By: Steven Nelms
First, let’s look at the quality of being submissive. This particular use of the Greek word appears in description of Jesus’ relation to his parents at age 12 (Lk 2:51), a woman’s relation to her husband (Tt 2:5), a bondservant’s relation to his master (Tt 2:9), and a Christian’s relation to rulers and authorities (Tt 3:1). The word means to be obedient, passive, compliant, or subdued. I don’t mean to dive into a theological deep end of gender roles, but just to point out that the same submissiveness that is described of Jesus’ subordination to his parents is described of a woman’s subordination to her husband. Just from a cross reference stand point, I think it’s a fair conclusion that submission does not mean inferiority. It does, however, mean compliance within a hierarchy. A follower chooses to participate in a hierarchy by participating in a role that fulfills other roles. I mean this fulfillment quite literally. If you are a ruler, but do not have any subjects, then how is it that you call yourself a ruler without the ability to practice the actions that characterize a ruler? Likewise, if you are a master, but do not have any bondservants, how are you to practice the actions characterized by a master? The one who is submissive according to the hierarchy of their respective roles fulfills the roles of those to whom they are choosing to submit. There’s the idiom that says, “If you want to know whether you’re a leader, look behind you and see whether anyone is following.” The nature of being a follower is dependent on their being someone worth following. So the choice of submissiveness is in fact a responsibility; to be subject to the right person.
Second, let’s look at the act of submitting. This use of the Greek word describes non-believers NOT submitting to God’s Law (Ro 8:7) or to God’s righteousness (Ro 10:3). It describes Christian’s submitting to God (Jas 4:7), and submitting to one another (Eph 5:21). It describes the Church submitting to Christ (Eph 5:24). And lastly describes wives submitting to their husbands (Col 3:18). (Again, the temptation is to discuss roles in marriage, but I’ll reserve that for a different post.) The quality of being submissive is directly informed by whether or not one is actively submitting to someone or something. This act of submitting to someone in particular communicates allegiances. When a follower chooses to submit, he chooses to align himself with whatever the vision, mission, values, purpose, and direction is of the one to whom he submits. A follower cannot choose their own vision. They only align themselves with the vision cast by another. A follower cannot choose their own values. They only align themselves with the values articulated by another. A bondservant has no stage from which to express his political views. It is assumed that by his submitting to his master, he aligns himself with his master’s values and the opinions of the household. A member of a church who submits to the church’s leadership cannot convince someone that their mission is something other than the mission of their church. Their mission is effectively assumed to be the same as the church to which they have submitted themselves. The act of following is aligning one’s self with the identity of that which they follow. So the choice to submit is in fact a responsibility; to be subject to the right identity.
And third, let’s look at the position of subject. The instances in which this rendering of the Greek word is used are many. It is used in reference to demons being subject to Christians (Lk 10:17), creation being subject to God’s will (Ro 8:20), citizens being subject to their government (Ro 13:1), Christians being subject to God the Father (Heb 12:9), the younger being subject to their elders (1 Pet 5:5), wives being subject to their husbands (1 Pet 3:1), servants being subject to their masters (1 Pet 2:18), and all things being subject to God (1 Co 15:27-28). The sense of this word is positional. It’s not the quality of being submissive, nor is it the act of submitting. It is standing in the position of one who is subject to another. There is a relational meaning to this usage. Some of these subjects make sense by their very nature of relation. Naturally, the earth would be subject to its Creator and Christians would be subject to their God. But there are other positions of being subject that require intentional placement. A citizen has to intentionally stand in the position of subjection to their government. A citizen could just as easily rebel against their government in breaking of laws and revolting against authorities. It is just as much an act of volition to stand still as it is to step away. Ask any military boot camp graduate, and they’ll recall the utter exhaustion of standing at attention for the duration of their ceremony with the memory of at least one of their comrades collapsing. It requires resolve to stand in place. It’s a commitment not to waver. Resolving to maintain your position of subjection to another communicates trust. Not in the sense of what your entrusting to another, but in the sense of the purpose of your relation to another. It is a trust informed by hope. A citizen’s subjection to their government is trusting, with hope, that the government does not deal unjustly with good citizens. A wife’s subjection to her husband is trusting, with hope, that a husband loves, respects, and supports his wife. The position of the follower is committing hope-driven trust in the purpose of the one to whom they are subject. So the choice to be subject is in fact a responsibility; to be hopeful and trusting toward the right purpose.
The follower, therefore, carries responsibility with every act that characterizes them as a follower. The follower’s actions must support the right person. The follower’s actions must advocate the right identity. The follower’s actions might trust in the right purpose. If the follower feels at any point that their leader has become the wrong person, has begun to articulate the wrong values, or has abused their position for the wrong purpose, then it is the responsibility of the follower to follow elsewhere. And take notice, that in each instance where the follower is submissive, submitting, or subject to anything or anyone that is not God, it is an act of following motivated by a line of sight fixed on God. The bondservant does not follow their master because they have a master, but because by their strength in following they testify to the strength of God (Tt 2:10). The citizen does not follow their government because of a social contract, but because by their upstanding citizenship they testify to the faithfulness of God (Ro 13:3). The wife does not follow her husband because of a marriage, but because by her commitment in steadfastness she testifies to her reverence for God (1 Pet 3:1-2). So the follower abides in submission as long as the person they follow is leading toward God. The follower submits to a leader or institution as long as their vision and mission is reflective of the values of God. And the follower stands in subjection to a leader as long as the leader respects the end purpose of that relationship; that is acting consistent with God’s intention for his station.
So what can we learn from the follower? To be intentional with who we follow. We all are following someone or something. Are we following the right person? To be informed with the values with which we are aligning ourselves. We are all pledging allegiance, however fundamental or superficial it may be, to the vision and mission of those to whom we submit. Are we following the right values? To be intentional with our positions of subjection. We all are trusting that another will not abuse their station in relation to our subjected position. Are we trusting the purpose of our subjection? The question is not whether we should follow or lead. The question is why we are following the someone that we are. Take a lesson from the follower and be aware of the influential art that it is.