What does the Bible say about being submissive? To whom are we to submit and why?
In our modern culture we celebrate freedom, equality, and individuality, encouraging people to think and act for themselves. When we hear the word submission we cringe because it stands in contradiction to this mindset. In the English language to submit is to yield power or authority to another person. It often has the negative connotation of someone being forced to give up his freedom and do something that is against his will.
Consequently, when people read the Bible it stirs up a lot of controversy because God makes multiple commands involving submission. It is important that we employ the tool of hermeneutics, studying the interpretation of biblical texts, in order to best understand what the word submit would have meant in the languages and cultural context in which it was originally written.
The New Testament was written in Greek and the Greek term used for submit is hupotasso. Hupotasso was often used as a military term meaning to place oneself under the command of a leader. It was presented as a voluntary attitude of cooperating with and putting trust in an authority figure.
According to the Bible, the ultimate authority is God (1 Corinthians 11:3). Even Jesus, who is God, demonstrated submission to the Father. In John 6:38–40 Jesus explains, "For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day." At the end of His life on earth when He is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, we see a powerful act of submission. Jesus prayed, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will" (Matthew 26:39). Jesus knew that He was about to be crucified, yet He chose to submit to the Father, trusting His plan for the salvation of humanity.
It is clear that Christians are called to follow Jesus' example in submission to God as the highest authority (Luke 6:46; 14:27; John 15:1–17). However, why and when should we submit to other people? First, the reason we should submit to others is because God commands it. First Peter 2:13–14 says, "Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good." Since all human authority is given to them by God, we must submit to others as we would to God (cf. Romans 13:1–7).
The Bible gives us many examples of who should submit to whom. Wives are told to submit to their husbands (1 Peter 3:1–6), and in turn husbands should love their wives as themselves (1 Peter 3:7; Ephesians 5:22–33). Children and youth are to submit to parents and elders (1 Peter 5:5; Ephesians 6:1–3). This honors and respects the wisdom of parents and elders which provides structure in society and positive mentorship. Parents are to raise their children in the instruction of the Lord and not provoke them (Ephesians 6:4). Slaves are to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5–8) so that their masters can become believers and then they will no longer be slave and master but fellow brothers in Christ. Masters are to treat their bondservants fairly, understanding that they themselves have a Master in heaven (Colossians 4:1). Today these same concepts apply to employees and their bosses. Finally, Christians are to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21) so that they might put others first by caring for them.
Yet what should we do if the authority over us is asking us to disobey God? In these cases we must submit first to the higher authority, which is God (Acts 5:29). This will most often lead to persecution and perhaps even martyrdom. However, God has placed us in these situations so that we can be witnesses of His authority.
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