Despite what most people have been led to believe, or prefer to believe, submission and obedience are NOT the same. These two terms shouldn’t be confused with one another, as they often are. Generally, it’s God’s desire that all people are to be submissive to one another all the time, but obedience is conditional. Submission and obedience can and often do work together, but at the same time, they’re not the same. One focuses on the heart while the other on our actions, or lack thereof. This being the case, you can have one without the other, both, or neither one, and what’s required at any given point in time may change. This isn’t “situational ethics,” it’s an exercise in how to discern people and their problems in a real world setting; i.e. it’s learning how to apply spiritual truths in a practical setting. But what are they?
Submission is our attitude, our motivation, our desire. It’s our thoughts and how we think or feel about someone, something, or some situation. It’s internal, but often reflected outward in our conduct, expressions, mannerisms, and posture. It’s not what we do, but how we think or feel about it. It’s a matter of the heart and what’s going on inside of it. It’s what we’re thinking. It’s not weakness. It’s an honest and true humility before God in the sight of men. It’s the laying aside of oneself for the benefit of another – a willingness to suffer loss so that someone else may excel. It’s withholding anger, even when it’s justified, if withholding that anger would be more beneficial. It isn’t a giving away or laying aside of your authority, it’s a wisdom in knowing how to manage it and your people.
Obedience is another matter. It’s our conduct. It’s what we do or don’t do. It’s whether we outwardly obey or disobey. It’s whether we perform the task or not. It’s what we do, but not what we think (that’s submission). It’s our actions, or lack thereof.
But the tendency is to combine the two in an unnatural manner thus creating something that God never intended – often expressed as “blind obedience” or “taking a leap of faith” – neither of which are biblical concepts. Noah didn’t build the Ark and tell God to make it rain, nor did Israel march around Jericho and tell God to make the walls fall. Rather, each heard from God and then chose to trust him at his Word. Hence, Bible faith begins with a Word from God and then responds accordingly and not the other way around. It may be a “leap of faith” for us in learning how to trust, but it’s not the kind of “leap of faith” where we’re jumping blindly. But let’s see what Scripture has to say.
God wants all men to submit to him both as it applies to salvation and daily living for the Christian.
U Rom. 15:1 We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification. 3For even Christ pleased not himself; but, as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me.
U Eph. 5:24 Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.
U Php. 2:3 Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. 4Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. 5Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
U Col. 3:17 And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.
U Heb. 12:9 Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?
U Jam. 4:7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. 9Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. 10Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.
God wants man to submit to our earthly governments and our bosses at work, and vice versa.
U Rom. 13:1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
U Eph. 6:5 Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; 6Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; 7With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: 8Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. 9And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.
U Col. 3:22 Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God: 23And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; 24Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ.
U 1 Pet. 2:13 Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; 14Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. 15For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.
U 1 Pet. 2:18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.
God wants us to submit to one another in the church, including church leadership. Why? Because they’re gifts from God who’ve been charged with our earthly care (Eph. 4:7, 11-15).
U 1 Cor. 16:16 That ye submit yourselves unto such, and to every one that helpeth with us, and laboureth.
U Eph. 5:21 Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.
U Heb. 13:17 Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.
U 1 Pet. 5:5 Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. 6Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time:
God wants wives to submit to their husbands and their children to submit to their parents, and vice versa.
U Eph. 5:22 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. 24Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. 25Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; 26That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, 27That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. 28So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. 29For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: 30For we are [all] members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.
U Eph. 6:1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. 2Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) 3That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth. 4And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
U Col. 3:18 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord. 19Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them. 20Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord. 21Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.
As a practical example of how submission and obedience apply to a situation, consider the following example. Bear in mind that as we do, there is submission and obedience as it pertains to salvation (or lack thereof) as well as submission and obedience as it applies to Christians and their daily walk. A father asks his son to mow the grass...
(1) ...the son says that he’s happy to do it, and he goes and mows the grass.
This is submission and obedience. The son was happy in his heart (submission), and he did go and mow the grass (obedience). This is how God wants us to respond to all authority and each other so long as we’re not being asked to break one of his commandments (Acts 5:24-29). This is the ideal, but it’s often hard to come by because only a changed heart can lead to this kind of obedience.
(2) ...the son grumbles in his heart, and doesn’t go and mow the grass.
There is no submission or obedience. The son grumbled and pouted (no submission), and he didn’t go and mow the grace (no obedience). The father got neither from his son. This child is an overt rebel and will do little, if anything, to conceal his disdain for his father.
(3) ...the son is happy in his heart to do it, but he doesn’t go and mow the grass.
This is submission without obedience. The son was happy in his heart (submission), but he didn’t go and mow the grass (no obedience). The son has a heart for his father; but his obedience, his performance, is lacking. This will lead to discipline. But with this child, because he has a heart for his father, he’s likely to receive his father’s correction and discipline because he knows that his father loves him.
(4) ...the son grumbles in his heart, but goes and mows the grass.
There is no submission, but there is obedience. The son grumbled and pouted (no submission), but he did go and mow the grass (obedience). The son is outwardly obedient but inwardly rebellious. This is perhaps the worst scenario because trickery and deception are involved: the son is feigning obedience to his father, but the grumbling in his heart shows that he’s a rebel.
Examples (1) and (2) are the easiest and most obvious to recognize because they demonstrate a clear contrast. In Example (1) we find the perfect scenario: submission and obedience. The son is happy to mow the grass and he goes and does it. The father will be thoroughly pleased. In spiritual terms, this child is saved because he has the heart of his Father, and as a demonstration of his love for him, he’s obedient to his call (Rom. 5:8). He’s not working so that his Father will love him, he’s working because his Father loves him, and he knows it. And so the son is reacting in appreciation and not as a requirement to earn or retain his Father’s love. This scenario can only apply to a Christian.
In Example (2) we find the polar opposite: there is no submission or obedience. As it pertains to salvation, in heart and action he has no regard for his Father or his Father’s will, and so this would be any unsaved person. For Christians, it would be rebellion against a specific command or directive found in God’s Word. Still a Christian, but carnal. This leaves Examples (3) and (4).
In Example (3) there is submission, but no obedience. In spiritual terms, this is all Christians because no Christian has ever perfectly obeyed God in every regard after salvation; and the reason for this is because our minds and bodies haven’t been completely renewed (yet), but that day is coming. Submission reveals that you have a heart for your Father. There are biblical examples of men who’ve had a heart for God, but who’s obedience was often lacking. King David was saved man who also committed adultery and murder. But because he did have a heart for his Father, when he was reproved he repented and received his Father’s discipline. Samson committed suicide, but he’s hailed as a great man of faith (Heb. 11:32) – and there are many other examples in the Bible of people who loved God but who’s obedience often faltered.
In other terms, many Christians accept Jesus as their Saviour (submission) but not as their Lord (no obedience). Or, they trust him as their Saviour and Lord as it pertains to their salvation, but not as the Lord over their daily lives: they don’t want him telling them how to live or, more specifically, how to run their church. God will bless our individual plans through his Providential care; but as the Church Body, God has provided us with clear and concise doctrine and most have chosen to reject it. So while Christians are submissive to Christ in salvation, seldom are they submissive or obedient in daily living.
In Example (4) we have obedience without submission, and this is where most are going to have the greatest difficulty because deception is involved. For example, the scribes and Pharisees were outwardly obedient. They seemed morally pure and were highly regarded. They were “in the ministry” and “successful.” They didn’t curse, drink, smoke, fornicate, gamble, or engage in any outward vices.
But God had a lot to say about them and none of it was good (e.g. Mt. 23). They took his Word, perverted it, and created a false religious system with a false gospel and then sold it to the masses and the masses rejoiced – and nothing has changed. “Christianity” today is full of false prophets and teachers that are “in the ministry” and “doing well.” They’re highly regarded and appear moral, but they too have created a false religious system with a false gospel and then sold it to the masses and the masses have continued to rejoice. And when their heresies, doctrinal errors, and faults are exposed, most professing Christians simply make excuses for them – often citing that their “good” outweighs their “bad.” But in the end, their words always and inevitably betray them (Dt. 13:1-5; 18:18-22). So while there’s a measure of outward obedience, there’s no submission; i.e. they’re unsaved (Mt. 7:21-23). But exposing them is an unsavory but necessary business and most just aren’t up to the task, even though Christ requires it and love demands it, and that’s what makes this difficult for many (Rom. 16:17-18; 1 Tim. 5:20; Tit. 1:9-11; 2 Jn. 1:9-11 etc.).
But this is also true among God’s people. Christians can be obedient without being submissive. All too often we institute programs and services and then (presumptuously) expect God to bless them. And when things go right, we have the tendency to congratulate ourselves; and when things go wrong, we have the tendency to blame God. In other words, just because something is “good” doesn’t mean that it’s “right;” and all too often, God’s people will choose the “good” over the “right” and they’ll do it without having sought God first or they’ll just assume for themselves that it was his will all along. Selah.
Concluding, as it pertains to salvation, unsaved people are never submissive because submissiveness is a godly attribute. They may be morally submissive, or submissive because of some moral restraint, but never in terms of salvation unless they repent. They can be outwardly obedient, and even be more outwardly obedient or moral than many Christians, but man is never justified by works for his salvation and so in this regard there is no submissiveness within them before God (Eph. 2:8-10; Gal. 2:16 etc.).
Christians, as it pertains to salvation, have been submissive to God’s pleas for salvation and so they do have a submissive heart. But in their daily walk as it applies to implementing God’s Word, Christians are seldom submissive or obedient. This doesn’t mean they’re longer Christians or that they’ve “lost” their salvation, nor is it a “cheap grace” or a “license to sin” (Rom. 6:1-9); it just means that although our salvation is secured in Christ (2 Cor. 1:21-22; Eph. 1:13-14, 4:30), we still struggle to implement God’s Word into our daily lives because we still have carnal minds and bodies that are going to perish, but eventually they will be renewed. So we don’t submit and obey to earn or retain our salvation, but to express of our love for God.