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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19 comments on “Submission/Subordination – Two Misunderstood Words in the Anabaptist Vocabulary
  1. Dan Jr. says:

    David thanks for this. Well done.

    Of course the challange is that this is Prodigal, going beyond. Those who hold tightly to being God’s head will loathe the idea of submitting to someone else they see as a “lesser” in their orgnanizations.

    Dare I say this also will offend some (emphasis on some) who have been subjugated. I have a couple local friends who believe the power-rut is so strong that the project of mutual submission will only hold for so long and then will eventually fall back into our power positions, rather they contend for a more exaggerated thrust to reimburse for the past power dynamics. My contention is that they’re advocating to use the same broken mechanism/dynamic to attempt justice. I understand their social logic but I have a hard time seeing it as a strategy in the New Testament.


  2. Seth says:

    Would you say more about how “entering into things as they are,” so that God may transform the existing order is different than a kuyperian posture toward the existing order?

    • David Fitch says:

      We do not presume to know how God will transform the way things are (like Kuyperians with orders of creation theology)… it’s more eschatological than that :)


  3. Melanie says:

    I would say there are a number of Christians whom I know(especially in Leadership) that truly believe they are promoting this model. The reality is that they rarely do. They default to the norms that they are used to and have never fully practiced leading “by submitting first.” When faced with opposition they tend take on posture of defensiveness and throwing their weight around. They want to believe that they are submitting but once their ideas are challenged -because obviously they have the most experience and knowledge – there is a breakdown. It is most difficult to work within this framework because there is lip service but very little action. Which is why this is truly revolutionary.

  4. Good stuff! I agree with Melanie that when we talk about mutual submission/revolutionary subordination, what matters more is what we do. There’s an ideological tendency here, I think. What does it actually look like to have a mutually submitted leadership? Or marriage? How does it function? What are the attitudes and practices and postures that prove it? Where’s the beef, basically.

    My hesitation with too much ideology around mutually submitted leadership is that we say it so much we believe it, when it really isn’t there. And honestly the result might be less accountable leadership because we’ve rejected “hierarchy” from an ideological standpoint. We hide the actual power dynamics behind the ideology instead of keeping things transparent and acknowledging power where it happens and holding it accountable.

    Also – how do you see Hauerwas’s high church anabaptism fitting into this? I’ve heard him say stuff like “somebody’s gotta make decisions” in regard to church leadership, etc. Curious if you agree with the “inevitability” of power in that sense, if there’s any nuance there, etc.

    • Dan Jr. says:

      Zach this is great. “What does it actually look like to have a mutually submitted leadership? How does it function? What are the attitudes and practices and postures that prove it? Where’s the beef, basically.”

      Our church just had an open discernment dialogue space around this tangibility and grittiness. It was affirming on ways we are practicing mutual submission as well as exposing on ways we don’t. Calling ourselves to our ideals happens the more we ask evaluative questions of each other. I’m convinced creating a permission culture is essential but difficult and nuanced.

    • David Fitch says:

      Hauerwas’ high church ecclesiology is more committed to the liturgical history there than to the church polity there. he often claims that the Catholics need to learn how to do community. When I’ve heard him say things like that Zach, he is isn’t overturning the mutuality in the process. He is pointing to the continual weakness in mutual leadership models where people think this means no leadership, no proposals, no pushing forward in mutual submission.

      • Awesome, that makes sense. Inhabiting the UMC has actually been shining some new light on mutual leadership for me. It’s more about structure than ideas/intentions, and they have things to learn for sure, but there’s a lot of consensus-driven mutuality. I think that balance of accepting power where it exists and holding it accountable, along with actually creating mutual structures, is key. Thanks man!

  5. katehanch13 says:



    Like Melanie, I’ve not experienced discussions of subordination or submission that have been mutual. There is hypocrisy in word and practice.

    How might other biblical passages (i.e., Phil. 2) play into this discussion? What about Jesus’ life witness in the gospels as example?

    I wonder if you’ve engaged womanist critiques in your depiction of subordination. Jacqueline Grant speaks of black women as being forced to be “servants of servants,” and thus, instead of using a “servant of Christ” she uses discipleship language. This connects to subordination/hierarchy.

    There’s an essay by a Mennonite feminist in the book New Feminist Christianity that retrieves the idea of humility in feminist discourse, which also may connect to your ideas of subordination and submission.

    Recasting subordination and submission may be helpful with your qualifiers, but I’m not totally convinced that it could benefit those who are most marginalized. Listening to those voices is helpful. Here, I’m thinking about Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, where he recalls his grandmother, a former slave, saying that if she ever gained the ability to read, she would refuse to read passages about slavery.

    • David Fitch says:

      So yes, I hope I acknowledged suffciently the abuse of these terms within the church. I’m aware of the womanist critiques. I feel like I’m aware of them because of the numerous ways male theologians in various traditions have been revealed in all the ways they have participated in patriarchal systems and perpetuated them. I feel like I’m working to discern, overturn and overcome these systems … My concern has been the way violence/anger/ setting up antagonisms, may have even obliterated the “enemy” in certain times of liberation .. but always ends up reconstituting the violence … I suggest there is another way … and these ideas point to the way the cross overcomes the violence …
      So ..there’s no proposal here to overturn the abuse .. except within this theology … when there is no submission… there is a loss of authority (the gift’s role inthe community) ..
      For all these reasosn .. I see promise in this way for true transformation.

  6. Peggy says:

    Important discussion, Dave. I stirred this pot some myself the other day tying the word subjugation with patriarchal. Words matter. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Be blessed….

  7. Jerry says:

    Would the word “yield” hold the same weight as “submission” without the historical baggage?

  8. I am gonna say this more as someone formed in Anabaptism than a historian who has worked through the source material.

    Honestly, submission and subordination have not been part of my theological vocabulary. Obedience certainly has, but that almost always come through the idea of Ordinances- that is obedience to the commands of Christ. But even in conversations about Matthew 18 and church discipline, the language has included submission at all- as in submitting to one another. So I am not even really convinced that the Anabaptist lexicon needs a corrective in that regard.

    • David Fitch says:

      Josh …
      As someone living in the world outside anabaptism, yet visiting those traditions from time to time, I agree with your assessment … nonetheless, I learned some (if not most) of these lessons from Yoder’s writings grounded in the teachings of Jesus/non violence/non hierarchy etc etc … and these themes run deeper in the Anabapatist traditions .. right?


      • Josh Brockway says:

        Indeed. And as we are seeing play out, submission in JHY’s thought is now under scrutiny in part because of questions about power. Even in nonviolence and flat hierarchies power imbalance is a problem without (as Dula just argued) spiritual self awareness.

      • Josh Brockway says:

        Indeed. And as we are seeing play out, submission in JHY’s thought is now under scrutiny in part because of questions about power. Even in nonviolence and flat hierarchies power imbalance is a problem without (as Dula just argued) spiritual self awareness.

  9. Daniel F. Wells says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post David.

    As a complementarian when it comes to gender roles in both the home and the church, much of what you say I would agree with!

    Perhaps my basic challenge is whether the word “hierarchy” is a dirty word. Perhaps its connotations means we should put it away, but it’s mere definition is not unbiblical. There are worldly forms of power/hierarchy as well as worldly forms of egalitarianism. Both need to be critiqued by the gospel of the kingdom.

    Even though our complementarian church holds to some traditional positions, I think our practice would be approvable to most anabaptists.

    Also, in terms of the husband/wife relationship in Eph 5. I’ve wondered whether the best application of the husband’s “headship” is that he take the primarily responsibility to disciple his home. Not that the wife has no role in discipling her husband, but the husband bears the primary weight of it. Thoughts?

    • Tim A says:

      Daniel – If believers understand what Jesus taught his disciples about leadership, and if you understand what Paul taught on the body structure of the church, and you seek to apply all the “one another” instructions, all of which are deeply mutual, there would not be one thought for any need or any interpretive twist to words like “oversight” or any thought to have one person dominate the expression of truth when the saints gather. But, since we all know what happens every week on Sunday, we just have to call on God a little more to wake up his people to His revelation. So much of what is done is really Roman Catholic in function rather than reformed.

  10. Tim A says:

    This is such a good post and with great responses pointing to the deep seated lip service to mutual submission. I would like to declare that there will never be mutual submission in any relationship where there is a hierarchy, a chain-of-command, a pyramid of power or whatever you may call it. When Jesus said “you are all brothers”, there is nothing in the rest of the NT that should be translated or interpreted to nuance that under the bus. But there is. “Obey those that have the rule over you…” “…elders who rule…” and many others. These are clearly bogus translations driven by the traditions of men that nullify the commands of Jesus, but all the scholars and Doctorates will never say a word against this. So every relationship in the household of faith that touches someone glued to non-mutuality will be corrupted. Most likely that relationship will not be reproductive but sterile or barren. Most likely there will be little or no mutuality of any kind. Most believers will accept and are content with kindness, caring and thoughtfulness in one direction from the leader to them as all that is necessary for their relationship with a leader. Most have no idea what mutuality with a leader means. Last month there was an article online with Leadership Journal called “The Friendless Pastor”. It gave 3 or more reasons why Pastors should not have mutual friendships in the fellowship they serve. Every book I have ever read on pastoral relationships agrees with this rule of non-mutuality for pastors. Am I being to harsh with this?

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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