The Bible has a lot to say about submission. It’s a theme, a command, that appears with regularity. Christians are told to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21). Wives are instructed to submit to their own husbands (Ephesians 5:22). Church members are directed to submit to their pastors (Hebrews 13:17). In summary, we are all to submit to God in every way (James 4:7) because all authority ultimately flows down from him (Romans 13:2). It turns out that our submission to people is indistinguishable from our submission to God.
Submission is a tricky concept made all the more difficult by our naturally sinful rebellion to the very notion of it. Submission is simply acknowledging sources of authority and arranging ourselves accordingly. However, we are all quite convinced we can get along perfectly well without ceding to authority. We understand how others might need that kind of leadership, but we sure don’t! This rebellion begins in infancy and continues to death. We hate to submit to people because we hate to submit to God. Just as submission to people is a facet of our submission to God, rebellion against people is a facet of our rebellion against God.
We may also rebel against submission because we fail to carefully distinguish it from another term: subjection. Submission is not the same as subjection. What’s the difference between the two? Subjection describes actions taken by the one with authority where submission describes actions taken by the one under authority. When it comes to marriage, church, and our shared life with other believers, we are instructed to submit, not to subject.
Subjection is the act of a ruler to force obedience. He uses fear or force or intimidation to break the will of the people so they eventually surrender to him. They give up and wave the white flag. They’ve been conquered. They are now in subjection to this leader.
Submission is the act of someone who acknowledges legitimate authority and willingly arranges himself or herself accordingly. Submission is voluntary, never forced. It is responding to the divine order of things first in the heart and then in the life.
The church is not in subjection to Jesus Christ; we haven’t been ruthlessly conquered by him. No, the church has been won by Jesus Christ, so we willingly submit to his rule, guidance, and instruction. We acknowledge his right to govern, we acknowledge his overwhelming love, we respond to his Spirit, and we arrange ourselves accordingly.
A wife is not in subjection to her husband. She has not been sovereignly claimed by him. Rather, she has been pursued and wooed and won. Now God calls on her to submit to her husband’s leadership, to acknowledge that in the ordering of the family God has ordained husbands should take a role of leadership and wives should submit to that leadership. Therefore, she acknowledges God’s will and arranges herself accordingly, submitting herself in everything to her own husband (Ephesians 5:24).
Church members are not in subjection to their pastors. They have not been forced into a Christian commitment or cajoled into the membership of a church. Rather, they have willingly joined themselves to this body and are now eager to use their gifts in service to others. To do this to the utmost, to maintain the right ordering of the church, and to make the pastors’ task easy rather than onerous, they submit to the leadership of their church.
The consistent instruction of the Bible is that the one under authority must submit to those over him. Foreign to the Bible is that the one with authority must force the subjection of those under him. So many of our problems arise when sin impacts both sides of that dynamic. The problem is not just with the people who ought to submit and will not, but is equally shared by people who ought to lead well and will not. It’s not just our submission that has been muddled by the fall, but our leadership as well. Just as we sinfully refuse to submit as we ought, we sinfully refuse to lead as we ought. We rebel in the way we lead just as we rebel in the way we are led. What a mess we are! And what a joy when we lead and are led in the ways God commands.