Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Thoughts on submission as a discipline

When I was in college I took a great class with one of my favorite proffs called Discipleship and Spiritual Transformation. In contrast to most classes, which were definitely taught from a conservative evangelical perspective, Nancy Kane introduced our class to ancient Christian spiritual disciplines and practices, including taking the class on a silent retreat, practicing lectio divina together, and even having an Eastern Orthodox convert come speak to us. It was fascinating. 

When we studied the spiritual disciplines I was stumped when submission was set alongside things like prayer and fasting and study. To me, submission was an unpleasant word that I was wrestling with in the context of marriage. I didn't particularly like it - it seemed sort of slavish, and went against everything in me. Since Proff Kane was presenting the disciplines as things that we could practice intentionally for a time to counteract a particular sin or indulgence of ours, I asked how submission could be practiced intentionally. She briefly suggested things like intentionally submitting to those in authority over us and having an attitude of submission in our hearts to those we are in relationship with. I didn't get that... aren't we always in submission to those in authority, though not by choice? Is an attitude of submission actually healthy? 

This has come back on my mind again this year as I've looked at the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church. I've been deeply challenged and convicted. Individuality and independence are idols of our American culture. To allow yourself to be under anyone's thumb is seen as being distinctly bad, as you can see in quotes like this one from JFK: "One path [Americans] shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission." I think we've gone too far with our demand for our own rights. I see this in myself as I gauge my own reaction to the potential authority of the Catholic or EO church. It's easy to be an evangelical, in some ways. If I don't like what my pastor says about politics or communion, I can shake my head and discuss it with my friends and establish my disagreement, and be done with it. If, in the end, I come to a very deep disagreement with my church, I can leave and hop on over to the next church. Contemplating the Catholic church was deeply challenging to me because while I like the history and I like some aspects of hierarchy, I don't like the authority claimed by the Church, and the sacrifice that it would require if I were to submit to it. 

But... what if? What if it's true? I do not agree with the authority given to the Pope or the importance of the structure of the Catholic Church, but I have had to face the question - if I am convinced of the truth of it, I would have to submit to it. I dislike that thought... purely because I dislike the thought of having to submit. That is rather ugly to recognize. 

It reminds me of my childhood, where my hard-headed self clashed with my equally stubborn mother, and I begged her, "Please just ask me to do something instead of ordering me, because when you order me I automatically don't want to do it!" My mom's answer was, "Someday you're going to have to get a job, and that's what it's like in the real world!"

She's right... and I had to face that in my marriage too. We raise independent people in our culture, and then they marry and suddenly every decision has to be made by two people, which means in many cases one person gets their way and the other doesn't. Suddenly having to unselfishly give up the right to make all choices yourself is not fun, and rather quickly reveals the selfishness in you! That was the hardest part of a very fun first year of marriage for me. 

So, as I have thought about and been convicted of my own tendency towards selfishness and independence, I've thought more about submission. I don't ever suggest that we give up critical thinking and surrender completely to those in authority - no. However, I think there is value to simply giving up the need to be right or have your opinion known, or buck the system every time you disagree. The prideful, independant spirit grows naturally in our culture, and giving up control  for a time or to a certain extent can put things in perspective, though we always need to be wise as serpants. 

For instance, my church is building a building. They refuse to go into debt so they are waiting to finish it until they raise more money, and thus it's a constant discussion as to whether we should be giving to the building fund. I really struggle with this, mostly because the new building is obviously huge and is so expensive (though comparatively for the area - it is reasonable). Growing up overseas and having attended small churches, the mentality about buildings, the need for growth, and having a nice space just.... grates on me. I could tell you exactly why I disagree with it. At what point, though, do I simmer down and submit to the plans and prayers of my church leaders for the past years? They might not be perfect, but they are the leaders and this choice is not morally wrong. They have prayerfully stated that this is a need and plan for the church that I attend. Must I be contentious? Sometimes there is good reason to be, but perhaps I should simply submit.

Then there's Lent. As we approached Lent and I really tried to understand Lent's purpose for the first time, my instinct was to think, "Cool, it's nice that we evangelicals are getting into this whole church calendar thing, it seems really valuable, but everyone's doing it and so why should I?" See the sort of subtle pride inherent in that thought? "It's cool - but I don't need it." Besides that, actually taking Lent seriously actually requires sacrifice, which is unpleasant. I have similar thoughts about the Orthodoxy church service. It's unusual - long, full of chanting, you stand the whole time. My first thought is that it's really neat because that's very much the historical practice. When I actually consider taking that on as MY practice I start thinking, "Geez, that's so uncomfortable, I don't really want to have to commit SO much time to a service, and I loathe standing up for long periods of time... "

When am I willing to actually commit and submit to what I believe?


Jaimie said...

"However, I think there is value to simply giving up the need to be right or have your opinion known."

That is so good. That is something that dawned on me a year ago, and I've been working on since.

Mason said...

I know that is very much a struggle for me. Submitting to authority is quite against the grain for me, partially becuase I have become so frustrated by the way so many Christians believe anything their pastor/some guy on the radio tells them. I don't want to do that, can't do it anymore, and so proper submission has to break through all the baggage I've built up.

s-p said...

Excellent thoughts. I am an anarchist at heart and the notion of "obedience" cuts right to the core of my being. Part of what led me to the EO Church was I saw the fruit of my self will and self-directed spirituality in my life. I knew I HAD to change. A caveat however, we do not teach "mindless submission" to abuse, weirdness or cultic leaders etc. We do teach willful laying aside of our egos, desires, opinions and agendas in relationships in order to break our pride and independence, which is ultimately what keeps us from God. If I cannot submit to my wife, how then can I submit to God? I can tell you I have been challenged to the n'th degree sometimes in the EO and a LOT of things I've had thwarted, had to endure silently without offering an opinion, things I had to let go of, disciplines I've taken up, etc. have radically changed my spiritual life for the better. It is not just "counter-cultural" is is "counter-fallen human being".

Kacie said...

S-P - I would absolutely agree that neither the Catholic nor the EO church asks for mindless submission.That is sometimes how outsiders perceive it, but there is quite a lot of healthy dialogue and challenge within both churches.

Jase and Rach said...

I attend a church with a massive ridiculously (in my opinion) expensive building, and I wonder the same kind of thing whenever they ask us to contribute to the building fund. I guess I hadn't thought about it a lot in the context of submission though - I'll have to consider that. I have to admit that my instincts are to tell you to continue to ask good questions of your church. Is this the best stewardship of God's money? Or, in my case, now that this building is already here, how can we use it to its maximum potential for ministry? It is admittedly hard to find the balance between critical analysis and the decision to submit even if you aren't in full agreement...

Amy @ My Friend Amy said...

It's funny you should mention the building thing because that was definitely a problem for me in a past church. When the pastor said if you don't agree with this decision, you should leave the church, I took him at his word. I couldn't get myself to a place where I felt okay with it and it wasn't healthy for me to be there. Sometime we do have to have to listen to our inner voices.

I think as long as expression is encouraged and even, I don't know, not having to talk a party line, then submission feels healthier in other areas.

Good thoughts.

Kacie said...

Yeah, it's true... there are times when something like disagreement over a building IS important. There are certain things that make me more understanding - like the fact that this church grew to like 4,000 people and still was meeting in gyms and things like that - desperately in need of space. So they found a spot to build and asked the congregation to give if they felt led, and if they could put cash down for the land within two weeks, they'd go for it.

The cash came in in a sort of crazy way, and so they bought the land and put up the building we are in now as a temporary structure while they built the real one, which is what they're still working on now. Once we can move into that, the building we're in now will be converted to the kids building.

So.... They've been careful with money, they haven't gotten into debt, this isn't the "bigger and better" building, it's the plan for their first building....

So... there's much I can respect. Still. I struggle with the American mentality that doesn't realize that THIS plan is already big, and that maybe we should be planting churches instead of continuing to expand ourselves....

Rae said...

Excellent post. I don't think that submission is something that should be required by an external source, I think that it is something which we have to freely give for our own good. But it is still tough.

One of my favorite quotes from Edith Stein: "Human reason and will, which would so much like to be their own masters, are unaware of their susceptibility to be swayed by natural inclinations and so to be enslaved by them. There is no better way of being freed of this slavery and receptive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit than that of holy obedience."

I believe in constantly seeking to give my life for my husband, but I don't believe in "obeying" him in the typical "you must always try to figure out what he thinks is best because he is the man" sort of way. Additionally, my husband is remarkably easy going/easy to please. So I struggle to find where it is I need to do a better job of submitting. I know that I have a strong will, but most of that which is required by the Catholic Church seems right to me, so there is not the overall difficulty that you refer to.

Anyway, all that to say, thanks for brining this up. It is an issue that I struggle with, and I am not really sure where the line is between healthy independent thinking, and finding freedom through a guidance greater than my own will.