Review of “As Christ Submits to the Church” by Alan Padgett

Alan G. Padgett, As Christ Submits to the Church: A Biblical Understanding of Leadership and Mutual Submission (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), xviii + 151.

A reader’s first question in response to Alan Padgett’s title might run something along the lines of, “Shouldn’t that be the other way around?” Certainly the phrase “as Christ submits to the church” has a biblical cadence to it, imbuing it with authority, and yet it jars against other phrases and concepts that echo about in the Scripture-steeped mind. A reader’s next question, then, might be so bold and accusatory as, “Did he take the phrasing of some particular New Testament verse and flip it around? Is the rephrasing some clever, attention-snaring ploy to advance his (possibly nefarious, certainly liberal) purposes? Or worse” —for our uncertainty gives way inevitably to self-doubt— “is it possible that he is actually quoting the New Testament? Have I missed something? Does Christ submit to the church?”

And now we are asking the question our author would like us to ask and entering the conversation in the way of humility and mutual respect that Padgett, professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary, has a laudable and long-established habit of encouraging in his writings (as in his previous book, Science and the Study of God: A Mutuality Model for Theology and Science). The parties with whom Padgett would most like to be in this conversation are those who identify themselves as evangelicals and complementarians. Padgett admires these Christians for being “an engaged people, deeply committed to discerning and living what is true” (11).

Yet these are also Christians whose discernment and living tend toward revisionist notions of submission, our present interest and subject matter. Padgett sees complementarians committing themselves to a rigid hierarchy of roles in all things, an effectively unyielding pattern of submission. This rigidity has recently come to characterize even the evangelical expression of relationship within the Trinity (12–13), which Padgett rightly points to as a surprising resurgence of an early heresy, as well as the famous or infamous concept of the complementarity of the sexes from which the belief system draws its name. Padgett takes the view seriously because its adherents try to take Scripture seriously; but his employment of the church’s practice of reading Scripture in canonical, spiritual, Christ-centered senses (17–30), leads him to conclude that the “man-centered leadership” that complementarity holds to be essential, in the end, “does not come from Scripture itself” (2).

Padgett’s first chapter begins with a brief and instructive survey of where indeed complementarian theology does come from. He traces the current interaction of evangelical theologians (as typified by the 1991 volume, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, and 2004’s Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy) and argues that role hierarchy is “as much a revision of the mainstream tradition of the church as either biblical equality or Christian feminism” (5). He likewise nods toward the writings of Argula von Grumbach, Margaret Fell Fox, and Phoebe Palmer, as well as the nineteenth-century movements for women’s equality, as part of the long Christian heritage influencing contemporary Christian feminism (5). None of these movements or people or themes emerges out of thin air; but neither does any one of them distill Christian tradition with a pure and perfect accuracy that the others manifestly lack. All represent revisions; all represent the results of efforts at faithful interpretation. Padgett’s present offering reflects his own commitment to hearing those results as part of a conversation he aims to continue.

Padgett’s own voice in the conversation is his searching treatment of the ethics of submission and the model Christ provides. His central text for that exploration is Ephesians 5:21, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In his second chapter, Padgett sounds the depths and explores the range of meaning for the Greek word here rendered “Be subject” and elsewhere rendered “submit” or “submission.” From those meanings he derives two broad categories, which he calls for sake of convenience type I and type II submission. Type I submission is an involuntary obedience to an external authority, seen particularly in military and political contexts as the behavior required of a conquered population. Type II submission, by contrast, is a voluntary submission, not to an authority but to another in humility and love.

It is precisely this type II submission, Padgett argues, that Jesus models in the New Testament by washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:1–11), by telling them he has come not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45), and by his humiliation and crucifixion for the sake of the church. Such is the model for servant leadership, for those who are leaders within the church, and for believers in general—so Padgett takes to task those who would tie the submission that takes place in servant leadership to a fixed hierarchy of authority (55). Does Christ submit to the church? Padgett argues that Christ does indeed, but only if submission is understood according to type II. Christ’s acts in ministry, humiliation, obedience, passion, and dying on the cross all bespeak submission, and yet the tendency of certain interpretive communities to restrict “submission” to actions performed according to a rigid role-hierarchy (type I) is precisely what makes Padgett’s question difficult to answer and his title difficult to accept.

But does this sense of type II submission also characterize gender roles as they are described in the New Testament? Chapters 3, 4, and 5 take up just this question, and rather than focusing on classic egalitarian texts (such as Galatians 3:28), Padgett turns his attention to texts with a long history of being adduced to argue women’s fixed inferiority. Ephesians 5:21–33 includes the injunction, “Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands” (v. 24), but if Christ likewise submits to the church, then might not mutual submission “be found by those with eyes to see in Ephesians 5 as well” (65)? Padgett’s text reviews I Corinthians 6, 7, 11, and 14; I Peter 3; Titus 2; and I Timothy 2. His argument does not dismiss or explain away references to silence and head coverings, but explores them in the light of careful scholarship and Christ-centered Scripture reading and finds that the language of submission there employed is inevitably jarring and inconsistent if one’s only notion of submission is type I. In the end, Padgett argues, it is inadequate to read the submission passages in the New Testament as limited to being “about those who are weak always giving in to those in power” (125).

Nor does humility in theological discourse mean giving up one’s stake in the truth of the gospel so much as it means acknowledging that others are in pursuit of this truth as well and that all may have something to learn from one another. It is mutual submission that Padgett champions, in his book’s subject matter and in the manner of its undertaking. His text is instructive on both counts.

Katie M. Benjamin is a Th.D. student and research assistant at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.


Posted by Tim Seitz-Brown at May 11, 2012 17:28 Thanks for the review and the helpful distinction between the two types of submission!

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