Putting Authority and Submission In Their Place

I have a hate/love relationship with my glasses. I hate the clichéd old-lady moves I exhibit as I wander around my house looking for them at regular intervals. I love how they help me read. For months, I ignored my growing eyestrain and inability to read or work on my computer for longer than thirty minutes at a time. I told myself that my 40-something year old eyes worked just fine. I eventually repented of my stubbornness and vanity, and the day I put on my new glasses and picked up a newspaper I realized just how much I’d been missing. My glasses now rank higher than my cellphone on the list of objects I won’t go anywhere without. It’s not that I can’t read at all if I don’t wear them – it’s that I read everything so much more clearly when I do.

On Monday, Courtney Reissig (whom I’ve had the delight to meet and enjoy breakfast with one humid July morning at an Arkansas hotel ) raised an important question about whether Christians have become a little too preoccupied with the topic of submission. Her answer is a qualified “yes”: we have fallen prey to reductionism, thinking about submission only in the ways it applies to wives in marriage, rather than the way Scripture teaches that it applies to everyone. We’ve been all about the leaves on one type of tree, and lost sight of the forest in the process. I agree with Courtney’s premise. We should take care to keep the field of view on authority and submission wide enough to encompass all that God says about it in terms of who He is, and how we are to relate to Him as His creatures. But my question is whether just shifting our focus to this aspect of God’s character is sufficient to correct our spiritual vision.

1 Samuel 25 is a good case study in how reading a Scriptural passage through the perspective of authority and submission causes us to miss as much as it helps us see. The story reads a lot like a Lifetime Made for TV movie. A beautiful, discerning woman named Abigail is married to a wealthy but harsh and badly behaved livestock owner named Nabal. Nabal’s shepherds are blessed with the care and protection of the presumptive king David’s men as they prepare their sheep for shearing. When David sends word to Nabal asking for some reciprocal hospitality on a feast day, Nabal lives up to his name and denies him in no uncertain terms. When David gets word of Nabal’s insult, he gathers his men to go after Nabal, and slaughter him and all his men for returning evil for good.

One of Nabal’s men relays the news to Abigail, who responds by rushing to gather up provisions and intervene for her husband and his men. With eloquence and passion, Abigail apologizes for her husband’s sins and appeals to David as the anointed, soon-to- be ruler of Israel, not to pursue vengeance by his own hand. David forbears, blessing Abigail for her wisdom. When Abigail returns home and tells her husband what (almost) happened), Nabal has a heart attack, falls into a coma, and dies. After David gets word that God has dealt with Nabal, he sends for Abigail, now a rich and beautiful widow, and marries her.

Downton Abbey had less drama.

Two popular devotional books use aspects of the authority/submission paradigm to examine the significance of 1 Samuel 25, and glean practical applications from it. In “True Woman 201: Interior Design – Ten Elements of Biblical Womanhood”, Abigail’s speech and interaction with presumptive King David are held up as an exemplification of the virtue of feminine submission. It notes the numerous times Abigail refers to David as “lord”, and herself as his “servant”, and infers that Abigail’s soft, submissive spirit was what compelled David’s response. (No mention is made of Abigail’s decidedly blunt speech about her husband, or of the way David replies to Abigail with mutually submissive words.) In “For the Love of God”, Don Carson sees 1 Samuel 25 as an object lesson for Christian leaders. Abigail’s deferential speech is that of an Israelite who is expressing fealty to her king and their God. Her words restrain David from abusing his authority and acting out of vengeful anger in the same way to which King Saul had abandoned himself.

While these narrowly contextualized perspectives on authority and submission may offer some measure of insight, when we move our gaze up to the larger one of God as supreme authority, as Courtney suggests, more notable applications certainly come into view. The speech of all three leading characters reveal their distinct perspectives on God’s authority, perspectives that are paralleled in each one’s actions and demeanor. The absence of any Godward language in Nabal’s speech reveals that Nabal’s ultimate authority isn’t God; it’s Nabal. Seven times in two verses, Nabal uses “I” or “my” to frame his outlook. Abigail’s speech is entirely the opposite. Abigail repeatedly (also seven times, in fact) invokes the name of YHWH, the personal name of God, given to and used by His covenant people. She frames her appeals to David in terms of God’s rule over David’s future as coming king. David’s speech, on the other hand, is not as singly focused. At first, David invokes God’s generic name (Elohim), as he contemplates the vengeful havoc he is about to wreak on the one who has crossed him. But after hearing Abigail’s appeal, David invokes God’s personal name as well. Abigail’s appeal has reoriented his perspective, reminding him of the One to whom he is ultimately submitted, and why he must not be guilty of working salvation with his own hand.

Nabal, Abigail and David collectively serve to compare and contrast the fate of those who actively or passively rebel against God’s sovereign authority, with that of those who submit to it. Nabal declares himself to be his own authority, and God disabuses him (and us) of the notion by taking his life. Abigail’s submission to her covenant God is so total that she works to place both David AND herself into God’s care, rather than see either of them work out their salvation on their own terms. David’s fleshly anger at Nabal’s insubordination causes him momentarily forget that he is still subordinate to God. With God-honoring words and actions, Abigail acts as the necessary ally David needs to correct his presumption (compared with his soldiers, who to a man follow his orders without question).

As helpful and important as these applications are, if they are all that we take away from this passage, we risk missing the most important point of all – the one that places these other ones into the context where they can be received as blessings to pursue, rather than as burdens that crush us. As encouraging as David’s change of heart is, we can’t forget that later in his life he will commit abuses of authority that are just as bad, and worse. Some of us have done the same. Whether as parents, police officers, or pastors, we have set our authority above the One who has granted it, and crushed the souls we were meant to care for. Others of us have been the recipients of such abuse, but our appeals have fallen on deaf ears, and no David has come to our rescue. And all of us have been Nabal – putting ourselves at the center of the world we act like we made for our benefit, ignoring the One who did, and denying Him the honor He’s due. What are we to do with the weight of this sin, and the harm it has done to our relationships, with one another, and especially with God?

Thankfully, the same passage that raises those questions answers them in a beautiful way. In John 6 and Luke 24, Jesus reminds his followers that the writings of the Old Testament prophets speak of him, and 1 Samuel 25 we see just how beautifully they do. In Abigail’s covering of Nabal’s selfishness with her generosity, and in her words that speak God’s covenant name seven times over the seven times Nabal speaks his own, we see shadows of the perfection of Jesus’ righteousness covering our sin. In Abigail’s taking Nabal’s guilt on herself, we see Jesus taking ours on Him on the cross. With her words and sacrificial deeds, Abigail becomes the propitiation for Nabal’s sin, the way that Jesus is the propitiation of ours.

If we read 1 Samuel 25 (or 1 Peter 3 or Romans 13) narrowly, we risk being weighed down (or weighing down others) with burdens of law that are impossible to carry. But when we read these texts with the corrective lenses of the gospel, our spiritual vision is clarified, and the truths they reveal about all of God’s character and how God has made a way for us to reflect, come beautifully into view.


3 thoughts on “Putting Authority and Submission In Their Place

  1. Yes, the True Woman piece missed the point. I have read material which also made an idol of authority and submission but did so by trying to say that Abigail acted outside of her authority and regretted it in after years (supposedly because she changed her son Chileab’s name to Daniel, meaning “God is my Judge”). I find it darkly humorous that an out of balance focus on authority and submission leads to two directly opposing misinterpretations of a story which is easily understood on a simple reading.


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