What’s a Body to Do? (Part 2)


A Twilight Musing

Theological Principles Based on Jesus’ Example and Teaching on Submission 

  1. All submission to others must be a direct outgrowth of, and subordinate to, our submission to the Lord. (Rom. 13:1-7; I Cor. 10:28-33; I Pet. 2:13-16, 18-19).

When we submit to civil authorities, it is not only out of fear of punishment, but "also because of conscience" (Rom. 13:5). As Peter puts it, "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men" (I Pet. 2:13). When Paul urged the Corinthian believers not to eat meat offered to idols out of deference to the tender consciences of others, it was not that he was allowing himself to be coerced by the "tender conscience" people ("why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience?" [I Cor. 10:29]), but that he chose to uphold an underlying spiritual principle: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Paul seeks not to cause anyone to stumble, but to “try to please everybody in every way.  For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved" (I Cor. 10:31-33).

The same principle is made explicit in Ephesians: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord" (Eph. 5:21-22).  Children are to obey their parents "in the Lord" (Eph. 6:1), and servants are to obey their masters "wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men" (Eph. 6:7). In the most explicit admonition to submit to spiritual leaders (Heb. 13:17), the rationale is that as these men "watch over you," they "must give an account" to the Lord of us all for the discharge of their responsibilities, and submission to them is to the "advantage" of the whole Body.

In many of the exhortations to submission in the New Testament, the people being submitted to were not necessarily worthy of the submission, and that was not the reason for the requirement; rather, the principle was to be voluntarily subject to them as a part of our submission to the Lord. Who of us in our right mind would contend that we are worthy of being submitted to? Since only God is worthy of our ultimate submission, we run the risk of a kind of idolatry if submission to another is not a direct consequence of our being submitted to Him. In that context, an act of submission becomes a manifestation of trust in God, and not primarily in the human being to whom secondary submission is being rendered. Accordingly, those being submitted to are given instructions focusing on their need of humility, sensitivity, and a special awareness of the awesome responsibility connected with the position that God has allowed them to occupy. The next principle shifts the spotlight from the submitters to the people exercising authority.

  1. New Testament admonitions to submit are balanced by instructions to those being submitted to, urging them to act with tenderness, compassion, and loving care toward those under their authority, seeking always to build them up and affirm their value, and never to exercise authority in a demeaning or self-exalting way (Eph. 5:21-33; 6:1-9; Col. 3:18-4:1; I Tim. 6:17-19; James 5:1-6; I Pet 3:7-8; 5:1-3)

The most detailed and emphatic teaching of this sort is to husbands, coming after an unambiguous admonition to wives to submit to their husbands (stated twice--Eph. 5:22, 24). Taken out of context, this adminition is often seen as a liability for wives and a license for husbands; it is neither, as the subsequent instructions to husbands make clear:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Eph. 5:25-28)

As a preacher friend of mine tells couples he counsels, for a husband to be the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church means that, like Christ, the husband is to be first in line for the cross; or as C. S. Lewis refers to it in his marvelous little book, The Four Loves (in the chapter entitled "Eros"), if the husband wears a crown, it is a crown of thorns. Far from authorizing a man to demand and enforce the submission of his wife, Paul instructs the husband to give himself up for his wife as did Christ for the church, even going so far as to cover her faults, if necessary, in order to present her "without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless" (Eph. 5:27). That doesn't sound like a license to be lord and master in any worldly sense of the exercise of power.

In I Peter 3:7 is another balancing command to husbands, following six verses on wifely submission beginning, "Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands"; the writer continues, "Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers." The next verse, moreover, is another admonition to mutual submission: "Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers [and sisters], be compassionate and humble" (I Pet. 3:8). The rationale here is that the husband is to be especially considerate of his wife because of her societal and physical vulnerability to being abused, and respectful of her because she is a "partner" and is as much an heir of God's kingdom as he is. Describing wives as "the weaker partner" does not imply any kind of inferiority of intelligence or character or ability, for in these areas women often prove to be superior to their husbands, and even to men in general; but rather it refers to physical, emotional, and social vulnerability. It would seem evident that the ease with which women have been mistreated by men throughout history indicates that they are in many ways inherently at a disadvantage in dealing with men, from having less physical strength to their function in the structure of the family, in which their special responsibility for the bearing and nurturing of children creates the need of special support in these activities. In our own society, the large number of single mothers shows the susceptibility of women to being abandoned.  So the obligation of the husband as set forth in this passage is to be especially aware of how his physical, emotional, and social advantage needs to be used for his wife's benefit and support (not for boosting his ego), so that both of them can experience shared and unhindered prayers as fellow-heirs of the Kingdom of God (3:7).

I have concentrated on the counter-balanced divine instructions to wives and husbands both because they are the most detailed of such instructions and because there is so much misunderstanding and controversy surrounding them. But the principle of mutual submission is reinforced in the New Testament teaching regarding other relationships in which power might be (and often is) exercised in an ungodly way. Immediately following the husband-wife passage in Ephesians are two such teachings (which are also set forth in the same pattern in Col. 3:18-4:1):

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. "Honor your father and mother"--which is the first commandment with a promise -- "that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth." Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Eph. 6:1-9)

Even though children are unequivocally instructed to obey their parents, and elsewhere parents are given the charge to require such obedience, there is nevertheless the caution to fathers (as those ultimately responsible for enforcing parental authority) not to "exasperate" their children, but, "instead," to "bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord." Training and instruction are processes that require patience and understanding, and whatever firmness may be required to keep children at the task of learning, they are always to be encouraged and valued in such a way as to engender and build on the hope that they are both capable of learning and worth the trouble of teaching. Any heavy-handed use of authority that would demean them or deprive them of hope (or embitter and discourage them, as in Col. 3:21) is prohibited. In the slave-master relationship, masters are to eschew the impersonal and devaluing treatment ("Do not threaten them") that might be tolerated or even expected in the worldly view of things, but that has no place in the Body of Christ, since slave and master stand as equals before God.

Abuse of the poor by the rich is scorchingly attacked in the book of James (2:5-7; 5:1-5), and, in a more positive way, the rich are encouraged by Paul to act responsibly and generously with the wealth and power that God has given them (I Tim. 6:17-19). Even the duly appointed spiritual leaders of the Body of Christ are not to "lord it over" those in their charge, but are to be examples to the flock (I Pet. 5:2-3).




Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)