Submission/Subordination – Two Misunderstood Words in the Anabaptist Vocabulary

There are two words which I find immensely important to the leadership of the church and its cultural engagement. Yet these same two words are almost universally despised by the average Western Christian because of the baggage they carry from the history of the church. This makes using them within leadership/cultural engagement discussions very difficult (to say the least). Nonetheless they name extremely important postures for the church from which space can be shaped for the rule of God to break in through Christ. And though I’ve tried to find other words to take their place, nothing captures their essence like the words themselves. So, I propose we reclaim them via two adjectives that I have learned from within the Anabaptist discussion. I’d like to advocate we never use these words without these adjectives. That perhaps in this way we can reclaim these ways as ways of Jesus for the revolutionary. So here goes.
From Submission to “Mutual Submission”

The word submission has a history of abuse in the church (and elsewhere for that matter). It has been used to enforce hierarchy and patriarchy, to impose authority. But the word, as used in the NT church, actually over throws all of that. For the NT church, submission is always mutual. It is the process of mutually coming together to submit together to one Lord. Submission is the opposite of imposed one man’s (or woman’s) authority over another. It is instead the act of submission first to Jesus as Lord and then to one another in that space of His Lordship. Submission is always mutual under the rule of His Lordship. It is a testing and listening process. It is never imposition. Always in a place of trust. And so contrary to being an instrument of hierarchy, it is a complete overthrow of all hierarchy (including patriarchy).  To avoid therefore any misunderstanding, I suggest a moratorium on the use of the word “submission” without the adjective “mutual” (or the adverb)

The premier text in this regard is the text that heads the household codes of Eph ch. 5. It reads “Submit yourselves one to another out of reverance (in submission to) for Christ (His Lordship over us).”(Eph 5:21) The apostle then goes on to describe all relationships in terms of mutual submission including marriage, family and work. The gospel transforms all these relationships from hierarchy, coercion and “usurping” to relationships of mutual submission under one Lord. There are countless examples throughout the NT of this mutuality in submission to authority, in the way our roles in the body work together (for example 1 Cor 12), in the way we live our lives as His people in the world.

Many of course rightfully fear this word because of its past misuse as a tool of hierarchy, abuse and coercion. To me, this is why the practice of submission must always start with those who are in obvious (and historical) positions of power. Those in power do not ask for someone else to submit to them. They lead by submitting first. When a leader puts forth an idea/proposal/assessment, he or she must submit it to others first. “The first shall be last. The ruler, a servant of all”

From Subordination to “Revolutionary Subordination”

Subordination is an equally derisive english word, used interchangeabley with submission to translate the greek word hypotassein. The idea here is to emphasize the ordering of roles within a structure of society. These roles represent an “order” of one role over another that is inherent to the order of things. According to some, to “be subordinate” means to enter into our role and obey the ones over us: be subject. Some have even interpreted the Trinity in these hierarchical terms, the Spirit subordinate to the Son, the Son subordinate to the Father (dare I say heresy!).

Within Anabaptist thought however there is a deeper understanding to the subordination called for in the NT. Here entering sub-ordination means entering into the existing order (sub-order), but by participating in it we are allowing God through the reign of Christ to transform it. We enter into things as they are, not seeking to obliterate the existing order through violence. Instead, when we participate in a given order, and submit to it, we are also discerning it one issue at a time as a community of the Kingdom. There will be times when we willingly participate and join in, there will be times we resist by saying no and submitting to the consequences, there will be times we participate but do so in a way which invigorates it with the ends and purposes of God in Christ for the world. Each step along the way we give witness to another way, the way of God’s inbreaking Kingdom by the Spirit. In so dong, God transforms the existing order not by violence but by transforming its very nature within ongoing history. Indeed false systems(“orders”) may collapse entirely not by violence but by the lack of integrity that becomes self evident to all. This form of subordination Yoder (RYFC) calls “revolutionary.”

Again a crucial text, which Yoder uses to illustrate this concept, is the household codes of Eph 5, where in each ordered relationship, wife to husband, children to parents, slave to master a revolutionary subordination occurs. The first one mentioned in the dyad (wife, children, slave)is given agency/power in his or her action to submit in a certain way. Yet the second one in the dyad (husband, parent, master) is called into mutual submission that transforms the nature of the relationship. The one in power is called to submit and serve in self sacrifice. This subordination overturns the world’s power. In other words it is revolutionary. (Yoder deals with this in the entirety of ch. 9 in Politics of Jesus).

This is how we then are to enter into many of the existing broken systems and relationships in society (including the government i.e. Rom 13) – participating in them and allowing God to transform or even overturn them through our participation. It is the way of peace. But it is also the way of revolution. For these reasons, I suggest a moratorium on the use of the word “subordination” without the adjective “revolutionary.”


“Mutual submission” and “revolutionary subordination” are extensions of the way of Christ – cross and resurrection – to bring his reign into our neighborhoods, churches and relationships (including marriage). They represent the local incarnational postures the church must embody to make space for the kingdom among the multiple culture issues we face in our society. Only by reframing these words can we overcome the abuses of hierarchy without obliterating everything and everybody that has gone on before. Only by reframing these words can we give up culture wars and instead bring transformation that comes through the cross and the resurrection.

What say you? Can we save these words for the right postures of Christian witness? You Anabaptists out there what have I missed in this short summary? What nuance needs to be added? How do these terms continue to be abused?

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