Our world is full of models of power. Hierarchies rule every corporation and group. It always seems there’s a pecking order. Someone’s always in charge and people “punch up” to gain power. Other people gathering groups to have more power.
We’re all about power. Everyone wants it and most people don’t have it. The world is in chaos much because of these grabs for power. Sir Francis Bacon is credited with the phrase, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
I am so glad that God is in charge, and he uses his power for our benefit instead of his own. He is the only one absolute power has not corrupted. Power begins with him and instead of using his power to condemn us he uses it to forgive us and give us grace.
We have been talking about holiness in our relationships and focusing mostly on the Church so far. Let’s take a look at the idea of mutual submission within the body of Christ. What does it mean and how do we do it?
Not the “S” Word
Every time I talk about submission as a pastor I get the rolling eyes, the glazed over look, and people running for the doors. For some reason we hate that word. Maybe it’s because we all want to be in charge and no one wants to submit to someone else.
The worst case I experience when this subject comes up is during marriage counseling. There’s that famous verse in Ephesians 5:22 where wives are called to “submit to their husbands.” Most women are too hot with rage to stay long enough to hear the, “as to the Lord.” Even more, they would never listen to my explanations. And who can blame them?
But that will come up in a later post on marriage. Some people don’t realize that before Paul even mentions that word (which is not in the Greek text) he says it the verse before when he is talking about what characterizes the Church.
There are several action words piggybacking off of one another before we even get to the idea of submission at the end of the verse. Let’s get the context so we understand what Paul is talking about with mutual submission.
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:18–21, ESV)
the main action here is to “be filled with the Spirit.” After that we see all of the -ing words that further describe what being filled with the Spirit looks like. Christians who are filled with the Spirit talk to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. We worship together and we remind one another of God’s Word.
We glorify him with our whole hearts. We give thanks to God in every situation all the time. Being filled with the Spirit is not a worship service as we think of it where we are singing songs. It is a lifestyle of thankfulness, gratitude, and praising God together.
This all sounds good until the next word. That’s when Paul says, “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” How does submitting to one another fit the picture of worshiping God together and being thankful? Believe it or not, submitting to one another is another act of worship to God.
We balk at the definition of submission. It means to put another before us, to acknowledge another is in charge instead of us. The way we see it, submitting to another makes that person “boss” over us. But that is not really what submission entails.
When we submit to someone else, we give up our desire and expectation that we should be in charge. It reminds me of the words for meekness and humility. I know, I know. We don’t like those words either. We have no trouble with these words when Jesus is the one we are submitting to her being humble before. It’s when Paul says, “To one another” that all the questions start coming.
Letting someone else be in charge goes against our pride. What if they mess everything up? After all, as the saying goes, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If it’s another human being, they are guaranteed to mess things up, right?
Like anyone else, all we can say is red as our faces get hot and we boil over with anger. So how is submitting to one another worship? Look at the rest of the verse. It says, “Out of reverence for Christ.” When we learn how to give up our own way and submit to one another, seeking each other’s best over our own, it pleases Christ and shows a reverence for him.
How does that work? Remember that the last six Commandments point to how we relate to other people. Every person is created in the image of God, even if they are an unbeliever. So when we respect others we show God that we love his human creatures and his image in each of them. How we treat others shows our love and reverence for God.
So when we submit to one another we reverence Christ. We show our fear of the Lord through not putting ourselves ahead of his people he created. Even Jesus demonstrated submission when he said to the Father in the garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
When we don’t fight to get our own way, let our pride die, and let someone else take the lead, we trust not in them but in the Lord we have submitted to first. When God chooses someone other than ourselves to be in charge, and we don’t submit, we spit in Jesus’ face and claim our way is better.
Do’s and Don’ts
We try to conceive what Paul really means by, “Submit to one another.” Some people say there are absolute things that can never be true. For instance, in light of the next section that focuses on the relationship between Christian husbands and Christian wives, they say that the wife of her husband doesn’t have to submit to other men.
Other people suggest that because of another text where Paul says he does not allow a woman to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:35) or to teach or exercise authority over a man (1 Timothy 2:12) that men don’t have to submit to women. Many times in our current context a person who is under church discipline tends to just leave the church instead of submitting to that discipline.
So how do we handle all of these relationships? Paul doesn’t qualify submitting to one another. He simply tells us to submit to one another. I will describe how we can do this practically, but nowhere does Paul clarify the kinds of restrictions we put on submission as mentioned above.
For instance, women submitting to their own husbands (Ephesians 5:22) does not mean that they cannot submit to other men. However, the submission of wives to their husbands refers to the romantic marital relationship. I would argue this is a more intimate submission than Paul refers to in the church relationship. And that does not give the husband permission to abuse his wife or take advantage of her in any way.
It makes no sense that men would never have to submit to women within the church setting. There are female leaders of the church throughout the New Testament. Priscilla taught alongside her husband and is actually mentioned before him. We may not read into that anything more than they taught together.
There are several female leaders mentioned throughout Romans 16. How can they be leaders in the church if men do not submit to them and listen to their teaching? Just as much as there are good female leaders of the church there are bad ones like the “Jezebel” who taught the people in her church all kinds of wickedness and evil (Revelation 2:20).
But there are male teachers who are just as evil in what they teach. I will not mention names, but there are a host of televangelists that teach all kinds of nonsense, if not downright heresy, on our TV screens today.
My point is that you can have a good or bad teacher and gender has nothing to do with it. The examples most people allude to as I mentioned above with women being silent in the church and Paul not allowing women to teach our situations specific to those congregations, and Paul has good reason to lay down those rules in those areas.
The same Paul who said those things about women and men is the same one who wrote Romans 16 and pointed out the excellent female leadership he found in the churches, and traveled with these godly women. So there is no reason men do not submit to women when the Spirit is ministering through them in powerful ways as leaders and teachers.
The Holy Spirit baptizes and fills men and women and gives them gifts to serve the church. If we limit the role of either, we quench the Holy Spirit and grieve him greatly. So the only thing we need to remember to do is to honor one another through submission to one another, and to not place unbiblical limitations on our acts of submission.
Who’s in Charge
But you still might be saying, “Answer the question! Someone has to be in charge. Who is it?” Of course someone is in charge. Jesus is the Leader, the one always in charge. He is the head of the Church (Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:23; Colossians 1:18). Jesus led the Church by sacrificing himself for her (Ephesians 5:25).
Jesus uses his leadership to benefit us. He is the perfect example to us of how to lead when he puts us in charge for the situation or moment. But we are following his lead. We listen to the Holy Spirit and he leads us.
One of my favorite times the Bible demonstrates how the Church follows the Holy Spirit to lead happens in Acts 13. The saints in the Church are praying and in that prayer service the Holy Spirit sets apart Barnabas and Paul to do the work of missionary ministry (Acts 13:2-3).
There are prophets and teachers there, but nobody steps on anyone else’s toes. They work seamlessly together because they are led by the Holy Spirit. They do not stand in the way of the Spirit’s wishes, but lay their hands on Barnabas and Paul and send them into the mission field.
When the church is having its great debate in the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, they come to a decision by listening to the Holy Spirit and doing what he says. Their letter reads, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).
So Jesus is always in charge and the Holy Spirit directs his Church. The pecking order is settled and we understand the hierarchy. My answers must be driving some people nuts. After all, up to this point I have not explained how mutual submission works among each believer.
if Jesus is always in charge, why are there leaders in the Church, from the pastor to lay leadership? Are you saying we don’t have to listen to the pastor or the deacons or the board? Of course not.
From the apostles to the prophetic ministry to the pastors and teachers there are clearly leaders in the Church throughout the New Testament. But these leaders are ordained and chosen, called and gifted by God to lead when he designates them.
Here’s what I mean. Take the leadership gifts of the Holy Spirit, who distributes them when he desires and on whom he desires in Ephesians 4:11. We have to often made the mistake that these are offices instead of gifts and functions. Many times you hear people walking around calling themselves, “Apostle Jake,” or “Evangelist Wilson.”
We infer titles and offices upon people because they function in these gifts. But that is not how you should read Ephesians 4:11 and the following verses. It is not about the person, but about the ministry of the Spirit. We know from 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 where spiritual gifts are mentioned that the Holy Spirit apportions each gift as he wills to whom he wills.
Only when the Holy Spirit directs and prompts us to operate in our gifts do we do so. So the gifts do not convey offices and titles to people. In fact, the people themselves in the gifting they are given by the Spirit are gifts to the church. So the people as leaders using their gifts are the gifts from the Spirit.
With this understanding that these are functional roles rather than offices or titles, many consider themselves to not have a title or an office. Sometimes we must speak of it this way in the Constitution and Bylaws of the church or in legal terms for the sake of the world and its systems. But this is not how the Bible describes people who lead in these ways.
Anyone who has the leadership gifts mentioned in Ephesians 4:11 functionally leads, but they follow the Holy Spirit’s lead. He is still in charge. He still directs their steps. And then as they follow him we follow them.
Let me give you a few examples I followed myself as a leader in the church. When I pastored my church in Shillington, others followed my lead as I followed the Holy Spirit. They saw my pastoral and teaching gifts and they submitted to my leadership.
However, I also followed the lead of our district officials and pastors. They led me as I let my church. Since I have become paralyzed and am unable to function in full-time pastoral ministry for the short time, I have opportunities to preach and teach and pastor in smaller ways at the invitation of other pastors.
Currently my family attends a church where the pastor is not threatened by my presence there and I do not feel inferior to him. We have actually preached a sermon together in tandem. We are about the same age, as much as that matters.
He allows me to lead life groups and Bible studies. He allows me to preach in his pulpit from time to time. But in our current roles he is the pastor of the church and I am one of the pastors who sits under his ministry. I submit to his leadership because Jesus has ordained him as head of this church. I don’t challenge him or beg him for the spotlight.
So within the leadership of the church there are different roles and functions depending on different situations. In the same way, among those who don’t have the leadership gift, when they are placed within leadership and teaching roles others in the church submit to them for that time.
Can mutual submission become complicated? Perhaps a little. But we all submit to Christ. We all listen to and obey the Holy Spirit. When we get that hierarchy right, and respect the Lord when he places other leadership above us, we will have no trouble submitting to one another.
We can submit to one another and have mutual respect for one another. The board requires it of us and we must obey him. When we submit to one another we revere Christ and honor him.
We all serve different functions at different times. But even in leadership roles we are serving one another as Christ sacrificed himself for us as our Leader.
We balk against the idea of submitting to other people, but submission is a way God reminds us of our pride. To keep our pride in check we submit to one another, knowing that those we submit to our submitting to Christ and he is ultimately in charge.
To not submit to one another is to not submit to Christ. Let us all humble ourselves before the Lord, put him first, and follow his leading as he chooses leaders to function among us.