The terms “submit” and “obey” get frequently mentioned in our fellowship. We generally appreciate that submission is expected of us as individuals who profess Christ. We also understand that submission, at least in some manner, is virtuous. What creates great controversy are questions about when, to whom, and to what extent a Christian is expected to submit, and even what is meant by “submission”.
The Ironies of Submission
It would appear that, for those who demonstrate refusal to obey, it may not be entirely unreasonable that they be “disfellowshipped”. However, in many places, those who have been put out of fellowship, for this reason, continue to have fellowship in the same manner as the rest of us. What is truly ironic is that these people continue to pray together for more “obedience”. This being their desire, it begs the question, “In what way were they so disobedient as to have been forced apart from the rest of the fellowship?” This question has brought widespread concern to our fellowship.
It is not uncommon for the “beauty” of obedience to be mentioned, and occasionally someone will be cited as a “model of submission”. However, what appears to some as a picture of beauty is recognized by many others as symptoms of emotional and psychological abuse. It does not escape the notice of many that it is normally the submitting partner who suffers any emotional crisis in a relationship, whether in marriage or in the ministry. One has to ask the question, “If submission is such a virtue, why is escape from such roles the most effective treatment for the related trauma?” Ironically, escape is a normal recourse for all situations, except for those in abusive, even egregiously abusive, marriages.
The Scriptures on Submission
Recommendations of submission and obedience abound in the Scriptures. We are probably first of all made aware that children are instructed to obey their parents.1 In other relationships, wives are admonished to submit to their husbands2, slaves and servants to their masters3, and the young to their elders4. With respect to the world around us we learn it is Christlike to be obedient to kings5 and governments6. None of this, however, is unique to Christians – such expectations are virtually universal traditions throughout the world.
Some in the Bible were advised to obey angels.7 We also read that there are ideals to which Christians are instructed to be obedient. Numerous mentions are made of the need for obedience to truth8, faith9, and the gospel10. These, it seems, are less frequently discussed among us, but the Scriptures are clear on their importance. Then there are others to whom it is appropriate for us to submit. Among them are wise reprovers11, our leaders12, and those who do good service to others.13 Indeed, we have all been instructed to submit to one another.14
By far the largest number of Scriptural recommendations for obedience are to God15, God’s will16, the law of God17, Jesus18, and the Holy Spirit19. This is not surprising, since they are the focus of our faith. Despite the numerous other references to obedience in the Bible, the preponderance of references to obedience to these leaves us no doubt that they are most worthy.
The Meaning of Submission
One of the obstacles to agreement on “submission” and “obedience” is that not all agree on the definition. The terms get used interchangeably, though they do have some differences in meaning. The problematic definition of both terms involves the turning over of control to another. Those who know what occurs in religious cults recognize that this form of submission is a patently dangerous practice. It is also incompatible with the responsibility Christians have to develop a personal relationship with God.
A more defensible interpretation of “submitting” to another in a Christlike manner is to yield, or defer to another’s judgment. This is essentially different from turning full control over to someone else because it infers that the person who submits retains his prerogative to continue choosing right from wrong. Also, when an individual submits in this manner, it may be interpreted as a humble, unselfish gesture that is conducive not only to harmony but to the healing of offenses.20 It also allows that the one submitting may refuse to submit when he conscientiously believes that to submit to a given request is wrong.
To “obey”, on the other hand, is to be guided by and carry out instructions and conform to principles. This is very much in line with a Christian’s responsibility to follow Jesus’ instructions. Moreover, a Christian should learn to obey willingly21 and when not being watched22. The Scriptures assure us that to do so will yield rewards.23
We further conclude from the Scriptures that we should “learn” submission because human beings are subject to vanity24, sinful minds25, and sinful natures.26 Paul himself concluded that he had to bring his body into submission, lest he himself become “disqualified for the prize”.27 Moreover, we conclude that submission and obedience must be learned because they are not identified as fruits of the Spirit28, and we find no indication in the Scriptures that anyone has been assigned to be responsible for our obedience.
Submission in Perspective
We conclude from the Scriptures that, except for God29 and principles of truth, no admonition to obedience is absolute. Discretion is recommended even in obedience to angels; Satan, the angel of deception, being chief among those to resist.30 According to our calling we will not be subject to angels in eternity.31 Lest we become distracted from obeying God first, and lest we ever built ourselves a chain of command under Him, all obedience to others is tempered by the admonition that we are all to be subject to each other.32
It is appropriate for children to obey their parents, but God’s instructions on how parents are to treat their children are explicit – such that we know God is displeased when sons are negatively provoked by their fathers.33
Slaves and servants are advised to be obedient, but that cannot be interpreted as a justification of slavery. God’s displeasure with ill treatment by masters and employers is extensively referred to in the Scriptures,34 and He condemned the retaking of slaves when they were freed.35
While wives are admonished to submit to their husbands, instructions on how a husband is to be with his wife are numerous and eloquently discussed36 – such that we conclude that to God it is no less offensive for a husband to displease his wife than it is for a wife to neglect to submit.
We have been advised to obey our leaders, but we have a clear demonstration from Paul that his requests for obedience were for service to and forgiveness of others.37 This understanding makes Paul’s clear reference to “obey … leaders and submit to their authority” compatible with the French version, which uses the word for “deference” in the same passage.38 Furthermore, Paul clearly indicated that, if they endorse “strange teachings”, they should be resisted,39 his explanation on one occasion being that the “spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets”,40 with no guarantee that they are controlled by God.
The Abuse of Submission
It is not surprising that incidents of submission become occasions for abuse. It is the very nature of abuse that someone’s yielding is taken advantage of. But this does not adequately identify such abuse because this definition has its focus on the one who “yields”. Culpability as an “abuser” originates in the overstepping of one’s responsibilities with respect to another’s obedience. And the Scriptures leave us ample indication that our liberty from bondage41 will be threatened with abuse.
Most abuse that occurs in our fellowship is motivated by seemingly honorable intentions – the desire that others learn to obey appropriately. In an effort to accomplish that we hear of measures being taken and policies being set to pressure children, wives, and others in our fellowship into “unquestioning” obedience; and there appears to be no shortage of support for these measures, even when they are illegal.
But all of this is an abuse of the recommendations for submission. There are no instructions given for any of us to “subdue” another in the cause of righteousness. Paul, writing to Timothy, described even the roles of elders and deacons as positions of service.42 Christ Himself said that whoever would be great would become a servant.43 Indeed, the Scriptures indicate that Christians will be chastened by God, not by others.44
There is clear indication in the New Testament that Christians are vulnerable to abuse from the ministry. Paul warned of the danger of replacing our former bondage with a new yoke of slavery45. Not only is there a danger that we will return to worldly rules46, we are warned that evil ministers will infiltrate the fellowship to make us slaves.47 This may very well be why Paul told Timothy when addressing the issue of errant elders, that, “Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.”48
Lest anyone err in perspective on the matter of submission, it would be wise to examine the example of Christ. He, of all men, was worthy to ask service and obedience of other men. But the extent of his demands was that men would follow Him49; not that He would be exalted in His status, but because He carried a message His Father had asked Him to deliver.50 Those who would not follow were left behind rather than forbidden to follow.51 Though Jesus warned of the consequences of not obeying, He extracted no punishment for non-compliance with His leading.
The lesson for us, as individuals, is that we must learn to choose to submit; and though we submit willingly, we must still reserve the liberty to choose. Our problem will never come from submitting to Christ – it will come from submitting to others. Unless we exercise the choice to submit, we may find ourselves again enslaved rather than free, and again vulnerable to deception and abuse. It is oxymoronic to expect that the beauty and joy of submission could ever be forced upon us.
By Bob Williston
July 22, 2001
1. Gen.27:8,13,43; Gen.28:7; Deut.21:18; Prov.30:17; Lk.2:51; 2Cor.7:15; Eph.6:1; Col.3:20 —
2. Eph.5:22-24,33; Col.3:18; Tit.2:5; 1Pet.3:1,2,5,6 —
3. Eph.6:5; Col.3:22; Tit.2:9; 1Pet.2:18 —
4. 1Pet.5:5 —
5. 1Chr.29:23,24 —
6. Rom.13:1,2,5; Tit.3:1; 1Pet.2:13 —
7. Gen.16:9; Ex.23:21,22; Judg.2:2 —
8. Rom.2:8; Gal.3:1; 5:7; 2Ti.3:8; 1Pet.1:22 —
9. Acts 6:7; Rom.1:5; 2:8; Heb.11:1-40 —
10. Rom.6:17; Rom.10:16; Rom.16:19; 2Cor.9:13; Phil.2:12; 2Th.3:14; 1Ti.1:18; 1Pet.4:17 —
11. Prov.25:12 —
12. Heb.13:17 —
13. 1Cor.16:15,16; 2Cor.9:13 —
14. Eph.5:21; 1Pet.5:5 —
15. Gen.22:18; Gen.26:5; Gen.24:7; Ex.5:2; Ex.19:5; Deut.4:30; Deut.8:20; Deut.11:27,28; Deut.13:4; Deut.27:10; Deut.28:62; Deut.30:2,8,20; Josh.5:6; Josh.22:2; Josh.24:24; Judg.2:17; Judg.6:10; 1Sa.12:14,15; 1Sa.15:20,22,24; 1Sa.28:18; 1Kin.20:36; 2Kin.18:12; 2Chr.11:4; Neh.9:17; Job.36:11,12; Is.1:18; Is.42:24; Is.50:10; Jer.3;13,25; Jer.7:23,28; Jer.9:13; Jer.11:3,4,7,8; Jer.12:17; Jer.17:23; Jer.18:10; Jer.22:21; Jer.26:13; Jer.32:23; Jer.38:20; Jer.40:3; Jer.42:6,13,21; Jer.43:4,7; Jer.44:23; Dan.9:10,11,14; Zeph.3:2; Hag.1:12; Zec.6:15; Act.5:29,32; Act.7:39; Rom.6:13,16,19; Rom.8:20; Rom.15:18; Rom.16:26; 1Cor.15:28; Phil.2:8; Heb.5:8; Jas.4:7 —
16. Rom.9:19; Rom.13:2 —
17. Rom.8:7 —
18. 2Cor.10:5,6; Heb.5:9 —
19. Act.7:51 —
20. Eccl.10:4 —
21. Eph.6:5 —
22. Eph.6:6; Col.3:22; Tit.2:10 —
23. Col.3:24 —
24. Rom.8:20 —
25. Rom.8:7 —
26. Gal.5:24 —
27. 1Cor.9:27 —
28. Gal.5:22 —
29. Act.5:29 —
30. Jas.4:7 —
31. Heb.1:5-14; Heb.2:5-8 —
32. Eph.5:21; 1Pet.5:5 —
33. Col.3:21 —
34. Deut.24:14; Mal.3:5; Eph.6:9; Col.4:1 —
35. Jer.34:16 —
36. Eph.5:25-31,33; Col.3:19; 1Pet.3:7 —
37. 2Cor.2:7-11; Philem.21; Heb.13:15-19 —
38. Heb.13:17 —
39. Heb.13:9; 2Pet.2:1-3 —
40. 1Cor.14:32 —
41. Rom.8:15,21; Heb.2:15 —
42. 1Tim.3:10,13 —
43. Lk.9:48 —
44. Heb.12:9-11 —
45. Gal.5:1 —
46. Gal.4:3-9; Col.2:20-23 —
47. Gal.2:4,5 —
48. 1Tim.5:20 —
49. Mt.4:19; Mt.8:22; Mt.9:9; Mt.10:38; Mt.16:24; Mt.19:21; Mk.1:17,20; Mk.2:14; Mk.8:34; Mk.10:21; Lk.5:27; Lk.9:23,59; Lk.14:27; Lk.18:22; Jn.6:66; Jn.8:12; Jn.10:27; Jn.12:26 —
50. Jn.12:50 —