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The Limits of Submission

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One of the cardinal doctrines of the Bible is need for submission to God-ordained authority. Christian parents seek to train their children to obey without question. Their children are required to memorize Ephesians 6:1 "Children, obey your parents in the Lord for this is right." Children are taught that they need to learn obedience, not just because mom or dad want things done their way, but also because there will always be authorities that they need to relate to throughout life. As we mature from childhood, we come under broadening levels of authority-school; church; government; employers; and for some, husbands. As a person matures in his understanding and begins to think and reason for himself, there comes a point where he questions whether there are limits to the call to submit to authority. Is it always sin to disobey what an earthly authority asks us to do? If by obeying an earthly authority we disobey a Bible command, are we responsible for our disobedience? These are serious questions, which deserve a sound Biblical answer.

Before entering into a discussion of this nature however, we need to first answer the fundamental question of whether it is possible to lose our salvation as result of our actions. If the answer to this question is "No," then the call to submission would be preeminent. If nothing we do affects our eternal destiny, then we should just do what is asked of us; be peaceful; don't fight the system; don't rock the boat because in the long run it won't matter anyway. However, if it is possible that we can lose our salvation as a result of our actions, then we had better think carefully before we act or react because there are eternal consequences if we are wrong. Since this discussion is beyond the scope of this article, it will be assumed that we agree that salvation is only eternally secure for individuals who continue to order their lives in obedience to the will of God.

Let's first examine the Scriptures in relation to the question, "Are there limits on our submission to civil authorities?" Romans 13:1-7 issues a clear call for submission to civil authorities as ones who wield a measure of God's own authority vested in them. These verses further state that to resist (actively fight against) this authority is a direct affront to God and will result in damnation. The positive injunction is to " do that which is good." This implies that there are good and bad actions of which we could be involved. Some may argue that the "good" referred to is simply to submit no matter what. The last phrase of this verse, " and thou shalt have praise of the same:" seems to suggest otherwise. A stern or arrogant leader who demands loyalty at any cost seldom will praise an individual who has sacrificed their personal values to obey his demands. While on the surface he may act pleased, deep within he will lose a measure of respect and trust for the individual. This is unavoidable because the truth of the matter is that if an individual compromises their convictions to please you; they will also betray you in order to please others. On the contrary, an individual who will stand against your authority to be true to their convictions is a person you can trust without reservation when your authority does not violate their convictions. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3. At the end of the chapter, the king did not praise or promote any of the thousands who fell down and worshiped the king's image when given the signal to do so. But he did promote the three who dared to defy his order to protect their integrity. Therefore we must conclude that if this "doing good" results in praise, it is "doing what is good" in spite of the cost.

The Scriptures site numerous examples of individuals for whom doing good meant defying the commands of civil leaders. Daniel prayed; Amram and Jochebed hid Moses; the Israelites, by and large, refused to reveal David's presence to Saul; Mordecai refused to bow to Haman. God's apparent approval of the actions of these and other individuals reveals the fact that Divine Law supersedes the laws of the land. This understanding helps us to harmonize God's approval of their actions with 1 Peter 2:13-14 "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well."

Having said this, be reminded that a Christian will never actively "resist" civil authority. When Nebuchadnezzar asked his "wise" men to interpret the dream that he had forgotten, they resisted his authority by saying that he had no right to ask them to do such a thing. In contrast, Daniel never challenged Nebuchadnezzar's authority to decree the death of all the wise men for failure to complete such an impossible assignment, nor did he question Darius' authority to make a decree barring prayer to anyone other than himself. Civil rulers have Divine authority to make laws. The Scriptures record examples of Godly men who challenged the personal lives of civil rulers or the lawfulness of their decisions, but no examples of Godly men who questioned the right of a civil ruler to make the laws that he did.

Maybe at this point it would be good to remind ourselves that the call for obedience to civil authority is not just for the times when it is convenient. Traffic laws, safety laws, environmental laws, zoning regulations, chemical handling and disposal regulations, recycling ordinances, and the list could go on, at times seem devoid of common sense and add additional complexity to life. What we say and do in reaction to such laws will clearly portray whether we believe that God has given the civil government the right to rule as they see fit. The familiar saying, "If it is not wrong to obey, it is wrong to disobey," clearly applies in such situations. May we always leave a clear testimony of respect for civil authorities even in the times where we lose money or are inconvenienced as a result of our commitment to obedience.

The second level of authority to consider is the level of religious authority. God has given us similar instructions on how to relate to this level of authority. "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do " (Matthew 23:2-3). Notice again the word all in this command. If taken in isolation, this verse would demand unquestioning submission to the directives of religious leaders. However, Jesus Himself took exception to some of the traditions of the elders and incurred their wrath by doing so. Yet God's own testimony of Christ is that He was well pleased with Him (Matthew 17:5). The disciples also took exception to this command when they refused to cease preaching about Christ. Acts 5:29 records their answer when their disobedience was challenged, "We ought to obey God rather than men." Numerous Scripture verses reveal that the ultimate answer for religious questions must come not from religious dogma but rather from the Scriptures themselves (Luke 10:26, Romans 4:3, Galatians 4:30). The Bereans of Acts 17 were considered noble because they received Paul's teaching and accepted it as being valid not because of the source but because they compared it with the Scriptures and found it so. We can rightfully assume that they would have rejected Paul's instructions if they had found them out of harmony with the Word of God. The Anabaptist church movement was born out of a test of the practices of the corrupt religious systems of the day. In all this, we see a similar pattern to what we observed in relating to civil authority. God expects us to obey the authorities over us except where doing so would require us to violate the higher law of God.

The final level of earthly authority that we would like to consider is that of the authority of a husband or father. It is in this area that perhaps we presently face the greatest challenge to our understanding of what the Bible teaches. There is a teaching afloat within conservative churches today saying that the Bible calls for wives to give unqualified submission to their husbands. This teaching goes on to say that if submission results in a violation of God's laws, the wife could submit and violate the law of God without coming under any condemnation because the husband would bear all the responsibility for her actions. This teaching is based on verses such as Ephesians 5:24, "Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be unto their own husbands in everything," and 1 Peter 3:6 "Even as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord " This teaching generally assumes that Peter's reference to Sarah reflects on Abraham's instruction to her in Genesis 12 to lie to Pharaoh about her relationship to Abraham. However,
Scripture does not make this link. It is entirely possible that Peter could be referring to Sarah's willingness to allow Abraham to follow God's call to sacrifice Isaac. But even this is an assumption. Let's look at some other Scriptures. In Genesis 3:18, God called special attention to the fact that Eve's desires were to be subject to Adam's direction. That God called Adam into question before Eve indicates that this order of authority was in place even before the Fall.

Colossians 3:18 also calls for wives to submit to their own husbands but also adds the qualifier, " as it is fit in the Lord." It may be argued that this final phrase refers to submission as a proper response, but I rather believe it is more consistent with how the Bible instructs us to relate to other areas of authority to understand this verse and limit our submission to those things that would please God. There is a clear consistency in Scripture that in all areas our first and greatest allegiance is to the commands of God. We are to obey "every ordinance of man," as it relates to civil authority; but this is shown in Scripture to have its limitations. In relation to religious rulers we are instructed that, "All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do " but again this is limited by other Scriptures. The only consistent interpretation of the call for a wife to submit, "in everything," is to believe that this submission is also qualified by, "as it is fit in the Lord." Let's look again at Peter's reference to Sarah. Sarah on two occasions lied about her relationship to Abraham, first in Genesis 12 to Pharaoh and then in Genesis 20 to Abimelech. We find it difficult to comprehend that Sarah would willingly enter into such a scheme. But remember that Sarah also offered her handmaid to Abraham as a second wife. Clearly some of her thought processes are totally foreign to our ways of thinking. Sarah's culpability in this scheme the second time is clearly seen in Genesis 20:16 where Abimelech bluntly addressed Sarah and Scripture says, " and thus she was reproved."

Scriptures do hold husbands to a special level of accountability. Exodus 4 contains an interesting account that occurred in the life of Moses. Prior to this chapter, Moses fled from Egypt and spent forty years tending sheep in the desert. During this time, he married Zipporah and had a son, Gershom. Chapter 4 of Exodus finds Moses on his way back to Egypt. On the way, God met him and set about to kill him. The details in Scripture are sketchy, but somehow Zipporah made the connection between God's intent and the uncircumcised condition of their son. Zipporah saved the life of Moses by circumcising Gershom. Her verbal response as recorded in Exodus 4:25, 26 seems to indicate that this rite had been an area of contention between them. Moses apparently had acquiesced to the wishes of Zipporah but God held Moses accountable for not carrying out what he obviously understood God's plan to be. Also, under the Mosaic Law, God gave the father in the home the right to disallow the vows of either his wife or his unmarried daughters the first time he heard them.

God holds husbands responsible for what they allow in their homes while not freeing the other family members from their own personal accountability. As churches we would do well to hold fathers responsible for the actions of their wives and children. A father is not taking his place if teenagers are going places that are not proper or wearing clothing that does not meet church standards. God has given the father the authority to control the home and with that authority goes responsibility as well. To verbally protest but in the end allow wrong actions anyway will not free a father of his accountability.

How then should we relate to a husband or a father who asks his family to do things that are contrary to the standards of the church? If what a father is asking his family to do violates a clear Scriptural teaching or doctrine, then the family members have the prerogative to say with the disciples, "we ought to obey God rather than men." If however, what the father is asking of his family is not in itself something that is morally wrong, but is nevertheless outside the church standards, then the family needs to follow the will of the father. If, for example, a father refuses to allow his wife to wear the traditional cap-style covering, but would allow her to wear a flowing veil; a wife needs to honor his authority by wearing the veil. While we appreciate our cape dress pattern immensely, it is not the only pattern that would meet the Biblical standards of modest, simplicity, and nonconformity. Therefore, the church does not have the right to ask a wife or daughters to resist the desires of the husband in areas like this where the husband would accept another application that would satisfy Bible doctrines.

But how does this thinking fit into a disciplined church life with defined standards? We need to first be willing to humbly admit that we are not the only spiritual church and that the applications that we have made to Scriptural principles are not necessarily the only acceptable applications that could be made. We need to also be willing to admit that a person may be every bit as spiritual as we are and yet may accept some things that we reject or reject some things that we accept. From this premise, we can, with all good conscience, ask a wife or children to forfeit their membership with us in order to honor the wishes of the father. Hopefully, they could find a church fellowship that would allow the father's desires to be carried out. We dare never imbibe the philosophy that a person can not be a Christian unless he is a member of our church. In conclusion, let me repeat again, "If it is not wrong to obey, then it is wrong to disobey." Whether it is wrong to obey is determined by the Law of God, the Bible; the highest authority in any area of life. It is our responsibility to know what this Law requires of us and to honor all the levels of authority in our life with submission within this Law.

-Fredericksburg, PA