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On Submitting to One Another

by Paul Adams | April 01, 2014

The idea of submission is neither a cultural norm nor an accepted virtue. The human heart, untouched by God’s grace in salvation, naturally wants things its way and the voice of culture screams to us at every turn that getting what we want is most important. Scripture, however, tells us that we live in a kingdom “not of this world” (John 18:36) and this other-worldly kingdom is set into motion by Jesus’ example of submission, starting with the Incarnation of God. Jesus willingly submitted to flogging, public humiliation, and death, all of which are part of a greater submission to his Father’s will (Matt 26:42). At its core, submission is the willing alignment of one’s own will under the will of another. And believers do it for the sake of living after the manner of Christ. A few observations about submission follow:

  1. Though this is obvious, submission necessarily entails the presence of other believers and is, therefore, a “social” discipline. Consequently, how we view our relationship to other brothers and sisters in Christ is paramount in exercising the biblical discipline of submission. No subject in God’s kingdom has permission for grand standing or upstaging, regardless of their “recognized” authority, position, gender, or perceived maturity. Instead, as every kingdom subject submits to one another, we are also consciously rejecting the notion that we’re aboveothers. We accept that we are all “one in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:28; Col 3:11), “submitting to one another out of reverence to Christ” (Eph 5:21). According to Gal 5:13, all believers are called to “serve one another” (δουλεύετε ἀλλήλοις). Since submission is always mutual in God’s kingdom…
    • The Gospel equalizes all relationships under the authority of Christ. Whether male to female, parent to child, or slave to master, all human structures, whether cultural or divinely mandated, have only relative authority in relation to Christ (cf., John 19:11a; Rom 13:1 on relative authority).
    •  Every “one another” injunction in the New Testament assumes parity in relationships for its proper operation. Each “one another” passage implies the notion of ‘without distinction on the basis of social status or personal preference.’ Christians are enjoined to accept one another (Rom 15:7), be hospitable to one another (1 Pet 4:9), be devoted to and honor one another (Rom 12:10), live in harmony with one another (Rom 12:16; 1 Pet 3:8), bear with one another (Eph 4:2; Col 3:13), be kind and compassionate to one another (Eph 4:32), carry one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2), forgive one another (Eph 4:32; Col 3:13), build up one another (1 Thess 5:11), admonish one another (Col 3:16), and encourage one another (1 Thess 4:18; 5:11; Heb 3:13; 10:25).
    • Every believer is called to self-denial, submission, and service to others. Since this call is equally applicable to all believers, it logically applies to every believer without regard to social status, economic ability, gender, title, church office position, education level, economic ability, et al.
  2. That said, this does not mean there is no order in this other-worldly kingdom. Heb 13:17 and 1Pet 5:2-5 clearly says there is. Although Heb 13:17 is addressed to those who follow their leaders, the text says as much about leaders’ responsibilities as about the followers’. In addition, 1 Pet 5:2 is a call to service, not to status or posturing above others. Moreover, on the heels of this call to service is a call for everyone (“all of you”) to express humility “toward one another” (1 Pet 5:5, 6). Clearly Jesus’ kingdom — This kingdom in which every believer lives and moves and has their being — is governed by mutual submission and honor to all. Any order that does exist arises from a natural recognition of the spiritual maturity and giftedness gained only by time in the faith and an abiding walk with Christ. There is no hint of superiority or authoritarian rule among the subjects of Jesus’ kingdom. None! (see especially Mark 10:43 and my previous post, On Becoming Great.)
  3. In submission we cry for help from those whose depth and breadth of experience in Christ can direct us toward spiritual formation. The weight of authority comes not from individuals who speak the truth but from the Giver of truth as we submit to the God of truth under the prayerful and loving direction of those who have a deep and abiding walk with Jesus and can help us apply the truth from above.

At the end of the age, when this world is brought into full alignment with the kingdom Jesus inaugurated, every knee will bow in submission to Christ as Lord of all. Though not all will fall down in adoration, all will fall down in submission. Every knee will bend and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:1-11). “Some will do it gladly: others because they cannot resist” (O’Brien, Philippians, p. 245). Why not get started now so the distance between your knees and the floor is not so great? Let’s continually and intentionally rehearse the discipline of submission so the performance is enjoyed by a watching world.