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.

peitharcheo

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.

peitho

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.

hupakouo

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.

dogmatizo

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?"

hupeiko

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.

58 comments on “What is Biblical Submission?

  1. A few thoughts for consideration. I read through every post and felt the struggle of this issue again. I don’t want to argue any point mentioned but rather add a consideration for what its worth to those seeking.
    1) We as Believers live in this natural realm and we as believers have the privilege and access to the heavenly realm (Eph, Heb). The point to consider is the two realms.
    2) The perfect model/relationship was before the fall which we see in the garden.
    3) After the fall from God’s original design, God gave Adam and Eve His will in regards to who is to lead. And therefore He (God) set who is responsible and answerable to Him directly for the direction of the relationship. Adam is to “give an account” as it were.
    4) In contrast we also know that in Christ there is neither male nor female
    5) Christ came to restore all things to the original intent (Jn 17/union with the Father/union with the Divine will/ “not my will but Thine be done”
    6) In this process God gave His order of things in this fallen natural realm and who must report to Him for the direction the ship is sailing. Is it sailing toward the restoration of all things which would be the Divine will realized again in earth as in heaven? In this restored state the need to submit would needless for in this heavenly realm in which there is neither make nor female we are mutually submitted to the divine will again.
    This is so brief and l apologize for that. But perhaps it will aid in the searching out of this matter. So in conclusion I see valid points from many. The heart of the leader is so vitally important and if the leader possesses the transformed heart of Jesus they can lay their life down for those they lead as Christ gave His life. Also I consider the rebellion we all were born in and which is rooted in the heart of all men, and it is the way of the Lord to reveal the reins and heart of His children. Father uses all things to work for our good even bad leadership at times. We see this in the case of Saul and David. David displayed a good example to consider. Even though Saul was wrong David honored him and in due time God abased the proud Saul and exalted the humble David. I look for the testing of the heart in every circumstance. So I have come to guard my heart and examine it often and trust in Him who sees the heart, who works all things for my good and who may call me to lay down my life for others in unconditional love yet unwavering commitment to the restoration of our will with His will. Love covers a multitude of sins both in the sins of leaders and this sins of those who are ask to honor the ones who lead.

  2. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the situation that brought me to your website…

    My husband and I disagree about some doctrinal issues. He believes that a woman should not cut her hair, wear makeup or jewelry, and only wear skirts. He believes that the Bible commands this specifically.

    I believe that a woman has the freedom to decide whether or not to cut her hair, wear makeup or jewelry, and can wear pants as well as skirts if she wishes.

    My husband has told me that even though I disagree with him, he as the husband has the authority to make the final decision on this issue. He feels that if I choose to disobey his decision that I will be rebelling and unsubmitted to him.

    Who is right? Must I submit? What would Jesus do? 🙂

    Thanks for your thoughts and for your helpful article!

  3. nottaken
    Perhaps you should ask your husband to study the bible with you to search out the information on these topics. Tell him that it is important to you that scriptures be applied biblically and you want to learn more about these topics with him. He will not find any scriptures stating specifically what you should wear but studying together will give you the opportunity to look and discover what is in the scriptures.
    You will find scriptures encouraging women to be modest. Although what is modest is not specifically defined. Modesty is a matter of the heart. What is your intent when you wear a particular outfit? Will it cause someone else to stumble. Where is your heart. What is your motivation.
    It is not the husbands place to demand submission. Submission must be freely given by you. By demanding submission he is lording it over you. His job is to love you(sacrificially) and lead by example. You are responsible for submitting as you would to the lord.
    The husband should be trying to imitate Christ behavior toward the Church when he relates to you. However, it is not the wife’s job to make the husband love her. That is God’s directive to him and he is responsible for doing that.
    I often marvel at the statement that husband gets to make the final decision. That may be what happens in order to keep peace in the home but it is definitely not an attitude of sacrificial love. A husband who truly loves his wife as Christ loved the church will do all in his power to lead in the effort to come to a mutually acceptable decision. If it is a matter of scripture he will study diligently with his wife so that they can learn what the will of the Lord is together. So sad that so many husbands do not strive for true oneness. (unity)

  4. Hi, Nel
    Submission cannot occur in the life of a believer unless the person first deny selves which simply means to die to their flesh the old man and be born again of the Holy Spirit. We can do all things through Christ that strengthen us. I am sure we all can say Amen, and agree to that. Thanks for sharing your topic on submission. I was asked to discuss submission at our Women’s meeting the first Saturday of the New Year 2014. I am excited to share what it means to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus. They were talking about the subject and most of them think that I am going to share the issue regarding sumitting to Husband and wife or even those in authority of leadership. I really enjoy the role of a servant in the Lord. It toughes the lives of all people around the world. It is a four letter word “LOVE.” Isn’t that who God is? Of course. Have a wonderful and blessed 2014. May the God of all grace rule and reign over every area of your lives. Believe the Word and receive the Word, in the name of Jesus Christ.

  5. L.T.

    First. Thank you! I found the article to be very enlightening. As a young minister that does not preach fire and brimstone this is very encouraging. Jesus’ very essence is love and understanding to those who fall short. While my sermons do not stray away from the fact that there are consequences for every action, God’s main use of me gears towards a healing Jesus.

    Second. As I read a few of the comments, I see what brought me to your sight initially-some who have issues accepting change, and, if they do, there isn’t a real submission to it. It is superficial. Submission as defined by the taking of “advice” from the men/women God is raising up to carry on the work. I do not believe the word of God changes in any way what so ever, but like the chosen twelve God knew whom He would chose to speak to each nation. Similarly, or, more specifically, each generation from one epoch to the next.

    As ministers, regardless of age, we are all created as man (he/she) gifted in various ways. I agree. If your worship is in accordance with the will of God, under girded in scripture, and endowed in the Holy Spirit, you should be able to serve and worship in Song, rap, dance, etc…

    The young do not wish to usurp authority. But If Jesus himself used each of the chosen for a specific task-in different manners, and, our Father is the same today as He was yesterday, why would He not do the same now?

    Thank you, again. Your piece really helped!

    God Bless!!!!!

  6. My question is this, could a man that is married with a child be there mother covering? This mother was married but is now divorce for 16 years with a 20yr olf daugther and has no plans on gettinh married again, she belongs to a congregation which means she has a pastor, she has said to her child that he is her covering multiple times, I know that this isnt nowhere in God word but if it is and I miss something please let me know, I dont think the son is the mother covering, God is her covering not her son that is married

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