Commanded Subjection

Arthur Pink
June, 1946

The longer this writer lives—the more deeply is he convinced that the Scriptures cannot possibly be of human origination—but are Divinely inspired. Many and varied are the considerations which contribute unto that conviction, among them being the wondrous balance of God's Word, a balance which is both unique and perfect. Though the Word forbids a believer to be subject unto any who usurp authority; yet it is far from teaching that he is a law unto himself, independent of others, not to be subordinate unto any, but God Himself. As it is in nature, so it is in grace: God has constituted us so that, to a considerable extent, we are mutually dependent. Those on the land are much indebted unto those who man the ships and sail the seas.

The factories cannot turn out their products unless the miners go down into the pits and hew coal for the furnaces. This magazine could not be published and circulated abroad, unless paper were manufactured, ink made, the printing press manned, and the post office operated. No man lives unto himself, naturally or spiritually. God has appointed the evangelist to carry the Gospel to the perishing, and the pastor to feed His sheep. He who has made us sociable creatures naturally, "sets the solitary in families" (Psalm 68:6) spiritually.

Nay more: If God has constituted the human family that its members are dependent one upon another, so has He made them indebted to those who occupy a lower grade in the scale of creation—having to turn unto the animals for much of our food and clothing, and even to inanimate nature for materials, out of which to manufacture the necessary implements to work with. It is the same with those who belong to His spiritual family, who are likened by Him unto the organs of our body: "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you!' And the head cannot say to the feet, 'I don't need you!' On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable" (1 Corinthians 12:21-22). Even those whom God has called to minister spiritual things unto His people, are themselves supported temporally by the contributions of those unto whom they minister. Thus, does He stain man's pride! If then believers are forbidden to call any man "father" or "master" in a sense of allowing him to dominate the conscience or domineer over the life—yet they are also commanded, "Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God" (Ephesians 5:21).

"We are all popes by nature, and every man is prone to claim to himself an infallible authority, to the decisions of which, if others oppose themselves, he is ready to throw out angry and bitter words; yet the Spirit puts this papal spirit down within His children, and tells them not to domineer—but to sit meekly at the Master's feet, or to walk humbly in the sense of their own weakness and dependence upon Him" (Ambrose Serle, 1742-1812).

Though the first part of that statement be somewhat of a sweeping generalization—yet there is no doubt it is true of the majority of us. All are not cast in the same mold, or born with a like temperament; some having disposition and determination to take the lead; others preferring to have their thinking and planning done for them—and be led. But while some are naturally meek and mind, yielding and submissive; a far greater number are aggressive and self-assertive. Though Divine grace moderates and regulates our natural characteristics—yet it does not obliterate them; and therefore, unto one class, the call is given: "Stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong" (1 Corinthians 16:13); unto another, the word is: "Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved—clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" (Colossians 3:12).

As the Christian must not degenerate into the slave of a religious dictator, neither must he cultivate a spirit of arrogance, self-sufficiency, and self-superiority. Here, as everywhere, the teaching of Holy Writ preserves the balance. The Gospel of Christ neither inculcates a servile spirit on the one side—nor does it tolerate a domineering and despotic bearing on the other. If God has given to the individual Christian the right of private judgment, bidding him to "prove all things" (1 Thessalonians 5:21) for himself; He has also told him, "he who refuses instruction, despises his own soul" (Proverbs 15:32). And He enjoins us all to cultivate a meek and teachable spirit, so that we are willing and ready to learn things—even from a child.

If the Savior bade His disciples to "beware of the leaven of the Pharisees" (Matthew 16:6, 11), and warned them against cherishing their tyrannical spirit—yet He also said unto them, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and the men of high position exercise power over them. It must not be like that among you!" (Matthew 20:25-26). The righteous are indeed "as bold as a lion" (Proverbs 28:1); nevertheless, an essential part of the spiritual fruit borne by them is "longsuffering, gentleness…meekness" (Galatians 5:22-23).

"Submitting one to another in the fear of God" (Ephesians 5:21). At first glance, it would seem that such a precept is contradictory, or at least paradoxical, for how is it practicable for all the members of a well-ordered church to practice mutual submission? Or if Christians are considered in their natural and social relations, both unto each other and unto their fellow-creatures, how can such an injunction be carried out? Must the husband submit to his wife, as well as the wife to her husband; is the father to defer to his children, as well as they render obedience to him; is the master to be submissive to his servant? Does this exhortation reduce all of the saints to one common level, thereby eliminating all order, grades, and government among them? Certainly not, as the verses that immediately follow plainly show!

The grace of God in regeneration, cancels no natural tie—but rather brings it under a new and higher sanction. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28) is very far from teaching that the new birth obliterates all natural distinctions. But grace does put down pride, and forbids all assertions of superiority, enjoining mutual submission.

Before seeking to remove the apparent difficulty presented by Ephesians 5:21, let us point out that this verse is far from standing alone; rather is the Christian duty there specified, enforced again and again in the New Testament. It came first from the lips of our Lord to His disciples: "It must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you—must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you—must be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served—but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:26-28). Meekness and humility are to characterize the followers of the Lamb. "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves" (Romans 12:10), not aspiring after and contending for superiority. "Bear one another's burdens—and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2) expresses in slightly different language the same Christian duty. "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests—but also to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:3-4). How very different things would be among the Lord's people—if we all complied with the above rules!

"Yes, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility" (1 Peter 5:5). Ah, does not that explain the seeming paradox in Ephesians 5:21! If only we were "clothed with humility," there would be no difficulty in understanding and no obstacle in the way of the outworking of the "all of you be subject one to another." It is another case where the heart, rather than the head—is needed for interpreting. If love is mutual exercise, all will be plain, simple, and delightful. But our subject is too important, too much needed—by writer and reader alike—to dismiss so briefly, so we hope to amplify this in a further article in another article on "Christian Submission".