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By Edwin Reynolds
Submission is not a very popular concept today. It smacks of yielding one’s rights to another. Particularly in Western society, this idea runs contrary to our values of personal rights, freedoms, and individuality. I am taught not to give up my rights and individuality to another person. These are my cherished, hard-won privileges in a free society.
Submission also implies that someone else has more authority than I do, and I need to yield to the superior authority of the other. Authority is another negative concept in today’s society. It implies that I am not entirely free, that I have someone over me to whom I must submit and obey. To many minds, authority and submission suggest inequality and servile relationships. Therefore, in this modern world, there is a strong resistance to any notions of authority and submission.
Yet the Scripture is clear: both authority and submission play very important roles in the ordered relationships in God’s universe. From within the Godhead to every relationship in the created order, each person and living thing has a particular role to play, and there is authority and submission at every level.
The Supreme Authority
At the very highest level is God the Father. In Scripture, God the Father is the One who sits on the throne and lives for ever and ever (Rev 4:9-10). He is the chief authority figure, Almighty God (v. 8), the Head over all things, who rules the universe (1 Chr 29:11-12). He is God Most High, Creator and Possessor of heaven and earth (Gen 14:19,22; Rev 4:11). All authority comes from Him, including the authority of Christ (Rom 13:1; Matt 28:18; John 10:18; 17:2).
He commands, and others do His bidding. He purposes and authorizes, and others implement. He appoints or commissions, and others carry out His will. He sends His Son and His Spirit into the world, and They go to do His bidding (John 3:34; 6:57; 8:42; 12:49-50; 14:26,31; 17:4,7-8; Gal 4:4,6; Rev 5:6).
It was the Father’s will and authority behind the creation of the universe (Rev 4:11), but it was the Son who was the active agent in its creation (John 1:3; Col 1:16-17; Heb 1:2), and the Spirit was present and active also in the creative process (Gen 1:2). God the Father is the head of Christ (1 Cor 11:3), and Christ submits as Son to the Father’s authority (Heb 10:5-7). In the new creation, after the Father has subdued all created things under the authority of His Son, then the Son also submits all things back under the Father’s authority, so that the Father may be all in all, that is, supreme in authority (1 Cor 15:24-28).
The Second in Command
The Son is next in authority as evidenced by the passage just cited from 1 Cor 15:24-28. He is the reflection of the Father’s glory and the exact representation of His nature (Heb 1:3), and God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him (Col 1:19; 2:9). Thus God has chosen to reveal Himself through His Son (Heb 1:2; John 1:14,18; 14:7-10), and no one comes to the Father except through the Son (John 14:6).
Although the Son was equal to His Father in nature and essence, He submitted to His Father’s will in coming to earth to take upon His divine nature our human nature and to pay the redemption price for our sins (Phil 2:5-8). Because of this humble submission, God has exalted Him to the highest place over all creation so that at His name every knee should bow and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (vv. 9-11). It is notable that all of this is done to the glory of God the Father, whose will the Son accomplished in this plan for our salvation, and who must be honored and glorified even by His exaltation of Christ.
To where is Christ exalted? To the Father’s right hand (Matt 26:64; Mar 16:19 Acts 2:33-35; 5:31; 7:56; Rom 8:34; Heb 1:3,13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22; Rev 5:7). Because of Jesus’ victory, the Father grants the Son the right to sit with Him on His throne (Rev 3:21), at His right hand, the hand of His favor. Ultimately, the Father reigns supreme as the final authority in the universe, with His Son as second in command.
Some would argue that the Son was in submission to His Father only after His incarnation, that there was no submission prior to that event. Scripture does not support such an argument, nor do the writings of Ellen G. White. While there was full equality in nature, there were distinctions in roles and functions, and there was only one supreme authority, while the others always acted in submission to the Father’s will, although they had the freedom to act independently.
Some have labeled such a teaching “the eternal subordination of the Son” and characterized it as heresy, confusing the orthodox Christian doctrine with Subordinationism. However, this is a fallacy. “Subordination” implies a lower order of being, that one person is in involuntary subjection to another by virtue of an essential difference in nature or essence. This was not the case. The Son of God was fully God in every sense of the word. “In Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived” (DA 530). He was not derived from the Father or subordinate to the Father. Rather, He was equal to the Father but in voluntary submission to the Father’s will, just as He was in Gethsemane: “Not as I will but as You will” (Matt 26:39).(1)
Heaven’s economy is orderly, based on loving relationships in which authority and submission are in balance, based on mutual love and trust. When God made humanity in His own image, He designed man and woman to have the same balance of authority and submission based on mutual love and trust. The marriage was to be a model of the heavenly family, with two becoming one but in a complementary relationship that reflected the economy of heaven (ST, Sept. 6, 1899; MH 363). The church, in turn, was to be an enlargement of the family at home (1 Tim 3:5,15). And society was also to be patterned on the home relationships (MH 349, 351-52, 357).
Ellen White calls God the Father “the Sovereign of the universe,” but, she adds, He was not alone: “He had an associate, a co-worker who could appreciate His purposes, and could share His joy in giving happiness to created beings” (PP 34).
This sounds very similar to Adam and Eve as they were made in God’s image. Adam was “the monarch of the world” (BE, Aug 28, 1899; 2Red 13) and stood “at the head of the earthly family, to maintain the principles of the heavenly family” (CT 33; 6T 236). He was “the father and representative of the whole human family” (PP 48) and God made him “the rightful sovereign over all the works of His hands” (SDABC 1:1078). Eve was his associate, “a helper suitable for him” (Gen 2:18), sharing his nature, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh (v. 23), one who could appreciate his purposes and share in his joy. She was his equal but had a different purpose (1 Cor 11:7) and a different role to play (1 Tim 2:15).
Likewise, the Son of God always had a different role and function from that of the Father. “The Word existed as a divine being, even as the eternal Son of God, in union and oneness with His Father. From everlasting He was the Mediator of the covenant” (Ev 615).
He did not assume these functions at His incarnation: “In His incarnation He gained in a new sense the title of the Son of God . . . . While the Son of a human being, He became the Son of God in a new sense” (1SM 226). He had already been the Son of God in another sense, which had to do with his functional submission to the Father as a Son, yielding to the authority of God as Father. Through this Father-Son relationship, God models for His creatures what proper authority and submission look like, and this loving, trusting relationship gives the lie to the notion that both authority and submission are somehow foreign to the divine order. They are, in fact, an integral part of the divine order. “There is no authority except that which God has established,” the apostle Paul declares. “The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Rom 13:1-2). In the divine order, the Holy Spirit also submits to the supreme authority and will of the Father (John 14:26; 16:13).
Submission to Divine Authority
Besides authority and submission within the Godhead, in which God is the head of Christ (1 Cor 11:3), there is also authority and submission between God and His creation. God has placed all things (except Himself) in subjection to the authority of Christ, His Son (Matt 28:18; 1 Cor 15:27; Heb 2:8), “who is the head over every power and authority” (Col 2:10), “so that in everything he might have the supremacy” (1:18). He is the archangel (1 Thess 4:16; Jude 9), the ruler of the angels, whom angels worship (Heb 1:6) and serve (Matt 26:53). He is also the head of man (1 Cor 11:3) and the head of the church (Eph 4:15-16; 5:23; Col 1:18), which submit themselves to His authority.
His name is above every name, and at His name every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth (the demonic world), and every tongue will confess that He is Lord (Phil 2:11). The demons also are subject to Him (Luke 10:17). And nature was created subject to the dominion of the man and the woman (Gen 1:28-30).
Authority and Submission within Humanity
Within humanity there are also various levels of authority. We are required to submit to every designated authority (Rom 13:5), “whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him” (1 Pet 2:13-14). After Peter commands, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men” (ibid.), he begins identifying some of the various kinds of authority.
“Fear God, honor the king,” he writes in verse 17. Then he moves to slaves or bondservants (douloi) in relation to their masters (vv. 18-21): “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.” Just as he does not expect God to submit to believers or kings to submit to their subjects, he does not ask masters to submit to their slaves.
In 3:1-6 he addresses wives: “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands.” He cites the biblical precedent of notable women of faith: “For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master” (vv. 5-6). It is noteworthy that, although Peter subsequently addresses husbands also, he does not ask them to be submissive to their wives. Rather, he asks them only to be considerate as they live with their wives, and “treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life” (v. 7).
“Submit to One Another”
Parallel to Peter’s instructions on being submissive to various kinds of authority here on earth is Paul’s counsel in Ephesians 5-6. Paul begins in 5:21 with a summary statement: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This is immediately followed by three specific examples that illustrate and clarify it.
The summary statement should not be understood as limiting the three examples; rather, vice versa, the latter should be seen as illustrating and defining the initial statement. Immediately, Paul qualifies what he means to submit to one another: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” (v. 22), and again, “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (v. 24). Just as Peter did, Paul follows this by addressing husbands: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25).
He does not say that husbands should submit to their wives just as Christ submits to the church, or even just as wives submit to their husbands. This is a non-reciprocal relationship in which one is the authority and the other is in submission to that authority. Christ is the authority for the church, and the husband is the authority for the wife. The authority figure does not submit to the other. Paul’s illustration makes very clear that his injunction in verse 21 to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ does not mean that the roles are reversible and submission is mutual. It merely means that in whatever relationship one finds oneself, there are levels of authority that require one party to submit to the respective authority in that situation. The second and third examples likewise make the very same point.
The second example cited is that of children in relation to their parents. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right,” Paul admonishes in 6:1, following up with the original command of God, “‘Honor your father and mother’” (v. 2). Again, this is a one-way relationship. The parent is not expected to submit to or obey the child. Although the parent also is addressed in verse 4, the fathers—the authority figures in the home—are told only that they should not exasperate their children but instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
The third example cited is slaves, or bondservants, in relation to their masters. “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ” (v. 5). Paul adds in verse 7, “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men.” In verse 9, Paul addresses the masters but does not ask them to submit to their slaves, as one might expect if Paul really meant for all people to submit to one another. Rather, he appeals to masters, to “treat your slaves in the same way,” that is, as if they were serving the Lord. “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.”
Non-reciprocal Authority and Submission
So, there is no evidence that Eph 5:21 should be understood to require mutual submission between all. In fact, the evidence of the text clearly points in the opposite direction, pointing to a variety of non-reciprocal relationships in which there is submission to the respective authorities in each relationship.
Christ is the authority to which the church submits. The husband is the authority to which the wife submits. The parent is the authority to which the child submits. And the master, boss, or employer, is the authority to which the slave, servant, or employee submits. These relationships illustrate and clarify the leading statement, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The parallels to “submit . . . out of reverence for Christ” help to make this even more explicit: subsequent injunctions to submit are accompanied by the phrases “as to the Lord” (v. 22), “in the Lord” (6:1), “with respect and fear [or reverence] . . . just as you would obey Christ” (6:5), and “as if you were serving the Lord” (6:7). Clearly, these are meant to parallel and explain the original statement in 5:21.
At every level of relationships there are non-reciprocal relationships defined by authority and submission. This is in God’s order, to provide for effective function. Every body has many parts which all have to work together effectively (1 Cor 12:12-27). And the body needs a head—and not more than one—that gives unified direction to the actions of the body.
For the church, Christ is that head (Eph 5:23; Col 1:18), although in His absence He has delegated His authority to His duly commissioned representatives (AA 160-61, 360). Jesus taught that no person can serve two masters (Matt 6:24; Luke 16:13). Satan, the dragon, may be portrayed as having seven heads and ten horns (Rev 12:3), but in God’s order there can be only one head in any relationship, and others submit themselves to the authority of the head.
In gender relationships, that headship authority has been assigned to the male (1 Cor 11:3) with the female asked to submit to the authority that has been ordained by God. The explanation for this ordered relationship is given in terms of the purpose and order of creation: “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (vv. 7-9).
There is no indication anywhere in Scripture that God’s plan for ordered relationships is in any way defective or temporary. It is effective in heaven within the divine family. It pre-existed sin, being not only existent in heaven but also part of the order and purpose in the complementary creation of male and female in God’s image. And, as we have seen, it will still be part of the divine order in the new creation, when God the Son “himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).
1. All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
NOTE: Edwin Reynolds is Professor of New Testament and Biblical Languages at Southern Adventist University. He is also the Graduate Program Coordinator for the School of Religion.