There's a word we instinctively don't like. Outside the Church, it has connotations of weakness and counter-cultural weirdness; within the Church it carries dangerous associations of oppression and power abuse.
Yet despite all that, it's also one of the most beautiful and transformative words and concepts you'll find in the Bible – or anywhere. It's a word which, while reviled, could hold the key to unlocking some of the most unpleasant aspects of our culture, again both in and outside the church. It's a word and an idea with the power to reconcile conflict, dissolve our worst character flaws and bring lasting contentment.
The word is submission.
Let's deal with the serious and negative connotations first. There's no doubt that the Biblical references to "submitting" have often been subverted and misused. Whatever position you hold on male headship, "submission" has been used as an excuse for a lot of mistreatment of women, from psychological abuse to domestic violence, and that's a terrible indictment on the supposed Christ-followers who've inflicted or enabled it.
Men have seen verses like Ephesians 5:22 as a licence to demand and even inflict submission and subservience; women have accepted terrible treatment because they thought they were following God in doing so. In those contexts, submission has been flipped on its head, and really become about oppression. It's plain wrong; it has to stop, and the Church must teach against it.
When Jesus describes the concept of submission, however, we couldn't find ourselves in more distant territory. In Mark 9, Jesus is teaching his disciples. They've just been witness to the Transfiguration and a dramatic healing; you can't imagine two events which would transform and energise a group of followers more. Yet they're squabbling on the road about which of them is the best (after him); jockeying for position in the New World Order that they know Jesus is establishing. Its actually a pretty direct metaphor for the modern Church.
Righteously frustrated, Jesus calls them together and gives them the key to his Kingdom – but it's not entirely palatable. "Anyone who would be first must be the very last," he says, "and the servant of all" (35).
We live in a culture where this sounds like total nonsense. The messages we grow up with from a young age tell us that we're the centre of the universe and we can have it all. As good citizens, we're supposed to be considerate and tolerant of one another, but putting other people first isn't really a functioning part of the paradigm. Ours is a world where ambition and greed are rewarded; where we (consciously or subconsciously) accept that if there are going to be winners (us) then there are necessarily going to be losers too.
That's not what Jesus is proposing at all. He's calling his followers to a vision of a world where success is found in the service of others; where contentment is found in not having to be the centre of the universe. He's suggesting that we win when we put others first.
I think Jesus says three really interesting things in a short space of time here. First, he's saying that "the first must be last"; that this idea of submitting to one another is key to being 'the greatest' sort of person in the Kingdom. That means that instead of chasing after our own ambitions and agendas, we're always on the look out for how we can prefer one another. A simple example: if there's one slice of pizza left, I give it to my brother.
Second, he says that each of his followers should become "the servant". That means that it's not enough to simply prefer other people's agendas – to step aside so that they reach the finish line before us – but that we're called to serve them too; to actively go out of our way to make their lives better through acts of kindness, justice and love. The simple example taken a little further: there's one slice of pizza left; I give it to my brother, then wash up his plate afterwards.
It's Jesus' third point, though, which really bites. He uses two really important words which move submission from being a nice thing we do for people we already like, to something much larger and more transformative. The words are "very" and "all". Jesus doesn't want us to put ourselves metaphorically last, but actually last. We're not just meant to submit to the people we already have to, or who instinctively we probably want to. We practise submission to everyone; we become the servant to all. That simple example stretched to breaking point: there's one slice of pizza left; I leave my house and find someone who really needs it; and then I leave them my coat too.
Imagine a world like that. Where instead of being out for ourselves, we really were out for each other. And the question is: is that a ludicrously idealistic and totally unachievable utopia? Or is it just the Kingdom Come?
You might imagine that the Church; the body which descends from those 12 original followers, might already look like this. And of course, in some ways it does: the Church is one of the biggest providers of kindness, justice and love in our society; our work in areas as diverse as elderly care and human trafficking is widespread and well-documented. We are good at putting the last first. I'd argue however, that we're not so hot at putting ourselves last.
When I think of the Christian subculture, particularly the world of Christian leadership and church politics, I can't help but think that a healthy dose of submission is exactly what we all need. Instead of building our own platforms, we could be building up one another's. Instead of starting new initiatives, we could get behind those which already exist. Instead of thrusting ourselves forward for the good jobs, we could be working to empower other people to get them instead.
I genuinely believe that a Church which really grabbed hold of Christ's concept of submission would be an instantly-galvanised force; freed from the ugly pursuit of brand-building and quiet ambition.
It might all sound terribly high-minded and unworkable, but here's the secret genius of Jesus' idea. When everyone starts to truly practise submission, the whole equation flips on its head once again. You put yourself last, but you're the only one; you're part of a community where every other person is putting you first. You win by losing. Isn't that an idea worth submitting your life to?