A few week’s ago, I wrote about a pastor here in Dublin telling me that if I ever wanted to plant a church, I would need to submit to him, which led me to write the following:

 “If a church leader tells you that you must submit to them…you should run away…and fast. That is simply abusive and not what Jesus modelled for the church.”

Over the next few posts, I will dig a bit into issues of authority and submission and introduce a model that aligns much more with what Jesus and the early church leaders taught and modelled regarding this topic. 

Think about how Jesus called the apostles: 

“Peter, I demand you to sell your boat, submit to me, and come fish for men.” 

“Matthew, you must stop being a tax collector, acknowledge my authority, and come with me now.”

When Jesus called someone to follow him, it was an invitation. Peter and Matthew heard, “leave your old life and follow me”, and accepted joyfully, not grudgingly or because they were told, “submit or else”. 

The rich young ruler heard a similar invitation and walked away. There is no indication that Jesus was offended or felt his authority was rejected. Jesus does not indicate that this man was unsubmissive, sinful or bad, and he did not attempt to coerce, manipulate or shame this person.

We are simply told that Jesus loved this person.

Now, Jesus did tell people “stop sinning” or “present yourself to the priests”, but within their context, you would be hard-pressed to call those demands.

Under Christendom, the church grew comfortable using coercive power to make people behave and act in specific ways. 

We must grasp how willing the church remains to enforce its will and how unlike Jesus that behaviour is.

Under Christendom, the church grew comfortable using coercive power to make people behave and act in specific ways. 
We must grasp how willing the church remains to enforce its will and how unlike Jesus that behaviour is.

But Aren’t Submission and Authority in the Bible? 

Yes. The concepts of submission and authority are found throughout the New Testament. 

A challenge for us is that we understand submission and authority within a leadership context almost exclusively in a hierarchical model. 

It is difficult for us to imagine either of these without the issues of power and hierarchy in play.

The people at the top have a lot of authority, and as you work your way down, there is less and less until you get to the bottom, where there is likely very little, if any.

Submission works in the opposite direction. Those at the bottom submit to those “above them”. And those at the top? Well, they often have a different set of rules.

So Who Submits to Whom?

If you have read my blog much, you probably recognise that I am not a complementarian. I believe women can hold any role within the church and that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus: (Galatians 3:28).

However, I don’t want to get bogged down in those debates. (I may address this later, but those discussions tend to generate more heat than light).

That said, right before the oft-quoted, “Wives submit to your husbands” of Ephesians 5:22 sits Ephesians 5:21, which simply says:

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”. 

Ephesians 5:21

There are no exceptions listed. No clarifiers allow for one group to exempt themselves from this. It doesn’t say “submit, except for church leaders or husbands”. This passage calls everyone in the church to commit to a life of mutually submitting to one another.

In his book, The Leadership Paradox, Denny Gunderson makes this point:

The Greek word Paul uses in verses 21 and 22 is hypotassō, and it is the word most frequently translated submit in the New Testament. Crucially, however, rather than submission rooted in “domination and control”, Paul was inviting all into a new type of relationship founded on “the mutual and voluntary choice to love” (p. 114).

Likewise, in his commentary on Ephesians, Walter Liefeld argues that while the Ephesians passage could be understood to state that one group must submit to those of a higher status, such as in the military, this passage is more in line with the idea that in interpersonal relationships we defer to one another when appropriate. 

When we are in your area of gifting, you lead, and I follow. And when we are in mine, I lead. However, whether leading or following, I approach as a servant.

Tie this back in with what Jesus said during the Last Supper in Luke 22. Among Jesus followers, authority will not be lorded over others. Yet when submission is demanded…or when it only and always flows one way, it violates what Jesus clearly taught.

The New Testament clearly teaches that submission is a crucial aspect of life as a follower of Jesus. But it is willingly and lovingly submitting to one another.


I will dig more into this topic of mutual submission over the next few weeks. And I’d love to hear your thoughts. What questions does this raise for you? What are you curious about?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash