It would be difficult to find Christians who categorically reject obedience and submission as biblical values. Both are clearly important biblical values. But both are complicated. Obedience to whom? Submission to whom? Under what circumstances? And what if obedience to one person means disobedience to another? What if submission to one means rejecting the authority of another? When and under what circumstances is authority legitimate? So, it’s a big topic. Much too big for a complete exploration here.
For our purposes it is important to emphasize that people who abuse others will almost always believe that they have the authority to do so. Or, they will defend their behavior by appealing to some authority. Sometimes the appeal to authority is obvious: “I didn’t abuse my wife. I was excercising the legitimate authority a husband has to rule the household”. At other times, probably most times, the reliance on authority is obscured by other defensive mechanisms.
During recovery from abuse it is sometimes necessary to sort out very confusing questions about authority. Did this person have the authority to do this to me? Doesn’t it follow that the person who granted him/her the authority is just as responsible for the abuse as the person who actually hurt me? And what if it was God who granted the authority? What then?
In a Christian perspective I think it is clear that all authority is limited. Ray Anderson, commenting on Stanley Hauerwas, makes the point well:
Where in our society then should we look for the kind of advocacy which will make an intervention into the “socially demonic” which causes oppression and abuse? Can we expect that the institutions of marriage and family will provide such a sanctuary for healing when it is these very social structures which are often the cause of so much violence and neglect of basic human rights and dignity? Unfortunately we cannot. Stanley Hauerwas reminds us that “Unless marriage has a purpose beyond being together it will certainly be a hell.” Many who have suffered spouse abuse will testify to that: As for the family, Hauerwas comments, “Ironically, . . .the family is threatened today partly because it has no institutions that have the moral status to stand over against it to call into question its demonic tendencies. The first function of the church in relation to the family must, therefore, be to stand as an institution that claims loyalty and significance beyond that of the family.”1
People who abuse others almost always make some kind of claim to authority (and a claim that the abused ought to obey/submit). We can readily admit that there are times when it is appropriate to submit to power. But there are also times that require us to speak truth to power, to resist power, and to advocate on behalf of those being hurt by power. Here is how Ray Anderson puts it:
“The concept of advocacy for the defenseless and powerless has roots which go further back than modern civil law. The Judeo-Christian tradition has as its central core the concept of advocacy for the orphans, the “stranger within the gates,” and the poor and oppressed in the land. The biblical account of the first act of violence as a result of the fall contains a reference to advocacy for the “blood of Abel” which Cain spilled on the ground. It is this “blood of the innocent” that first draws God into the scene. . . . This is the background for the role of Jesus as advocate for those who were victims of social stigma, devastating disease, humiliating moral failure, and oppression, both demonic and economic. . . .It is this Jesus of whom the apostle John wrote when he remembered his words concerning the sending of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was the first advocate, and the Spirit will come to be another advocate. . .The Greek word translated as advocate is paraclete. It literally means “called to the side,” and denotes a role of comforting, exhorting and encouraging.” 2
There is some excellent material on the issue of obedience/submisstion (mostly within marital relations) at:
No Place for Abuse: Biblical and Practical Resources to Counteract Domestic Violence. Catherine Clark Kroeger and Nancy Nason-Clark (InterVarsity Press, 2001) ISBN-10: 083082295X
Women, Abuse, and the Bible: How Scripture Can Be Used to Hurt or Heal. Catherine Clark Kroeger & James R. Beck, eds. (Baker Pub Group, 1996) ISBN-10: 0801057078
Trinity and Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate. Kevin Giles (InterVarsity Press, 2002) ISBN-10: 0830826637
Ten Lies the Church Tells Women: How the Bible Has Been Misused to Keep Women in Spiritual Bondage. J. Lee Grady (Charisma House, 2000) ISBN-10: 0884197379