By Elton HiggsIn view of the principles of freely given submission through the grace of God and mutual submission in love, we must conclude that a legalistic insistence on the submission of others is an attempt to enslave those whom God has set free, and that it has no place in the Body of Christ. The possibility of submitting again to a “yoke of slavery” from which we have been delivered is a subject that Paul addresses with a great deal of feeling, and that leads us to two related final principles flowing from the example of Jesus as obedient servant.
- Submission according to the model of Christ is, spiritually speaking, a free and voluntary act, empowered and given meaning by the grace of God, and not by any principle of law. Christ set us free from the Law, so all acts of humility, obedience, and submission will be expressions of spiritual freedom, whatever our exterior circumstances may be (Rom. 5:18-21; Rom. 6:12-19; Gal. 3:23-4:7; 5:16-25; James 4:7-10; I John 2:3-5).
Paul’s teaching on grace continually stresses our deliverance from bondage to sin through the sacrifice of Christ and our freedom in the grace of God. In Romans 6 he says,
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. (Rom. 6:12-14)
We are no longer subject to the rule of sin because we have been delivered from slavery to it. Even the perfect Law of God delivered through Moses has served its purpose of making evident our slavery to sin and pointing us to Christ, and it is now set aside (Gal. 3:23-25). And in the freedom of our new life, we can, by the grace of God, offer to Him ourselves and our bodies to be used “as instruments of righteousness,” because we “have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). Walking in this new-found freedom of grace is in another place described as living in and being led by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-25), which is God’s new life within us, marking us as legitimate, free-born children and heirs of God (Rom. 8:13-17; Gal. 4:6-7).
It is significant that Paul chooses the context of these arguments affirming that we live under grace and not under law in which to make his most egalitarian statement about the relationship between those who are in Christ. Having been delivered from the authority and power of the Law, Paul says, “You are all sons [i.e., children] of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26-29). Consequently, whenever submission is practiced in the Body of Christ, it is not to be seen as in any way devaluing the one submitting, nor conferring superiority on the one being submitted to. Any submission which is forced and not freely given seeks to devalue the one submitting and compromises our deliverance from slavery to the Law. In a case of this sort, the submitter can act in free obedience to the will of God and experience the freedom of grace, while one who tries to enforce submission has stepped outside of grace by refusing to submit to God’s instructions to those having power. It is those instructions that underlie the final principle springing from the servant-example of Jesus:
- Any attempt within the Body of Christ to enforce submission from others (with the exception of parents controlling children–I Tim. 3:4) is a divisive work of the flesh, and not of the Spirit, and is a denial of the freedom we have through God’s grace. (Rom. 8:5-8; Rom. 16:17-19; II Cor. 11:4-9; Gal. 2:4-12; 4:8-11; 4:23-5:1; 5:24-26; Col. 2:20-23)
One kind of submission is not only forbidden in the New Testament, but is characterized as a betrayal of the freedom Christ died to obtain for us. In presenting his allegory of the two wives who bore children to Abraham, Paul says, “Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman[Hagar], but of the free woman [Sarah]. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 4:31-5:1). The “yoke of slavery” in this instance took the form of insisting that those males who had accepted Christ had to be circumcised, thus tying them to the Law based on merit which was set aside by the death of Christ. Earlier in the letter, he spoke of the work of false teachers whose purpose was to spy on the “freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.” Paul is adamant in his resistance to this attempt, saying, “We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you” (Gal. 2:4-5). When even Peter was carried away by the “circumcision group” (2:12), trying to “force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs” (2:14), Paul “opposed him to his face” (2:11) in order to defend the principle of grace as the source of salvation, and not law-keeping.
The Judaizing teachers who came in for such scathing words in the letter to the Galatians were challenging and seeking to replace both Paul’s message and his authority, both of which, he makes clear, were given to him by God Himself (Gal. 1:8-12). The foundation of Paul’s message, the “truth of the gospel,” both as originally delivered to the Galatians and in his letter to them, is that one “is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16). The charge against the false teachers is not merely that they are voicing a differing opinion, but that they are attempting to use their influence to re-enslave people to the attainment of righteousness by their own efforts, instead of relying on God through faith in Christ. They are not people who have a real concern about brothers and sisters in Christ, but rather people whose objective is to exercise control over others through requiring circumcision; as Paul puts it, “they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh” (Gal. 6:13). In other words, they are the sort of people described in Romans 16 who “cause divisions and put obstacles in your way” (v. 17), and those in Titus who foment “foolish controversies and quarrels about the law” which “are unprofitable and useless.” Such a person is to be warned once, “and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned” (Titus 2:9-11).
Motivation and attitude are everything here in evaluating the character of these disruptive teachers and assessing the danger that they pose. They were obviously more concerned with exercising power and coercing people than with following God’s way of grace, humility, and service. In the same way, if a member of the Body of Christ today seeks to gain power over others by demanding a kind of submission which would be a regression to law-keeping and a renunciation of the freedom of grace that we all have in Christ, that person is a sower of dissension and disharmony, a divisive person who is “self-condemned.” While one who refuses to submit to a divinely appointed authority may miss an opportunity for growth and cause the Body to have a weaker testimony to the world, the wielder of fleshly power in the Body who is able and willing to reject the freedom of God’s grace inflicts even greater damage on both himself and the Body by demanding legalistic conformity from others for his own satisfaction and aggrandizement.
(Next week: Part 4 of “What’s a Body to Do?: Summary and Conclusions)
Image :Dirck van baburen – Christ washing the apostles feet. CC License.