Chapter 16 – What is Submission?

What does submission mean? Not just in marriage, but in other contexts as well, such as the church, the workplace, or civil government? Submission is different than obedience. Submission has to do not only with outward actions, but also the heart. A submitted person has a heart-attitude that honors and respects those in authority because he understands their authority ultimately traces back to God as the Originator and they will be held accountable for how they steward it (Romans 13:1-2). 


This attitude of honor is not based on whether those in authority deserve it. Since the fall, there has never been an authority figure that has not misused or abused his power in some way. Kings, presidents, employers, mothers, fathers, husbands, and church leaders have all stumbled many times and proven themselves inadequate. If imperfection disqualified a person from holding a position of authority, there would be no authority on earth. If God’s command for us to submit to authority depended on whether those in authority were worthy, the command would be meaningless.


As we discussed earlier, biblical submission could be defined like this:


Submission is a heart-attitude that honors authority, obeys its legitimate commands, forgives its misuses, and sometimes respectfully declines commands that are outside of its jurisdiction to give.


The first part – the part about giving honor and obeying legitimate commands protects the heart against the sin of rebellion. The second part – the part about forgiving misuses and respectfully disobeying illegitimate commands – protects the heart against bitterness. Put them together and you have an impenetrable force-field around the one thing in life that matters most – our relationship with God. No matter how unjust or oppressive of an authority a person finds himself under, submission will render that authority powerless to harden a person’s heart toward God. God’s command for submission is meant for our protection. It is not oppressive, but freeing.


Submission is not weakness. In fact, it is the most powerful action a person can take in response to oppressive leadership because it invites the power of God into the situation. Submission even has the power to transform nations. An historical example of this can be seen in the life of Martin Luther King Jr.


Another example can be seen in Acts 5 when the religious leaders commanded Peter and John to cease preaching about Jesus. Peter and John disobeyed the command even though they remained submitted to the Pharisees’ positions of authority in their hearts. Jesus, likewise, remained submitted to the religious and political authorities even though He disobeyed them. When they slandered, falsely accused, and persecuted Him, He never allowed any rebellion or unforgiveness to enter His heart. When they unjustly sentenced Him to an excruciating death, He even prayed for their forgiveness while He was being executed.


Intern to Supervisor

Several years ago I worked at processing plant. Since I was only an intern, I started at the bottom. My days were spent turning wrenches, driving forklifts, and even scraping out feces from a drainage system. My boss, the president of the company, wore his emotions on his sleeve. If I made a mistake, he immediately yelled at me. He once yelled at me from across a warehouse in front of a large group of visiting executives for something I didn’t even do!


A number of times I felt angry. I felt treated unfairly. I contemplated and prayed about different ways I could respond, but continued submit to his authority and show him respect. This must have made an impression because, less than a year and half later, he made me a supervisor over dozens of people. Nobody in the company had more responsibility than me. He even gave me his personal credit card and I frequently spent several thousand dollars per day on business expenses without him ever questioning me. He also began regularly asking me for input and seriously considered any advice I gave. Even though I didn’t always like or agree with how he used his authority, I always honored it. In this end, this gave me far more influence than if I hadn’t remained submissive.


David’s Story of Submission

Keeping a submissive heart while under unjust authority is how some of God’s greatest leaders have been shaped. There is no better example of this than David. His submission to King Saul’s authority was unbelievable.


When Saul became embittered against David and decided to kill him, David chose to continue serving him and ministering to him (1 Samuel 18-19). When Saul pursued David in the wilderness, David could easily have killed him, elevating himself to king. Instead, he refused saying, “The Lord forbid that I should stretch out my hand against the Lord’s anointed.” (1 Samuel 24 & 26) Finally, when David learned of Saul’s death, he mourned, wept, and fasted for him. Then he ordered that the man whom he believe killed Saul be put to death, even though he said Saul was in agony and specifically asked the man finish him off. David said to the man, Your blood is on your head, for your mouth has testified against you, saying, ‘I have killed the Lord’s anointed.’” (2 Samuel 1:16)


Saul murdered 85 priests in his obsessive pursuit of David (1 Samuel 22:18). He only cared about preserving his own throne. He even sought counsel from demons so he could be victorious in war (1 Samuel 28). Yet David honored and respected Saul’s authority to the very end. Why? Because David wasn’t honoring Saul’s choices or his character; he was honoring the anointing of the Lord upon him. He knew that no matter how shamefully it is stewarded, the anointing itself is still worthy of honor.


David’s commitment to submit enabled God to entrust him with more authority than Saul ever dreamed of. David was not only Israel’s greatest king, but he established the spiritual foundation for the throne that Jesus Christ will sit upon forever. Jesus is David’s successor! Isaiah 9:6-7 says:


For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders… There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore.”


In God’s kingdom, sometimes the reason He puts us under authority is because He is preparing to exalt us. It is a test. If we can submit to the authority of another, serving as unto the Lord rather than men, we prove ourselves trustworthy to be given our own authority. The more difficult the process is, the greater the authority God’s is preparing us to steward.


What is the Authority of a Husband?

As I said earlier, having authority means different things in different contexts. For example, church leaders have authority to teach, comfort, or rebuke in a church context. Civil rulers have authority to punish evil if it violates someone’s life or liberty or property. Parents have authority to teach and discipline children.


The Greek word used for authority in scripture does not only mean the power to make someone do something; it can also just mean grace or anointing from God to do something you’re called to do. Mathew 7:29 says Jesus taught with authority. In 2 Corinthians 13:10 Paul said God gave him authority for building up the Corinthian church.


So the real question is – what type of authority does the Bible give a husband? I believe husbands have authority to love, serve, protect, provide, and lead by example.


Some have interpreted Ephesians 5:22-25 to mean that husbands can give their wives commands since Jesus gives commands to the church. But wait a minute. Does a husband literally die on a cross for the sins of his wife? Or will a wife appear before the judgment seat of her husband after she dies? Of course not. Obviously, the marriage metaphor has limits.


To understand what these limits are, we should examine portions of scripture where Christ is specifically portrayed as a husband, or where the Father is portrayed as a husband to Israel, or other passages that speak specifically about godly marriage. Here are several examples: Ephesian 5:25-33, Isaiah 54:5-8, Hosea 2:14-23, Revelation 19:7-9, Isaiah 62:4-5, Song of Solomon, Jeremiah 31:32, Ezekiel 16:8-14, Ruth 4-5, 1 Peter 3:7, Colossians 3:19, 1 Corinthians 11: 3, and 1 Timothy 5:8. When I read at these and other passages, I see the Bible giving husbands authority to love, serve, protect, provide, and lead by example. By contrast, whenever Jesus is depicted as giving commands, it is usually in the role of a king, a judge, a master, or a creator – not a husband. Those metaphors don’t apply to marriage.


A husband can remind his wife of God’s commands in scripture (and a wife can do likewise for her husband), but this is very different from giving his own commands. He could also ask her to follow his lead in a particular situation, which does carry weight if he is truly motivated by a desire to serve or protect her. However, in my view he has no biblical authority to order her to follow him.


Since husbands do not have authority to give commands to their wives, we might define the submission of wife like this:


Submission is a heart-attitude of a wife that honors her husband’s calling to love, serve, protect, provide and lead their family, forgives him when he falls short this calling, and respectfully declines commands (or force, control, etc…) since they are not within his jurisdiction to give.


I recently listened to a Christian radio broadcast about headship and submission. The pastor said he heard about a marriage in which the husband physically beat his wife while quoting Ephesians 5:22 and demanding that she submit to him. I felt sick to my stomach as I listened. Who can imagine all the horrendous abuses that have taken place, and are taking place, supposedly in the name of biblical submission? Is it any wonder that many wives feel fear or skepticism about this passage? Perhaps a proper interpretation could help both men and women better understand God’s beautiful design for the single most important human relationship.


The Early Trials of Mary’s Marriage

Another biblical example of submission that always strikes me is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Three times in Matthew 2, Joseph uprooted his new wife and baby to move to a completely unknown region because God spoke to him in a dream. This would be difficult on newlyweds in any generation, but moving was especially difficult in those days. Most people never went more than twenty miles from their birthplace during their entire lives. There were no freeways or moving trucks – just camels and feet. 


Whenever I read this passage, I can’t help wondering if Mary ever felt indignant or frustrated that God kept speaking only to Joseph about such major decisions that affected their whole family. After all, Mary certainly knew the Lord’s voice. She had been visited by an angel. She had been given a special role in God’s salvation plan. She had been entrusted with the responsibility of raising God’s own Son. So why was He only speaking to her husband about their futures?


Perhaps Mary was tested in this way because of her maturity and strength of character. Not every woman could endure something like this, but God decided Mary could be trusted with the honor of going through this difficult trial.


Also, perhaps God was preparing her. Submitting to Joseph’s authority about such major decisions in those early years prepared her to remain submitted to God’s authority in the years ahead. Mary was completely inadequate for her calling – raising the Son of God to maturity. She would never be able to do this even remotely well through her own wisdom or sincere efforts. She had to be completely dependent on the Holy Spirit’s leading. She could not do things her own way; it had to be the Lord’s way. Faithfully submitting to an imperfect husband would prepare her to submit to God’s authority when she did not always like or understand what He wanted her to do.


A Testimony of Headship and Submission

Here is one final story of headship and submission I recently heard a pastor share. He and his wife had been saving for three years for a down payment on a new house. When they finally saved enough, they went house-hunting and quickly found their dream home. However, shortly before they were about to make the down payment, the husband felt the Lord speak to Him to use that money to fund a new ministry in their city instead.


The husband shared this with his wife, but said he wouldn’t do it if she wasn’t in agreement. She sought the Lord for a couple of weeks. She didn’t hear anything specific, but felt impressed to trust that her husband was hearing from the Lord. She decided to support him in giving away the money.


This was a heroic sacrifice by the wife. It was also wise, loving leadership by the husband. His wife would never have had the opportunity to be heroic if he had tried to make the decision unilaterally. Putting the outcome into her hands gave her the chance to grow in Christ-likeness. This is the sign of true leadership – helping others to become like Christ.



Our culture increasingly celebrates homosexuality and transgenderism. What is God’s perspective of this trend? We will discuss this topic in the next chapter.