Earlier I was involved in a conversation regarding a very large church here in Washington. I won’t go into the details. I’m sure it’s all over the Internet and if you are interested you can certainly seek it out. I feel nothing but grief for everyone involved and can’t offer anything constructive to that conversation, only my sincere wishes that there is resolution and healing.
However, the situation there, and the subsequent conversation with my friends, did bring up a very important issue that I think about fairly often, and which concerns me deeply. I think it can best be summed up by the word submission.
This is a word that often gets me into trouble.
On the one hand, most of the people I align with politically, are also wary of – if not outright hostile towards – the very concept. On the other hand, most of the people I associate with in a church setting, support it fervently, and seemingly without skepticism. Note that I did say *most*. I am aware that I’m generalizing a bit here, and that not quite everyone lands so firmly on one side or the other.
I personally understand the idea of submission in a positive, if generally difficult light. A child submits to a parent because there are rules that help us grow. One spouse submits to the other because we can’t always agree 100% of the time, and somebody has to lay their preference down (also true in friendship). And, we submit to leadership when we have entered into a beneficial relationship that we have come to learn from. In each case there is often struggle, and that my friends, is healthy. The meaningful issue is overcoming the struggle, and making a decision to submit; for the sake of the relationship, or in order to learn and grow.
You’ll notice that nowhere on my list does any kind of political figurehead appear. Neither, does any person without whom we have a relationship. And yes, I consider myself to have a relationship with God, so he would land on my list. Whether he lands on yours or not is your prerogative.
So here’s the problem…
I firmly believe that the church at large has damaged the concept it is so passionate about. It makes sense really. Regardless of arena, people are fallible, act wrongly, and will abuse power. The thing is, the church is supposed to be leading people in compassion, grace, humility, love, and freedom. They are supposed to be concerned with teaching people how to walk with and communicate with God for themselves. That means using the heart and mind that God gave YOU, people! Without that, Luther pretty much hung his thesis for nothing, and why bother continuing to print bibles for personal use?
Unfortunately, just like any bully anywhere, we sometimes brow beat people into going our way. I know, it’s a human failing, but one to which we should pay much more attention in ourselves. Often, we do this with the best intentions, without even meaning to. We do it by being sure that we know what is best for people, and expecting them to go along. I also think we do it out of fear. If we can just help people stay within right boundaries, we can somehow keep them from stumbling and crashing on their faces, which we are often afraid is going to happen in that big bad world out there.
When we raise people up and train them to have a posture of submission, not before God, but to man, regardless of relationship, and promote the idea that leadership should generally not be questioned (as they are ordained by God), we are telling people that leaders know better than them, and that they should trust the conscience (and divine witness) of their leaders, more than they trust their own.
When combined with the overly fervent, unwaveringly patriotic mentality of most conservative churches, you are just asking for disaster. We have too many unquestioning idealists, who don’t want to be critical of other believers – because that’s not very spiritual of us. Of course George W. Bush could do no wrong. Heellloo?! He loves Jesus, don’t you know? What do you mean the Patriot Act was bad? Safety, people! And God, after all, ordained him to be president. Of course, God ordained Obama too, but apparently he does not love Jesus, so it’s far more acceptable to question his activities. Which, of course just means we can blame any ills on Obama, when really the problem is so much deeper.
It is impossible to fix a problem without the truth. The Bible exhorts us to see deeper truths. Ron Paul, quoting George Orwell, has said many times that “truth is treason in the empire of lies.” I find this so sadly the truth in the church today. It grieves me, deeply. We need to take back the idea of godly submission, and stop using it to train people to be lead by the nose.
In America, we snub our noses at history. We are modern and smarter than those who have gone before. We certainly cannot have been misled, and especially not by people we like. We do not conceive that we could have been those German citizens, in their church next to the railroad, singing louder as the trains went by. The truth is, we are those people. Flawed humanity. My sincere hope is that the American church at large will see the truth – very soon – and will start to lead the way by teaching people what freedom really looks like. Learning when it is appropriate to submit, and being skeptical of doing so too easily, is going to be a very important step.