Christian Submission

In Matthew 5:38-41 Jesus said:

"You have heard that it was said,'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two."

Our Lord was here instituting a new moral code, one higher than the old law of justice. But it was not just a superior moral code. It was a better way of living. Better, not just for the overall good, but for the good of whoever followed it. The importance of this instruction can be judged by the number of times the Holy Spirit refers to it. The essence of this passage is repeated in Luke 6:27-36. 1 Corinthians 6:7 corrects Christians who were going to law, saying "Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated?" And Romans 12 says "Repay no one evil for evil" (verse 17), and "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (verse 21)

One might well ask, how can I benefit by yielding to someone who wants to do me wrong? We can well understand that our God may have some kind of an overall plan that will eventually bring good out of such action. We can understand, for instance, that if we do not resist an evil man, this might reach his conscience and eventually bring him to repentance. But how can yielding benefit me? There are two benefits. The first is found in Luke 6:35, where Jesus said "love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil." The first benefit, then, is that such obedience will be well rewarded when we get to heaven. This is again brought before us in Hebrews 10:34, where the Holy Spirit commends some who "joyfully accepted the plundering of [their] goods, knowing that [they had] a better and an enduring possession for [themselves] in heaven."

But there is a second benefit. Philippians 4:6-7 tells us to:

"Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus."

The second benefit, then, is peace. Peace of mind. A peace not external, but internal. If I fight for my rights, defending my person and my property, I may indeed succeed in protecting them. But I will still lose. I may keep my things, but I will lose my peace. I may save my life, but I will lose my reward. If, on the other hand, I simply yield, the enemy may take away everything I have, he may even kill my body, but he cannot touch me; for I have retreated into a fortress too strong for him. That fortress is the love and wisdom of my God; the faith that He will not allow anything He cannot turn to my good, and that he will richly reward me for any loss I sustain in His service. Scriptural yielding is not a fatalistic acceptance of power too great for us to resist, but a willing yielding to the authority of God, and thus to whatever He allows in our lives.

This principle of yielding applies even more when we consider the authority our God has placed over us. Submission is grievous to the flesh "because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be." (Romans 8:7) But our God tells us that "you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you." (Romans 8:9) "Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?" (Romans 6:16) We all serve someone. The question is, whom do you choose to serve? "Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve... But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." (Joshua 24:15)

The perfect example of this submission is our Lord Jesus himself, who "suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps." (1 Peter 2:21) We read of Him that "though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered." (Hebrews 5:8)


"Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross." (Philippians 2:5-8)

When we examine spiritual authority in the Holy Scriptures, we realize that it is never imposed upon the followers by the leader, as is the case with natural authority. Spiritual authority is yielded to the leader by the followers. Christians are exhorted to submit to their leaders, but the leaders are forbidden to exercise authority over them. This is the reverse of natural authority. Nowhere is this more clear than in 1 Peter 5. In the third verse of this chapter, the elders are expressly forbidden to take the attitude of lords, that is, rulers, over those entrusted to their care. But just two verses later the younger brethren are exhorted to submit to them. The Lord explained this to his disciples when He said:

"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave." (Matthew 20:25-27)

As we previously noticed for the principle of not resisting an evil person, we can see the importance of this concept by the number of places it is repeated. We find essentially this same statement in Mark 10:42-44 and in Luke 22:25-26. The disciples were exhorted in this by the example of a little child in Matthew 18:1-4 and again in Luke 9:46-48.

Now we must ask, why is authority reversed for a spiritual man? We find our answer in Matthew 11:28-30. Jesus said "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light." A follower of Christ has a yoke to pull and a burden to carry, true enough. But the "yoke is easy and the burden is light." What makes it so? Willing submission. This takes the sting out of authority. Authority is there, and it is real, for it is of God; but if I choose to submit, it will not seem oppressive. The spiritual man is instructed to choose to obey. This gives him liberty, for those who choose to obey are always free. They are even free when they must submit to authority, for obedience is their choice.

Christians are also instructed to apply this principle in situations involving natural authority. Those who are to obey are exhorted to do so willingly, whether the authorities are gentle or severe. This instruction is given for wives to their husbands, for children to their parents, for slaves to their masters, and for all of us to the rulers of the world. (Ephesians 5:22-6:9, Colossians 3:18-4:1, 1 Peter 2:13-3:7, and Romans 13:1-7) But what of the authorities? In these same passages: Husbands are instructed to refrain from bitterness toward their wives, but rather to love them. Fathers are exhorted not to provoke their children. And masters are forbidden to threaten their slaves. They are rather to give them what is just and fair; and to remember that they also have a Master in heaven. The net effect of these instructions is the same as those for spiritual authority. The followers are to obey willingly, thus taking the sting out of even oppressive authority. But the leaders are exhorted to soften that authority, so it will not be oppressive. Spiritual relationships do not cancel natural authority, but a spiritual man can cancel the oppressive character of authority. He can do this whether he is the leader or the follower. All it takes is obedience to the word of God. How exceedingly wise is our God!

"Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!" (Romans 11:33)

The Scriptures clearly state that God has placed leaders in the church, that they are over us in the Lord, and that we are to submit to them. We see this, for instance, in Hebrews 13:17, which instructs us to "Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you."

We see this again in 1 Peter 5:5, which says "Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders." In 1 Corinthians 16:15-16 we read; "I urge you, brethren; you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints; that you also submit to such, and to everyone who works and labors with us." Again, in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 we read; "And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake." These Scriptures are too clear to misunderstand. They do not need to be explained. They need to be obeyed.

But in the church we are not only commanded to submit to the leaders, we are also to submit to each other. 1 Peter 5:5, the first part of which we have already noticed, ends with the words, "Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for 'God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.'" Again, Ephesians 5:18-21 exhorts us to "be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God." We see this again in the instructions for maintaining order in church services. 1 Corinthians 14:29-33 says "Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints."

While the authority of church leaders is real, it is limited. One of the basic qualifications for eldership is to be "holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict." (Titus 1:9) If a man is not holding fast the faithful word, he is disqualified as an elder; and thus has no spiritual authority. Formal recognition cannot give him an authority the Scriptures deny him. The Apostle John spoke of such a man in 3 John 9, saying "if I come, I will call to mind his deeds." Such men, even if they manage to worm themselves into recognition as leaders in the church, are still nothing but rebels. We do not owe submission to such men. We are not instructed to obey them, but to turn away from them. (2 Timothy 3:5)

Many will object to this, saying that in five places the New Testament calls church leaders rulers. They will reason that if our leaders are rulers, they have final authority and we are responsible to obey them without question. They will argue that church leaders are called those who "rule over you" three times in Hebrews 13. This is found in the King James, New King James, and American Standard versions of the Bible. But the Greek word in each of these places literally means leader. In all three places the Greek word is hegeomai, used in its forms hegoumenon (verse 7), hegoumenois (verse 17), and hegoumenous (verse 24). In all three of these places, most authorities translate this word as leaders. As can be seen in the chart in the back of this book, these include the Revised Standard, New Revised Standard, New International, New Century, Contemporary English, and Today's English versions of the Bible; the New English, Revised English, Jerusalem, New Jerusalem, and New American Bibles; the translation called God's Word to the Nations; and the translations by William Kelly, J. N. Darby, Jay P. Green, George M. Lamsa, James Moffatt, Daniel H. Stern, Heinz W. Cassirer, Helen B. Montgomery, A. S. Worrell, and Richard Francis Weymouth, as well as the interlinear translation by Thomas Newberry (which is commonly but mistakenly called "Berry's Interlinear"). The New American Standard Bible says those who led in verse 7 and leaders in verses 17 and 24. Robert Young (of Young's Concordance fame), the New Greek English Interlinear New Testament, and Albert Marshall's interlinear translation give leading in all three places.

The objectors will further argue that rulers over the church are mentioned in Romans 12:8 and in 1 Timothy 5:17, but the answer is similar. The Greek word used in each of these places is proistemi, in the forms proistamenos in Romans 12:8 and proestotes in 1 Timothy 5:17. The word literally means to stand before. Again referring to the chart in the back of this book, the only translations that give the word ruleth for this Greek word in Romans 12:8 are the King James and American Standard versions. Two others give rules, six give govern, governing, or authority, while thirteen use some form of the words lead or leader. In 1 Timothy 5:17, eight of these translations follow the King James with rule, ruling, or having ruled, while twelve use lead, leading, or leaders.

In these five places the King James and some other translations of the Bible seem to imply that church leaders have authority similar to that of political rulers. But we have seen that a significant majority of the recognized authorities use a different word in each of these places.*1 Even if these were the only Scriptures on the subject, such an interpretation would be very questionable. But other Scriptures speak plainly on this matter. We have already noticed that in three of the four gospels Jesus forbade church leaders to lord it over their followers. We have also noticed that in 1 Peter elders are forbidden to take the attitude of rulers. These Scriptures plainly show us that church leaders do not have this kind of absolute authority. 1 Corinthians 14:29 tells us that even a prophet's words are to be judged. When the high priests (the religious leaders of the day) commanded the apostles not to teach in the name of Jesus, they answered "We ought to obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:29) This remains our rule to the present day. We are responsible to obey the Scriptures, regardless of what anyone says. To teach otherwise is to rebel against the authority of God.

*1 None of these differences in translation is based upon any revision of the Greek text. In all five of these places there is no difference between the Textus Receptus and the modern "critical" texts. Return

Next Previous Table of Contents Home Page e-mail author