What Does Submission Mean?

Many individuals in our culture today have negative connotations about the word “submit”. Images are conjured up in the mind of a tyrant standing over his or her subjects beating them into submission or a doormat-type person that does whatever others want them to do. Webster defines the word as “to yield oneself to the authority or will of another”; “to permit oneself to be subjected to something” or “to defer to or consent to abide by the opinion or authority of another”. These definitions may still convey unfavorable thoughts of some kind since no one likes to become someone else’s subject or never get their own way. In the fallen world in which we live, humans have rejected various authorities over the centuries, especially God’s authority. Although the world and culture play a large part of our understanding of certain concepts, it is the Christian’s responsibility to understand God’s meaning behind a word or phrase found in His Word. What does it mean to submit according to the Bible? Are there commandments in the Bible for certain individuals to submit to others? Is submission really such a negative term? Let’s explore these questions by looking at the one source that contains words of life – the Word of God (John 6:68, Luke 4:4, 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

The English term, submit, is translated from the Greek word, hupotasso, meaning, “to order under”. A Greek lexicon defines it as, “to cause to be in a submissive relationship, to subject, to subordinate” (BDAG, 1042.). The first important Scripture to examine in regards to submission is James 4:7. Not many argue about the meaning of “submit” in this passage. We are to submit, obey, or humble ourselves before God (1 Peter 5:6-8). This is understandable since He is our Creator, our Lawgiver, our Redeemer and our Judge. Those who do not submit to God (unbelievers) will receive their just punishment (Romans 10:3). Love for God demands action - we must keep His commandments (John 14:15; 1 John 5:2-3). Thus, we submit our will (what we want to do) to His Will (what He wants us to do) – (1 Corinthians 16:16). Now, a logical conclusion to draw from this truth is that if we are submitting ourselves to God, we are obeying His commandments, including the commandments for us to submit to others.

Who is commanded to submit to someone else in the Bible? The quick answer is everyone! The inspired writers of the New Testament epistles mention this subject in most of their letters. Paul writes for all to submit to governing authorities (Romans 13:1; Titus 3:1). Peter also states that we are to submit to the laws of the land in which we live because these laws are for the punishment of evildoers (1 Peter 2:13-14). As Christians, we should be striving to obey the laws our government has issued – unless, of course, those laws are contrary to God’s Law (Acts 5:29). We cannot be good influences on others when they see us disobeying laws, such as breaking traffic laws, tax evasion, or unauthorized downloading of music or movies for free off the Internet. We bring glory to God – we are submitting to Him – when we obey the authorities that govern us.

Secondly, servants are commanded to submit to their masters (Ephesians 6:5; 1 Peter 2:18; Colossians 3:22). This is not an endorsement for slavery as skeptics want to propose, but rather stating that if we find ourselves in some form of service, we should do our work to the best of our ability as we are working for the Lord. Certainly, we who hold secular jobs can apply this to our relationship with our bosses, companies, or any workplace. If we rebel against our bosses’ authority, we are not fearing God, the Master of us all (Colossians 3:22).

Other commandments dealing with submission are concerned more specifically with the relationship between Christians or home-life. Hebrews 13:17admonishes the Christians to “obey those who rule over” them “being submissive”. We can conclude that “those who rule over” them are the elders of the local congregations because they “watch out for their souls, who must give account”. When the elders of the congregation make decisions in matters of opinion concerning worship and activities of the church, we should want to follow their lead trusting they are doing what is best for the Lord’s church. Peter gives a similar commandment in 1 Peter 5:5. He instructs the elders (those who have the responsibility of shepherding the flock – also described as bishops, presbyters, shepherds) in the first four verses (1 Peter 5:1-4) and then tells the younger ones to submit to elders (most likely older people in general). Other passages instruct the younger to submit to the older, such as children obeying their parents in Colossians 3:20, Ephesians 6:1, and 1 Timothy 3:4. God is pleased when the younger generations honor and respect the older generations and when His flock submits to their shepherds as they serve the Head Shepherd.

Both Paul and Peter in their writings command the wife to submit to her husband (1 Peter 3:1-5; Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 3:18). Also, women are commanded to submit to men in the assembly – that is, not to be the speaker over men in mixed assemblies (1 Timothy 2:11; 1 Corinthians 14:34). God, the Creator, has given each of us responsibilities and certain roles in which to function. He gave the serious responsibility of spiritual leadership to the man (1 Timothy 2:8; Ephesians 5:23-25). When we obey God by submitting to our husband’s leadership in the home and the men’s in the assembly, we are following God’s design. Again, we are submitting to Him when we obey His commandments concerning our duty to submit to others.  

The New Testament uses hupotasso two other times. Christians are commanded to submit to one another in humility and in the fear of God (Ephesians 5:21; 1 Peter 5:5). This “submit to one another” has lead many to some wrong conclusions. Firstly, it has been proposed by some that Christians are submitting to each other when true love is displayed among His people. Certainly, love is the distinguishing characteristic of God’s people (John 13:35, 15:17; Romans 12:10; 1 John 4:7). We should serve others selflessly. This is not submission, however. Parents love their children, making sacrifices for them, but they do not submit to the children. Likewise, elders are to lovingly serve the congregation they shepherd - but the elders do not submit to the members.

Secondly, many have wrongly assumed that since all Christians are to be submissive to one another only in the sense of loving one another, then that somehow cancels out the passages that command women (or wives) to be in submission to men (or husbands). Let’s remember that the Scriptures are all-inspired by God and do not contradict – they complement. If it is the case that “submit to one another” negates the command for the wife to submit to her husband or the women in the corporate assembly to submit to the men, then it would follow that all other commandments involving submission would be made null and void as well. Children would not be required to submit to parents or any adult, members would not need to submit to their elders, and citizens would not have to submit to their governing authorities!

So, what does the Holy Spirit mean by “submit to one another”? Let’s notice the context around these two verses (Ephesians 5:17-22; 1 Peter 5:1-5). Paul and Peter are admonishing Christians to adhere to certain Christ-like characteristics. In the Ephesians passage, Paul points out ways in which we practice being filled with the Spirit (namely, speaking to one another, singing, giving thanks, and submitting). This is followed by verse 22: “wives submit to your own husbands” and chapter 6: “children obey your parents” and “servants be obedient to your masters”. Clearly, He is giving more specific instructions in the area of submission. Similarly, in the 1 Peter passage, Peter first covers the role of elders leading the flock and the younger people submitting to the elders before making the more general statement, “be submissive to one another”. Notice also, Peter already stated that Christians are to submit to “every ordinance of man”, for servants to be submissive, and the wife to submit to her husband (1 Peter 2:13,18, 3:1). Thus, the context of both passages must be considered and studied to see the “big picture”.     

In conclusion, it is evident that submission is important in every Christian’s life. Christians must strive daily to submit to God and keep His commandments. It is a necessary trait in our lives as women who are members of His body. It is commanded in our everyday lives as citizens of a particular nation. It is required in our relationship with our husband. It is commanded in our worship to God as the men lead in the mixed assembly. This is how we submit to one another. Submission may still be a negative term to some, but the Scriptures tell us that our Savior, Jesus Christ submitted to the Father as “He humbled Himself and became obedient to death” (Philippians 2:5-8, Hebrews 5:8). Does His submission make Him unequal with God somehow less important? Certainly not! Our Savior came to do the will of the Father and He is our example. His life exemplifies the most beautiful life. Submission, God’s way, is beautiful! May we all submit to God’s inspired Word and fulfill His commandments in order to bring glory to His holy name.

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