Submission: The Cost of Unity
This article, by Nick Chuan, originally appeared in Cornerstone Magazine, a Christian journal at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Nick is a senior concentrating in Physics and Philosophy and a member of our church.
Submission is a frowned-upon word today, especially on college campuses like ours. In a world scarred by slavery, a verse like “Slaves, obey your human masters in everything” (Col 3:22a, HCSB, and all following) reeks of abuse. In a culture which cries for gender equality, verses like “Wives, submit to your own husbands” (Eph 5:22) sound misogynistic, demeaning and oppressive.
On the other hand, unity is a celebrated concept that everyone seems to cherish and strive for. Be it across denominational, racial, political, or socioeconomic boundaries, or even among the different campus ministries, we yearn for unity and constantly question why we appear so divided. The theme of this Cornerstone issue is unity, and in this magazine you will find pieces tackling different aspects of it. From unity among missionaries on the field, to among different cultural practices; from the covenantal union between Christ and the Church, to unity bridged by the everyday practice of forgiveness, the staff has compiled various takes on this subject. However, before you dive into all of that, allow me to provide a Biblical picture. In particular, I would like to contend that submission is a necessary cost of achieving unity.
Submission to whom, in particular? If you’re a Christian, you may be thinking that I am talking about submission to God. While that is definitely necessary, the call to submission goes deeper. We are called to submit to one another for the sake of unity. To see this, I would like to focus on a particular passage, Philippians 2:1-11. This is part of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, after they heard about his suffering for the cause of the gospel. This led to disunity within the church, which is one of the few things Paul sought to address. In the first four verses, he instructs them on how to seek unity, by “having the same love, sharing the same feelings, (and) focusing on one goal” (v2). Moreover, they are to “do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than (themselves,)” and look out not only for their “own interests but also for the interest of others” (v3-4). To exemplify this, Paul exhorts the Philippians to make their attitude like that of Jesus. He then writes a beautiful prose on Jesus:
Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow—of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth—and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11, HCSB)
Paul clearly points to Jesus as the ultimate example as to how the Philippians can consider others more important than themselves and look out for the interests of others. That is how the Philippians can have the same love, feelings, and goal. In a nutshell, they were to be united through Christ-like love for one another.
Let me unpack what “Christ-like love” looks like according to the passage. It is not self-seeking (v6), it is self-denying (v7), and submissive (v8). Submitting to God’s will, Jesus gave up His rightful place in perfect communion with the Godhead and took on the form of man, even the lowest status of a slave. More than that, He obeyed the Father’s will to the point of death on the cross, the most excruciating method of execution known to the 1st Century Greco-Roman world. Jesus did all of this not for His own glory (which He in fact deserved), but so that our sinful and broken relationship with God may be made right. In response, God exalted Jesus, bestowing on Him praise, honor, and glory from every being in creation. To put it plainly, God sees submission as something to be praised. In case one reads this as only being applicable to Jesus, verse 5 refutes that as Paul exhorts the Philippians to do so. In fact, this is not limited to a particular gender, race, or socioeconomic status. All Christians are called to submit to one another, in the way that Jesus did for the church, in a bid for unity. This is why submission is a necessary cost of bringing about unity in various domains.
The Bible portrays submission as praiseworthy, glorious, beautiful, and not beneath the Son. Why then do we recoil at the mention of this concept? I posit that there are two main reasons. Firstly, we, in our sinful hearts, crave power and authority, and are not willing to give it up. Just as Adam and Eve were enticed by the prospect of being “like God” and bought into the serpent’s questioning of God’s authority over them (Gen 3:1-7), we selfishly yearn for power. On the other hand, perhaps on a more real and personal level, we see the abuse of authority and fear it being placed over us. If just one authority figure over us (e.g. parents, teachers, bosses, politicians, law enforcers etc.) abuses the power they have over us, we are scarred. Putting oneself under someone else’s authority is then unfathomable. However, the Bible calls us to recognize those as instances of sin, and not diminish the value of submissive love which it calls for. This is not to devalue the sufferings anyone has experienced from abuses of power; rather, it pinpoints the issue at the heart of the perpetrator, not the system of submissive love.
How then does Paul’s 2000-year-old letter speak to us today? In our bid for unity, let us learn to submit to one another in love. Practically, this can mean loving someone who looks different from you, who grew up in a completely different context from you, and who speaks differently from you. In the process, put their needs before yours. This may mean talking about a subject that may be boring to you but captivates them, or even supporting them in a crisis the night before your exam. Also, know that they will sin against you. As sinful human beings, all of us have the capacity and tendency to sin against each other. But that must not stop us in our love for others. Even as they misunderstand you, misrepresent you, or neglect you, the call to radical submissive love cannot be hindered. Jesus commands us to love our enemies (Matt 5:44); how much more should we love those we seek to be unified with us but who sin against us? And the best way to love them as they sin against you is through forgiveness.
The Bible lays out submission as the necessary cost of unity. If that still rings hollow to you, perhaps the question is whether you are even submitting to His authority revealed in His Word. I pray that as you enjoy the rest of the magazine, you will not see unity as a lofty, unattainable ideal, but rather, as a costly but precious state, achievable through practical, submissive love to one another.