The word "submission" is not well-liked in our American culture. It brings pictures of slavery, weakness, stifled expression, and tyranny. Yet the Bible shows that submission to authority should be the norm for all Christians. How can we reconcile our negative picture of "door-mat" submission to God's perfect harmony in relating to one another?
It is important to place the discussion of submission within the larger framework of the unity of all Christians:
I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Ephesians 4:1-5)
God has rescued us from condemnation and eternal death, placing us all within His family as adopted children. This great unifying truth should govern our daily relationships with each other.
Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is...Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. (Ephesians 5:17,21)
Submission is a wise response to God's calling in our lives. "Submission" means to put under, or to obey. It carries a sense of arrangement and order.
Submission in Marriage
For a married woman, submission is to be demonstrated especially to her husband.
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. (Ephesians 5:22)
Paul describes marriage as an earthly example of our spiritual relationship with Christ. Believers form the church of Christ, and we put ourselves willingly under His authority and protection. Wives are to mirror this relationship by putting themselves willingly under their husband's authority and protection.
The husband's responsibility in marriage is to sacrificially care for his wife, demonstrating genuine love.
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.(Ephesians 5:23-33)
Submission in the Family
Children also are to reflect the spiritual order created by God.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth. And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:1-4)
"Obey" in this verse is from a Greek word meaning to "under-hear", or to listen and obey. It is related to the word used for "submit", but it implies respectful submission to training. Fathers are to reflect the patience and wisdom of God in training their children.
Submission in the World
Finally, Paul reminds workers and managers of their responsibility in demonstrating submission to one another.
Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him. (Ephesians 6:5-9)
"Be obedient" is the same word used previously for the children: "under-hear", submitting respectfully to training and instruction. "Masters", or managers, are to exercise the same restraint and patience as fathers for their children.
Submission only for Children?
A reasonable question might be "At what age does a child become an adult and no longer under the compunction of obeying parents?"
"Children" is from the Greek word, "teknon", meaning offspring or child. It comes from a word meaning produced or made.
If Paul had meant "youngsters", he would have used "paidion", meaning a young child.
"Teknon", used by Paul in Colossians, focuses attention upon our parents, our heritage and history. "Teknon" is translated variously as child, children, son, and daughter. It refers to offspring, of any age, male or female.
They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham. (John 8:39)
But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. (Matthew 21:28)
Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement. (1 Peter 3:6)
For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church. (1 Corinthians 4:17)
If we have parents, we are children. If our parents have died, we remain their children. We are to always honor and respect them and listen to their counsel.
Submission is not a door-mat attitude...it is respectful, patient, honoring attention to those God has placed in our life for our good.
At what point does submission erode into a door-mat? At what point do we refuse to patiently honor and endure someone who hurts us or reviles God?
John the Baptist reached that point in his relationship with leaders of his church:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. (Matthew 3:7-8)
The "vipers" were Pharisees and Sadducees, coming to him to be baptized, seemingly to show their submission to God. Yet John flatly refused to honor them. He scorned them, insulted them, and likened them to unfruitful, rotten trees.
John's condemnation of the Pharisees and Sadducees was for their lack of repentance, their refusal to turn from sinful attitudes, their stubborness in repeating sinful behavior. Yet these men were leaders of the church his family had attended for all his life. John's own father had been a leader of the church. John had probably grown up with many of these men...some were perhaps related to John, perhaps uncles, cousins. How could John show such insubordination, such lack of submission?
If we were to ask John that question, he could easily answer: "For what should I honor in them? To what should I submit? Their words I cannot accept...they speak only of their pride and self-righteousness. Their actions demonstrate a love of sinful selfishness. Their teachings deny the Christ I proclaim as Lord and Savior. For what can I honor them?"
The point at which we refuse to submit to an authority is when that authority lacks words and actions that glorify God.
When a religious man emotionally or physically abuses his wife, she must refuse to submit to such a husband. When a church pastor or elder manipulates a congregation with deception, the people must refuse to submit to such leaders.
The office of leader holds authority only as far as it submits itself to the authority of God. God alone is the source of authority, and in God alone can anyone exercise any authority, and in God alone can anyone submit to authority.
Submission is not being a door mat...it is a strong statement of the authority, and glory, of God.