Attend most any church in America today and you will be presented with a Jesus who is all warm and fuzzy. He wants to give meaning to your life, to fulfill your deepest longings, and to deliver you from all your troubles. This is the gentle Jesus of the contemporary evangelical culture. Seldom will you hear about the Jesus who is altogether holy, who cannot countenance sin and who demands total obedience.
Anathema to this mindset is the notion of submission, particularly as it relates to the relationship between husband and wife. People try to discount the biblical teaching on submission in a variety of ways. Some say husbands and wives are to submit to one another, so one is not more accountable than the other (Eph 5:21, 1 Pe 5:5). Others raise the objection of the abusive or unbelieving husband who would force his will on his wife. The latest objection I have heard is that all references to the word ‘submit’ in the New Testament have a reflexive or reciprocal sense that implies voluntary submission. In this view, there is no hierarchy and therefore no requirement to yield to a higher authority.
Of course this interpretation flies in the face of a common sense understanding of the word ‘submit.’ If there is no hierarchy and therefore no obligation to obey, the word is emptied of all meaning. It actually implies a role reversal, placing the submitter in the role of authority, since it is she who decides whether and when to obey. This is an example of the modern trend toward deconstructionism. It is not borne of a desire to understand the meaning of the word in its native context. It is what you do when you don’t like a word and want to make it more palatable.
Strong’s Concordance defines the Greek word for ‘submit’ as follows:
1) to arrange under, to subordinate 2) to subject, put in subjection 3) to subject one’s self, obey 4) to submit to one’s control 5) to yield to one’s admonition or advice 6) to obey, be subject ….. A Greek military term meaning “to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader.” In non-military use, it was “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden”.
The argument against the plain meaning of the word ‘submit’ in this definition goes that all biblical references to ‘submit’ are non-military, and therefore voluntary acts without respect to a higher command. Jesus is a gentleman and would not force himself on anyone. Of course the rest of the definition becomes moot at that point.
But then how do we deal with the verses that tell us to submit to Christ as the head of the church and the one under whom God the Father has put all authority on heaven and earth (Eph 5:24, 2:9-11)? Or Jesus’ own words when he said, “Why do you call me ‘Lord’ and not do what I say,” (Lk 6:46) and again, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven – only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21)?
If there is no hierarchy, then how do we understand such verses as Rm 13:1 which tells us to be subject to the governing authorities which have been appointed by God? Or Jesus words in John 14:28 when He says, “I am going to the Father because the Father is greater than I?” Or Cor 15:27 which talks about God the Father putting all other authority under subjection to Christ? Or Eph 1:22 which says that God gave Christ to the church as head over all things? Or that the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church (Eph 5:23)? Or that slaves are to be subject to their own masters (Tit 2:9), a fact that Paul recognized by returning the runaway slave Onesimus to Philemon, his master? In every case scripture calls for submission to the one who has the higher authority.
In the case of our relationship to Jesus Christ, obedience is not just obligatory – it is the sign of genuine conversion. While it is true that Christ doesn’t force himself on anyone, he expects complete, unreserved obedience once a person unites with him. Paul says Christ purchased us as his slaves (1 Cor 6:20, 7:23). The Bible uses the Greek word ‘δοῦλος‘ or ‘slave’ to describe the relationship between Christ and the believer some 150 times in the New Testament (unfortunately, many translations use the term ‘bond servant’ to make it less objectionable). A slave has no option but to obey his master. Jesus says obedience is a sign of the true believer’s love for him (Joh 14:21, 1 Joh 2:3-6).
If submission were a strictly voluntary act, then why did the demons submit themselves to the disciples (Lk 10:17)? They certainly didn’t want to obey, but could not refuse because of the authority of the name of Jesus which they invoked. For the same reason, the legion of demons was compelled to leave the Gadarene Demoniac and could only enter the heard of pigs with Jesus’ permission. Romans 8:28 says creation was made subject to the curse not willingly but because God subjected it in the hope of redeeming it in the future. It had no choice in the matter.
The grammatical argument for a strictly voluntary, non-hierarchical submission is that the word translated ‘submit’ in our English Bibles is in the middle voice in the Greek, making it reflexive or reciprocal, i.e. ‘submit yourself.’ In this line of reasoning, the act is offered freely without compulsion. But this interpretation betrays a lack of understanding of Greek grammar. In all but one instance (Rm 8:28), the Greek word ὑποτάσσὼ takes no object, therefore it is an intransitive verb according to Greek-language.com. So it can only be understood in an active sense:
“A passive meaning can be assigned only to transitive verbs, so when the middle/passive form is used with an intransitive verb, the meaning cannot be passive. In fact, the meaning for many English speaking readers will often seem to imply active voice, even though the Greek form is middle.”
For example, if I say, “Submit the application to the authorities,” that would be a transitive verb with an object. I am giving a document to someone else. But if I say, “Submit to one another,” I am not asking you to perform an action on or with anything. The same is true if I were to say, “Go to the store,” or “Take a walk.” These verbs do not take objects. They are intransitive.
Submission is a very distasteful notion to sinners. It is the main thing that keeps us from Christ in the first place. We don’t want to yield our wills to anyone. We want to be masters of our own fate. Submission becomes even more repulsive when Christ tells us to be subject to earthly authorities who might mistreat or abuse us because of their sinful natures. Yet Christ himself was obedient to his own parents even though he was the embodiment of righteousness and they were natural born sinners (Lk 2:51). He also submitted to the authority of the scribes and Pharisees and Pilate when they put Him to death. He did so for the same reason He expects you and me to submit to authority – because God the Father granted that authority. He said to Pilate, “You would have no authority if it had not been granted to you by my Father in heaven.”(Jn 19:11)
In the Bible obedience is not conditioned on the righteousness of the authority. Slaves are told to obey their masters “in every respect” (Col 3:22). Children are told to obey their parents “in everything” (Col 3:20). Wives are told to be subject to their husbands so that they will be won to the Lord “without a word,” (1 Pet 3:1). Jesus established these earthly authorities and commands us to obey them. Our willingness to submit to them even when it goes against our natural inclinations is ultimately an indication of our devotion to Christ. The only legitimate grounds for disobeying is when that authority issues a direct command to disobey God, as when the religious leaders told Peter and the apostles to stop preaching in Jesus’ name.
My favorite preacher, John MacArthur, says that we are no more like Christ than when we forgive. I would suggest that we are most like Christ when we show perseverance under pressure. In 1 Peter 2:20 it says, ” For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God.” It is through patient and faithful suffering of indignities and reproach that we exhibit the character of Jesus Christ. There are few things more painful than bearing mistreatment by one who holds all the leverage, like a boss or a policeman or judge or parent or even a spouse. There has been more than one time I wanted to set the record straight when accused of something I didn’t do but had to bite my tongue for fear of antagonizing an authority. It is especially hard to swallow when the one bringing the accusation is no exemplar of righteousness.
Jesus himself is not always gentle with us. Nor was his Father always gentle with him. His Father asked him to lay his life upon the altar for our sins. Jesus responded by setting his face like a flint to go to Jerusalem to be executed. His flesh screamed “No, No!!” Nevertheless, he prayed, “Let this cup pass from me. Yet not my will but Thine be done!” In the same way, Jesus asks us to take up our cross and follow him, to deny ourselves, to lose our lives and to give up everything else for his sake. Because the world hated him, it will hate and mistreat us. Jesus expects us to respond like Job who said, “Shall I receive only good from the hand of the Lord and not evil?” (Job 2:10). When we suffer at the hands of authorities for righteousness sake we are sharing in the very sufferings of Jesus Christ. As the apostle Paul said, “ Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body – for the sake of his body, the church – what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.”
There is a sense in which we participate in the very sufferings of Christ when we endure mistreatment for bearing his name. We are part of the body of Christ, and the main target for Satan’s attacks now that Jesus has been seated at the right hand of God the Father out of Satan’s reach. When we suffer for his sake, we are drawn into more intimate fellowship with him because we share a common experience that unbelievers can never know. The disciples counted it all joy to suffer shame for Christ’s sake. Can we do any less?