Saturday, April 9, 2011

Submission to the Church?

“If you never get married, you don’t have to submit to anyone but God.”  
This was the surreptitious wisdom I received as a teenager growing up Southern Baptist. These words--whispered to me during a sermon on women submitting to their husbands--calmed my adolescent angst about the New Testament household codes, but left me with little sense of how “submission” is to be part of my Christian walk, whether single or married.  In much more than gender matters, “submission” is not a word many Baptists know how to use well.  My religious heritage is both a treasure and a warning: I come from a branch of Christianity that is both known for its dedication to religious liberty, and plagued by congregational splits and angry divisions.  
This month, however, I have been thinking about what “submission” means, particularly in the context of “the Church.” Since Advent, I have been using Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals to guide my morning prayers, and at the beginning of each month, the compilers include a short reflection on one of the twelve “marks of New Monasticism.”* In April’s reflection, the writers of Common Prayer called readers to remain in the church, submitting to Christ’s body by remaining among other Christians, even when the histories, priorities, and actions of Christian churches are a mess, or worse.  In other words, these writers claim that “submission to Christ’s Body, the Church,” is an essential part of the Christian life. Do you agree?
This question is more than intellectual.  Since college, I have been broken-hearted and baffled to see so many of my peers and my friends “shopping” for churches with the impatience of any American consumer, or drifting out of communal religious life entirely.  
But what does it mean to submit to the Church? How are we to find ourselves “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5. 20-21). Below is my very tentative list, drawn from observations, conversations, and hopes.
  • Remaining in a congregation you have committed to even when it fails to meet your needs, or the needs of your children
  • Serving in the church nursery 
  • Studying church history
  • Speaking against a sermon, purchase, or decision that compromises a congregation’s ability to bear witness to the gospel
  • Refusing to gossip
  • Resisting cynicism in all its clever forms
  • Honoring the authority of Christian traditions that come from times, places, and cultures different from your own

I’m not really happy with this list. It sounds very school-marmy.  Shouldn’t it sound joyful?  I’m sure that deep down in the core of this idea, there’s a lovely paradox waiting: exquisite liberty that can be experienced only through submission.  But I’m not to that core yet.  Help me.  

What are your reactions to the phrase “submission to the church”?  What does submission to the Church look like in action? How does your religion teach (or fail to teach) about this sort of submission?

 *New Monasticism is a movement that has intrigued me since college, and while I don’t know if I will ever live in a community such as The Simple Way, Rutba House, Koinonia Farm, or the Little Portion, I admire this movement’s attempt to counter the poverty of individualistic adulthood.

1 comment:

  1. No comments yet? That surprises me.

    I've actually been mulling this post over for the last couple weeks, and I'm not sure I have much of an answer yet. I would add, though, that in the spirit of Romans 14, submission to the church includes watching out for those with weaker consciences, and not doing anything in front of them that would encourage them to do something they honestly believed was wrong.

    Another aspect of submission to the church (and I don't think this helps the school-marmish image, unfortunately) is keeping one's eccentric theological opinions to oneself. No matter what church I attend, there's always some particular teaching--often one of the "doctrinal distinctives," oddly enough--with which I happen to disagree. That's the case in my current church. When it comes up in discussion, I have learned not to argue. It's not an issue that is so important that I would be justified in disrupting our unity by disputing it. If asked about it directly, I will be glad to give my opinion as gently as I could. Said a different way, church unity is usually more important than winning an argument over a relatively minor point.