Spiritual Submission to One Another

There are certain terms in the Bible which we need to study with great care, and they must be interpreted in the light of the immediate context, as well as in the broader context of all the Scriptures. 

The Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter both speak of the spiritual submission which all Christians, be they men or women, owe to one another in the fear of God. 

It is well that this be noticed in this day in which we live.

This is a day in which there is a very great evil under the sun. It is the evil that women in the church aspire to be officebearers in the church, to be ministers, elders, and deacons. And there are many denominations which fall into this error. And, it is true, that we who stand must beware lest we fall. And may the Lord of His church Himself keep us in His ordinances. 

There is a sobering word from the pen of Paul inEphesians 5:21 which we ought to take to heart in these days, lest we give foolish and ill-advised directions in the battle. We all are inclined to onesidedness when we take up the cudgel to defend the ramparts of God’s church. And we must warn each other against the evil of one-sidedness, lest we not preach and teach the whole counsel of God. 

We read in Ephesians 5:21, “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.”

There is a difference of opinion concerning the proper interpretation of the participle “submitting.” In the Greek text we read Hupotassomenoi. If this cannot be read as “an imperative” and the beginning of a new paragraph as is suggested by A.T. Robertson in hisWord Pictures on this passage, then it is a participle in line with the former participles, “speaking, singing, giving thanks,” in verses 19 and 20. And then it is an activity and manifestation of being “filled with (in) the Spirit.” 

The meaning of the verb “to submit” is very clear in its current usage in the Scriptures. The term is used in Classic Greek in a military sense, of a soldier submitting to his general and superiors. However, in the Bible the term is not used merely of such a relationship among men. Basically it is used of our deepest attitude toward God. That is the use of the term in James 4:7. In the context we read that God resists the proud and lofty and that He gives grace to the lowly. Only by being lowly will we avoid “wars and fightings” among us (James 4:1-5). 

And so James says, “Submit yourselves therefore unto God.” 

This takes us out of the clutches of the Evil One. 

In our basic attitude toward God we are to submit ourselves unto the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus. This unbelievers refused to do and therefore they perished in their sins, submitting to their own righteousness (Rom. 10:3). 

Yea, we are to submit to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake. Only thus do believers submit to God Whose servants they are (I Peter 2:13Rom. 13:1-4). We are not to be wiser than God, nor are we to be revolutionaries. There were ever, and there are ever, zealots who disobeyed God and came to ruin by the dictum of Jesus: He that uses the sword perishes with the sword (Matt. 26:52). They did not submit to God, no more than would the Jews in Jeremiah’s day, who refused to receive the prophecy that Israel must prepare for seventy years of captivity in Babylon (Jer. 25:1-14). 

This is the strong word which Paul employs here in the text, be it in a participle construction, “be ye filled with the Spirit,” or whether it must be read as an imperative. In either case it falls under Christian admonitions, and a precept of the Gospel, for the Spirit-filled believer. 

For it must not be overlooked that this is a “submission” in the fear of God. The term “fear of God” may sometimes be taken in the objective sense of the term. Fear then refers to the godly teaching. This hardly seems to be the meaning here. This refers to subjective, godly fear, which is the very beginning, the principle of wisdom. A man who seeks for and finds such wisdom is a happy, a blessed man indeed (Prov. 3:13). 

Now it ought to be observed that whether this is an imperative verb mood, or whether it is a participle depending on “filled with the Spirit” (Prov. 3:19), the simple truth of the matter is that this is to be a universal, reciprocal submission to “one another.” This, of course, refers to the members of the body of Christ. It is the manifestation of the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:1-3). It is a walking worthy of our calling in Christ Jesus in all meekness. 

In this way we buy out the time in these evil days. 

Submit yourselves to one another in the fear of God. 

Does Paul by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Who leads into all truth, mean that there are exceptions and relationships in life where this is not true? Notice that in the very next verse he writes, “Wives submit yourselves unto your own husbands as unto the Lord.” Does this veto the injunction of the Lord to husbands to submit to their wives in the fear of God? Does Paul mean to say: husbands, you only rule over your wives; they only submit? Paul does not say: wives submit—husbands rule. Look carefully what Paul writes here. The injunctions are: wives submit and husbands love! Yes, love even as Christ loved the church. Here is not some worldly male chauvinistic dominion on the part of the male believers in the church. Both men and women are under their Lord in heaven! 

Both are told to walk in the fear of God! 

And this is not some mere “principle” arrived at by human deduction, but it is the declared, explicitly declared will of God. This is just as clear and explicit and exalted as the fifth commandment: “Honor thy father and thy mother” (cf. Eph. 6:1-3). 

There is a sense, therefore, in which the man in the church is to be submissive to the woman in the church. Paul does not teach that only women are to be submissive in the Lord, but also men are to be in suchgodly submission in the Lord. 

That Paul teaches this in this text is really beyond dispute, isn’t it? 

Perhaps an instance from Scripture will verify this point for the reader. 

We all know the classic passages from I Peter 3:1-6 which will teach us what the will of the Lord is in this matter. And we are interested what the will of the Lord is; that alone can be binding on our conscience. And then I would have you notice how Peter points to Sarah, the free woman, as the great example of meekness. She was really a princess of a woman; she must have had remarkable grace and beauty, even at an advanced age. Twice her weak husband had allowed her to fall into the hands of adulterous kings (Gen. 20:5 and Gen. 12:19). Only the intervention of God Almighty had spared Abraham disaster. Yes, Sarah was submissive to her husband, when she connived with him. But neither were obedient to the Lord in these sad incidents in which Abraham sought to save his own life, by speaking half-truths concerning his good-looking wife. 

Yes, Sarah had internal beauty before the Lord. In her was the hidden man of a meek and quiet spirit which in the sight of God is of great price. That is the Sarah which Peter says the women, the frivolous and vain women must emulate. With such women Paul was dealing. The beauty parlor beauties! 

But there is another Sarah, too, to whom Abraham is told to subject himself in the fear of God. And well might Abraham fear, and well may any husband fear if his wife speaks to him as did Sarah to Abraham. I am not referring to that very bad advice of Sarah to Abraham to raise up seed on her knees from Hagar her Egyptian handmaid, her slave-girl. That backfired badly for both of them. That was not walking objectively in the “fear”, in the revealed will concerning God’s promise (Gen. 15:1-6). Abraham did not here walk in the revealed will concerning the promised seed, in whom all nations would be blessed. They were both disobedient. Neither one submitted to the other in the fear of God. Both were disobedient. And Abraham should have firmly resisted this temptation and walked “in hope against hope” (Rom. 4:18). And then a son is born, but he is to be forever the picture of the people who are brought forth unto eternal bondage (Gal. 4:24).

But there is another Sarah. 

It was really a happy moment for this aged ninety-year-old wife of Abraham, childless, barren! And now the word comes that she shall have a son at the set time. This is told her while both she and her husband are dead (Rom. 4:19, 20Heb. 11:11, 12). And when told of this son she thinks of her impotent husband. Old man that he is become, ninety and nine years old. And she laughs with a very quiet, doubtful laugh in her heart. And she speaks of her husband and calls him “my adonai,” my lord! That is the incident Peter refers to when he says, “Calling him her lord.” 

Now you might say: Sarah was submissive. Yes, she was in the Lord, as later Elizabeth, the mother of John must have been. And Abraham too was submissive in the Lord, as was Zacharias, after he had been smitten with dumbness. And when Zacharias intervenes in the naming of the son, whom the neighbors would name Zacharias, and when he writes and says, his name is John, Jehovah is gracious, that was submission in the fear of God. 

But that does not tell the complete story of all the Scriptural ramifications of this submission unto God in the fear of God on the part of Abraham and Sarah! 

There is more to be said if we are to preach the full counsel of God. And let the wise take it to heart:Sapienti sat

There came a time when Abraham had really to submit to his wife in the fear of God. And well may every Christian husband take this to heart for his salvation’s sake. It was at the occasion of the weaning of Isaac. Abraham was very happy in having an heir son. And this must have galled Hagar and her son, Ishmael. For Ishmael mocked Isaac and reviled him and persecutedhim (Gal. 4:29). And it is at this feast that we see Sarah rise as a woman in Israel and she rebukes her husband saying, “cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac” (Gen. 21:10). 

Abraham did not desire to submit. The Lord must come and take the side of Sarah. She submitted herself to her husband in the fear of God, but in such a way that Abraham must submit to her in the fear of God. 

She spoke the very oracles of God. 

May we have many mothers in Israel who speak the oracles of God to their husbands and to their children. 

Let us all be submissive to each other in the fear of God, being filled with the Spirit of Christ.