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Working through Colossians, we come to Paul’s counsel about relationships. He provides some general thoughts pertaining to all relationships in Colossians 3:1-17 before turning attention to some specific relationships. In 3:18 and following, he addresses husbands and wives, parents and children, and more. He begins in 3:18 with wives, inviting them to “be subject” (or “in submission”) to their husbands.

There is not much context for understanding what Paul has in mind in addressing wives; he offers a simple statement. And seeing as the idea of submission has picked up some cultural baggage over the years, it might be helpful to look at a case study (in Scripture) that helps us understand submission.

In his first epistle, Peter touches on the idea of submission in a context different from marriage. And what he says opens the door for our case study.

Submit yourselves [the same word used in Colossians for the wife’s relationship to her husband] for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:13-17)

Peter insists that submission is the appropriate disposition toward “every human institution.” So let’s watch him live this out in a passage from Acts 4. (It will really help you to follow this train of thought if you take a moment to read the whole section; I won’t post it all here.)

Peter and John have brought healing to lame man in Jesus’ name. They have proclaimed the greatness and power of Jesus. And the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council (appointed by the Roman government to rule over Jewish affairs in Jerusalem and beyond), haul Peter and John in and give them specific instructions: “They commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (4:18).

Peter responds by affirming that the council has the right to decide what should or should not be done, but also affirms that he (and John) cannot stop speaking about “what they have seen and heard” (4:19-20).

On the face of this, it looks like a problem. Peter is going to be disobedient; he will not do what he is commanded to do. So is he being submissive?

Some suggest the way forward is to pit submission to God against submission to the governing authorities. “You have to be obedient to the ‘higher authority.'” But this puts Peter (and others) in a no-win, double-bind situation.

Either they obey God by doing what God told them to do in proclaiming the good news and not be obedient to the governing authorities (and thus sin by disobeying God who has also commanded us to be submissive to every governing authority), or they obey God by doing what God told them to do in being submissive (read “obedient”) to the governing authorities and not do what they were commissioned to do (and thus sin by being disobedient to God who has called them to tell the good news). But there may be a way forward that preserves the call to submission and doesn’t leave them in this double-bind.

Submission is more about a disposition, an attitude of heart, than it is about simply “hearing and doing.” There is a biblical word for “obey” that means just that–hear and do. And that is not the word that is used for submission. Submission has to do with the way one lives under God’s design and order. And it seems that Peter can be submissive to the governing authorities and still not obey their specific commands–thus doing all that the Lord wants for him.

What does submission look like in this case study? A few things to notice:

Peter affirms the governing authorities do have the right, before God, to assess and evaluate what he and John are doing. Even if he disagrees with what they decide, Peter admits that God has established a certain way for life to work that includes government in human affairs.

Peter does not hold back from telling the governing authorities what he is thinking and planning. Even if he anticipates it may well get him in hot water with these governing authorities, Peter is forthright and open with what is going on with him.

Peter appears to be willing to live with how this will all play out under the oversight and action of the governing authorities. He doesn’t pre-qualify how he will respond based on whether they end up doing what he thinks they should and he doesn’t end up bickering and bitter when things don’t play out according to his preferred future.

So perhaps, based on this case study, we might say that submission is this disposition of heart: 1) that affirms God has set life up in a certain way that should be honored, 2) that willingly communicates openly and honestly about issues that pertain to the relationship in view in submission, and 3) that does not withhold honor nor respond in bitterness when the way things play out under God’s designed order is not what might be best hoped for–there is a willingness to live with the consequences.

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you. I’ve struggled with understanding some of this and this is helpful.

  2. Beth, I’m glad that it is helpful. More to come. It’s just one sentence in Colossians, but because of the way the word has been misconstrued it may take a few posts to explore what he means. :)


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