Submission has become an ugly word; a synonym for domestic violence; a moniker for smothering women in the church. It’s become a hated word because the relationship between authority and submitter has been portrayed as superior to inferior.
I’m always in positions requiring submission. Not because I’m a woman, but because I’m a person with a job, because I’m a member of a church, and because I’m subject to a government. While submitting to imperfect authorities may not always be easy, being asked by God to take a submissive role is actually being given a position of grace.
If we think biblical submission is ugly, we don’t understand it at all. If we think submission is only about gender, we’re missing the forest for the trees.
Submission is the Christian way of life because it was Jesus’ way of life. Submission isn’t just about gender; it’s all about Jesus.
Submission—accepting or yielding to the will or authority of another person—is what brought us the gospel that saves us. In fact, Jesus’ death on the cross was the culmination of perfect submission. In Philippians 2, Jesus decides to go to the cross because he ultimately considered God and everyone else as more important than himself. Submission isn’t about Jesus’ gender; his submission is about active grace made possible through his example and eventually, his very own sacrificial blood.
Because Jesus submitted perfectly to the Father, we can know that many of the patriarchal, abusive ideas we profess about submission aren’t biblical submission at all.
“And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will’” (Matt 26:39).
Jesus wasn’t less than the Father. He is equal to him in every way (John 5:1-24). But on earth, Jesus had a different role to play than his Father (John 14-16). When Jesus obeyed the Father, it wasn’t because he was intimidated. He wasn’t rendered silent or passive. Jesus was never bitter that God asked him to die for people who didn’t deserve it, nor was he insulted by this role, though he had every right to be. After all, he deserved the opposite of humiliating death. But, he embodied perfect, graceful submission to the Father. Because he did this self-less act of submission, Christians get the privilege of having the Spirit of God for submissive rolls as well.
Christians are commanded to submit to God and to one another because submission is about revering Christ (Eph 5:21; Gal 5:13).
Males and females are to submit one another (Eph 5:21), to parents (Col 3:20), to governments (Romans 13:1), pastors and elders (Heb 13:17-19), and others holding institutional authority over them given by God (Eph 6:5-7). Wives should submit specifically to their own husbands, not to all men, and husbands should specifically seek to love their wives, not all women, with a shocking abandonment of self-regard (Eph 5:21-22).
God doesn’t tell any of us—wives included—to submit to others because we are less-than the ones to whom we submit. Just as the Son submits to the Father and is equally divine, all men and women are equal and created in the image of God (Gen 1:27; Gal 3:28). Submission isn’t rooted in a difference of value; it creates a relational structure. But, it doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes a leader is a tyrant who rules his subjects harshly. Sometimes authorities are incompetent and destructive. Sometimes a husband doesn’t give himself up for his wife and sometimes a wife doesn’t respect her husband well.
We all need Jesus.
In Colossians 3:22, after God talks about those who submit versus those who love, he says, “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.” Of course, God said this knowing leaders will make poor decisions, so he tells workers to work not according to what the human leader may deserve, but as to honor their sovereign Lord instead. God reminds Christians to submit for him, because of his perfect track record, not because leaders always deserve it (Col 3:23).
In whatever submissive role God has placed the Christian, submission is less about the fitness of our leaders and more about our faithfulness to the perfectly worthy King. Biblical submission is an opportunity of great privilege because Jesus is the one who perfectly and earnestly completed it and he’s asking us to be like him.
Submitting for Jesus
I’ll admit the pain involved in submission for the sake of Christ. But it’s not simply pain from other people’s sin, or from a misunderstanding of these roles, or even the abuse of them. It is pain birthed from my own pride; pain that inevitably comes from killing my flesh when it rises to stake its claim and defend my honor. When I have a hard time submitting in my relationships with others (Eph 5:21), my goal must be to exude the kind of grace that can only be found in the dying of selfish flesh. This is why submission is a position of grace. I can know I’m successfully dying when my desire is to help rather than simply tear down. When I don’t extend grace to others, whether leaders or submitters, I reiterate that Jesus’ submissive death on the cross isn’t motivation enough for my own submission.
Submission is a powerful gift because it’s a mechanism of grace, made possible through Jesus’ perfect submission and display of love on the cross (Phil 2). When I manifest what Jesus has made possible through his death, I bring glory to God by following his way instead of my own.
Submission isn’t a dirty word; submission is a privilege for both men and women; after all, submission is what saved the world.
*This article is not intended to cover such issues as domestic violence and abuse. For more resources concerning this topic please see www.biblicalcounseling.com.
Rebekah Hannah is a biblical counselor at The Grace Center for Biblical Counseling in Jacksonville, Florida. She is married to Andrew and has three daughters.