Words! Somebody said, and I don’t remember who, “There are earthquakes, nuclear bombs, hurricanes, tornados, volcanos and then there are words!” James said something about words, speech—he said the tongue can set a world on fire! Someone else reminded us that there are parts of the world where if we said, “God is love! No one would bat an eye but if you said, “God is Just” you could lose your life.
Context and intention are everything!
In some areas the N word is a word of defiance and defiant brother and sisterhood in the face of unjust opposition. In other settings and from different mouths it is a vicious insult that expresses a heart that knows no shame and raises images of a history saturated with shame—the word is used deliberately to feed division, humiliate and to provoke resentment, hatred and a hunger for violent physical response when other forms of protest “don’t work.”
Words cheapen realities that can be viewed with wonder if we have the right vision. Sexual engagement between a man and a woman is commonly spoken of in well-known terms that brutally reduce two people to heated “users” of each other. The words used as a description of what feverishly happens express the already existing mind-set—”this is what he or she is good for.” But there’s something about expressing our low views that embeds them. Where it can be avoided some things should not be uttered.
Sometimes we Christians are too saintly and speak of sexual engagement between a man and woman as if it we thought it should be a quiet prayer-meeting or that marriage is nothing other than another opportunity to be religious. For Christians who fail in the area (and many of us do) it remains true that Hebrews 13:4 is not up for debate. Still, was it Bonhoeffer who said something to the effect that when husbands and wives wish to love one another that God steps out of the bedroom? Construe his remark in the finest possible way. Bearing in mind that context is king, I take seriously Kipling’s “advice” in his poem, “IF” (and Ecclesiastes 7:16):
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
Here I’m centrally interested in the words, submit, submission, submissive! Context and intention are paramount! Say any of them in the right quarter and hair rises along with the temper. Say anything where the word “submission” could easily fit in, even if it isn’t used, and you might get a lecture. (It happened to me on a flight back from the west coast a year or so ago. I hadn’t been promoting any agenda—truly I hadn’t. We were speaking about children. I thought this fine woman was a bit overly sensitive, hair-triggered; but then I didn’t know her and her life’s experience might have been horrendous. With such people it isn’t a word that sets them alight—it generates images of prolonged injustice—their own experience and the experience of countless people like them. She understandably becomes part of a world-wide “sisterhood of suffering” and that adds depth and intensity to her feelings and tends to shape her (us!) to hear more than is being said or to think that something is being dismissed without due consideration. (My mother bore thirteen of us and some of my most vivid childhood memories are the seemingly unceasing arrivals of policemen at our house to deal with severe domestic violence. My father wasn’t a fine man—drunk or sober–and my mother was the usual victim. This experience (known by multiplied millions) doesn’t make me an “expert” in anything! I mention it I suppose hoping to gain a better hearing from some of the host of women who have good reason to love not the word “submission” and see it only as a religious word that especially supports a male form of ungodliness that doesn’t always express itself in physical violence but in unending scorn and humiliation.
In the light of global injustice that is particularly obvious (name the country) where this is perpetrated and almost always by the powerful who are males. People are tired of it and those who can do anything about it, even if it is no more than protest and march, are in the mood to do it and to do more at any opportunity. God bless them in it for God has no love for injustice! We need to believe and remember that. I mean to come back to that truth. GOD has no love for injustice—never did! Just glance through the prophets and see for yourself. Some Christians (it appears) think that the condemnation of injustice began with us. This is Christian imperialism! One hears a lot about “progressive revelation” (and I accept PR as a truth within limits). But there is so much nonsense attached to it by the thoughtless. Is it true that we only learned that cruelty was cruel or abuse was abuse when Christianity entered the world? Is it the case that we only learned that Love was at the heart of all that is right and best in the world—we only learned that when Jesus of Nazareth arrived on the scene? Bless me, it was Jesus of Nazareth who taught us that the heart of the Old Testament Law & Prophets was Love (Matthew 22:36-40) and that Shema was centuries before He entered the world.
Moving on. Lexical work is dangerous even in the hands of grammarians and lexicographers who nevertheless are a great blessing to us. We come to know what a writer or a speaker intends to do with his or her words by listening to/reading what he says on this occasion or in this textual setting. We need more than a dictionary that will list the various uses of a word that are current in daily life because what we’re after is an answer to this: “How is this writer/speaker using the word here?” Bless me, the word mean or “means” functions in many different ways. Though there are times when it isn’t easy to decide precisely how a writer is using a word—context is still king. But though that’s true, “context” is like a Russian doll; there are contexts within larger contexts within the glorious overarching context. So millions of us rightly hold.
Christian people are glad to hear that God has subjected all the principalities and powers to Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:27-28 and elsewhere) and they’re happy to read that demons were subjected to the disciples empowered by the name of Jesus (Luke 10:17). The same word is (often) rendered “obedience” as in 2 Corinthians 9:13. In Luke 2:51 it’s rendered “obedient” in reference to Jesus placing himself under the authority of His parents. It’s used in Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13 relative to government structures and in Ephesians 5:21 it is used of Christians in general “submitting” to one another in light of the Lord Jesus and as illustrations of that Paul speaks of numerous life relationships (5:22—6:9). In these and other places the same word is used in its various forms. But fuller understanding is not gained simply by noting that the same word is being used, we need to determine the force of the word in this text or another. Imperatives don’t all have the same strength! When Peter urges young men to “be submissive” to older people (5:5) or Paul to wives to husbands (Ephesians 5:24) or children to parents (6:1) and slaves to masters (6:5) these are not to be construed as “barked commands” or as someone lording it over others (see 1 Peter 5:3; Matthew 20:25-28 and 2 Corinthians 10:8; 12:14-15, 19; 13:10 where Paul gives his understanding of his apostolic authority–these Corinthian texts are written by a loving apostle of the Lord Jesus whose heart is nearly broken). In Philippians 2:12 Paul uses the same root word as obeyed and with happy assurance. All this makes the point that “submission” or a call to “submit” need not be and should not be construed as a “lording over” or being “lorded over” situation. There is “obedience” and obedience. To obey loving and wise parents, loving and wise apostles and the Loving Lord is one thing and to obey a Pharaoh is another kind of “obedience.”
When we come to 1 Timothy 2:8-15 we’ll hear Paul calling women to be submissive in a particular setting and it isn’t fair to Paul or to the text we have before us if we read and interpret it as if a lover didn’t write it; it isn’t right to read it as if he were enslaving and robbing women (I’ve heard both words used of what he taught). It isn’t right to parallel such a text by such a man with the work of heartless white-sheeted and hooded God-dishonoring and people-abusing men. Caucasian people hate it when African-Americans think all Caucasians hate them and can’t be trusted despite their heartfelt courtesy and respect. Men kept women from education and the right to vote and all that goes with those deprivations but that isn’t Paul and it isn’t the will of God who in and as Jesus became obedient (same word) unto death (Philippians 2:8)!
To place oneself or to be content to be placed under obligation to function in a given way in pursuit of God’s glorious purpose is to live [even now] in a new creation. To seek what I construe (and perhaps rightly) to be “my rights” need not be a bad thing and under some circumstances it might be a bad thing NOT to seek them! But even those “rights” need to be pursued wisely in a nation or a world where everyone simply cannot get all that would be fair. The “already haves” (the powerful) that fiercely pursue more and more “rights” are acting out of a spirit and promoting a spirit that is contagious, divisive and breeds resentment and prolonged bitterness. If it isn’t done in the name of the Lord Jesus and in His Spirit it is in the wrong spirit and if it is the followers of Christ who are pursuing “more” and are not at all willing to live in “submission” in some settings they too are teaching the world something. Maybe Jesus is right; it’s possible to gain the entire world and lose oneself. (Balance the above as you think it should be balanced and pursue me if you wish: email@example.com)
Charles Clayton Morrison, a truly prolific writer with a no-nonsense style died in 1966 but not before he famously said, “Christianity can repent but it must not whimper.”
The Holy Scriptures seem clear to me. James D.G. Dunn in his tiny commentary on 1 Corinthians (p. 70) said, “…the impression that Paul basically reaffirmed female subordination to male is hard to avoid.” I’m certain he’s right but there’s more to be said from 1 Corinthians 11 which I purpose to get to.
Some are happy to have Brueggemann, Terrien, Fiorenza and others by their side. I find it more comforting to have Paul. The Church must not whimper and with Paul beside us who needs to?
Finally for now:
Precisely why Miriam and Aaron took issue with Moses about his wife will leave us guessing but what seems clear enough is this: they thought Moses was taking himself too seriously and was acting like he alone had the right to “call the shots.” That’s how they saw it and that’s Numbers 12:1-9. God ended the dispute and vindicated Moses.
There’s this in Numbers 16. Spokesmen for a large number of Israelites call Moses out. The deputation was 250 leaders headed up by Korah, Dathan and Abihu. Again, what precisely led to this deputation challenging Moses is not clear but their gripe is clear: “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?”
Korah son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and certain Reubenites—Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—became insolent. and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council.
They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?” When Moses heard this, he fell facedown. Then he said to Korah and all his followers: “In the morning the LORD will show who belongs to him and who is holy, and he will have that person come near him. The man he chooses he will cause to come near him.
You, Korah, and all your followers are to do this: Take censers and tomorrow put burning coals and incense in them before the LORD. The man the LORD chooses will be the one who is holy. You Levites have gone too far!”
Moses also said to Korah, “Now listen, you Levites! Isn’t it enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the Israelite community and brought you near himself to do the work at the LORD’s tabernacle and to stand before the community and minister to them?
He has brought you and all your fellow Levites near himself, but now you are trying to get the priesthood too.
Many of them were well acquainted with the names Korah, Dathan and Abiram in Numbers 16. These three men (!) led two hundred and fifty other men in protest against leadership restrictions! Here’s how these men put their complaint [16:3]: “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them… Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?”
The answer, of course, is that Moses and Aaron didn’t! God did!
THE “N” WORD PROGRESSIVE REVELATION