Of all the words in the Bible, this may be one of the least popular. After all, our cultural moment is not one that values a posture of submission to authorities. On the contrary, our world insists we should challenge and critique those over us.
The classic bumper sticker captures it well: “Question Authority.”
And if submission is already an unpopular concept, it only grows more unpopular in verses like Ephesians 5:22: “Wives submit to your husbands as unto the Lord.” Indeed, this passage (and its counterpart in 1 Pet. 3:1) has been ground zero in the submission wars, both in our churches and the broader culture.
But letting these verses take center stage can give the mistaken impression that the Bible teaches that only women submit. In reality, Scripture has a more comprehensive view.
Everybody Submits to Somebody
The Bible is clear that everybody submits to somebody. Men and women are called to submit to the government (Rom. 13:1), children are called to submit to parents (Eph. 6:1), church members are called to submit to elders (Heb. 13:7), servants are called to submit to masters (1 Pet. 1:18), and on it goes.
Of course, the ultimate demonstration that submission is a good and biblical virtue is that it was practiced by our Lord himself. Christ, in his earthly ministry, submitted himself to the Father (John 4:34; 5:3). His submission was so complete that he was “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).
Here’s the point: submission is not a female virtue; it’s a Christian virtue.
Submission is not a female virtue. It’s a Christian virtue.
Perhaps, then, we need to recalibrate the way we think about—and talk about—submission in the church. Rather than repeatedly focusing on just one example (Eph. 5:22), we need to call all Christians to submit to whatever authorities are over them.
And if men are to be the leaders in the church and the home—a point often made in discussions about submission—then they ought to lead by example. Christian men should be a model of submission to whatever authorities they are under.
Men, Do You Submit?
Here are some diagnostic questions for men:
- Men, do you show a submissive spirit to your employer? Or do you grumble, complain, and undermine your boss’s authority?
- Men, do you submit to your church leaders? Or are you a member who regularly kicks against accountability and oversight?
- Men, if you are a pastor or elder, do you submit to your fellow elders? Do you show a spirit of submission to your denominational body? When that body asks you to do something, do you comply or push against it?
- Men, do you respect the governing authorities God has placed over you, regardless of their political affiliation or your opinion of their policies? Or do you mock and deride those authorities?
One can imagine how difficult (not to mention discouraging) it might be for women who are repeatedly called to submit to see their husbands and church leaders refuse to submit to the authorities over them. By contrast, how encouraging it is for women to see that they are being asked to do something which their leaders willingly and cheerfully do first.
Submission Before a Watching World
But Christian submission is not just an issue in the church; it also affects the way we relate to the broader culture. Do we practice what we preach before a watching world?
When Christians flout government directives, one might understand why the watching culture begins to scratch its head in confusion. Haven’t Christians complained the loudest about how we are living in an anti-authority age? Haven’t Christians lamented our world’s lack of submission to authority?
And yet, it’s often those very same Christians who seem unwilling to submit when faced with a government rule they disagree with.
One can imagine how difficult (not to mention discouraging) it might be for women who are repeatedly called to submit to see their husbands and church leaders refuse to submit to the authorities over them.
Now, to be clear, submission does not mean we blindly follow all government directives (or the directives of other authorities for that matter). Submission does not require us to obey someone if they ask us to sin (in such cases we have an obligation not to submit) or obey laws that force us to dishonor God (Dan. 3:18). And submission does not mean we are unable to work for a change in our situation (e.g., we can submit to the government while seeking to change its laws).
But just as wives are called to submit to imperfect husbands, citizens are called to submit to an imperfect government. And men should be leading the way in doing so.
Submission Will Change You
When men take the lead in practicing submission, here’s something we will discover: submission is hard. It’s a substantive and weighty act of self-denial. It can feel like death, even though we know it’s the path to life.
Firsthand knowledge of the difficulty of submission will, in turn, give us greater understanding and compassion for those under our leadership. We will not be able to talk of submission in a light and trivial manner, as if there’s no cost. We can be the gentle leader we are called to be, because we understand the weightiness of submission from practicing it ourselves.
Submitting is a substantive and weighty act of self-denial. It can feel like death, even though we know it’s the path to life.
Even more, learning the difficulty of submission will give all of us a renewed sense of gratitude for what Jesus suffered on our behalf. While in tears and agony, he asked his Father, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” And yet he uttered these stunning words of self-denial: “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:42).
So, when we as Christians—both male and female—deny ourselves and submit ourselves to those in authority over us, we are doing something distinctively Christlike. Whenever we say, “Not as I will, but as you will,” we are acting like Jesus.