the weblog of Alan Knox

Submission = Authority?

Posted by on Dec 14, 2009 in discipleship | 17 comments

In several passages of Scripture, followers of Jesus are instructed to submit in various contexts (i.e. see Ephesians 5:21, Ephesians 5:22, Hebrews 13:17). But, there are no contexts in which one believers is instructed to “exercise authority” over another believer or over a group of believers. Instead, the idea of authority is usually inferred from the idea of submission.

So, this is my question: If one person submits to another person, is the other person therefore in authority over the one submitting? Why or why not?


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  1. 12-14-2009

    I definitely hope not. I’ve never been very comfortable with the “man is the spiritual head of his family” language.

    If I had to try and make an argument, it’d probably stem from Phil 2, wherein everyone after each other’s best interests doesn’t make them subservient. But maybe I’m confusing service and submission.

  2. 12-15-2009

    In response to Talloaf’s comment, I’d like to say that Ephesians 5: 21-33 does say that wives are to submit to their husbands in ‘everything’. That must include spiritual as well as practical matters because he says ‘everything’. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the husband is superior, it just means he has a different role. ‘Different’ doesn’t mean ‘better’. It just means different. I know verse 21 exhorts everyone to submit to each other. But Paul’s exhortation to wives is compared to how the church is to submit to Jesus. I can’t imagine a scenario where Jesus asked the church to set aside Paul and Barnabas for going out witnessing, and the church turning round and saying ‘no’. Paul tells us that Jesus is the Head, and His decisions are to be heeded. Within Jesus’ headship He still gives the church opportunity to make up their own minds about things (eg. Romans 14, eating meat or only veg, it’s up to the individual etc). Jesus also delegates authority to His disciples, eg, when He gave the 12 apostles authority to go out preaching the gospel and healing the sick. Hence, just because husbands are the head of the wife, doesn’t mean women can’t have their own opinions or receive authority. It ‘just’ means – and I could be wrong, and I don’t mind being corrected – that at the end of the day, if there’s conflict over a matter, husbands are the head in the marriage relationship (just as Jesus is the Head of the church, Ephesians 5), and wives are to accept their husband’s ultimate decision – assuming it’s a godly decision of course. None of us is ever called to submit to doctrinal error or to a decision that leads to danger. When I say the headship role is ‘just’ about making ultimate decisions, I recognise it’s more than this.

    In response to Alan’s question, I think that if a person submits to someone else, they are largely showing respect to the other person’s decison or suggestion, the other person doesn’t have authority over others in a dictatorial sense – in the way that the Gentile rulers exercised lordship over gentiles, and which Jesus cautioned us against (Matt 20). I’m saying this because I don’t think the terms ‘exousia’ or ‘epitage’ sometimes translated ‘authority’ in some English Bible versions, have the same dictatorial connotation that is often applied to that term today.

    Also, I remember a Bible teacher pointing out that when the church is ‘called to submit to elders/leaders’ it is only ever in the context of submitting to the right doctrines they teach, i.e. we do things God’s way, not the leader’s way. I’ve had a look at the verses where we’re exhorted to ‘submit to leaders’ and they are indeed in the context of submitting to those who are sound in the Word. Which consequently means, they would only ever be asking us to do what God requires of us, not what man requires of us. Leaders in the church have no mandate from God to tell non-leaders when to go on holiday, neither can they insist we attend every church meeting nor do we need to ask their permission before going out on witnessing missions, for example; but they do have authority (authorisation) from God to teach right doctrine and to rebuke christians who are straying away from the Lord (Titus 2:15; 2 Corin 10:8). I’m assuming Titus is a leader – I could be wrong.

    In a nutshell then, at this stage of my understanding, I would say that elders/leaders have authorisation from God to teach the Word of God, to exhort the body of Christ to follow Jesus and to put Christians out of fellowship after 2 or 3 admonitions if they are living in unrepentant sin. Their authorisation goes no further than this. Yes, I agree that we are all called to exhort and teach one another up to the measure of our ability etc; but I think leaders and people who are gifted as teachers are perculiarly more accountable to God because teaching right doctrine is part of the leadership/oversight role – i.e. God expects them to accurately teach His Word (1 Tim 3:2; James 3:1).

  3. 12-15-2009

    Those who are in Christ are commanded to submit to one another, and Christ specifically commands His followers not to exercise authority the way the Gentiles/Pagans do, but that greatness in His Kingdom is attained by sacrificially serving others, I guess we should all be so busy giving preference to, loving, encouraging and submitting to others that we have no time to engage in the sin of wanting to or attempting to dominate or exercise authority over others.

  4. 12-15-2009

    Jonathan (talloaf),

    Phil 2 is a perfect passage to consider in this context. Thanks!


    Yes, wives are to submit to their husbands, and husbands are to love their wives. I’ve often wondered which one requires more “submission”…


    “It shall not be so among you…” That does seem pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?


  5. 12-15-2009

    You’re right Marisa, wives are to submit to their husbands in everything. What I lament about that language is the assumed implication that husbands are to lead in everything. Much of the spiritual head talk sounds as if wives require a husbandly priest to mediate between her and her great high priest. It also requires the husband to be more spiritually mature than the wife.

    I would have no problem letting my (future, so I don’t really know what I’m talking about) wife lead our family spiritually, especially if she is godly enough to grant my request if I have some kind of objection.

  6. 12-15-2009


    This seems like a picture of perpetual submission (to love takes submission and amplifies it by 100 million). Love looks like deferring and surrendering one’s rights for the sole benefit of others, no reciprocity to look forward to (Philippians 2). So right wives are to submit; however, I think the current teaching of submission being equivalent to the other party having authority has no biblical merit.

  7. 12-15-2009

    We often try to make love and submission in this text mutually exclusive but I think there is way more involved in this. The commands are submit and love, Paul was very careful not to even give an inch to authority. Love and Submit, when I hear authority inserted into this conversation I can say with all humility that they didn’t get that from the text AT ALL.

  8. 12-15-2009

    Amen Lionel.

    Is there any New Covenant scripture that commands, indicates or encourages anyone in the body of Christ to exercise authority over another?

  9. 12-15-2009

    So, why do we tend to see authority/submission instead of mutual submission?


  10. 12-16-2009

    Even “mutual submission” is only half way, I think. Marisa spoke solely from her own responsibility of submission. She didn’t try to balance it with her husband’s responsibility to love her (and, Alan, I agree the cost for doing so is higher if the example of Jesus is any indicator).

    I think this is the key, that we each focus solely on our own responsibility before Him and towards others.

    What if we once again thought of servant (not servant leader, not leading servant), but just plain old, coveralls, servant, as the highest ideal among the saints? What if we each focused on submission to others, period, no balancing counter responsibility of mutual submission? What if we each esteemed others better (that is qualitative) than ourselves?

    We would fill the world with wonder.

  11. 12-16-2009

    Oh, sorry. Let me add that if authority is influence, then those who best serve us and submit to us can most influence us–because as we know and experience their love for us and how they sacrifice for us, we will come to readily listen to them.

    Those who genuinely love us–not to manipulate us, but to obey Him as one who has already committed to submitting everything to Him and is learning to do so daily–these who are submitted to us in caring for us and serving us can change our mind about what we want and what we value and what we do. Their love can break down the hardness of our rebellious hearts. This kind of authority can transform us, because we cannot but submit to such sacrificial love. This is how Jesus works with the church, with us, and how we should work with one another.

    If authority is position based, having little or nothing to do with relationship and experiences together, then the very most it can accomplish is compliance. That is what the world is satisfied with, conformity. “Be ye not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind…

  12. 12-16-2009


    To answer your question very honestly? I would have to say because it doesn’t serve our purpose to mutually submit, outdo one another in showing honor, to look out for others interest, to serve others, okay to be candid we don’t really want to look like Jesus we want to use His teachings to serve our goals.

    Here is why. What does a wife submitting look like? I am for making something very practical. Especially this one. So does that mean, if I want my wife to stay home and cook and clean and take care of the kids and she doesn’t want to, she is to submit? Is that saying, if I like the blue Honda and she likes the green Toyota, she has to submit. Does that mean if she likes the congregation up the street but I like the one who preach the way I like she is to submit? Does that mean if she feels 3 kids is enough but I want 5 she is to submit? Does that mean that I want to lead a family bible study but she thinks I can do it with the kids or that we should try it a different way she submits? Does that mean if I want to go to my family for thanksgiving but she wants to go for Christmas that she is to submit?

    You see, whenever I hear submission being taught it is always who has the final say, especially on matters that are irrelevant for the most part (now public shooling/home schooling, birth control can be very relevant so I am not trying to minimze those things).

    So I want to be very clear. Jesus ALWAYS used His leadership and “authority” to love and serve others. He says “the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve….” He used His authority to forgive, heal, feed, serve and eventually die for the reconciliation of mankind. That is why we can’t make these commands mutually exclusive. I know what people teach however, I think this section should be taught as a unit so it can be clear exactly what Paul is saying. He is saying love and submit which to me sort of forms this circle/perpetual cycle of dying to ourselves for the good of others. Maybe even restoring what happened at the fall (remember Eve would desire her husband but he would rule over her. That is a curse not a blessing so Jesus reversed the curse thus restoring the Holy Spirit filled relationship of marriage which should look like Christ and the church).

    Anyway I have typed too much already, maybe I will write about this again.

  13. 12-16-2009

    Short Answer – not necessarily. One the tricks in feeling this issue out is that there are numerous words we translate as submit/subjection/submission: hupotasso, hupakouo, hupeiko, peitho, peitharcheo and dogmatizo.

    They call carry slightly different meanings. Hupotasso, the word used in Ephesians 5 can definitely be mutual, and it doesn’t require an authority, hierarchical or not.

    We see it also in 1Cor

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

    If we “hupotasso” to everyone to cooperates in the work and labours hard, it is pretty clear we aren’t assigning everyone an authoritative position over us.

    There are other words we translate that are closer to the english concept of submit, that do carry more of the idea of submitting to an authority.

    For a fairly exhaustive list of the words and their meanings go here

  14. 12-16-2009


    You mentioned Greek words that are sometimes translated “submit”. The article you linked to mentioned the same words. This post did not question the idea of submission. The question is, does submission therefore assume that the other party exercises authority.


  15. 12-16-2009

    Perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I wanted to be. Submission doesn’t require an authority. That is what I was getting at when I said “short answer : not necessarily” and “If we ‘hupotasso’ to everyone to cooperates in the work and labours hard, it is pretty clear we aren’t assigning everyone an authoritative position over us.”

    There are greek words that do convey that sense of submission to authority like peitharcheo and hupakouo but they are only used to describe our relationship with God or slaves/masters, children/parents. They aren’t used to describe relationships in the church.

    I don’t how authority looks in scripture…Jesus spoke ill of Christians exercising authority over each other. He did it in such plain language it is hard to understand how it is so often ignored. Could be fodder for one of your “scripture as we live it” posts.

    Paul did tell the Corinthians he had the exousia to build them up but not tear them down. Its a bit tricky as exousia can mean right as well as authority.

    There is the council of Jersusalem, and despite Paul’s downplaying of “those reputed to be leaders” (apostles) he doesn’t hesitate to appeal to the decision of the meeting in Jerusalem in defence of the gospel he preached. Its kind of funny as in Gal 2 he says he wouldn’t have submitted to these leaders for a moment if they attempted to water down the freedom in the gospel…yet he appeals to the same council as proof the gospel he preaches is true. I think there is some sense of authority in the church gathered. We see that played out in 1st and 2nd Corinthians when Paul advises them to gather together, have probably what was something like a 1st century intervention and if necessary kick out the unrepentant brother.

  16. 12-17-2009


    Thanks for clarifying!


  17. 1-17-2012

    I’ve found myself quoting you again – here is the link for you to review.


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