What You Need to Know about the Meaning of Submission in the Bible
- Denise Larson Cooper www.deniselarsoncooper.com
- 2018 5 Sep
What does submission mean? Google's dictionary defines submission as "the action or fact of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person." Submitting means putting others before yourself; it means not always doing what you want to do. It means putting God's desires above your desires.
Recently I made several trips into Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to pick up travelers. The speed limit on I-90 between Rockford and the airport is 70 miles per hour. However, I decided that 78 miles per hour would get me there sooner and back. So, I set the cruise control of my Ford Fusion and raced into Chicago. I noticed that my fellow drivers had the same idea.
I use this example to illustrate how easy it was for me and others on the road to break the law. We refused to let an authority tell us how fast to drive. In other words, we refused to submit to the law governing our driving. Why should I have given this a second thought? I thought about what St. Paul has to say on the matter: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience” (Romans 13:1-3,5).
The human problem with submission.
Lutheran reformer Philip Melanchthon wrote in The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, “We neither obey the law, nor can obey it, before we have been reconciled to God, justified, and then reborn” (Concordia, The Lutheran Confessions 138). Left to his own devices, sinful man will always be lawless. This disregard for God’s law explains his need for a Savior.
Only the Savior can transform disobedient, lawless creatures into obedient, submissive citizens of heaven and earth. A sinner desires to satisfy the corrupt nature by indulging lawlessness. He relishes rebellion against God and his commandments.
Christians struggle with submitting to authority, including teachers, bosses, and government officials, that reflect our recalcitrant attitude toward God’s laws and his kingdom. However, through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, Christians possess a renewed mind and conscience which guides them to obey. And when they don’t obey the Holy Spirit pricks the conscience and prompts them to repent. Repentance brings awareness of our need to submit.
What submission is not.
The word submission makes many Christians uncomfortable. They squirm or murmur against the apparent injustice of it. Somewhere along the line, Christians have come to a false notion about what submission means in the Bible.
Thanks to attacks on the Biblical idea of submission, Christians have come to think of submission as oppressive. When the topic comes up, the worldly point to Paul’s passage in Ephesians, “Wives submit to your own husbands” (5:22) and cry foul. They brand the verse as sexist or even rant about the passage as justification for husbands’ mistreating or abusing their wives. They insist that these words prove the Church expects women to stay married to them. This is NOT the Biblical understanding of submission.
The biggest problem with this view: the verse has been stripped of its context to promote the idea that the Bible is sexist. In fact, taken in context, the passage depicts the perfect relationship between husband and wife. Paul writes in Ephesians 5:24, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”
What submission looks like in marriage.
According to Paul, a faithful husband willing lays down his life for his wife. He is not a tyrant who forces her to submit to his sinful human desires but abandons his own will, affections, and needs for her sake. Further, Paul exhorts the husband to love his wife as he loves his own body and equates the husband’s care of his wife with that of Christ’s for His church (Ephesians 5:28-30). A loving husband submits his will to that of Christ, and, in doing so, imitates Him in the marriage relationship. In this context, the wife willingly surrenders to her husband just as her husband chooses to surrender his will to Christ. Submission based on love brings peace and harmony to the family.
Biblical submission fosters right relationship with God and spouse and others. In the Ephesians passage, Paul uses marriage to illustrate the perfect eternal submission of the Three Persons of the Trinity. “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32).
The power of submission in the Bible.
Christ lived in perfect submission to the Father. The Father did God did not coerce Him to “become flesh and dwell among us” (John 1:14). Jesus chose to enter the fallen, sinful world to “lay down his life” on the cross (John 15:13) so that God could “save the world through him” (John 3:17). Jesus Christ came from Heaven of his own volition to die on the cross. He chose to place himself under the authority of the Father while incarnate. In Philippians 2:6-7 Paul writes, [Jesus Christ] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
Matthew records Christ’s perfect submission most vividly in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion. The Gospel writer draws us into a vision of Jesus in communion with the Father. We see Jesus’ anguish as he faces the horrors of the cross. Jesus’ words, reverberate through the ages, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Even with the terror of death looming, Christ does not exercise His own will but obeys His Father. In the garden, Jesus refuses to avoid the cross. He pleads in agony for strength to fulfill His Father’s will. “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7-8).
Perfect submission made Jesus subject to the unjust control and power of sinful man. He stood silent before Pilate. Pilate asserts his authority over Christ, “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” (John 19:10) Jesus answers, “You would have no power over me if it were not give to you from above” (John 19:11).
What does Christ’s perfect submission mean for Christians?
Pastor Charles Spurgeon wrote, “A lack of submission is no new or rare fault in mankind. Ever since the fall it has been the root of all sin…From the moment when our mother Eve stretched out her hand to pluck the forbidden fruit and her husband joined her in setting up the human will against the divine, the sons of men have universally been guilty of a lack of conformity to the will of God. They choose their own way and will not submit their wills. They think their own thoughts and will not submit their understanding. They love earthly things and will not submit their affections. Man wants to be his own law and his own master” (The Reason Why Many Cannot Find Peace, sermon 1408, www.spurgeongems.org).
Christian submission is not an act of human will. It is divine work. We can submit to God’s authorities and His will only through the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ imputes his righteousness to believers so the work of submission is faith. Through faith in Christ we receive his righteousness as our own and keep his commandments through the power the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, Christ eternally intercedes on our behalf before the Father. Christ empowers us to follow Him in submission.
How should Christians submit?
Out of our love for Christ and our gratitude for his work of salvation Christians choose to submit their way, wills, affections, thoughts, desires and understanding to God. (Spurgeon) In all matters of submission our conscience guides us to obey.
We trust ourselves to Christ knowing that He submitted himself to God for our sake. He laid down his life for us, so through the power of the Holy Spirit we can lay down our life for Christ for the sake of the Gospel.
Denise Larson Cooper has a passion for Jesus Christ and teaching the Scriptures. She is the author of three devotional books: Life is a Metaphor, Ordinary Days with an Extraordinary Savior and Godnesia: Keeping God in Mind Each Day. She co-produces the daily devotional podcast Ordinary Days. She is an avid walker and teaches several small group Bible studies and Sunday school. She graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity. She is a wife, mother of two grown daughters and currently works as a gymnastic coach.
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