, racial, and economic problems in which our city was enmeshed originated not in itself, but extended as a legacy of oppression from the conquest of the New World itself. More than a decade later, I dissected those problems in the chapter I wrote for our book, The Global God. The deeper we involved ourselves in the imprisoned lives in our neighborhood, the deeper we realized the issues ran with spiritual, practical, and historical attitudes and behaviors that were inexorably intertwined. You can lead someone to water, but they may no longer have the heart to drink it.
One solace we enjoyed along with the rest of our neighborhood was the kung fu movies at the local theater. Life was so complex, evil so entrenched, good so compromised within a corrupt and complex environment. But, in those punchy parables, large and overbearing evil met small and scrappy good, and— especially in the case of the Bruce Lee versions—evil took it on the chin and went down for the full count. When I say the neighborhood turned out, I mean mothers with babes in tow went into the theater at 10 a.m. and stayed all day, watching the same double feature over and over again. By the time we arrived in the evening, the audience was shouting the dialogue before it happened, all of us—yours truly included—commenting on each scene with a kind of communitarian exegesis in our best standard northern urban New Jersey patois: “Watch dis fool! Bruce gon’ kick his butt!” And then we would cheer loudly with a gusto unleashed in the suburbs solely during Thanksgiving Day football games. At the end of each evening, the crowd, black, Hispanic, and me, would say goodbye to each other, wandering back into the urban morass, but with back a little straighter, eye a little brighter, step a little surer. It was purgative in its own way, especially in the metamorphosis following The Chinese Connection, when the protagonist stopped dying in the respected, age-old Eastern way and began to live and win.
But, as kung fu movies matured, art caught up with them. Today, a breathtakingly beautiful set of Eastern films has been released, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hero; The House of Flying Daggers; and so on, that return the tragic legacy— inevitable death within quintessential beauty. After watching the phenomenal success of the Hong Kong film industry, mainland China, basing its work in Beijing, released an exquisite film, The Curse of the Golden Flower, that is the most chilling portrayal of patriarchy gone awry that one could watch. The film appears to be a devastating critique of the imperial past—a sort of “why we should all be glad we are now communists and (ostensibly) equal, because look at how they lived—all that horror in all that splendor.” In the mainland movie, the plot is character driven. The absolute emperor—father of nation and family—has put aside his faithful first wife (whom he has pedestaled in a lovely shrine while dispatching an assassin to murder her) and married a princess in order to rise from guard captain to chief of state. In the process, he drives his new wife to incest, alienates his children, and ends up slaughtering them all, while his people bow before him in a celebration. He quietly eats dinner as the blood of his family flows around him. All this is done within the most opulent scenery conceivable—and the lesson hammered home notwithstanding the mainland substitution of Chairman Mao for the emperor as paterfamilias.
Jesus counseled, “Do not (you plural) call (someone) your father on earth” (Matt. 23:9, my literal trans.). Exegetes have puzzled over what exactly he meant, since we who are privileged to have loving fathers cherish them and gladly follow the fifth commandment to honor them and our mothers. This mainland Chinese parable of patriarchy gone awry illustrates what Jesus meant. Christians should never allow any earthly authority figures to usurp the place of ultimate authority that belongs to God. Human authority must be contained in the human realm. Jesus is not an anarchist, of course. His followers are good citizens who are willing to “render” what is due to Caesar (Matt. 22:21). But our allegiance is to be an act of our will that we give to earthly rulers because we want to respect our God and point them by our deference to God. Freedom of the will is that which distinguishes submission from subjection. Submission is an act of respect that one pays to a parent, an employer, or a head of state. Subjection is an invasive action that someone exacts over others, often in a quest to become an authority figure. The first is cooperative, the second coercive. The Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary I consult (1983) does not use the word “subjection” in defining any of the related forms of the word “submission.” It also omits it as a synonym. It does, however, under “subject,” employ “submissive” to describe the willing act of placing oneself under the authority of another, making oneself subject (actively), or subordinate, but, otherwise, it maintains a distinction between the two words. Being made submissive by another is clearly not an option. Today, however, some Christians seem to be confusing submission and subjection.
When we were college chaplains, we helped out a foolish student who had married precipitously on impulse with no forethought and no money. We did not perform the wedding; a justice of the peace precipitated that. We were called in to pick up the pieces of two people who were not ready to be married— financially, emotionally, relationally, or spiritually. In gratitude, the husband invited us over to visit their new apartment. No sooner had we arrived than he turned to his wife and called boisterously, “Wife, submit!” It was appalling. I pulled him aside and shared what counsel I could—but, as before, he was not open. We left deeply disturbed. Immediately, she was pregnant. Then, in a fit of ire, he hit her. The marriage was over. The last I ever saw him, he had left school and was on the run from her brothers who were out to avenge the beating of their sister. How many times do attitude and action unite? What is purgative in an action movie can be lethal in real life. Instead of wise like serpents, we can become as poisonous as one. We have to pause and think through our concepts, what we believe, and when and how they should be extended into practice. No greater need exists than to do this with the concept of submission and the need within the faith for submission not to degenerate into subjection. This is the theme of this issue.
J. Martha Compleman-Blair opens with an accessible approach to developing new hermeneutical, or interpretive, principles for viewing submission in the Bible. Our former Priscilla Papers associate editor and now Ph.D. candidate Michal Beth Dinkler follows with an examination of submission in 1 Peter 3:1–6. Lynn Cohick applies our topic to the wider church today, meditating on the plight of Jephthah’s daughter as she contemplates the responses of Christian women in Africa whose lives have been limited by oppressive, hierarchical tradition. Her article reminds us that conclusions we reach on various issues like subjection do have serious consequences on the lives of others beyond our own circle—even strangers we may inadvertently influence. Medine Moussounga Keener then brings us a vivid picture of the horrid results of subjection on women in the Republic of Congo. Dawn Lindholm takes us traveling through Glen Scorgie’s The Journey Back to Eden (the time when “relational harmony between men and women” existed). This issue also introduces a new poet, Matthew Robert Erdel, who contributes a perceptive parable in verse. The touching photograph on the cover was taken by Sarah Beck several years ago in an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, and the beautiful photo on page 31 is by photographer John Tarantino.
Submission is a beautiful concept in the Bible, particularly when the context is mutual submission, the great equalizing of respect. It characterizes the way Jesus ordered leaders of the church to work with one another at the last supper—serving one another and the membership (John 13:14–15, cf. Mark 10:42–44). If this issue helps readers distinguish between willing submission and coerced subjection and assists you in avoiding the second, it will not only reach our goal for it, but will also give us joy.