What is biblical submission? It is a little bit of a trick question because our English bibles don’t reveal that there are a couple of different concepts relating to submission and obedience in scripture.

The word submit in English is used a few different ways as well. I can submit a proposal for consideration. I can submit to you the reader that something is untrue. I can submit my car keys to the new owners after I sold the car. Finally I can submit to the control of an authority.

The following English dictionaries define one aspect of submission this way.

  • Collins English dictionary: "unwillingly allow something to be done to you."
  • Dictionary.com: "to give over or yield to the power or authority of another."
  • Webster : "yield to the control of another."

There are 6 greek words used in the New Testament to convey something like our modern concept of submission: hupotasso, hupakouo, hupeiko, peitho, peitharcheo and dogmatizo. Keep in mind that many greek words have different meanings based on their context. It is no different in English. I may submit a proposal or submit to a search before boarding a plane. Words take on different meanings based on how they are used.

The word most commonly translated submit or subjection is hupotasso. Hupotasso is a military term used to signify a surrender on a battle field. It’s non military usage is different.

It can mean any of the following depending on context:

  • Arrange under
  • Yield to admonition or advice
  • Obey

Hupotasso is not used to convey a sense of involuntary obedience to human command or authority in the New Testament. The New Testament words that best represent that are hupakouo and peitharcheo.  Neither of these words are used in reference to church leadership.

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states the following:

For a material understanding of the verb in the NT its considerable range of meaning should be noted, especially in the middle. Originally it is a hierarchical term which stresses the relation to superiors. But one should note that the subordination expressed may be either compulsory or voluntary. In the former case the main idea may be that of either power or conquest on the one side or lack of freedom on the other. In the NT the verb does not immediately carry with it the thought of obedience, ? I, 223, 31 ff.; VI, 9, 24 ff. ? 40, 29 ff. (Kittel).

Hupotasso, as it relates to members of the church interacting with each other is "a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden."  When Paul instructs the Ephesians to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" it is clear that he is speaking the sense of "arranging under" or "yield to admonition or advice" He isn’t telling people to obey each other. In 1Cor 16:16 when Paul calls on the Corinthians to submit to "everyone who cooperates in the work" it is clear there is no sense of hierarchy.

Hupotasso is found the following verses.

Luk 10:17 "Then the seventy-two returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name!’"

Heb 12:9 "Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them; shall we not submit ourselves all the more to the Father of spirits and receive life?"

Rom 8:7 "because the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so."

Rom 10:3 "For ignoring the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking instead to establish their own righteousness, they did not submit to God’s righteousness."

Rom 13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God.

1Co 16:16 "also to submit to people like this, and to everyone who cooperates in the work and labors hard."

Eph 5:22 "Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord"
Col 3:8 "Wives submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord"

Tit 2:9 Slaves are to be subject to their own masters in everything, to do what is wanted and not talk back,

Tit 3:1 Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work.

1Pe 2:13 Be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake, whether to a king as supreme

1Pe 2:18 Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are perverse.

1Pe 3:22 who went into heaven and is at the right hand of God with angels and authorities and powers subject to him.

1Pe 5:5 In the same way, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. And all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.

Jas 4:7 "So submit to God. But resist the devil and he will flee from you."

Here are the other words translated submit or obey.


Definition: “to obey authority” (Thomas)

Act 5:29  But Peter and the apostles replied, "We must obey God rather than people

Act 5:32  And we are witnesses of these events, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him."

Act 27:21  Since many of them had no desire to eat, Paul stood up among them and said, "Men, you should have listened to me and not put out to sea from Crete, thus avoiding this damage and loss.

Tit 3:1  Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work.


Definition: “to persuade, to have confidence” (Thomas)

It can be translated obey if spoken in the active or middle/passive.  Most of us have no clue about active or passive tenses in Greek translation.  What it means is that the word can be translated obey depending on how it used.  In Heb 13:17 the word is used in such away that leads most translations to translated it as “obey.” 

There are far too many verses to list here.  The following is the main relevant passage:

Heb 13:17  Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls and will give an account for their work. Let them do this with joy and not with complaints, for this would be no advantage for you.


Definition: to listen, attend to:—answer(1), became obedient(1), becoming obedient(1), heed(1), obedient(2), obey(12), obeyed(3). (Thomas)

Eph 6:5 Slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart as to Christ,

Eph 6:1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord for this is right.


Defintion: to decree, to subject oneself to an ordinance:—submit … to decrees(1). (Thomas)

Col 2:20 "If you have died with Christ to the elemental spirits of the world, why do you submit to them as though you lived in the world?"


Defintion: to retire, withdraw, submit:—submit(1). (Thomas)

Thomas, R. L. (1998). New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek dictionaries : Updated edition. Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc.

Heb 13:17 "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls and will give an account for their work. Let them do this with joy and not with complaints, for this would be no advantage for you."

What would submission in the church look like if it were pursued in a manner that was truly a "voluntary attitude of giving in and co-operating".  It would look very different from what often goes on in authoritarian churches.

Biblical Submission in the church Authoritarian Submission in the church
Motivated by love and a desire to understand and co-operate Motivated by fear and a desire to avoid harsh consequences
There are always elements of mutuality Submission goes from the bottom to the top
Encourages freedom and expression Stifles expression
Alternative opinions and disagreements are seen as  opportunities to discern God’s insight and direction Alternative opinions and disagreements with leadership are possible threats and may need to be dealt with authoritatively to preserve unity
Unity through mutual love, sacrifice and understanding False unity through uniformity
Leadership encourages diversity and ensures that people feel safe to be themselves and use their gifts Leadership sets direction and keeps careful watch over all activity to ensure non-conformist ideas and people don’t gain influence.
People feel free to disagree with leadership but respect the values and direction set for the group People are afraid to voice disagreements and feel their only options are to stay silent or leave
Decision making is transparent and accountable Decision making is confined to a narrow group of insiders that feel very little obligation to explain their actions.
Leadership is truly accountable because people are free to question in an accepting and safe atmosphere. Leadership subverts true accountability by instilling fear, demonizing critics, and intimidating people.

Biblical submission is a "voluntary attitude."  What is the difference between a voluntary attitude and an involuntary attitude?  Involuntary submission it is motivated by command, rules, fear, coercion, or manipulation.  People give in because they have a tangible and an imminent fear of something terrible happening to them.

What should motivate us to submit to each other?

  • Reverence for Christ (Eph 5:21)
  • Leaders keep watch over us (Heb 13:17)
  • So the leaders have joy (Heb 13:17)
  • It would be profitable for us (Heb 13:17)
  • Clothe ourselves in humility to each other (1Pe 5:5)

There is a noticeable absence of any spiritual disaster in this list.

There are a number of different ways in which Christian denominations approach leadership, hierarchy and submission.  Some like the Baptists and Mennonites hold to flatter leadership structures where as the Methodists and Anglicans have stronger hierarchies.  In all of them free thought, transparency and bi-directional accountability are considered essential. Despite the organizational differences many denominations end up operating in a very similar manner.  In more flat organizational approaches hierarchies of influence develop and in more hierarchical organizational approaches several checks and balances are implemented to ensure the people at the top can be held accountable by the people lower down.

The proponents of Covering Theology often present themselves as God’s chosen leaders and label those who disagree with them as rebels.  There is an incredible irony to this as these same leaders have cast off centuries of solid biblical interpretation to arrive at their conclusions.  In order to accomplish this task they have redefined or skewed the traditional biblical concepts of sin, grace, submission, and faith.  This often done with flagrant disregard the commonly held values and conventions of their movement or denomination.

Vol. 8: Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (41). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Thomas, R. L. (1998). New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek dictionaries : Updated edition. Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc.