Submission. It’s a word loaded with a powder keg of emotions. We live in a culture more accustomed to questioning authority than submitting to it. Those in leadership are often viewed with mistrust rather than respect. Many have felt the sting of poor leadership in their homes, churches, and government. For some, this word is associated with weakness and inability rather than strength and dignity.
However, the Bible provides us with simple and clear commands regarding submission. Wives should submit to their husbands as to the Lord (Eph. 5:22). Civilians should submit to their governing authorities (Rom. 13:1). God’s people should submit to their leaders in the church (Heb. 13:17). Jesus serves as the perfect example of submission, praying on the eve of his crucifixion, “Yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Submission is part of the Christian life. None of us is free from authority.
While every Christian is called to submit in some form, Scripture also provides examples when God’s people disobeyed those in leadership so they could faithfully follow God’s commands. Rahab failed to submit to her king when she hid the Israelite spies. She chose to align herself with the people of God and was rewarded because of her actions (Josh. 2:1-6; Heb. 11:31; James 2:25). Abigail didn’t submit to her husband’s sinful injustice toward David. She secretly met David and his men in order to rightly repay them for their service. Her discernment saved her family from the disaster that was upon them (1 Sam. 25:3-42). Peter and the other apostles didn’t submit to the Jewish leading council when commanded to refrain from speaking or teaching in the name of Jesus. They boldly replied, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
These passages clarify that submission is not merely passive obedience to authority. It is an active and thoughtful obedience first to God and then to the authorities he has placed over us. At times, each of us will wrestle with God on how to apply the clear commands of Scripture in the complicated and gray areas of our experience.
How are we as believers to navigate the waters of submission when we find ourselves in a clash of callings? What are we to do when our obedience to God or the betterment of his people collides with the call to submit to our husbands, churches, or governments? Two biblical principles can guide us as we seek to honor God in our submission.
Principle #1: It is Sinful to Submit to Sinful Commands
First, we must acknowledge that we should never submit to authorities by following their leadership into sinful actions. When King Darius ordered that no one could petition any god expect himself, Daniel was right to disobey the lesser command from Darius and continue his regular habit of prayer (Dan. 6). If a husband were to command a wife to stop reading the Bible or meeting with God’s people, she would be right to go against his leadership in order to follow the clear teaching of Scripture (Col. 3:16; Heb. 10:25).
In the book of Acts we are told the story of Ananias and his wife, Sapphira. Ananias sold a piece of property to give to the disciples but kept back for himself some of the proceeds, with the knowledge of his wife. When Peter confronted Ananias with his sinful actions, immediately Ananias fell down and died. A few hours later when Peter asked Sapphira about the piece of property, she continued in the lie and suffered the same consequence as her husband (Acts 5:1-11). A husband’s headship doesn’t mean his wife will escape judgment for her complicity in their sinful actions. When a husband, church, or government asks a Christian to sin, the believer always has the responsibility to obey God.
Principle #2: It is Not Sinful to Influence or Persuade God-Given Authorities
An authority over us may choose a less wise course of action, but not necessarily a sinful one. Perhaps a wife truly believes that a certain schooling choice is the best option for their children or would like to attend a more biblically based church, but her husband disagrees. Perhaps a church makes what some in the congregation feel is an unwise decision on using funds. Perhaps a government makes laws that seem to promote injustice, while not necessarily causing an individual to sin. While a believer may be called to submit in these areas, it is also appropriate to respectfully engage and present one’s case before his or her authority.
Here are a few principles that can guide us as we approach those in leadership with our concerns regarding their decisions.
1. Seek the Lord in prayer.
Before Nehemiah approached King Artaxerxes to speak with him about rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, he went before the Lord in prayer and fasting. For four months he patiently prayed and waited before bringing the matter up to the king (Neh. 1). Prior to Esther presenting her request to her husband, she asked that Mordecai gather all the Jews together to fast on her behalf. As we go before the authorities, we should first spend time in prayer and fasting, asking the Lord to bless our requests. It’s also important to pursue wise council and support from godly people.
2. Choose an appropriate time and place.
Esther asked King Xerxes to join her for a private feast before asking him to save her people from destruction. She didn’t offer her request before all his officials in court but waited until they were alone, with only Haman there to hear her request (Esther 4-5). Each of us would be wise to consider the timing we choose to bring up areas of disagreement with those in authority. A wife might ask if she could meet her husband for lunch or dinner to discuss a specific topic. A church member would be wise to wait for a moment other than Sunday after the sermon to discuss his particular concern with his pastor. Choosing an appropriate time and location demonstrates respectful consideration of the person in authority over you.
3. Present your request with respectful boldness.
When Nehemiah went before the king, he was “very much afraid.” Esther also felt the weight of her request, telling Mordecai, “If I perish, I perish.” Yet both of them went before their leader with a respectful boldness that won them favor. They had the courage to ask, but they did so in a manner that honored the one of whom they made the request. As we seek to influence those in leadership over us, we can boldly put our requests before them, but we must do so a way that demonstrates respect to the role and authority God has given them in our lives.
4. Submit to God’s providence.
In the end, a husband may not agree to his wife’s request. A church may continue down a path that seems unwise. A government may make choices that fail to promote the welfare of those it governs. In these moments we must submit, trusting in the Lord and leaning not on our own understanding. Proverbs 21:1 encourages us: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” Ultimately, God is providentially at work through the authorities in our lives. They are the human agents by whom God is fulfilling his good purpose for each of us (Rom. 8:28).
We are called first to submit our lives to God and second to those in authority over us. The way may not always be as clear as we would like, but our willingness to humbly entrust our submission to God forces us to a new and deeper understanding of his sovereign goodness. Thankfully, we follow first and foremost a Savior who knows not only the painful cost of submission, but also the joyful purposes for which God intends to use our willing obedience.