Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Submission Is Not Obedience

One of the problems with understanding difficult things like submission is that we want exhaustive definitions where God only gives us general guidelines and descriptions. This means we have to work harder to figure out what submission is, as well as what it isn’t. It means we have to use the basic guidelines of Scripture as our starting point, and humbly submit to the Lord while He teaches us in the midst of doing it. It means we have to confront the sin that clouds our thinking. Because misunderstanding submission has enormous implications for the gospel.

Scripture is clear that submission and obedience are not the same thing, and yet there are movements within the church that proclaim the opposite, either directly through teaching or through practice. There are movements in our culture as well that believe submission and obedience are the same, the difference being how much they despise both. We have conflated these two ideas more than we’d like to admit, and history continues to testify to this. It’s not that old habits die hard, but it takes a long time to work ideas out in a culture.

One of the biggest difficulties to communicating clearly how submission and obedience are different is that they do bear some resemblance. For instance, a disciplined person’s submission can look very much like obedience. Submission and obedience also both assume that there are appropriate responses to a person in authority. But they are not the same kind of response. They exist, to use my husband’s helpful term, on a different axis.

Obedience is a response to rule. In our earthly relationships, a person under authority obeys because the rule is the focus, and the person in authority is expected to judge according to the rule. Children obey parents, soldiers their commanders, drivers the police officers, and so on. This is simply a reflection of God’s rule over His creation, and explains why parents, for example, cannot be the focus of their children’s obedience. God’s rules stand over us all.

Submission, on the other hand, is not a response to rules. Of course, it assumes that an order of authority exists because otherwise submission would be meaningless. But the focus is different. In our earthly relationships, a person under authority submits because the love of the person in authority is the focus. Wives submit to their own husbands, congregants submit to their elders, the needy submit to those who give, and so on, with love in view. It is a fine distinction, but an important one. This is a reflection of God’s love for His creation, especially of Christ’s love for the church. Christ leads the church into submission by loving and giving Himself up for her. She, in return, submits to His loving and sacrificial leadership. The focus is not on the rule of His authority—although it is necessarily there—but on the love in his authority.

The book of Ephesians tells wives to submit to their husbands, and husbands to love their wives, because in sin we forget that this has been God’s design for marriage from the beginning. Instead, because of the curse, we are more inclined to expect husbands to rule and wives to obey. What’s more, we are prone to establishing laws and cultural standards that expect men to lead by ruling, and women to obey by compulsion. The implications of this confusion are enormous, and we have ample evidence from history that it is still being worked out.

In the ancient world women were considered to be like children, ruled entirely in all things by men. Roman husbands had the legal right to beat their wives as punishment for disobedience, and in ancient Greece women were not even considered fully human. Wives in both cultures had no legal rights over their children, and especially in Greece, no authority in training them. But even the spread of Christianity didn’t fully improve things. Many of the Patristic Fathers, for example, taught that women were the root of evil, and that the Bible shows male superiority. The church learned to reject these teachings, but the curse was not removed so easily.

The belief that society functions best when men rule and women obey unfortunately lives in modern history as well. Until the 19th century, women were excluded from universities because of widespread fear that women with a college education would be unfit for marriage and motherhood. And until the 1970s, in many states in the U.S. even a wife with a source of income could not sign with her husband for a home loan, which left her without property protection if he abandoned the family. A man’s rule (not his income) was the guiding factor. And since we still bear the curse, I don’t think we should assume we have it all right today either.

The reality is, cultural patterns speak very loudly to a watching world. This is especially true when those patterns are established and modeled in the church, or in a gospel-informed culture. I am not suggesting that history is a timeline of men oppressing women, or even that we should always concern ourselves with the ranting of unbelievers about oppression. But I am suggesting that the gospel needs to more deeply permeate our thinking about submission and authority in our marriages, in the church, and in our culture.

This is why it’s not simply about our stated positions, but how we live them out. I have heard many within the patriarchy mention a husband’s love, but not nearly as often as I hear them call for men to rule their homes, the church, and every other area of society. The patriarchy can’t help it—this is what patriarchy (father-rule) means, after all. But it’s the curse that tells us that men rule and women obey, and as Christians we are called instead to live in the light of the gospel. We must send a redeemed message about the heart of authority, especially to those who are called to submit to it. And we must send a redeemed message to a culture continually attempting to remove the curse apart from Christ. This is the only way to prove the loveliness of God’s created order, to show how vibrant marriages and strong cultures can endure. We can’t do this if we’re not continually taking our thoughts about submission and authority captive to the obedience of Christ.


  1. I want to comment intelligently, but the jet lag forbids it. For now I will simply write: well-written, friend.

  2. Megan,

    I think I know where you are going with this, I just don't agree with the route you've taken. It is one thing to state the the Bible is clear that submission and obedience are mutually exclusive but quite another to demonstrate it. I believe I can demonstrate the opposite and there is good reason to do so.

    In my view, you are on much safer and more bibilcal grounds to go ahead and grant that submission and obedience are practically synonyms in Scripture. This does nothing really for the patriarchal movement except frame the discussion in its proper biblical light--after all we ought all to be using biblical definitions to frame any discussion on this and other topics.

    The fact is that going the route I outline below and elsewhere proves too much for the patriarchalist. It obligates them in many ways that they don't realize but that I've already mentioned in previous comments. Patriarchy is a fundamentalist approach to Scripture that only scratches the surface of what the text itself means. Ignoring the depth, import, and proper application of meaning on the part of a patriocentric worldview in order to subjugate women means not only that we are not allowing Scripture to speak fully to the matter at hand but also that they use it in direct contradistinction to what is actually meant and how it ought to be applied in society.

    Let me attempt to draw out some biblical data to support what I am saying. The fact is that in the original language the word for "submit" in the Bible (and particularly in Eph. 5) is a word that revolves around the context of obeying within a certain structured authority matrix. In fact, you can't separate the obedience from the structure of authority anymore than you can separate it from the love which is obviously being referred to in Christ giving himself up for the church. You create a false dichotomy by saying that obedience is a response to rule whereas submission is a response to love and I would challenge you to demonstrate such from the pages of Scripture. Rule and love are not of necessity mutually exclusive any more than obedience and submission are. Do we obey Christ because He is King or because we love Him? I would say the answer is both/and. They are not revolving on anything but one axis, contra Walter's claim. Using your definitions put us in the precarious position of having to choose one over the other and that is why we need to stick with how the Bible defines these things.

    The proof for my view is in passages like 1 Peter 3 where the word for submit is used interchangeably with a more direct obey ( cf. vs. 5 where we have the same word as in Eph. 5:21-22 in reference to submitting to one another and wives to husbands and vs. 6 where obedience is how wives in this case practice that same submission) even to the point of Sarah calling her husband "lord". If that isn't emphasizing rule as you call it within the context of submission I don't know what is. Not only does the Apostle give us an example to consider but it is an endorsed example on the part of "the holy women of the past" inferring that their behavior is not only something to emulate but manifestly fulfills the law in terms of righteousness (cf. Luke 1:6). The word for "obeyed" in verse six of 1 Peter 3 is the same word used in Ephesians 6:5 for slaves to obey their masters and carries with it the same connotations as it is also used in Ephesians 6:1 in reference to children obeying their parents.

  3. Leaving the matter here as if that is all that should be said about these passages is where the patriarchalist is in error. The fact is that what needs to be fleshed out is not just the word "submission" but also the word "obedience". What is biblical obedience? Since when was biblical obedience ever *merely* an appropriate answer to a legitimate authority? From the Garden in Genesis 1-3 we have God walking with mankind in relationship 'in the cool of the day'--and even pre-Fall obedience must be seen within the context of God's love for His own.

    The answer is not necessarily a simple one but we must admit and grant that sometimes obedience (and consequently, submission) does look like unquestioned and slavish submission to an authority or even better, sacrifice (cf. Romans 12:1-2). How else did Abraham pass the test of sacrificing his son Isaac? But, even there, the answer is 'Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness' (Genesis 15:6). Are we really so crass as to claim that Abraham's implicit decision to obey or not was wrapped up in a debate about whether to submit out of love or obey out of duty? In short, biblical submission and obedience presupposes the very love relationship you spoke of but also recognizes the legitimate authority in place. Obedience is not merely external compliance but it is also not something left to contrast with submission as if they are mutually exclusive. Sometimes obedience is a matter of not understanding anything about what is commanded other than to merely obey.

    But, I would add that obedience is based on covenant promise. This is where I think you need to do more work in fleshing out the full implications of both words. This is the same basis that notes God's submission to David in obeying his demands in the Psalms by way of fulfilling His promises. Similarly, the fact is that obedience to a husband or obedience to God is predicated on faithfulness in regards to covenant promises made. That is why undue and abusive domination on the part of patriarchy advocates carries no weight because such domination is an extreme abdication of those promises, the love that originally inspired the man to make them, and the authority that they originally carried. In short, it is desertion on the part of a husband to practice such things and even the Westminster Confession (cf. ch 24.6) recognizes such a reason for divorce and discontinuing the marriage relationship in such circumstances. And, this is where the rub is for the patriarchalist. The husband has obligations too and they are greater (as I have argued) than that of the wife. Look at Ephesians 5:21-33 and see who Paul talks to more on this subject in terms of obligation and sacrifice.

    Last, it is quite clear in the pre-Fall passages of Genesis that it was not "the curse that tells us that men rule and women obey". By virtue of Adam's naming of Eve in the last part of Genesis 2 and the significance of what names mean in Scripture, Adam is establishing the order God presupposed. This is further put forward in understanding what our Lord did in creating a helpmate for Adam (cf. 1 Cor. 11:7-12) What the fall did is enforce a domination that goes above and beyond the sort of biblical obedience and submission outlined above for the sake of the common good and to help men and women understand and grasp the nature of their sin. What we are doing in Christ and outlined in Ephesians 5 is presented to us in Ephesians 4--putting on the new creation--restoring us back to the originally created norm through Christ.

  4. Kevin, unfortunately you seem to have spent a lot of time recasting my argument and refuting what I didn't say.

    I’m glad you're very impassioned about these topics, and I wonder if your passions would be more effective if you began a blog of your own. In this blog I want to discuss more generally how we live out the gospel in daily life, and to allow people to have reasonable space to comment. Long, detailed theological discussions are more appropriate in another forum. Of course, you're still welcome to participate, but I would challenge you to do it with an economy of words, and in a way that helps others enjoy the discussion.

  5. Megan,

    I'd have responded further but we've been in the process of moving over the last few days (almost done--and now back in the neighborhood).

    It took me about twenty minutes or so to bang out the above responses - I'm not in the business of recasting others' arguments and I certainly haven't spent a lot of time on this. Things are not always as they seem. :)

    For the life of me, I can't figure out how I've supposedly recast your statements above to be anything other than what they are. I would appreciate the opportunity, however, to know exactly where I've misrepresented your position. Since you are apparently adverse to fleshing the theology of these things out here on this blog, please feel free to email me your comments at

    As it is, I'm not sure how countering your own theological statements with other theological statements and the corresponding biblical support really goes beyond the scope of your blog. The length is appropriate on my end due to the need for a balanced look at the topic that goes well beyond a bare statement of the facts. The biblical material and position must be attended with wisdom given the subject. Those affected by spiritual and even physical abuse cannot be expected to abide by simplistic takes on the part of any viewpoint in the discussion and you can't expect your own words to automatically go unchallenged in a public forum whether it is your blog or not.

    Aside from your own criticism, I haven't had anything but positive comments for the material I've contributed here. We obviously don't have the same philosophy regarding what a blog is for and how to use it--and I've spent a long time and many more words than above on blogs both running them and commenting on them. Suffice it to say, you are going to get more discussion as you allow more to participate as *they* are led and not as you see fit. After all, it's not like we've seen a flood of comments after this and the previous warning you've provided me in posting as I have.

  6. To be honest, I got lost in your above comments, Kevin. It may just be me, but I can't figure out where your disagreement lies. If you were to state clearly and succinctly where your position differs from what Megan has (so far) stated, and then show your supporting evidence, that would be helpful (at least to me, and as I say, I may just be obtuse). :)

  7. Annette,

    I believe that Megan and I are working to get to the same place (or nearly so, as I believe complementarianism properly speaking is a bit of a sham) but that her route is different than mine. She's taken a shortcut that is really a move through some pretty heavy swamp land especially if we are dealing with folks who demand sticking to what they think the Bible simply has to say about these things (as in the case of the patriarchy movement).

    Instead of looking to shortcuts, we need to take the high road of making sure that our definitions are biblical in this discussion to start with and that must be especially true in regards to what submission/obedience means. It matters not that on the way up the mountain to defining these things we find a bunch of patriarchal ne'er-do-wells at a roadside gas station intent on proclaiming the road their own simply because they live right next to it. We continue with what the Bible has to say about these things and frame our discussion in that regard or we lose the ability to live in accordance to God's Word.

    Megan above simply states that the Bible is "clear" in teaching that submission and obedience are not the same thing and then proceeds to outline the supposed differences even though I've provided evidence from the Bible to the contrary. Whenever someone says on the Internet that the Bible is clear about something in our day and age--unless we are talking about creedal orthodoxy--it is time to perk up the ears and wait for unsubstantiated and likely unjustified opinion. As it is, I would love to hear the biblical justification for Megan's point of view in contradistinction to my own.

    I would write more, but I've already been given a ticket on the way up the mountain for saying too much. :)

  8. Kevin, is another way to state your case that you would like to see scriptural support for the statement beginning paragraph 2, that "Scripture is clear that submission and obedience are not the same thing"? If so, such supporting scriptural evidence would certainly be helpful, since a patriarchalist could just as easily claim (and I've seen it done) that "Scripture is clear that submission and obedience are one and the same."

  9. Kevin, I believe submission and obedience are related but distinct concepts. They are neither mutually exclusive nor virtually identical. I'd like to use excerpts from The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament as support.

    Regarding *hypotassetai* (to submit):
    - "In the NT the verb does not immediately carry with it the thought of obedience" (Vol 8, p. 41)

    - "... it denotes voluntary subordination..." (Vol 8, p. 42)

    - "As in the right relation of sons or daughters to parents, for which ὑποτάσσομαι is not used elsewhere (→ I, 223, 34 ff.), so also in the commonly required subjection of wife to husband according to the biblical understanding (Col. 3:18; Eph. 5:22–24; 1 Pt. 3:1; Tt. 2:5) the issue is keeping a divinely willed order, cf. 1 Cor. 11:3; 14:34 (Gn. 3:16); also 1 Pt. 3:6, with a reference in v. 5 to the ὑποτάσσεσθαι of the women of the OT." (Vol 8, p. 43)

    Regarding *hypakouete* (to obey)
    - "'To obey.' This obedience first relates to persons such as children, slaves or wives who stand in a divinely willed relation of subordination (Eph. 6:1, 5; Col. 3:20, 22; 1 Pt. 3:6). It can thus also describe the relation of demons (Mk. 1:27) or nature (Mk. 4:41 and par.) to the omnipotence of Jesus and the authoritative faith of the disciples (Lk. 17:6)." (Vol 1, p. 223)

    This mentioned wives obeying. Please note that the command in 1 Peter 3:1 and 5 is for wives to *hypotassomenai* (be subject to, submit to) husbands. The reference to obedience in vs. 6 is descriptive of Sarah, but Peter's instruction in this passage is for wives to submit.

    Clearly there is a close relationship between "submit" and "obey". Clearly there is a difference. Scripture calls on wives to submit, and holds up Sarah's obedience as an example, but the NT's call on wives is to live in the divine order, to submit. From the outside, this surely looks much like obedience, as Megan indicated, but the emphasis is different, as Megan indicated.

    Paul and Peter could have told wives to obey. Instead they called for submission.

  10. Walter, thanks for bringing out the distinction in the original, that is helpful.

  11. Annette,

    To your last comment, yes, that is part of what I am saying but not all.


    I will endeavor to be brief--there is much here to discuss. I will only scratch the surface.

    If you remember, above I reference "submission" and "obedience" as "practically synonymous". I readily grant that each is represented by more than one word in the New Testament (and really, you only presented a subset of relevant words with your comments). Where I disagree with you and Megan is in how far you both put the discontinuity between "submit" and "obey" and the nature you've ascribed to each.

    But, we do not determine the meaning of Greek words in Scripture by dictionary entries any more than we would carry along a copy of Oxford's English Dictionary with us in conversation from day to day. TDNT is relevant to better understand the overall semantic range of Koine Greek terms in the New Testament, but actual meaning is determined by context and what the Bible says in the original language.

    Even still, it needs to be said that your presentation of dictionary entries is decisively incomplete if we pretend for the moment that all that needs to be done is look up the words to find out what they mean. Thayer's Lexicon, Liddell-Scott's lexicon, Bauer Arndt Gingrich Danker (BAGD) lexicon (which is really the standard and the more appropriate source to quote rather than Kittel), Friberg's Analytical Lexicon, and Gingrich's Greek New Testament Lexicon all list "obey" as a possible meaning for "hupotassw" (submit).

    The question, as always, comes down to context and what the Bible is saying in the relevant passage in the original language.

    If I remember correctly, 1 Peter 3:5-6 shows us that the only immediate demonstration of submission for wives in the New Testament is found in Sarah obeying her husband to the point of calling her lord. Can you find me another?

    I would challenge you to take the time to lexically define for us the meaning of "as" (ws) in verse 6. The submission of godly women, according to Peter, is seen exactly in the obedience of Sarah and held up as an example. "As" in the original is an adverb which introduces an example that demonstrates the real meaning and/or application of the verb which it modifies--in this case, the submission of Christian wives. So, what we have in this passage is a submission that is equivalent to obedience. It's as if Peter was saying this is what submission means or this is what submission looks like. You can't separate Sarah's example from what is expected of Christian wives especially given the context. Look at verse 5 - "for in this way" - submission is done this way - by following the example of obedience provided by Sarah and other great women of old.

    Let me go rabbinical on you for the moment and argue from the lesser to the greater - Sarah's obedience was done in shadow and Christian wives now obey in the full light of Christ and His work. If anything, the New Covenant establishes a greater precedent for seeing submission in the biblical obedience of wives to their husbands. But, it also increases the obligation of husbands in living with their wives in an understanding way and this is where one-sided patriarchal advocates fail in spades.

  12. There is one more thing to say and I appreciate your patience in allowing me to do so.

    Whoever said that biblical obedience was something other than voluntary, one more distinction that has been made that is not in accordance with a biblical view of obedience? Did Christ go to the cross freely or was He compelled to (cf. Phil. 2, also cf. Philemon 21)?

    The old ethical issue demonstrated by an anti-Jewish radical breaking into a Rabbi's house and demanding that he eat pork at gunpoint demonstrates this quite easily. He has a choice to die by refusing or to eat the pork and live. The ethical dilemma is found in what is the right decision.

    There is always a choice in obeying and the beauty of biblical obedience is that it is always voluntary because our free will has been restored in Jesus Christ by the application of the Holy Spirit. And, this was no less true for the Israelites in the Old Testament though a bit harder to see before the advent of the New Covenant.

    After all, our Lord said, 'If you love me, keep my commandments' not 'Since it's a rule, you better obey it'.

  13. Kevin, you asked about “as” (ws) as used in 1 Peter 3:5,6. Let me quote one source:

    "64.12 ὡςa; ὡσείa: relatively weak markers of a relationship between events or states—‘as, like.’ ὡςa: ἡμέρα κυρίου ὡς κλέπτης ἐν νυκτὶ οὕτως ἔρχεται ‘the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night’ 1 Th 5:2; γενηθήτω σοι ὡς θέλεις ‘may it happen to you as you wish’ Mt 15:28; τί ἔτι κἀγὼ ὡς ἁμαρτωλὸς κρίνομαι; ‘why then am I still judged as a sinner?’ Ro 3:7.
    ὡσείa: εἶδεν τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ θεοῦ καταβαῖνον ὡσεὶ περιστεράν ‘he saw the Spirit of God come down as a dove’ Mt 3:16; καὶ ἐγένετο ὡσεὶ νεκρός ‘and he became as dead’ Mk 9:26." (Louw and Nida, Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament : Based on semantic domains, p. 617).

    1 Peter 3 is comparing the submission of a wife to Sarah’s state (of subordination to her husband) and to her listening to her husband and obeying (many sources note that the word translated “obey” in vs. 6 indicates hearing and paying attention to).

    As my references tell me, Greek has many other words which could have been used in place of “as” (ws), words which are more translated as “just as,” “precisely as,” or “in like manner.” Peter could have used those words to equate submission and obedience in vs. 5 and 6 – but he did not. He kept the relationship loose: there is a strong relationship between submission and obedience, but there is also a significant difference.

    As you pointed out, it is unpersuasive to make an argument solely on Greek words out of context. I illustrated a small point – that words in key passages translated as “obedience” and “submission” are related but different – in my last comment. Here I took your challenge to discuss “as” (ws) in 1 Peter 3, and I believe the text does not treat “obedience” and “submission” as practically synonymous.

    Second, as you pointed out, I also can’t think of specific examples of how a wife submits other than in 1 Peter 3:6. However Eph. 5:22-33 gives an extended metaphor of marital submission being like the Church’s submission to her Lord. That relationship involves obedience, but obedience is not the focus of the description. And Ephesians 5:21, which does not make sense if we replace the word “obedience” in place of “submission”, adds to the weight of this biblical context. Again, there is a difference.

    Looking more broadly, consider Abigail and Nabal. David praised Abigail’s “good sense” (1 Sam 25:33) because she submissively saved her husband’s life, even though she was not technically obedient. And to use a personal example, I am nine years older than Megan. At some point, being both male and older, I will probably mentally decline before Megan does. That won’t change the fact of submission, but it will change how her submission looks. She might have to override my wishes to gently care for her frail husband. “Obedience” wouldn’t make sense in this case, but “submission” flexes and bends there.

    The Bible hasn’t made it easy to define marital submission. It is similar to obedience. It is similar to the relationship of Christ to the church. But it has meanings which “obedience” does not have. And misunderstanding submission has consequences for how we think about the humanity of wives. It affects our thinking about the nature of the family. More broadly, given Eph. 5:21, being able to live in mutual submission affects Christian unity. And Kevin, I have to admit that your tone in your comments in this blog suggests you don’t understand what mutual submission is.

  14. Walter,

    Your continued reliance on secondary materials to examine the biblical text only signals to me that you cannot actually read the original language of Koine Greek. No one who knows and understands the original language would argue as you do by presenting sources that are not immediately relevant. Try as you might to present me with the opinions of scholars as to the nature of the text, the fact is that such resources are intended to be used in conjunction with actually reading the Greek text and are only authoritative if they actually apply. The fact is that you don't have the requisite knowledge in the language to properly apply the resources to which you refer or the ability to judge when they are appropriate for use.

    While I applaud the fact that you have taken the time to attempt an understanding of these things using resources like you mention above and it is to your credit that you have dug so deeply in so doing, you have not really answered the challenge I put before you nor (it seems) can you. 1 Peter 2:13 demonstrates the opposite of what you have shown as there is no loose authority present in terms of kings as you suggest for 1 Peter 3:6 even though the same conjunction between words is used.

    Additionally, I have already demonstrated that even if your stack of scholarly resources is a mile high, I can add to an even higher stack in contradistinction to your own view and particularly because I can actually read Greek. You summarily ignored my presentation of several lexicons having no issue in replacing the word for submission in Greek with the English word obey and also refused to respond to other cogs of the argument I have been making against your own. You border on argumentum ad verecundiam here by referring me to such sources when you use them without a reading knowledge of the Greek New Testament and without such knowledge you have no independent way to verify the applicability of such authorities to the discussion except your own uninformed viewpoint.

    I would not normally insist on noting the lack of a reading knowledge of the Greek New Testament and this is not meant as a personal slight. I would much prefer you just admit that your sources are not ultimate in this discussion nor should they be counted as such. It is the text of the Bible that is ultimate. Noting the lack of your Greek reading knowledge is only meant to counter your insistence that the authorities to which you refer do not apply as you state. You are, of course, welcome to continue relying on such unverified sources to maintain your view, you just need to know that anyone with a reading knowledge of the Greek New Testament will not be persuaded by them because you have demonstrated here that you do not have the requisite knowledge to use them as they are intended.

  15. Kevin, many established commentators disagree with your reading of 1 Pet. 3:5, 6. Words have ranges of meanings. “As” (ws) is translated into English many different ways. I don’t have to read Greek to be able to tell that from reference materials.

    Similarly, just because a lexicon lists “obey” as a valid English meaning for a word usually translated “submit” doesn’t mean that “obey” is a valid meaning every time the Greek word appears in the NT. Eph. 5:21, as I mentioned in my previous comment, is a good example. Your argument is facile.

    Megan’s point was that the concepts of marital submission and obedience in the Bible are closely related but not equivalent. As lived out in the everyday world the two have much similarity (as 1 Pet 3 illustrates). But submission is not just obedience.

    Marital submission patterns the mystery of the Church’s relationship with Christ. Experiencing and understanding submission is part of knowing who we are in Christ. Knowing who we are in Christ helps us understand who we are – in Biblical language, who mankind, male and female, were created to be.

    Not surprisingly, submission is hard to pin down. Misunderstanding it damages people, families and societies. Growing in understanding and living it is part of our heritage of life.

  16. Hi There! Sorry I am a bit late to the discussion, but I thought I might be able to help 'clarify' a couple of things!

    These discussions always take place on two levels...English and Greek. Both levels are important at points. As this one ins mainly in English we really need to make sure that the English words we are using are understood to mean what we say they mean.

    I found your definitions of obedience and submission a bit confusing and they do not fit with standard dictionary definitions. Obedience can certainly suggest a rule etc, and yet I can be obedient to a child's request if I choose. I can be obedient to love as love often demands that I say and do certain things. I do wonder though if you would be better definging the word subordinate. To me this seems to be a better fit for the definition you offered for obedience. Subordination demands that there be hierarchy, that one is above another.

    Subordination is very different to submission as submission can be to an authority, but does not have to be.

    If these English words do not adequately express what is meant in the original language then we need to find other English words. The answer is not to redefine the existing ones though!

    Finally, in regards to Ephesians 5, has Paul really set up a distinction between husbands and wives by saying wives submit and husbands love like Christ? If you read the whole of Chapter 5 it looks more to me like he is saying everyone love like Christ and eveyone submit, including you wives and you husbands. After all he has just finished telling everyone to love each other like CHrist and to submit to one another. So what difference has he really set up?


  17. Thanks, Amelia. You raise an interesting point about the dictionary definitions, so let me explain why I think “obey” is accurate, and how it undergirds the distinctions Paul makes in Ephesians. The etymology of our English word “obey” is a Latin word meaning “to listen to” (the Latin prefix “ob” implies that hearing is done “toward” another person, with a desire to comply). This is the general connotation of “obey”, but it is certainly not the entire connotation, nor is it the common understanding. Underlying is that someone is giving an order or command, thus taking authority (whether or not the person legitimately has it).

    Modern English dictionaries downplay this foundation, and older dictionaries emphasize it. This is why I’ve never been very comfortable relying on English dictionary definitions—connotations change as vernacular usage does. So in order to understand words we use, sometimes we need to dig a bit more deeply. And in the case of Biblical usage, we need to go to the original language. The word our English Bibles translate “obey” in the vast majority of passages throughout the New Testament, including Ephesians, is the Greek word “hypakouo”. The Greek prefix “hypo” means “under”, and the Greek “kuros” means “authority”. So the meaning is thankfully clear: obey means to act under/in compliance with authority.

    I admit that in my 36 years I have never heard anyone use the word “obey” as you have to describe how a parent might respond to a child’s request, although I’m sure we could say that I incline to my daughter’s request in obeying the rule of love (Rom 13:9) . This, however does not seem to be what you mean. And I’m not quite sure from Scripture how you’re making your distinctions.

    I definitely agree that in Ephesians Paul is reminding us all to love like Christ and are all to submit. However, if he meant that we are all to love like Christ in exactly the same way and we are all to submit in exactly the same way, then we have to ask why he made the distinctions he did. He even goes on, in chapter 6, to make distinctions between parents and children and slaves and masters. The fact is, these distinctions are immutable because distinctions make relationships work. Paul is simply explaining how these should look in our relationships, according to the design of God.

  18. Thanks for the reply Megan. I was wondering if I had missed the boat for discussion for a while there!
    I was using the “Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged” published in 1957, but based on work dating back to about 1904.
    With the English word “obey” you are correct in saying it literally means to hear, and therefore implies a command or request. It does not, however, assume authority or demand authority. It can however include a relationship where there is authority.
    Now, the Greek word you mention, “hypakouo” also means “under” and “to hear”. The “kouo” comes from the Greek “akouo” which is linked to our word “acoustic”. So obey is a very good translation. “Akouo” does not mean authority and I am not sure where you got that from. It looks nothing like the Greek word for authority, though I guess it does look a little bit like the Greek word for “Lord”, but they are not the same.
    The Greek word we often translate as submit is “hypatasso” which literally means to place your self under. It is very similar to “hypakouo” except with hypatasso there is not necessarily a command or request. “Submit” is a good translation as submit means to yield to another, sometimes an authority, but it does nt have to be an authority. In fact there need not even be a command. You can submit to the needs of another, as I believe Paul wants us to do.
    “Subordinate” by definition means to place in “under” “order”. This implies hierarchy.

    With regards to Ephesians 6, I can give reasons why Paul says what he says, but could you first please tell me what exactly Paul is saying to husbands and wives that is different to what he is telling us to be to one another in Ephesians 5? I would love to understand your thinking and so I would like to know what Paul outlines as being the specific difference.

  19. I should add that scripture makes it clear that “hypakouo” does not always mean there is an “authority” in the relationship. In Romans 6:16 we can “hypakouo” to either sin or righteousness. Which one has authority over us? Also, the Hebrew word “shema” is translated as “hypakouo” which shows in Genesis 16:2 Abraham hypakouo’ed to Sarah, but 1 Peter 3:6 says she hypakouo’ed to him! They can not both have been in authority over each other!

  20. Amelia, I used a reference in the Logos Bible Software that for the life of me I cannot find again, so I’ll retract my Greek because I can’t back it up. I know it’s there in some reference, but I may have followed a rabbit trail for “akouo” I thought was interesting, but not actually helpful.

    However, in reading your response I’m guessing the Greek isn’t where we’re stuck. You seem to be introducing some novelty to the word “obey” that I just don’t see. It seems to violate common sense to say that “obey” implies a command, but it does not assume authority. Who is giving the command? The OED, which is widely considered the most authoritative dictionary of the English language, has many definitions for “obey” and none of them substantiate what you’re saying (and these definitions date back to 1290). Every single one of them defines obedience in relation to an authority or a command. So do the definitions in Webster’s 1913 Dictionary. The problem is, literal meanings only give us a starting point. We know that obeying is related to hearing, but there are different usages depending on the context. I did not have to go to unusual sources to find the intimate connection between obedience and authority or command, just the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament and Strong’s. It’s simply been the accepted, authoritative understanding of linguists, historians and theologians for hundreds of years for the English and thousands of years for the Greek.

    If you want to overlook dominant meanings of a word, this carries an enormous burden of proof. And this is what I don’t see you providing.

    I wonder if there’s also some disagreement over what “authority” means here. I’m a bit confused by your explanation of Rom. 6:16, since either sin or righteousness can have authority over us. Where’s the problem? And we might want to consider 1 Cor. 7:3-4 when we look at the connection between Gen. 16:2 and 1 Pet. 3:6. 1 Cor. 7:3-4 points out that a wife has authority over her husband’s body sexually just as he has authority over hers. So Abraham listening to Sarah wasn’t outside of an authority structure.

    You seem to be redefining things in a way that doesn’t make sense historically or biblically, and I’d need you to substantiate your claims before we continue down this road any further.

  21. Megan, you seem to think that I am “redefining things in a way that doesn’t make sense historically or biblically”. Yet if you check out the Strong’s definition of hypakouo we find the following:

    “5218. hupakoe hoop-ak-o-ay' from 5219; attentive hearkening, i.e. (by implication) compliance or submission:--obedience, (make) obedient, obey(-ing).
    5219. hupakouo hoop-ak-oo'-o from 5259 and 191; to hear under (as a subordinate), i.e. to listen attentively; by implication, to heed or conform to a command or authority:--hearken, be obedient to, obey.
    5255. hupekoos hoop-ay'-ko-os from 5219; attentively listening, i.e. (by implication) submissive:--obedient”

    Now, I understand that many people do not know how to read a Lexicon, but the definition above does not say that obedience demands an authority. Yes, as you say it implies a command (or as I stated earlier, a request), but one does not have to have authority to request or even command something. I could command you to be silent, and you might even obey (for a whole range of reasons), and yet none of this means I have authority over you.

    Thayer’s and Smith’s defines obey as follows:
    1. to listen, to harken
    a. of one who on the knock at the door comes to listen who it is, (the duty of a porter)
    2. to harken to a command
    a. to obey, be obedient to, submit to”

    Please note that it says, “to obey, be obedient to, submit to” but it DOES NOT say “be obedient to one in authority”. Now, I believe that you are correct when you say that, “there are different usages depending on the context”. It is the context that tells us whether or not submission or obedience are to a higher authority or not. The word itself does not tell us this. I cannot find a definition that says these words demand a relationship of authority. If you claim they do, then please show evidence of this.

    I am not avoiding the dominant meaning at all!

    With regards to Rom 6:16, you ask, “since either sin or righteousness can have authority over us. Where’s the problem?”

    The problem from my perspective is that scripture does not (to my knowledge) state that either sin or righteousness have authority over us. Please correct me if I am wrong and I will withdraw the example. So, to ask my question again, how can we obey something that is not in authority over us unless obedience does not dictate the presence of authority?

    With regards to my Sarah and Abraham example, you pointed us to 1 Cor 7. I hope you would agree that this verse does not help your argument. In 1 Cor 7 Paul is saying that husbands and wives have authority over each others bodies sexually, but the example of Abraham obeying Sarah was Sarah telling him to have authority over a third person sexually! Do you really think Paul was talking about a wife having authority to tell her husband to have sex with whoever she wanted him to?

    Finally, if I could ask again, I would love to know what you see in Ephesians 5 that Paul is saying the is different for husbands and wives compared to everyone else. Thanks!

  22. Amelia, I don’t wish to dodge your questions, nor wander off topic. It appears to me that we actually have three different discussions going on at the same time, and I want to focus on them one at a time in order to avoid constant assertion-reassertion that gets the discussion nowhere but running in circles.

    But before we can continue, I need to get off topic very briefly. I hope you forgive me if my question offends you, because I really do not wish to offend. But because I do not know you, and this is a public forum in which any person can participate, I would like to ask whether you consider yourself a Christian. This is not because we disagree; it is obviously possible for faithful, confessing Christians to disagree. But I simply need to know that we share the fundamental assumptions about Jesus Christ and the Word of God that are necessary for us understanding each other and having a profitable discussion before we venture too much further into hermeneutics.

  23. No worries Megan, you have not offended me. I am a Christian. I am also more thanhappy to focus on one thing at a time.

  24. Sorry Megan, I assume you would have liked more info than that! I believe the Bible is the written word of God (I believe Jesus is the Word of God made flesh). I am Presbyterian, though I realise that means different things in different places.

    Also, I gave some of my last comment some thought and wanted to correct something I said. By definition a "command" is linked with authority. What I was trying to express before is that some people assume the authority and therefore speak in what we call a commanding way, but I guess technically it is not a command, especially when considering the origin of the word.

    That said I would still assert that "obey" and "submit" do not assume authority (and I would argue never have)but it is (as I noted before) the context that decides whether or not there is authority. This is why I have given the examples of Abraham and Sarah and Romans 6:16, as they show clearly that authority is not at play.

    I hope that clarifies where I am coming from a bit. I look forward to your reply!

  25. Hi Megan!
    Just wondering how you were going and if you got my other comment made on the 12th of September. It has never showed up.
    If you were not interested in discussing further just let me know. If you are then I would love to keep chatting!
    Not meaning to pressure you, I assume you are busy.

  26. Yes, I'm very sorry Amelia. I'm a homeschooling mother of 4, and since school started two weeks ago I am swamped with birthday parties, field trip planning, and way too much driving around. I'm trying to climb my way out of the immediate needs, but have this post up continually on my desktop so I don't forget. Very bad form for running a blog, I know!

    And doubly so because I didn't see your last comment on the 12th. Thanks for letting me know. It should be up now.

  27. Hi Amelia,

    Thanks for being patient with me. I think I’m back on track and can continue this discussion with you.

    As I recall, the first part of our discussion concerns the definition of the English word “obey” as well as its use as a translation from the Greek in the New Testament. You and I both agreed that in Scripture our English word "obey" comes from the Greek word “hypakouo”, and the question is whether "obey" implies authority in all situations.

    Both of us cited Strong’s definition. As a lexicon, Strong’s serves to help us understand basic word-by-word translations. However, it does not explain the context or implications of those definitions, and this is why I mentioned the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. The TDNT does attempt to make these connections, and uses numerous cultural and ancient sources to flesh out definitions as they relate to the scriptural narrative. The TDNT states:

    “ 'To obey.' This obedience first relates to persons such as children, slaves or wives who stand in a divinely willed relation of subordination (Eph. 6:1, 5; Col. 3:20, 22; 1 Pt. 3:6). It can thus also describe the relation of demons (Mk. 1:27) or nature (Mk. 4:41 and par.) to the omnipotence of Jesus and the authoritative faith of the disciples (Lk. 17:6). In the same sense, however, the term expresses the position of man in relation to dominant moral or religious powers, whether in the good sense or the bad." (Vol. 1: Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (223–224). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.)

    There is an intimate and undeniable connection between obedience and subordination to authority, because our understanding of obedience has its roots in creation rather than linguistic philosophy.

  28. Oswald Chambers argues in Biblical Ethics that the connection between obedience and authority is part of our moral make-up, an expression of the relationship between God and mankind. In Genesis 1 God creates man and woman and tells them to take command over the creation—to have loving authority over it after God’s own authority. Mankind was to teach the creation to obey God, and mankind was to lead in that obedience. All created relationships reflect this pattern.

    This is deeply meaningful, and implies that we can’t understand obedience without understanding what authority is. If we take authority simply to be a person with the power to hand out punishment for non-compliance, this is contrary to the central message of the gospel, and ultimately contrary to the nature of mankind’s relationship with God. However, if we understand authority to be a derivation of God’s loving care over His creation through redemption in Christ, this is the gospel message and a perfect expression of our relationship with God, and ultimately with one another.

    Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God’s law, the embodiment of His authority. And He is also the embodiment and perfect fulfillment of man’s obedience—what sin made impossible, in every context and to every degree. But Jesus doesn’t simply restore what Adam and Eve broke; He gives us His own obedience and holy character by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Christ’s holiness, and not our own conscience, is the proper focus of our authority and the power of our obedience. (Chambers, O. (1996). Biblical Ethics. Hants UK: Marshall, Morgan & Scott.)

    What this means is that our relationships are designed to reflect the holiness of Christ, His willing obedience to the Father and His loving authority over creation. Without authority, obedience would be meaningless, and without obedience, authority would be useless. Christ’s own obedience not only made our obedience possible, but it redeemed our understanding of it, so that we could imitate that perfect expression of authority and obedience that God established from the beginning of time.

  29. Whether or not you agree with my evidence, I hope I have now satisfied your request for it, including the evidence I provided previously in my mention of the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s 1913 Dictionary ( I honestly didn’t think the English dictionaries were a very compelling line of argumentation, which is why I didn’t quote them. But since it seems very important to others, I will quote here the three main definitions (out of 14) from the OED:

    1) To comply with, or perform, the bidding of; to do what one is commanded by (a person); to submit to the rule of authority of, to be obedient to. [This definition dates back to 1631.]
    2) To comply with, perform (a command, etc.) [Dates to 1400]
    3) To submit to, subject oneself to; to act in accordance with (a principle, authority, etc.)

    As I mentioned in the beginning of our discussion, I don’t think arguing from simple word meanings or etymology goes far enough to help us understand God’s heart for human relationships. It’s not irrelevant, but in this situation I agree with James Barr’s critique in The Semantics of Biblical Language that definitions don’t allow us to dig very deeply into understanding the bigger issues of life, and in fact can distract us from them. And this is why in my original discussion I did not attempt to define obedience and submission, but to explore their foundations and implications.