When we try to describe what it means to be a genuine follower of Christ we often turn to doctrines that we must believe. That is not a bad place to start. Paul spent the first three chapters talking about what a true believer understands and affirms. We must distinguish truth from error.
However, being a follower of Christ is not simply about data that must be assimilated. It’s not about passing a theology exam. It is about actually following Jesus. A true believer is one who has truly trusted the Christ of the Bible and is learning to follow Him in the way they live their lives.
When Christians don’t live any differently from their non-believing friends, there is evidence that there is a disconnect somewhere. The true believer reveals him/her self as much by the way they live as by what they teach. Both of these things are part of being a Christ-follower.
In the last half of Ephesians (chapters 4-6) Paul has been showing us what a true believer looks like in practice. He has given us a very specific list of the behaviors and characteristics of a Christ-follower. Though none of us can claim to meet this standard, we should be making progress in this direction.
As we near the end of chapter 5 Paul turns to some of the most basic and important relationships of our lives: the relationships of husbands and wives, parents and children, and employers and employees. To begin the discussion he gives us an overarching principle. We are going to look at that principle, stated in Ephesians 5:21 this morning.
And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (NLT)
Out of respect for Christ, be courteously reverent to one another.(The Message)
Remember, there were no chapter or section headings in the original letter that Paul wrote. Sometimes these things hinder the flow of the text rather than help.
This simple sentence serves as a perfect bridge between verses 20 and 22. Paul has told us to be filled with the Spirit. One of the ways we evidence this filling is by this attitude of submission. It also serves as the principle on which all the following comments draw their life.
The Principle: Submit
The word used for submit once again is in a tense which indicates that submission is an activity that is ongoing. It is continuous. We are to “continue to submit to one another”. Because the word is in the middle voice it indicates that it is a voluntary act; it is something we must choose to do.
The best way to understand what submission means is to look at Jesus. Jesus modeled this behavior by giving His time freely to those around Him. He took the role of servant and washed the feet of His disciples in the upper room. He surrendered Himself to the will of God and embraced death on the cross in order to serve our need of a Savior. Paul writes in Philippians 2 that even by coming to earth to live as a man, the Son of God was humbling Himself because He was setting aside the privileges of Godhood to take the form of a servant. Jesus gave us a pattern and an example of what it means to submit to one another.
In Romans 12:10 Paul tells us that we should “in honor prefer one another” and in Philippians 2:3 he says we should “(do) nothing from selfish ambition or from empty conceit, but in humble-mindedness count the other better than himself.” Submission is about giving ourselves in service to the Lord or to one another.
This is a difficult concept for us because in our world it is power that is esteemed and submission is viewed as weakness. Our world tells us that we should strive to possess servants, rather than to BE servants. We are constantly told to “fight for our rights” to “stand up for what we believe” and to “not let anyone push us around”. We applaud such people and feel good when we feel we have stood our ground or won a victory against another (whether it is a clerk in a store or a corporation in a courtroom). The notion of submission is foreign to our thought process.
We need to see that Paul is speaking to every believer. We are ALL to submit to each other out of reverence for Christ. This is where people get in trouble as we read the verses that follow. Paul is not simply telling wives to submit to their husbands, he is telling all of us to submit to each other!
What Does Submission Look Like?
Let’s try to be practical and concrete. What does it mean to submit to one another? Let’s look at it in terms of the negative and then the positive.
On the negative side, submission means:
- We will not push our own way on another
- We will not be thoughtless. Most of the hurt we inflict on others comes from impulsive words and actions.
- We will not rank others. We will not determine a person’s value based on their social class, job, income, IQ, race, gender or anything else. The submissive heart sees each person (including ourselves) as a sinner in need of grace.
- We will not be impatient with someone who disagrees with us because we realize that we may be wrong. We can always learn from the viewpoint of someone who sees things differently than we do. Sometimes people just are not at the same place as we are in our understanding. We often don’t know which of us is farther ahead in understanding.
- We will not assume the worst. How often have you misplaced your keys and your first thought was “who moved my keys?” We are quick to blame. We assume a checkout person meant to overcharge us; that someone intended to get in our way; and the waitress is deliberately slow in attending to us in a restaurant.
The person who has the submissive mindset is like one who is a member of a military regiment. They understand that their job is to do what is necessary to win the battle. They view their fellow soldiers as brothers and they value and protect them. A good soldier understands that they are strongest when they work together.
The same is true in team sports. Any superior athlete has learned that they will only win games if the whole team is involved. Michael Jordan learned that he could not win championships by himself. He could set records but he couldn’t win. As Jordan matured as a basketball player he worked to get everyone on the team involved in the game. Team members must submit to one another so they can collectively gain victory.
With this in mind we can say that a person who submits to others is one who,
- Thinks about the needs of others before himself. We are aware that there are others in the room. We see beyond their own agenda.
- Recognizes that we can learn something from everyone. Even the expert doesn’t know everything. It is easy to be so informed that you no longer can see clearly.
- It means we are willing to suffer if that is what it will take to honor the Lord.
- It means we walk humbly aware that we are but a sinner saved by grace.
- It means we will give up our comfort, time, and possessions to help someone else.
It is important that we add a caution here. Being submissive is not the same thing as being wimpy. Submitting to others does not mean we should compromise the truth in order to get along. We have no right to negotiate what God has told us is true anymore than a soldier has the right to change the order of a commanding officer on the battlefield! We may feel we are just trying to “get along” but we are really guilty of insubordination or even spiritual treason!
Remember, Paul spent the first three chapters of Ephesians underscoring the true way of salvation. We should alter our approach and even reign in our preferences because we are submitting to others . . . but we must never alter the truth of God! In the book of Galatians Paul said that anyone who changes the truth should be accursed . . . or “go to Hell”. The Bible tells us to contend for the truth (Jude 3). Contending for the truth is not the same as being contentious. Contending for the truth is not the same as contending for our tradition, our preference or our political viewpoint; it means we must stand fast on what God has declared to be true.
Contrary to contemporary thinking, we are not being loving when we change the truth of God to be more “inclusive”! Only the truth will set people free. When we alter the truth of God, we are actually withholding from others the way to true freedom. Our compromise may make them happy, but it will also keep them in bondage!
The Motivation Behind the Principle
We all find submission to go against our instinct. Paul tells us we should be motivated because of our “reverence for Christ.” In other words, we submit to each other because we love the Lord and because we know that the Lord’s way is better than anything we can think or imagine. We obey because we trust His judgment.
Athletes do what the coach says because they have learned to trust their coach. They understand that he/she sees the bigger picture. Submission is about trusting the heart and methods of our Lord.
There are two key principles to submission. First, we will submit to others only to the degree that we have first learned to submit to Christ. We need to learn to rest in, trust, and follow the Lord. If we have not learned to submit to Him, we will not be able to effectively submit to others in the name of Christ.
If we are honest, we will admit that we tend to “pick and choose” the commands of God we obey. We obey the commands with which we already agree. We obey commands that will get us what we want in our lives. However, when God tells us to do something that is outside of our “comfort zone”, when He calls us to repent of some behavior we have grown quite fond of . . . then we resist, excuse, and rebel.
Learning to follow Christ is about trusting the Lord enough to do what He tells us to do. It is means trusting His wisdom, His strength, and His love for us. When we truly trust Him we will follow Him.
One of the reasons that Apple became such a booming company is because people learned to trust the vision of their founder, Steve Jobs. Some of his ideas, I’m sure, seemed crazy at first. However, the Apple team learned to embrace what Steve Jobs embraced. They discovered that he was able to envision what no one else could.
Isn’t it somewhat the same with the Lord? We need to learn to trust His wisdom over ours. God does not have the arrogance or personality quirks of a Steve Jobs. He should be easier to trust!
The point is: until we learn how to submit to the highest authority in our lives we are going to have trouble submitting to those around us. We will really have trouble submitting to those we believe are inferior to us!
The second principle is this: Submission encourages submission. What I mean is this: as we learn to submit to the Lord we will be better able to submit to others. As we submit more to others, we will be better able to submit to the Lord.
There are at least two reasons for this:
- There is joy in submitting that encourages further submission. As we submit to others we will begin to see, understand, appreciate, and derive blessing from those to whom we submit. We will discover value in people we used to dismiss. We will test and prove God’s faithfulness again and again.
- As we submit we discover the wisdom of God’s direction and so we will follow it more fully. The more we submit to the Lord, the more we discover that God really does know what He is talking about. We will see that His commands are not burdensome; they actually open doors and deepen our experience of life.
Where Do We Go From Here?
It is much easier to learn about submission in theory than it is to put it into practice. So let’s try to be concrete. How do we begin to obey this command from the Lord?
First, start with your relationship with God. Submission is a spiritual trait. We will learn to better submit to God when we read the Bible not as a textbook but as a “playbook” for life. The idea of reading a playbook is to learn what you are supposed to do and what you are trying to accomplish. As you read the Bible each day, look for specific areas where God is calling you to live differently. Focus on one command that challenges you throughout the day and try to put it into practice.
Let me illustrate. Let’s say you read the command “You shall have no other gods before me.” Take time to think about the idols you may have in your life. What things have more influence in your life than the Lord? What things have a greater control on your calendar, your money, or your emotions. These things are our idols and we must confess them and return the Lord to His rightful place.
Let’s say you are convicted by words that talk about speech or anger or any of the things we have been looking at in Ephesians. Remind yourself of these words often throughout the day. Be aware of when you discourage people rather than encourage them. Pay attention to when your words add to the flame of conflict rather than build a bridge to understanding and cooperation. Confess failures and seek God’s strength to make corrections.
Second, look for ways to give your time and your energy to another. Submission is about recognizing other people as important. In other words, we are learning to be submissive as we
- Make time to listen. This doesn’t mean merely to stop talking. It means to actually work at hearing and understanding what someone is saying. Work especially hard to listen to those whom you sometimes dismiss (They may be young, old, or have a very different personality from you).
- Look for ways to help others in practical and simple ways. Hold a door, pick up something someone dropped on the floor, run an errand, empty the dishwasher, put in a load of laundry, clean up a mess, help someone out with a bill they can’t pay. Often this is much easier to do with others than with your own family. In your own family we tend to tell ourselves “this isn’t my job”. We need to do what needs to be done (and try to do it cheerfully and without making others feeling guilty . . . this is harder than it sounds).
- Deliberately ask others to instruct you. Ask people questions about things of which they have knowledge. Instead of trying to show your competence, ask questions that will allow that person to teach you something you didn’t know before. Instead of viewing this as a contest focused on “who knows more”, deliberately take the roll of a student. We all like to take turns at being “teacher”.
- Share in another’s joy or sorrow. When they rejoice, let them have the spotlight. Resist the desire to compare their joy with yours. Stop wrestling with them for center stage! Be gracious, let someone tell their story and share their victory. In times of sorrow work to understand the pain of another so that you can help carry that sorrow with them. Instead of telling them how to feel, let them tell you how they feel.
Monitor your progress in times of prayer. There is something wonderful about discussing things like submission with the Lord. When we do our own inventory we are always easy on ourselves. However, as we evaluate our lives in His presence we see much more clearly. The Holy Spirit opens our eyes to the areas that still need work. He will also help us to see progress that we are making.
As we make this a matter of prayer God will better be able to mold our hearts. As He does so we will discover that submission is not a dirty word; it is a glorious secret that opens a door to a dimension of life few ever find. When this happens, submission will no longer be a duty; it will become a privilege and a joy. It will not only enrich our lives; it will enrich the life of everyone with whom we come into contract.