APPENDIX 7: THE BIBLICAL PRINCIPLE OF SUBMISSION

© Rosemary Bardsley 2017

[Note: this appendix does not give a complete list of relevant scriptures.]

The focus in some Christian circles on submission as something specifically commanded of women is far from biblical. The principle of submission pervades the whole New Testament and applies to all – both male and female - who believe in Jesus Christ.

We have already seen in earlier parts of this document that the concept of submission is applied to:

Christ’s submission to the Father
The Church’s submission to Christ

The biblical principle of submission reflects the humility and self-denial exemplified by Jesus Christ and commanded of all believers. It is the opposite of the ego-centric, self-promoting independence and pride that was our human downfall in Genesis 3. The submissive person, recognizing the biblical priority of the other, puts aside their own rights [whether real or perceived] in order to achieve the well-being of the other. This principle of submission, of prioritizing the other, applies at both ends of any ‘authority’ structure – to both husbands and wives, to both parents and children, to both masters and slaves.

Reading through the New Testament we find the principle of submission expressed repeatedly, but not always using the words ‘submit’ or ‘submission’:

MATTHEW 5:1 & 3 Having already called ‘the poor in spirit’ blessed Jesus also designates ‘the meek’ blessed. The comments below give us insight into the submission involved in this meekness.

Leon Morris comments: ‘Meekness is not to be confused with weakness: the meek are not simply submissive because they lack the resources to be anything else. Meekness is quite compatible with great strength and ability, as humans measure strength, but whatever strength or weakness the meek person has is accompanied by humility and a genuine dependence on God. True meekness may be a quality of the strong, those who could assert themselves but choose not to do so.’ [p98, The Gospel According to Matthew]

William Hendriksen, taking his cue from the whole of Psalm 37 where the ‘meek’ and ‘inheriting the land’ are mentioned [verses 11,22,29,34], states that the word ‘meek’: ‘describes the person who is not resentful. He bears no grudge. Far from mulling over injuries received, he finds refuge in the Lord and commits his way entirely to him. All the more does he do this because he has died to all self-righteousness. … Yet meekness is not weakness. Meekness is not spinelessness, the characteristics of the person who is ready to bow before every breeze. It is submissiveness under provocation, the willingness rather to suffer, than to inflict injury. The meek person leaves everything in the hands of him who loves and cares.’ [p271-272, The Gospel of Matthew]

Martyn Lloyd-Jones recommends that we read the stories of Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Stephen and Paul to see meekness in action, then points us to Jesus himself for the supreme example. He then writes: ‘Meekness … is not a natural quality. … Every Christian, whatever his natural temperament or psychology may be, is meant to be like this. Take these various characters whom I have mentioned, apart from our Lord Himself, and I think you will find that in every case we have a man who was not like this by nature. … Meekness does not mean indolence … flabbiness … niceness … weakness in personality or character … a spirit of compromise or “peace at any price” … not merely a matter of outward manner, but also, and still more, of inward spirit.

‘Meekness is essentially a true view of oneself, expressing itself in attitude and conduct with respect to others … It is my attitude to myself; and it is an expression of that in my relationship to others. It inevitably follows being “poor in spirit” and “mourning”. … When I have a true view of myself in terms of poverty of spirit, and mourning because of my sinfulness, I am led on to see that there must be an absence of pride. The meek man is not proud of himself … does not demand anything for himself … does not make demands for his position, his privileges, his possessions, his status in life …is not even sensitive about himself and his own interests. He is not always on the defensive … he no longer worries about himself and what other people say. To be truly meek means we no longer protect ourselves, because we see nothing there worth defending. … The man who is truly meek never pities himself … to be meek … means that you have finished with yourself altogether, and you come to see you have no rights or deserts at all. You come to realize that nobody can harm you … that nobody can say anything about [you] that is too bad.’

Lloyd-Jones then describes the qualities and attitudes that demonstrate meekness: gentleness, the complete absence of the spirit of retaliation, patience, longsuffering [even when suffering unjustly], teachability. Meekness, he says, ‘leaves everything – ourselves, our rights, our cause, our whole future – in the hands of God … with a quietness of spirit and heart.’ [p67-70 Studies in the Sermon on the Mount]

These comments reflect what we have already seen in 1Corinthians 14:34: that submission is something that the woman does to herself – she holds herself under submission, she deliberately aligns herself with the God-ordained role distinctions. It is not something that is arbitrarily imposed upon her. It is a sign of strength, not of weakness. It expresses constructive humility not destructive pride.

Matthew 18:1-4: The disciples asked ‘Who ... is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ Jesus answered that unless we become like little children we will never enter the kingdom of heaven; that we must take the lowly position of a child – that is true greatness.

Matthew 20:20-28; Mark 10:32-45: Similarly, Jesus rebuked the mindset of James and John (and their mother) in seeking positions of authority and prestige in Christ’s kingdom. He outlawed any exercise of authority in which one Christian ‘lords it’ over another. Those who want to become great must be slaves of all. Just like Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom. Applying this to the male/female role distinctives: male headship must reflect the servant mindset of Christ not the ‘lord it over’ mindset of the Gentiles.

John 13:1-17: This is the report of the last supper during which Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. He who was their Lord and Master took upon himself the role of the lowest servant. This action was symbolic of his death, by which our sin is cleansed. Out of this action, and the reality it symbolised, comes the command: ‘I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.’ It is not that he expects us to be running around washing our fellow-believers’ feet. It is that this same humility, this same self-denial, this same unconcern for personal position, this same submission – should be our mindset, attitude and our action towards each other.

Romans 12:10: Here Paul commands: ‘Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves.’

Romans 13:1-7: Submission to governing authorities is submission to God.

Romans 14:1-15:9: Putting aside one’s freedom and rights in order to achieve the well-being of the other. This follows the example of Christ who ‘became a servant of the Jews on behalf God’s truth so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.’

1Corinthians 9:19-23: Almost the whole of 1Corinthians addresses arrogance in a range of contexts within the church at Corinth. In the middle of addressing the ‘right’ of Christians to eat food sacrificed to idols Paul inserts a chapter in which he gives the example of his own denial of his ‘rights’ and ‘freedom’.

Paul, although he had the highly authoritative responsibility of an apostle, nevertheless refused to exercise his rightful freedoms. He deliberately put those freedoms, those rights, aside in order to ‘by all possible means ... save some’.

Galatians 5:13-15: Here Paul commands that, rather than selfishly insist on our exercising our freedom we are to ‘serve one another humbly in love’. If we don’t, if we insist on our freedoms, then we stand in grave danger of destroying the other, and if we do that, we are walking out of step with the Spirit.

Galatians 6:2: Paul’s ‘carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ’ contains a strong element of submission.

Ephesians 5:15-6:9: In 5:21 ‘submitting to one another’ is listed as an expression of being filled with the Spirit. [This is very obvious in the Greek text, where there is only one command [‘be filled with the Spirit’, followed by five present participles, of which ‘submitting’ is the last.] In 5:22,26; 6:1,4,5,9 Paul gives six examples from 3 common human relationships of what this ‘submitting’ looks like.

Paul gives us these three common relationships by which he illustrates the kind of mutual, reciprocal, submitting to the other that he has in mind. We must note clearly that this is not a one-sided submission. Each party, if subject to the control of God’s Spirit, will be ‘submitting’ to the other. Submission will look different from the perspective of the two parties in each of these relationships, but it is still submission – the putting aside of my perceived or real rights in order to achieve the well-being of the other person.

Hidden deep within Paul’s words here is the radical concept that in every relationship we are to evidence two standards:

1. That we act towards this other person as we would act toward Jesus Christ.
2. That we treat this other person as Christ has treated us.

In such submission to the dignity and well-being of the other person we demonstrate the very nature of God whose Spirit indwells and seeks to control us. In such submission we demonstrate our allegiance to Christ [John 13:35]. In such submission we follow the example of Christ [John 13:14,15,17].

Philippians 2:1-9: Here again Paul uses the example of Christ to demonstrate the humility/submission to one another appropriate for all believers. He points to both Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion as illustrations of denying self for the well-being of our fellow believers. Christ’s self-denying, humble consideration of us is the measure and motivation of the mindset of submission to the well-being of other believers that should characterize believers. He instructs us:

‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.’

‘... have the same mindset as Christ Jesus ...’

Colossians 3:18-4:1: Colossians 3:18-4:1 parallels the Ephesians 5-6 passage. It teaches that submission ‘is fitting in the Lord’ and is to be pursued ‘with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord’. Paul adds that, even though slaves are working for human masters, it is actually ‘the Lord Christ you are serving’. With this in mind, even in this obvious slave-master relationship, all work must be done whole-heartedly ‘as working for the Lord’.

This is actually quite instructive for the male/female role distinctives in the Church: although the male is ‘the head’ of the woman in the Church context [and also of other men in the Church] any voluntary submission/service carried out in the Church by women is to be done with a similar perspective: that the women are not serving the male head of the Church. They are serving Christ. Their service, therefore, is to be fulfilled ‘as working for the Lord’.

1Thessalonians 2:1-12: Paul describes his motives and attitude to the Thessalonians when he was with them previously. In describing his self-denying humility he says ‘we were like young children among you’ [v7].

1Thessalonians 5:15: The need/desire for personal justice is over-ridden by the command to ‘always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else’.

2Thessalonians 3:7-9: Paul discarded his right to be financially supported by those to whom he ministered, in order (1) not to be a financial burden to them, and (2) to give them an example of denying personal rights in order to achieve the well being of others.

1Peter 2:11-3:7: In 2:11-12 Peter says: ‘Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.’ He then goes on to spell out the implications of this instruction in various situations:

We should all submit to the government for the Lord’s sake. [2:13-17]

Slaves [employees] should submit to their masters [employers], even insulting or unjust masters, and so express the example of Christ [2:18-25].

Wives in the same way should be submissive to their husbands, and possibly by this submission win them over to Christ [3:1-6]. Note that this submission is not an expression of fear [3:6].

Husbands in the same way are to treat their wives with consideration and respect because they know they are weaker and because they are heirs together of the gracious gift of life, and, Peter adds, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

Like the Ephesians passage this neither authorises nor commands male domination and female servility. Peter, very much aware of the pagan world looking on and observing the behaviour of Christians, calls Christians to express their knowledge of Jesus Christ in their relationships in such a way that God will be glorified.

Governments may be wrong: but the Christian’s responsibility before Christ is to submit to their decrees.

Masters may be harsh and unjust: but the Christian servant’s responsibility before Christ is to respect them and not retaliate.

Husbands may be unsaved and demanding: but it is the Christian wife’s responsibility to choose to respect their authority.

Wives may be frustrating dependents, but it is the Christian husband’s responsibility to treat them with consideration, respect and equality.

This does not endorse governments in their wrong decisions.
This does not endorse harshness or injustice in masters or employers.
This does not endorse harsh leadership in a husband.
This does not endorse helpless weak dependence in a wife.