One of the hard teachings of the New Testament is the concept of submission. This may be a particularly difficult concept in our age, which so values independence and freedom. Nobody is going to tell us what to do.
Yet the New Testament clearly presents a series of relationships in which one person is commanded to submit to another: children to parents (Ephesians 6:1-3, Colossians 3:20), wives to husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, 1 Peter 3:1-6), slaves to masters (Ephesians 6:5-8, Colossians 3:22-25, Titus 2:9-10), citizens to government (Romans 13:1-7, Titus 3:1), Christians to church leaders (1 Corinthians 16:16, Hebrews 13:17), and Christians to God in Christ (James 4:7).
Probably all of us find it difficult to practise submission in at least one of these relationships. We say we are quite willing to submit to God, perhaps, but we do not want to submit to a fellow human being. Yet, the New Testament says that we are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21)-in other words, in submitting to other human beings, we are submitting to God, because God has commanded it.
Now, there are some differences between these relationships. For instance, marriage is a lifetime commitment, but it is quite permissible to change one’s commitment to a government, a job or a particular church. Nevertheless, the New Testament seems to indicate that a similar concept of submission should operate in all of these relationships.
It is also clear from the New Testament that the command is addressed to those who are expected to submit. The command is not addressed to those in authority, telling them to dominate those under them.
Submission is a voluntary act; it cannot be coerced, except in a superficial sense. I think this is important to remember, because we often see submission as a denial of our ability to choose. We consider those who submit to be doormats, weak and oppressed. Yet those who voluntarily submit do not cease to have rights, freedoms or worth. (For instance, an employer who beats an employee should be charged with assault, but that does not relieve the employee of the responsibility of working according to the employer’s rules as long as he remains an employee.)
A better understanding of the biblical concept of submission is needed.
In the following paragraphs, I would like to present some of the things that I think are involved in the biblical concept of submission. Because the focus of this issue of the Herald is on church leadership, I am thinking particularly of submission to church leaders, but the principles apply to all of the relationships listed above.
- Submission includes obedience.
This is the most obvious application. However, there is a significant exception to this requirement. Often the commands to submit and obey are qualified by phrases such as “in the Lord”. Our obedience to other human beings is overruled by obedience to God. Thus, the early disciples chose to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), and Paul refused to submit to the other apostles in order to safeguard the integrity of the gospel (Galatians 2:1-5).
We cannot use the excuse that “I was just following orders.” We do not cease to be responsible for our actions just because we are in a submissive relationship. However, we must be careful not to confuse God’s overruling with our own desires and preferences. Unless God has commanded otherwise, we are to obey even silly orders.
- Submission includes respect.
1 Peter 2:17 and other passages state clearly that we are to honour our leaders. It is possible to obey without giving respect, as any child knows who grudgingly does what his “stupid parents” tell him to do. It is also possible to give respect without obeying, as Paul gave respect to the Jewish high priest who was unjustly persecuting him (Acts 23:1-5).
- Submission includes prayer.
Paul urged prayer for “all those in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1). Do we pray for those in authority over us as often as we criticize them? Such prayers should include thanks for the fact that there are authorities, thanks for their service, prayers for empowerment, prayers for guidance (including correction) and prayers for blessing.
- Submission includes whole-hearted service.
Paul commanded slaves to serve their masters “in everything … not only when their eye is on you and to win their favour, but with sincerity of heart …. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart” (Colossians 3:22-23). In other words, in submitting, we are not to leave our minds or our hearts or our talents or any other essential element at the door. Part of our submission is to use our minds and hearts in our work and to seek creative ways to assist those who lead us. (Conversely, a leader who is not open to hearing suggestions from those he leads, may be wasting the best part of their service.)
- Submission involves honest communication.
The Old Testament prophets sharply criticized many of Israel’s kings, but this in itself was a recognition that those kings were the leaders of God’s people. Part of submission is a recognition of the authority’s right to know what we know.
In submitting ourselves to an authority, we must also submit our ideas, suggestions, observations, knowledge, praise and criticisms. Withholding criticism (or praise) from church leaders (especially while speaking it freely to everyone else) is not submission, but rebellion. Such criticism should be tempered by respect and prayer, but should be given nevertheless.