“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
Ask the average Christian what he thinks of when he hears the word “submission” and generally the response will have something to do with marriage-particularly the attitude and actions that a wife should have toward her husband. One reason for this, of course, is that the Bible does refer to wifely submission. On three occasions, Paul exhorts wives to “submit to your husbands” (Ephesians 5:22; Colossians.3:18; Titus 2:5). Peter does the same in his first epistle (1 Peter 3:1).
Another reason the average Christian thinks in terms of the marriage relationship when he hears the word “submission” is that we have overlooked its larger use in the New Testament. It is not a word used exclusively to describe a wife’s behavior toward her husband.
Submission-What Does It Mean?“Submission” is in essence a synonym for “obedience.” In its most general use, it means to yield to another’s admonition and advice. In Scripture it appears in contexts describing servanthood, humility, respect, reverence, honor, teachableness, and openness. All these for one basic purpose-obedience to Jesus Christ.
His word is also used in relationships of one Christian with another. We are to “submit to one another.” The concept of “submission” is used by biblical writers to describe a variety of Christian relationships. Paul exhorted all Christians (both men and women) to “submit to one another” (Ephesians 5:21). This is amplified further when Peter exhorted young men to “be submissive to those who are older” (1 Peter 5:5). All members of Christ’s body are exhorted to “obey your leaders and submit to their authority” (Hebrews 13:17). Servants are instructed to submit to their masters (Titus 2:9; Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22; 1 Peter 2:18). This submissiveness applies when serving under either Christian or non-Christian masters. Children, of course, are admonished to obey and submit to their parents (Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:20). And what may surprise those who know little about the Bible is that Christians are also instructed to submit to other authority figures in their lives who are not Christians-particularly those who are leaders in government (Romans 13:1; 1 Peter 2:13).
We must hasten to add that Christians who are in positions of authority must also function with a submissive attitude. Husbands are directed to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church” (Ephesians 5:25). Fathers are to deal sensitively with their children, understanding and meeting their needs (Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:21). Elders are commissioned to be “servants.” And they are to “be eager to serve” (1 Peter 5:2). They are not to lord it over other Christians, using their positions as a means of unjust gain-either financially, psychologically, or socially (1 Peter 5:1-4). Christian masters are to treat their servants fairly and sensitively just as Christ treated us when He gave Himself for us (Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1). In other words, Paul and Peter are simply reiterating what Jesus Christ taught and demonstrated with His own life.
When Jesus Christ was on earth, He said to His disciples one day when they were arguing among themselves regarding who was to be the greatest in His kingdom: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).
Mutual submission, even by those who are in authority, is a distinctive concept made possible by Jesus Christ. Christianity, then, is unique. When Christ came into this world, He brought into being a whole new approach to functional relationships between people. In the “Gentile world,” as Jesus called it, there is no such thing as mutual submission. Man basically operates out of selfish motives. He has little or no interest in helping others reach their goals-except when it might benefit himself. He may listen to someone else’s advice, but usually not out of respect and honor. Rather, he has discovered that this is the way to develop his own potential and to achieve personal success. Obedience and submission become a means to a selfish end.
In Christ all believers have the potential to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Even those who have positions of authority-elders, husbands, masters [and in our day employers]-are to relate to others with an attitude of submission.
This is what Christ demonstrated for us, when He, the Lord of the universe, became a servant to all men. He, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing” (Philippians 2:6-7). Paul made it clear that all Christians-even those in authority-are to follow Christ’s example. We are to love as Christ loved. We are to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than ourselves.” We are to “look not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). We are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”-the One who set the perfect example. Our attitude “should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
Unfortunately, not all Christians in positions of authority have the mind of Christ. Some men use the concepts of submission and headship to lord it over their wives and others, to force them into subservient roles. In reality, they have used the Bible as a means to get their own way. This is not “loving as Christ loved.” It’s selfishness. Such men have yet to learn that you cannot demand respect. For it to be real and meaningful, it must be earned.
Some pastors and other Christian leaders behave toward other members of the body of Christ in the way some men behave toward their wives. They’ve allowed their position of authority, their educational advantage, and their biblical role to become a means for “putting down” other people and for keeping them in a position of servitude. This is in direct violation of Scripture. To be an “elder worthy of double honor” (1 Timothy 5:17) should mean that we who are in the ministry are greater servants. This indeed is what Christ exemplified in His ministry on earth.
Mutual Submission-Some Biblical Guidelines
Paul made it very clear that submission to other Christians should not be based on subjective impulses and reactions. Rather, the guidelines for mutual submission are rooted in the authority of Jesus Christ and His Word. Thus in a parallel passage Paul exhorted the Colossians: “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and counsel one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:16-17).
No Christian has the right to request something of another Christian that is not based in the Word of God. To do so is to be guilty of judging. And this we must not do (Romans 14:13). Christians who exhort others in an erroneous manner are themselves out of the will of God. This is why Paul, before issuing a directive to “submit to one another,” unequivocally admonished all the Ephesian Christians to be careful how they lived: “not as unwise but as wise . . . Do not be foolish,” he wrote, “but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine. . . . Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” Paul implied that only then can Christians properly “speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” Only, then can they experience the benefits of mutual submission (Ephesians 5:15-21).
Practical Steps for Implementing This Directive in Your Church
The following project is designed to help Christians in your church submit to one another.
Mutual submission must begin with the leadership of the church. What Paul was teaching must be modeled before all other members of the local body. If there is contention and lack of harmony in the pastoral staff and among elders and deacons, it will become obvious to all other members of the local Christian family. Just as tension between a husband and wife cannot be hidden from children, so lack of oneness among leaders of a church cannot be hidden from the rest of the congregation.
The converse is also true. A group of leaders who are truly one in Christ become a dynamic example for those for whom they are responsible. The love and unity they experience and demonstrate at the leadership level will filter through the whole church.
The following questions will assist each of your church leaders (and every member of the body) to evaluate his or her attitudes and actions:
1. How do I view others in the church who are in positions of leadership? Do I respect them and honor them as fellow members of Christ’s body? Or do I feel I am more important than they are?
2. How do I react when someone disagrees with me? Am I threatened? Do I respond emotionally and defensively? Do I insist on doing things my own way?
3. How often have I admitted to others I have been wrong? Do I always have to be right to feel comfortable?
4. Do I ever share my inner life and struggles with other church leaders? Do I keep my weaknesses to myself?
Note: The key to unity and mutual submission among leaders in the church is to select these leaders on the basis of the spiritual qualifications outlined in 1 Timothy 3: 1-7 and Titus 1:5-10. It has been my experience as a pastor that the more seriously we take these qualifications, the more mutual respect, love, and concern there is among believers.
All believers must clearly understand the teaching of Scripture regarding the subject of submission. It is not only a directive for wives, but for all members of Christ’s body. We must realize that it is possible for husbands to submit to their wives without giving up their headship; for elders to submit to others in Christ’s body without giving up their position of authority; that parents can listen to their children’s viewpoints without giving up parental status; for employers to give employees careful consideration without losing respect. The key is for all Christians to develop the mind of Christ, to be willing to lose their lives in order to find them again.
Following are the Scriptures that teach submission and obedience to others. Note the variety of relationships in the context of each directive. The words and phrases will help you understand what is involved in being a submissive Christian. Use these Scriptures as criteria for evaluating your own attitude toward other members of Christ’s body. Circle the areas that apply to you and where you feel you are strong. Underscore the areas where you feel you are weak.
Elders to Other Members of Christ’s Body
“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers-not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).
Christians in General to Elders
“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and `The worker deserves his wages.’ Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning” (1 Timothy 5:17-20).
“Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17).
Younger Men to Older Me
“Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, `God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:5-6).
Husbands to Wives
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her. . . . Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (Ephesians 5:25, 28).
“Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them” (Colossians 3:19).
“Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (1 Peter 3:7).
“The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. A wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, a husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:3-4).
Wives to Their Husbands
“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. . . Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5:22, 24).
“Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord” (Colossians. 3:18).
“Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the Word of God” (Titus 2:3-5).
“Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the Word, they may be won over without talk by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:1-4).
Parents to Children
“Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
“Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged” (Colossians 3:21).
Children to Parents
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. `Honor your father and mother’ – which is the first commandment with a promise – ‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth’ (Ephesians 6:1-3).
“Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (Colossians 3:20).
Masters (Employers) to Servants (Employees)
“And masters, treat your slaves the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him” (Ephesians 6:9).
“Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 4:1).
Slaves (Employees) to Masters (Employers)
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free” (Ephesians 6:5-8; see also Colossians 3:22-25).
“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh” (1 Peter 2: 18).
Christians to Government Officials
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. . . . Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. . . . Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (Romans 13:1, 5, 7).
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by Him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.
Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king” (1 Peter 2:13-17).
Now that you have isolated your strengths and weaknesses, go back and number the areas where you need improvement. Give yourself a number one in the area of greatest weakness; a number two in the next area, etc.
Now you are ready to set goals for yourself. To begin with, select two areas-one where you are weakest and one where you are strongest. Set up two specific goals-two specific action steps you are going to take to become more obedient to Jesus Christ. Select two new areas each week and set a new goal until you have covered them all.
Keep reviewing and reminding yourself of your previous goals. Pray continually that God will help you obey His Word in these areas.