What Is Submission?
(This is a sermon I preached a couple of months ago to our congregation at On The Way Reformed Baptist Church, Oak Hills, CA – I asked input from my brethren on whether I should post it as a blog article, and the consensus was overwhelmingly “yes,” much to my surprise. Here it is, therefore – I pray it is of use to the body catholic, as it was to my brethren as the local covenant community).
Ephesians 5:21: submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
This verse, when exposited, gives us practical implications to better help us in learning how we are to submit to God and one another, and shows that submission takes place in a hierarchy, or a hierarchal order. That order is prevalent throughout Special Revelation (Scripture), and always begins with the creature submitting to the Creator. While the Creator/creature distinction exists, the need to recognize that distinction exists, and it works out, practically, down through the created order.
Although there are far more verses that contain the concept of submission than the actual word, we should never assume that a word has to be specifically present to give to us the meaning of the concept. To make such a mistake is known as “the word-concept fallacy,” and would deny any doctrine that is not mentioned specifically by the definitive term we know it by (for instance, Trinity, Hypostatic Union, Covenant of Grace, and Covenant of Works). Those who do such things deny the fact of Historical Theology (Theology as men of God have done it throughout the ages of the orthodox, believing church of Jesus Christ), as well as Systematic Theology, for the latter depends upon and builds upon the former. We are to trust that men of God, guided and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, have rightly understood, interpreted, and exposited the Scriptures, for that is trusting in not only those Scriptures, but in the God of Scripture.
Some keys to understanding submission to God and to one another out of fear for Christ are these: (a) We are “working out our salvation,” and in doing so, so we are speaking of the works of the Spirit of God as “He works within us to will and do His good pleasure;” (b) This is only possible by the same Spirit who imputed to us that forgiveness of sin and righteousness by the work of our Lord Jesus Christ, and finally, (c) We are doing this because of that legal standing God gave us in His Son – (the relief of our guilt and debt of sin by Christ’s work) – that is, through the status and by the power of the One who gave us to be justified, but instead of imputation (as in justification), we are working out that salvation through the impartation of Christ’s life, power and gracious working by His spirit, so this is sanctification at work.
Submission At Its Core
At its core, the understanding of submission to God has to do with obedience, which is wrought by the Spirit graciously changing us into the image of our Lord during sanctification, but we must be careful not to equate our obedience, which is imperfect and unacceptable to God at the pinnacle of the best we can do in seeking to obey the Greatest Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40), with the perfect and perfectly pleasing obedience the Son rendered on our behalf, that we could be accepted by God “in the Beloved.” That which the Lord stated, through the prophet Samuel to the disobedient first king of Israel, was that which our Lord did absolutely in our stead. We can see both the negative and positive aspects, as related to our Lord, in what was said to Saul and how he was chastened and judged:
1 Samuel 15:22-25: And Samuel said, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. 23 For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.”
The Lord did more than simply obey God, unlike Samuel’s feigned obedience – Christ Jesus our Lord not only obeyed the Father perfectly, but rendered our disobedience forgiven by offering Himself in our stead for our guilt, and giving us His righteousness for that sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is how we are to understand both the Father’s statement to our Lord’s disciples (Matthew 3:17; 17:5), as well as our acceptance to God based on the perfect performance of fulfilling both the penalty for our sins and giving faultless obedience to the Father (Ephesians 1:6; Colossians 1:13-14). Because of Christ’s obedience and sacrifice, we are able to have that imperfect obedience we render to our God sanctified and purified – so made as if it were the perfect obedience of our Lord – and thus obey the Greatest Commandment.
Submission In Its Outworking
It is obvious, then, that submission to God is obedience, and that such obedience as we may render to Him is hopelessly paltry, falling short of His glory and His imperial command that we honor Him by giving Him such submissive obedience outside of Christ our Lord’s own payment for our sins and imputing to us of His perfect righteousness – the fact remains, however, that we ARE “accepted in the Beloved,” and therefore our own imperfections in submission are perfected in His perfect obedience and sacrifice for us.
It is equally obvious that we, then, must “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who both wills and works within [us], both to will and to work for His good pleasure,” but what, then, does this submission to God look like, in practical outworking?
I would like to suggest a few points for us to understand this type of obedience as it practically presents to us in Scripture, and as it then is practically implemented in our lives by the power of His Spirit indwelling us and filling (controlling) us to do that which is reflective of that which our Lord did (and yet does, in His mediatory office) for us, that we may rightfully honor our God in Christ.
- What is in view is our obedience to God, as God. Such does not intend nor dismiss the mystery of the Triune God who is One God, but simply, our response to our Triune God as He is One.
Consider: Genesis 5:24: Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him. Couple this with what is said in the New Testament of Enoch: Hebrews 11:5: By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God.
Enoch was post fall – in other words, he completely lacked that which would and could be pleasing to God, yet God, in His grace, translated this memorable saint of old by taking him from the earth before he saw physical death. How is it possible that Enoch pleased God, if not within that envelop of righteous perfection which Genesis 3:15 looked forward to, and which was further unfolded “in further steps (LBC chapter 7.3)?
In other words, Enoch was “accepted in the Beloved” exactly as we are, not because of his own perfection before God, but because of the perfection of the Son of God. His obedience did not gain him privileged entrance into the presence of God any more than ours does, but He was a type, despite his imperfect obedience, to how we are accepted of God. Another way to say this is his submission was a forerunner – a type – of that submission which the Son of God performed perfectly, and thus, knowing the perfection of our Mediator, such should give us great hope.
How so, we might ask, when we compare ourselves to such saints of old?
Quite simply, we may say “Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him,” regarding God’s instructions, and we further know, through New Testament revelation, “He did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly,” yet we also know that Noah was at least a drunkard (Genesis 9:20-21), yet he is included among those represented in what we have largely come to know as “the Hall of Faith,” for we have this witness: Hebrews 11:7: By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
Upon what testimony of righteousness was our Father Noah accepted of God as being of the perfection necessary to be accepted as right before God?
Not on his own! Noah was a drunk, on at least this one occasion (shall we not condemn him?)
We are told that God “rescued righteous Lot, [who] was greatly distressed by the sensuous conduct of the wicked,” (2 Peter 2:7-8), yet, before this, we are told, Now Lot went up out of Zoar and lived in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to live in Zoar. So he lived in a cave with his two daughters. 31 And the firstborn said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the earth. 32 Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.” 33 So they made their father drink wine that night. And the firstborn went in and lay with her father. He did not know when she lay down or when she arose. 34 The next day, the firstborn said to the younger, “Behold, I lay last night with my father. Let us make him drink wine tonight also. Then you go in and lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.” 35 So they made their father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose and lay with him, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. 36 Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father (Genesis 19:30-36). Thus, we are shown another father of the faith who was counted righteous, by the statement of the apostle in Hebrews, was also so drunk on two occasions that he did not recognize his own daughters having sex with him! This makes him a drunkard and guilty of incest.
Yet, whether consciously or blind drunk, he is one of our heroes of the faith we are given in the so-called “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11. And if we examine all the other men of faith – our heroes of the faith – in the context of the Scriptures, we will find like failings with them – like sins, sins which had to be covered by the perfect sacrifice, and men who had to have imputed to them that righteousness that is greater than their own, for their righteousness is not good enough to be accepted before God and given the blessing of dwelling with Him as His children in eternal bliss forever. Therefore, whether we consider ourselves in relation to the heroes of faith in Scripture, or the heroes of faith in the ages of the church as it has unfolded throughout history, we are not considering ourselves in relation to that which we need, which is the sacrifice of Christ for our falling short of the glory of God, and the righteousness of Christ to be accepted before God “in the Beloved.” Consequently, “perfect obedience” was not, nor ever could have been in mind, since only Christ was able to do that. Yet we are called to such, despite the impossibility of it, which leads to why we are called to such.
- In view of that perfect obedience that only our Lord gave to God, we are yet called to give such not only to God, but to one another, according to that aforementioned hierarchy of submission we mentioned. We, therefore, must discern that which is given us within and according to that hierarchy, as it related first of all to Christ, and second of all, to His obedience to the Father as it is worked out in and among us in the various relations of the members of His body as set forth in Scripture. It should be obvious that obedience is synonymous with submission, at this point, yet it should be equally obvious that such submission to God directly is not equal to, but rather representative of (in the hierarchal order we have mentioned), that perfect submission to God which our Lord alone rendered. It should be likewise obvious that such representative submission to “one another out of reverence for Christ (or “fear of God”) has distinctions within those relationships spoken to, which will be treated of as the current chapter of Ephesians 5 is exposited when we come to those verses. However, one thing needs to be looked at immediately, and that is the word “reverence.”
This is a qualification of the Greek word “phobos,” which, like all other words, must be translated according to its usage in the immediate context, as it relates to the words in that context. In other translations (NASB, NKJV, KJV), it is translated as “fear,” and the meaning is unambiguous. It is not only “reverence and awe,” but a genuine fear of what God will do to the disobedient among His people – those who are “in Christ” – when and if they disobey His commands. It is a healthy fear, but a fear, nevertheless, of being given discipline which “for the present seems not to be joyful but painful” (Hebrews 12:11), and I have yet to meet the person who welcomes pain, so the fear is to be, and should be, a real one – the fear of the child of God that that their heavenly Father will discipline them is as real as the fear of any other kind of pain (I certainly did not relish spankings when I was a child!). So, let us be clear on that – the ESV and some other modern translations make too light of this word, as do various commentaries and Lexicons.
To continue, the outworking of such submission is set forth well within the record of Scripture. In the following verses of the chapter, we will see that hierarchy working out through familial relations and marital relations, yet we cannot forget what it started with: Relations within the church. Furthermore, we cannot forget what Scripture instructs and commands of us regarding those relations, for what goes on in the church is certain to work out in the family and marriage, whether in compliance to this command of God, or in disobedience to it (for both will have their fruit).
Our inability is not in view in these things – we are called to consider – and submit – to one another according to the perfect ability of our Lord, and God’s covering, enabling grace within Him.
Previously, it was deliberately brought to our attention that such submission to one another is truly submission to God through Christ, and it is truly framed well in how we consider one another, not after the flesh, but after the perfection of Christ: From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:16-17) For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:2)
On the one hand, we do not consider the weaknesses of the flesh which are so apparent in we who are Christ’s; on the other hand, we consider those weaknesses crucified, and look to He who is the New Creation in us as we submit to one another in the fear of God. He whom we look to in one another did as much, for we are told, as to His pre-glorified state, in the days of His passion, or flesh, that “when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared; Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Hebrews 5:7-9 KJV). The obedience of “those who obey Him” is subsequent and dependent on His perfect obedience, not equal to it (else He need not have lived, died and ascended).
Thus, within the local body of believers which forms a minute portion of that which is the Church of Jesus Christ, yet is to be representative of His body universal in local context, we have the hierarchy of submission to one another, which is to depend upon and distill among one another His obedience to the Father, not as being His obedience, but as drinking of that grace of God which sees one another crucified and a New Creation at one and the same time, overlooking faults, yet never excusing them (else why His sacrifice?); seeing Christ in one another, yet asking forgiveness for our own and the sins of our brethren, that we may “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – to Him be the glory both now and forever” (2 Peter 3:18).
We were introduced to this outworking of our submission (obedience) to God in and through our Lord Jesus Christ back in Ephesians chapter 2:20-22, and again in chapter 4:11-16, as the beginning of the outworking of the hierarchy of submission among those who are His relating to Him in and through one another. The full outworking now, seeing our flesh crucified and the glorified Lord risen in one another, begins in such verses, which are supplemented throughout Scripture.
Hebrews 13:17: Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
1 Thessalonians 5:12-15: We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.
1 Peter 5:1-3: So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
These are but a small cross section of the verses that deal with elders, but take note, it is with reciprocal submission – and that directed to God through Christ Jesus our Lord – that these verses speak. Elders are not to lead other than by prayer, preaching/teaching and example to the flock, and any brutish demand that the flock follow the elders blindly, should those elders go against the prescribed methods of shepherding set forth so plainly in Scripture, is never to be allowed.
On the other hand, neither is an imagined entitlement of one-to-one correlation of each member to our Lord – an independence that denies church membership, rather than an interdependence that exemplifies that which our Lord died to purchase to His and the Father’s glory – to be insisted upon and exercised by the members. All of us have our roles, not as positions of superiority, but as blessings of interdependence – that is, a relationship in which each member is mutually dependent on the others for their mutual beneficence. Ephesians 4:13-16 sets forth the end of this interdependence as only God’s Word is able to do: until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
This, then, it the outworking of our submission to the Father in Christ which is firstly experienced on the level of the local Sabbath worship. It is notable that without this, none of the rest of our relations can be in Christ, for where that which He has ordained is ignored on the corporate level, it will also be ignored on the level of work relations and family relations. That which is learned at church through the preaching and teaching of the Word, and the other means of grace, must work out in our personal lives as those who are freed from error and honoring God.
On the next level, we come back to our opening Scripture verse, where the interdependence of each other relies on the life of Christ within one another. Understanding this is as key to our familial and marital relationships, as believers of God by the work of Jesus Christ our Lord imparted to us through His Spirit, as breathing is for our physical bodies. Some have said the Christian’s prayers are in place of breathing for the body of flesh and blood, but without the supply of the Spirit to all the parts of the body of Christ, so that all parts are working properly, doing what they should, to build up the body itself in love unto it’s Head, there would be no life. We must take in air to expel it again, and we must take in the life of Christ in order to give it to our brethren. This is the essence of “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ,” and it is noteworthy that, having set this second (since the establishment of submission to the elders was set forth in the previous chapters already mentioned, as well as, in embryo form, this doctrine of submission to one another at one and the same time), that in the rest of chapter 5 and the beginning of chapter 6 the apostle lays out what submission is and looks like among husbands and wives, fathers, parents and children, and employers and employees. Wives are to submit to husbands “as to the Lord;” children are to obey their parents “in the Lord,” fathers are not to provoke their children to anger but to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” employees are to render obedience to their employers with fear and trembling, not as eye-pleasers to gain approval of men, but doing good because the Lord sees all such in worshipful words and actions, so such service is rendered “to the Lord,” and finally, employers are not to threaten their employees, but act in the same manner as their saved brethren who work for them do towards them, knowing our impartial Lord renders to all who are His because of their being “in Christ,” where there is never favoritism of one over another, but all are favored alike – in Christ.
This is simply an overview of some of what is coming up, and not intended to treat of each relationship within the body in an exhaustive manner, but I do hope that you have noticed the one thing that runs through this message and guides the relationship of the members of Christ’s body locally, which is being in Him, and thus rendering to the Father by His Spirit that submission due Him in each and every member, not because any member is superior to any other, but because God has willed to set up His church in such a manner to honor Him, and where we succeed at this, we succeed at that submission to the Lord required of us, and supplied to us by Him, that we may truly worship Him in Spirit and truth.
Towards the end of chapter 6, we will be told to “be strong in the Lord,” and that will be followed by further doctrinal instruction and practical application, but running throughout all of this, we must constantly remember that we do all this by our submission to the Lord, which is synonymous with obedience to Him, and our submission to one another as He has been pleased to place us within His body. These things will guide us in that obedience and worship of Him, as well as our gaining His strength by His will as we exercise aright such “submission to one another in the fear of Christ.” How we interact in interdependence with one another will show how we actually worship our Lord – one cannot say they love God, whom they cannot see, and not love their brother, whom they do see, and call their worship of and submission to God genuine. Truly, when God commands us to love one another as Christ loved us – when we obey the second of the Two Great Commandments – we are being empowered to do that in the ways we learn about in Scripture, and although these commandments are most practical, we must never assume it is within the ability of our natural man to perform them.
So, during our stay here, submission among us which is to the Lord may be summed up in a single verse, which has to do with sanctification: Hebrew 12:14: Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
It is this submission which that verse is speaking about – because we have been saved from the penalty of sin, we will yield the peaceable fruits of righteousness – that which our Lord did for us will be worked out within and through us to one another first, and even those outside the household of faith, that God may be seen to be all in all, most glorious and holy forever. This is submission to our Lord; this is submission to one another in love and reverence towards our Lord and God, and this is that obedience to His commandments that our Lord spoke of to His first disciples: John 13:34-35: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Practical spirituality is still only able to be carried out by the Spirit who indwells us, and so our obedience and submission to God in Christ, and thus to one another, will always rely on that work of Christ which His Spirit applies to us in order to give God the glory forever. That which Christ did in His life, death resurrection and ascension to glory is not simply to be understood, but to be lived out, not as He did (else again, why did He need to come, live, die, rise again and ascend to the right hand of glory?)
We look to the submission of Christ not only as our model, but our source, for that submission to God and one another which is commanded in Scripture. Such (from God in His internal Trinitarian relations between the Divine Persons as the One True God, to the external relationships in the body of Christ [elders, deacons, laity], to matriarchal and familial relationships, to work relationships [employer, employee], to our relationship to secular authorities, and even our relationships with unbelievers), is only properly observed by those who are in Christ, so the model of the submission Christ showed towards the Father and His fellow man (for whom He came to die for – the ultimate submission – Matthew 20:28; Philippians 2:5-11) is only able to be followed, to any degree, however imperfect, by those who have Christ as their source to perform such obedience. Those who do not believe in the fact of the gospel – that Christ was born, lived perfectly, gave His life for the sins of those who believe and repent, and gives His eternal life to those who believe and repent of their sins – are not able to practice true submission to any degree, except to the extent that God gives them to by His providence (which is why society is yet able to have some semblance of relationships and submit to authority, etc.).
To the glory of God, for the benefit of His body – Bill Hier.