This is a post I’ve been contemplating for about eight months. There’s been a lot for me to think over, and I’ve found it helpful to think about the subject in concrete terms. To state it more clearly, this work was originally an attempt to understand how Man is supposed to submit to God, but it became easier as time progressed to think in terms of how Woman is supposed to submit to Man. Submission is submissions, at least in a spiritual sense, so in many ways it simply does not matter whether we are thinking in terms of Man submitting to God or Woman submitting to Man since the nature of submission doesn’t really change from scenario to the other.
I suppose when it comes to thinking about submission and faith or, if you will, obedience and faith, it is first important to distinguish among the two. It is possible to be faithful and disobedient at the same time, although it should be noted that faithfulness and disobedience, though not the same, do tend to correlate with one another.
To illustrate my assertion, consider the difference between an unfaithful wife and a disobedient wife. An unfaithful wife has betrayed her vow of fidelity to her husband, whereas a disobedient wife has simply failed to comply with her husband’s commands. Virtually all women will disobey their husbands at some point, but not all of them will be unfaithful to their husbands. That is the difference between submission and faith. However, as noted before, obedience and faithfulness tend to correlate, so it is often the case that an unfaithful wife often tends to be a disobedient wife.
Since submission and faithfulness are not the same, it is important to note the subtle difference between the two. Submission is simply adherence to an authority. Submission entails doing what one is told. Motivation is irrelevant to submission because submission is action oriented. Submission is obedience, rebellion is disobedience.
Faithfulness is a little trickier. While actions are important in determining faithfulness, the true test of faith is one’s motivations. Is one motivated by a complete trust in the authority one is under? If you are a wife, how much do you trust your husband? If you are a citizen, how much do you trust your rulers? If you are an employee, how much do you trust your boss? If you are a slave, how much do you trust your master? While submission is binary (either you are submissive or your aren’t), faith is continuous (how much trust do you have?). As such, it can be tricky to determine whether one has enough faith in someone for a proper relationship. A woman contemplating marriage might thus ask herself if she has enough faith to be a man’s wife, and a sinner contemplating salvation might ask himself whether he has enough faith to be a child of God.
Since faith and submission are two distinct states, and since they tend to intertwine (given that obedience is usually an expression of trust while disobedience is an expression of distrust), it should make sense that there are four distinct states of faith and submission. In the first case, you have submission in good faith. You also have submission in bad faith, disobedience in good faith, and disobedience in bad faith. Let’s consider each in turn.
Submission in Good Faith
Submission in good faith is fairly straightforward, as it describes the state of being when one complies with an authority because one completely trusts that authority to act in their best interest. A soldier who marches into battle because he trusts his leader to be victorious is submitting in good faith. A wife who does what her husband tells her because she trusts that he’s doing what is best for the family is acting in good faith. A man who submits to church leaders because he trusts that they are acting in the best interest of the flock is acting in good faith.
There are a lot of important points to be made at this juncture, and the main one is that anyone trusted with authority is responsible for those under his authority. A man who tells his wife to inflict pain on their children is responsible for her actions if she acts in good faith. If he is trying to discipline the children in order to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, all is well and good. If he is merely being sadistic, he will have to answer for it.
Another point that is important is that motives matter. A lot. As will be clearer, motives matter because it is important to know whether someone actually believes in the one to whom they are submitting, or whether they are simply acting in their own interest, which merely happens to coincide with the authority to whom they are submitting’s.
Furthermore, compliance in good faith is no guarantee of good results. A man may tell his wife that he wants his three-year-old son to take a nap so that he is not cranky in the evening. His wife may comply with the command, trusting that her husband is acting in the child’s best interest, and still find that putting the child down for a nap does nothing to prevent the child from being cranky in the evening. Sometimes a command issued in good faith and obeyed in good faith simply does not pan out.
Submission in Bad Faith
Submission in bad faith is hard to discern from submission in good faith because the motives aren’t always easy to discern in real time. This form of submission occurs when one does enough to comply with an authority but still hopes that their compliance proves the authority wrong. This sort of submission generally occurs when there is a conflict between an authority and one under the authority. What usually happens is that the authority gives a command and the one under authority thinks that the command will backfire in some way. Convinced of this, the one under the authority will usually do enough to be seen as complying with the command while secretly hoping that their compliance ends up backfiring.
An example of this might be when a boss tells an employee to be more assertive in talking to customers on the sales floor, in the hopes of improving customer service and increasing sales. The employee might think that a lot of customers will think that this assertiveness will be perceived as pushiness, causing the customers to view the sales associates as annoying, thus leading to a decline in sales. Instead of voicing his concerns to his employer, the employee instead decides that he will completely comply with his boss’s commands, and so proceeds to be the most annoyingly helpful sales associate that he can possibly be. Consequently, customers are annoyed and sales decline, leading the employee to conclude that his beliefs were correct, even though he never really tried to properly obey his boss. In this case, submission can be a type of unfaithfulness since the compliance is purely superficial and intended to undermine the authority in question.
What makes this type of unfaithfulness difficult to discern is the fact that it appears that one is actually complying. Complicating things further is the fact that, as noted above, submission in good faith is no guarantee of results. Thus, it is often hard to tell a) whether the submission is actually genuine and b) whether submission in good faith would have achieved the desired results. Given how difficult it is to discern whether submission is in bad faith, it is usually best not to worry about it unless one under your authority has been rebellious.
Disobedience in Good Faith
Disobedience in good faith is when someone doesn’t technically obey an authority, but acts in the spirit of the command given. This probably sounds worse than it is, since many commands that are given are usually given with an implicit set of assumptions. As such, there can often be a considerable difference between what an authority assumes will be the case and what is actually the case. Alternatively, a general command may be given that generally assumes ideal conditions for compliance.
A general that tells his men to secure a bunker by flanking from the right is probably operating under the assumption that this is the optimal way of securing said bunker. However, the boots on the ground may find that the right side is heavily fortified, and the bunker may be more likely to give way to a frontal assault. Diverting from the original order in order to attack directly is technically disobedience, but since the soldiers are acting to secure the bunker (which is the principle of the order), there disobedience is not likely to lead to a court-martial.
By way of another example, a husband may expect his wife to have dinner on the table every night when he comes home from work. However, he may come home one day to discover that his pregnant wife spent the whole morning being sick and the whole afternoon disciplining their three children for being unruly, and thus is a little late in getting dinner on the table. In this event, he will likely have plenty of grace to forgive her for not having dinner fixed like he expected since compliance would be rather difficult under these suboptimal conditions. In this case, the disobedience was not caused by malice, but by a combination of disruptive factors.
There are instances in which disobedience can be in good faith but the main ones are disobedience in the form of attaining the goal through tactics other than those specified and disobedience that stems from being hindered by factors beyond one’s control. Sometimes a command may simply be impossible to carry out, as sometimes commands are given thoughtlessly, or at least with less thought than would otherwise be warranted.
Disobedience in Bad Faith
Like obedience in good faith, this is pretty straightforward. This is rebellion, pure and simple. Disobedience in bad faith is when one either hates or doesn’t trust an authority and does everything possible to hurt it and undermine it.
A wife who doesn’t trust her husband and seeks to escape him by being with another man is disobeying in bad faith. A soldier who doesn’t trust his commander and thus deserts when commanded to fight is disobeying in bad faith. Any form of rebellion stemming from hate or distrust is disobedience in bad faith.
Emotions and Submission
One thing that makes the matter of submission and faith more complicated is emotions. It can often be the case that one is commanded to do something and then immediately thinks, “I don’t feel like doing that.” This tends to trip people up because they often feel, perhaps correctly, that not feeling like complying is a form of disobedience. However, emotions aren’t the litmus test for either submission or faith, though emotions often undergird one’s willingness to trust and obey.
Consider what Christ said in Matthew 21:
“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”
They said to Him, “The first.”
Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.
While words and emotions do have meaning and significance, the crucial component of submission is not emotion but will. In Christ’s parable, the first son didn’t feel like working but he eventually brought his will in subjection to his father. The second son simply paid lip service to his father but never brought his will in subjection to his father.
This passage of scripture provides immense comfort because it tells us that it really doesn’t matter what we feel as long as we bring our will into subjection to those in authority over us. This doesn’t mean that bringing our will in subjection will be fun or easy, or free of emotional drama, but it does mean that how we feel when we are first given a command is not taken as the true measure of our trust. Thus, a wife who doesn’t feel at first like obeying her husband but ultimately brings her will in subjection to his, trusting that he is doing what is best for her is, in fact, submitting in good faith. A soldier who feels fear when told to charge an enemy line is not being rebellious if he ultimately quiets his fears and trusts his commander and charges the line. So, while emotions may make submission easier or more difficult in certain instances, ultimately they do not determine whether one is being submissive and faithful.
The Scalability of Submission
It is easy to understand submission through the lens of human hierarchy. It is easy to understand what it means to trust the person in authority over you and submit in good faith. It’s also easy to understand that perfect obedience isn’t always possible, even when you have faith in the those in authority. Events sometimes conspire against you, and time and chance both make life harder than it needs to be on occasion. Sometimes strict adherence to a command actually undermines the command itself, since commands are not meant to harm but to help. Fortunately, our understanding of submission in concrete physical terms can scale up to an understanding of submission in more abstract, spiritual terms.
Submission to God works the exact same way as submission to an earthly authority. Trusting God doesn’t mean that you always feel like submitting to him. God doesn’t hold your emotions against you if you bring your will in subjection to his. God’s expectation is that you do your best to obey him, and his grace exists to cover those times when life gets in the way of your best intentions. God wants you to obey him, but he also understands that there are times when you have to discard the technical aspects of a command in order to fulfill the principle upon which the command is based; God’s commands aren’t given to hurt man but to help man.
Ultimately, submission to God doesn’t consist solely of strict, robotic adherence to God’s commands, but rather consists of trusting God to do what is best for you and applying the principles of Godly living in a manner that best suits the situation at hand.