On Submission

Submission can be a beautiful thing.


It can.

The most beautiful stories I know from scripture are about submission.  Christ taught that submission is the way to God.  Christ lived a life of submission:  submission to beatings, to exile, to hatred, to death.  I have always loved the story of how Christ washed the apostles feet and how Mary anointed and washed  Christ’s feet with priceless oils, using her own hair.  These moments are filled with a power that, for me, has come to define what godliness truly means.

There are moments I have had with my husband that have and will always define a level of love that has exceeded any love I thought was possible.  As cliche as it may sound, they are moments that are “too sacred to share with others”…not because I want them to be all “mysterious” but because I want them to just be ours.  They were moments when he metaphorically washed my feet and I washed his.

How else can I describe this?  It’s the feeling I had as a child, reading about Aslan’s willing sacrifice to the White Witch–knowing that he had power over his enemies, but submitted to it to save a single, little boy.

Like I said, submission can be a beautiful, powerful, holy thing.

However, I think we can too easily fall into the habit of characterizing “subjugation” as an example of this holy and ethical “submission.”  We can too easily confuse debasement with deification.  Good and evil does not fall on a linear scale–it’s measured in a circle…and often the most beautiful things can so easily become the most evil…the best separated by a thin line from the worst.  So I think it is with the concept of Submission.

Ethical Submission is never as simple as being “the one who is lower.”

An Ethical Submission absolutely requires all of the following components to become valid, holy, and powerful:

1) The permission of and absolute free choice for the one submitting.  If the submittor feels coerced in any way, then it is not ethical submission.

2) The knowledge that “to submit” is something one is doing consciously, as in, lowering oneself from one’s usual higher position.  The default (or, the ‘eternal nature’) of the submittor must be equality with those receiving service at the very least, superiority if we want to refer to a Christological submission.  Submission is the action of purposeful self-abasement from a universally understood and acknowledged place of authority and power.

3)  The knowledge that one may return to that higher position of authority and power whenever one may choose to do so.  Without this ability, there is no more agency in the choice and is therefore not Ethical Submission.

Without these three components, there can never be Ethical Submission.

If only one of these three components is missing in a situation where a child of God is placed hierarchically lower than another child of God, there can never be Ethical Submission.

If I am asked to do something that violates one of these three core components of Ethical Submission, I refuse to do so because it will, by necessity, strip me of the power and beauty that comes with a true act of Christian, Ethical Submission–an act that I believe is one of the most powerful things any human being can ever do for another.

But, and I cannot emphasize this point strongly enough, without this triumvirate of requirements there is no Ethical Submission– only unavoidable slavery.


  1. Amen. I wish I could state my agreement more completely. This gets at exactly why I find the current temple practices so deeply problematic–because they do not comply with all three of these requirements of ethical submission, certainly not for women. And, I would argue, not for men either.

  2. Did you create the concept of ethical submission for this post?

    If you did, then cool! But if you didn’t, where did it come from?

    Does this mean that you don’t believe in giving gifts?

  3. Brilliant.

    I agree with #1. To say that ZD offered brilliant post after brilliant post during these last few weeks would be a drastic understatement.

  4. Interesting thought provoking post. You allowed for a superiority default referring to a Christological submission what about the reciprocal?

  5. Wouldn’t the act of sacrificing one’s life for another violate point 3?

    Not if one believes in eternal life.

    Hagoth (#3), I’m not really sure how giving gifts relates to the notion of ethical submission. Most gift-giving has nothing to do with submission. And, I would argue, even when it does (say if we think of the Atonement as a “gift”), there’s no actual conflict between the idea of giving something to another and the points Apame makes here. Do clarify if you see such conflicts.

  6. Amelia, it seems that important to point 3 is that we have the ability to return to a position of power/authority whenever we choose. Even if one believes in eternal life, death is not something we can choose to return from according to our own timescale.

  7. My mind’s not been far from this post since I read it this morning.

    Most gift-giving has nothing to do with submission. And, I would argue, even when it does (say if we think of the Atonement as a “gift”), there’s no actual conflict between the idea of giving something to another and the points Apame makes here. Do clarify if you see such conflicts.

    I think we agree on this first bit. You see, I don’t think you can submit to anything or in any way without giving. Let me explain that.

    Christ gave his time to wash the feet of the apostles, he gave them his love, devotion and attention too. Mary gave the priceless oils when she washed His feet.

    Whether we give of ourselves or of our property we must give in order to submit.

    So why do I mention gift giving specifically?

    A gift is something given irrevocably and unconditionally to another. That’s why I ask about this type of giving. A gift given condtionally or which is subject to return on demand is no gift at all.

    This type of giving/submitting appears to be explicitly forbidden by point 3.

    3) The knowledge that one may return to that higher position of authority and power whenever one may choose to do so. Without this ability, there is no more agency in the choice and is therefore not Ethical Submission.

    To me this means that to be ethical the submitter must be able to undo the submission at any time, to return to their original position. Hence the giving is conditional and subject to review.

    Hence my question in #3.

    Is washing the feet of another only ethical if those whose feet are washed are willing to reimburse you for your time should you become unwilling to continue as someone who has washed their feet?

    Must Mary be able to request the cost of the oil that she expended in worship?

    Must the atonement be subject to withdrawl at any time should He no longer wish to provide it for us?

    I think giving something up unconditionally and permanently is a key part of some types of righteous and wholly appropriate submission. Perhaps I’d even go so far as to say that to submit while retaining the right to un-submit at will is not to submit at all.

    For example. What is the promise to marry someone for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer if you can withdraw your commitment, your submission of your personal individual life to become part of a couple at any time?

  8. Wow, fantastic post. You’ve articulated the love that I have for the concept of submission/sacrifice so beautifully, including how it can be so easily abused. I love this:

    Good and evil does not fall on a linear scale–it’s measured in a circle…and often the most beautiful things can so easily become the most evil…the best separated by a thin line from the worst.

    I like hagoth’s points about requirement #3. Perhaps it’s not so much a concept that you can “take it back” at any time, so much as a concept that submission in one thing, does not mean a permanent change in status or heirarchy. Christ’s submission in the Atonement did not change his over all status of the Savior of the world and the Son of God. He still retained his self, even in the act of submission.

  9. So, like in hagoth’s marriage example. Once can submit in marriage, or give one’s self to a spouse, and that can be a beautiful, sacred act. But, doing so does not change the dynamic of the relationship such that that spouse will always continue in submission. Both spouses still retain their own identities and selves.

  10. Hagoth and Gomez: I hope the following clarification addresses your points about gift-giving and death being examples of things that one cannot take back.

    I absolutely agree that when, in the act of submission, gifts of one kind of another are often (usually) given–and it wouldn’t truly be a gift if we always kept it in our heads that we could TAKE IT BACK at any time. I agree that there’s something good and beautiful in completely giving up things/time/life with no expectation for reciprocation. I think this also applies to Gomez’ “gift of sacrifice/death.”

    The concept I mostly wanted to make in #3 was that there is something bigger than things that we can give–something that the sumbittor must always have as inherent and inseperable from their soul–the position of respect and authority necessary to be a submittor that is eternal (#2).

    My point was that, if #2 is true, then to take that default place of power away from a submittor would negate the submission. Therefore, the possibility to return (not to life, not to have the gift back) but to return to that more abstract sense of having one’s soul be at an equal level of power and authority as everyone else…. the possibility to return to that position above where they placed themselves, is necessary.

    If a submittor chooses not to return to that level, then that is still ethical. But that return still has to be a possibility. Else, like I said, we get into slavery territory. A person may give themselves up willingly to serve a plantation owner (for whatever reason), but once the possibility for that person to end their submission is taken away, that person is a slave.

    Also, re: 3, these are my own theological musings. Therefore, the reference to them is my mind. And perhaps any future article I write. 😉

  11. Also, I think Enna and Amelia summarize what I just babbled about much better. Thank you!

    And thank you Ben, Mel, and SilverRain for your comments as well!

  12. Hagoth (#9), I think it’s helpful to consider your question in light of Jesus’s submission. He submitted himself to God’s will. He condescended to assume a human, mortal status in order to fulfill that will. But he has resumed his place as divine and immortal.

    Has he taken back the gifts he gave as a result of resuming his divine and immortal status? I don’t think so. In fact, those gifts continue to sustain millions of people. Or billions. Or everyone, if you really believe the Christian account of how things will go through the eternities.

    I think the basic problem is that your talking about gifts which are concrete objects or experiences and which must be taken back when someone exercises their right to resume their initial status as required by Apame’s #3. But I think the reality is that there’s a *huge* difference between someone resuming their true status and someone taking back gifts that have been given.

  13. The permanence or irretrievable nature of Christ’s gifts is the core of what I was trying to illustrate.

    His submission to death is permanent. Our (I think appropriate) submission to many things is permanent. We are not lessened when we submit to God’s will for the same reasons that Jesus was not lessened by submitting to it.

    Indeed, we are increased when we submit totally to God’s will.

    But that’s a very different point than the one I made way back in #9. I couldn’t think of many forms of submission that would meet the three requirements properly. That’s what drove my question.

  14. Interesting concepts to both Hagoth and Howard.

    I wrote this post only thinking about the ethics of submission primarily between children of God.

    I wasn’t considering the ethics of submission from a child of God to Deity itself. I think that must be a different conversation–an important one. One that I’ll think about a lot since it, by definition, requires an inherent hierarchy. Brings up questions like, “If a mortal is already lower than God, why should there be further submission?” It’s philosophically interesting–thank you.

    For this post, however, I’d like to only focus on submission between mortals. If we want to attach it to the primary reason I theorized my three components of Ethical Submission in the first place, it was a thought experiment on the concept of submission between men and women. Especially in the temple ceremony.

    Thanks for bringing up the point, though!

  15. His submission to death is permanent. Our (I think appropriate) submission to many things is permanent. We are not lessened when we submit to God’s will for the same reasons that Jesus was not lessened by submitting to it.

    That’s simply incorrect. Jesus’s submission to death was temporary. He was dead for only 36 hours or so, after which space of time he resumed his status as very much alive–immortally so. The gift he gave by virtue of his submission, on the other hand, *is* permanent. Regardless of the fact that Jesus didn’t stay dead, we all still benefit from his temporary submission. It is a mistake to conflate the act of submission (Jesus being dead) with the gift given (the ability to overcome physical death).

    I agree that we are not lessened by submitting appropriately to God’s will, but that is only true *because* doing so allows for us to regain our true place as co-equal with God & Jesus.

  16. Amelia: Great response. Thank you. I think it could also be seen as a direct answer to my brief musings right above. Especially your point about how Christ’s submission and our own actions relative to it will bring us all “back” to our equal standing with Jesus and our Heavenly Parents. That feels right to me… Feels better than a forever-superior God demanding that we already-and-eternally-lower mortals further submit ourselves to him.

  17. God will eventually or may have already obtained total knowledge allowing each of us to eventually catch up but that will take a long time and until then we clearly remain beneath him in knowledge.

  18. Apame—If what you say is true about submission, and I believe it is, than it is also true about Eternal Submission. D&C 121:46 talks about how God’s power flows to Him without compulsion.

    To your question in #18, maybe we’re not really less than God, not when it comes to our agency. We are obviously less in power and understanding, but not in our personhood, not in our wills. And that is what we’re submitting, not our power.

  19. Brings up questions like, “If a mortal is already lower than God, why should there be further submission?”

    Not to thread jack, and I think Amelia and SilverRain touched on this, but I think it’s actually the same question. The reason why submission to God is beautiful and sacred is because we are equals. They know more than us know, but we are of the same value, the same worth, the same potential.

    And I think that’s why the submission between spouses is also a sacred thing, when there is equality. Submission demanded (by man or woman) is a violation of our eternal natures, and ruins the act of submission. I think that’s why for so many of us, the coercive feeling we get in those covenants is so jarring. It’s submission demanded instead of submission freely given.

  20. In the years I spent out of the church, it was this conception of God that allowed me to keep a toe in it: that we began as His equals and His entire purpose, at least so far as we are concerned, is to bring us into equality with Him again. I think that this is the central Mormon insight into God. Ultimately, those aspects of our religion that don’t wash with this insight must sluff off away.

  21. Thank you SilverRain, Thomas Parkin, and Enna–I think I’m on board with all of you on the “Is God our submission-equal?” thing (if that makes sense). By previous question was just thrown into the void–to try it on, so to speak. But I think your answers to it are where I actually stand personally.

    Thanks again!

  22. Regarding 18 what are your thoughts on Ephesians 5:21-22? Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. Wives submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.

  23. My husband said something in jest to me about Ephesians 5 once. I told him he could have an Ephesians 5 wife just as soon as I get an Ephesians 6 slave.

    He replied, “Honey, I am the Ephesians 6 slave.”

    Well . . . there ya go. Mutual submission.

  24. Thanks so much for this post, Apame–this is good stuff. I’ve wrestled with this a lot, this question of what it means to be submissive, and why something seems very wrong when it’s used in the context of exhorting women to accept subordination in the name of being more Christlike. And this is really helpful.

    One of the issues I keep coming back to is that of self-assertion and self-negation, and the injunction to lose yourself to find yourself. There’s this whole feminist discussion about it–the classic theological view for a long time was that pride, self-assertion, was the basic sin. Early second-wave feminist theologians really took this on, and argued that for many women, the root problem wasn’t pride, but self-negation–and injunctions to be humble were exacerbating the situation. There was a gender essentialism component to this discussion that I don’t know that I would accept. But I have thought a lot about this idea that self-negation–or, I might say, a refusal to claim your own agency–is a sin. And I think that ties to your point about agency being a necessary component of ethical submission. You can’t exactly lose yourself if you don’t have a self to lose. But this is a hard one for me, because it’s so entangled with our discourse about service and selfishness and sacrifice. Maybe what I need to figure out is a model of ethical service.

  25. Wow. Totally interesting. The word “submission” invokes in a certain respect that men and women are truly equal, one individual just happens to be freely choosing to lower themselves. To submit.

  26. goga (#31) I sort of agree with you. I mean, I agree that in Apame’s conception of ethical submission the true equality of male and female is required. If it weren’t, the submission would no longer be ethical.

    That said, if women as a class are expected to choose to submit themselves to their husbands or to men more generally, then I think we get into gray areas. Technically there would still be equality, if the women really can freely choose to either submit or not to. But when there are strong social and cultural and religious expectations that they will so choose, I begin to doubt that it’s actually a matter of choice in a meaningful sense.

    At the end of the day this is one of the reasons why I think we won’t have real equality between men and women in the church until we have female ordination and until that equality is inscribed throughout our liturgy. After all, one could argue that every woman who goes to the temple in order to marry is freely choosing to marry her husband and therefore choosing to submit to him, and therefore the temple sealing and endowment preserve the equality necessary for ethical submission. There is the problem that most women don’t actually know the language of the endowment before they go. But even beyond that, the social and cultural and emotional pressures are so enormous for women to just accept what happens there in order for them to be able to marry the man that they choose and to retain their standing in their families and communities, that I can’t really see the current set up as preserving any kind of real choice.

    I for one see this as deeply problematic since the church’s entire understanding of the gospel is premised on agency. I see violations of agency in many of the church’s current policies and practices, but especially in how it leads people to participate in necessary ordinances (baptism, endowment, sealing).

  27. I would note that Pistas3 from the group that founded FAIR has done a fair amount of graduate level work on the more accurate witnesses of Paul, which are much more feminist than the latter glosses and emendations.

    I need to get another guest post from her at my blog (I’ve only had 3-4 guest posts, hers was one of them. Hmm, might go better at Wheat & Tares).

  28. One cannot touch on the hierarchy of love, (the submission of Jesus to the Father and us to Jesus) lightly. Lack of investigation fails to consider the implicit consequence of not submitting. Submission may be voluntary, but lack of submission forfeits personal progression. Ordinances of service, self sacrifice and saving ritual provide concrete vision, helping us beyond spiritual abstraction to degrees of divine development. This is not only for he who receives an ordianance, but he who performs it, if done in spirit, rather than simple law. Such ordinances may committ us to submit to God’s law, but are not shackles. They are stepping stones to Godly love which passes through us and to others. If one views them otherwise, under a filtered guise of enlightenment, it can only create division of soul, and self fulfilling agnosticism. Remember hope, faith, submission, charity, love. The sequence if chosen, is both unescapable and desirable. If not, it is likely, unreachable.


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