Is There a Deeper and More Active Meaning of Submission?

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5:21

As we have seen, the dictionary definition of hypotassō, the Greek verb translated in Ephesians 5:21, is “subject oneself, be subjected or subordinated, obey.” The standard Greek-English lexicon renders hypotassō in 5:21 as “voluntary yielding in love.” Yet, I wonder if Paul intended more than this when he urged us to submit to each other.

If we look for other passages in Paul’s letters that sound a lot like Ephesians 5:21, we come upon Galatians 5:13. Here, people free in Christ should “serve one another humbly in love” (Gal. 5:13). The NIV uses “serve humbly” to translate the Greek verb douleuō, which means “to be a slave, to perform the duties of a slave, serve, obey.” Though “serve humbly” and “submit” are not precisely equivalent in meaning, serving humbly is a more active expression of submission, one that goes beyond “voluntary yielding in love” to “voluntary serving in love.”

There could be no more vivid illustration of submission in the Roman world than the service offered by slaves. Slaves were, if you will, the masters of submission. Thus, it seems likely that, in Ephesians 5:21, submission is not only a matter of yielding to the authority of someone else or following that person’s leadership. Slaves did this, of course. But their whole lives were lived in submissive service to their masters. Submission, therefore, involves choosing a posture of humility that leads one to serve others in the mode of a slave. If I’m in a community of mutual submission, I don’t just wait until a brother or sister gives me an order to follow. Rather, I seek out opportunities to serve humbly, to lower myself before other members of the church by serving them as a slave. Thus, I follow my Master who stooped to the feet of his disciples.

Galatians also highlights the close association of active submission and love. The imperative “serve one another” does not stand alone but is modified by “in love.” Love for our neighbor motivates us to serve our neighbor humbly, like a servant. Thus, Galatians 5, not to mention the whole flow of Pauline ethics, encourages us to see submission, including, of course, mutual submission, as going beyond mere obedience to a lifestyle of humble, slave-like service to others, service motivated by love and modeled on Christ.

When Ephesians 5:21 says that we are to submit to one another, it does mean that leadership and followership are to be shared among members of the Christian community, including members of a family. But it also calls us to an active kind of submission, to serving each other as a slave, just as Christ served us through his incarnation and crucifixion (see Phil. 2:1-11). The church and the families it comprises are to live according to the model of Jesus Christ, who came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: When have you been on the receiving end of humble service in your family? In your church? When have you humbled yourself in order to serve others? Have you experienced a community of people who practiced an active form of mutual submission, one characterized by servanthood based on love?

PRAYER: Lord Jesus, how I thank you for choosing the way of servanthood, even slavery, in humbling yourself, becoming human, and dying on a cross. Thank you for how you have served me by giving up yourself for my sake.

Help me, Lord, not only to receive your gift but also to imitate it in my relationships with others. May I subordinate myself to others by becoming a servant to them, looking out for their interests, seeking to meet their needs, and living out your call to love. Even this day, Lord, show me how I can “order myself under” those in my life and become a source of your grace for them. Amen.

Featured image by Angie Green. Used with Permission. Source via Flickr.