What are the limits to submission?

We see there are a number of verses indicating wives should submit to their husbands. Children should obey their parents, slaves should obey their masters (which translates to employees should obey their bosses), people should obey government officials, Church members should obey their church leaders.

And while most people will accept an employee has to do what the boss says, within limits, many women today (and some men) will argue against the submission of a wife towards her husband. This is especially the case when the person is mean or not a saved person or unfair, or abusive, or… you fill in the blank.

So, today I would like to look at submission, obedience, and the limits of such.

We will start by looking at Colossians 3:18-25

18 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands,  love your wives and do not be embittered against them. 20 Children, be obedient to your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing to the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not exasperate your children, so that they will not lose heart. 22  Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of  heart, fearing  the Lord. 23 Whatever you do,  do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than  for men, 24 knowing  that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the  inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. 25 For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality.

Obviously, we see in Colossians 3:18-20 that wives are to be subject to their husbands. Husbands are to love their wives. Children are to obey their parents in all things. While we see things each group of people are to do, I do not see that it says the submission or obedience are tied to what those in authority do – at least not here. We DO see that fathers are not to exasperate their children, but that is not tied to the children’s obedience, nor vice-versa.

One other thing we DO see here is that we are to do what ever we do as if we were doing to the Lord – do the best we can do. We are told that wrong-doers will receive the consequences of their actions, while right-doers will also.

Now let’s examine Ephesians 5:15-6:9

15 Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, 16 making the most of your time, because the days are evil. 17 So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit,19 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord ; 20 always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father ; 21 and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.

22 Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, 26 so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing ; but that she would be holy and blameless. 28 So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself ; 29 for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, 30 because we are members of His body. 31 FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND SHALL BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH.32 This mystery is great ; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER (which is the first commandment with a promise ), 3 SO THAT IT MAY BE WELL WITH YOU, AND THAT YOU MAY LIVE LONG ON THE EARTH. 4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ ; 6 not by way of eye service, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, 8 knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. 9 And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.

We see in Ephesians 5:15 that church members are to make the most of their time, and in 5:21 they are to be subject to one another. This is not necessarily saying a man can tell another man what to do, nor is it saying a man can tell a woman who is not his wife what to do. This is reminding us that Christ said to rebuke the sinner and if he repents, you have saved him. The idea is that when you are sinning and someone comes to you and says to stop it, you should.

Matthew 18:15-17

15“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.  16“But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED. 17“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.


Neither is it saying that a woman is in charge of a man, as we know from 1 Timothy 2:12, that Paul does not permit a woman to have authority over a man (most likely limited to the church environment). This is saying people should help each other be who God has called them to be, and if someone sees a brother in sin, they should go to them and the one in sin should change. Ephesians 5:21-6:5 is all about a family in the Church. The husband and wife should encourage each other. The husband is the head of the family, and the wife should submit to him in everything. The children should obey both the mother and father. The father is responsible for nourishing and cherishing his wife, and for presenting his wife to God holy and blameless. The man has the responsibility for his family. The wife has the responsiblity to obey and respect her husband.

Fathers should not provoke their children but bring them up in the knowledge and instruction of the Lord. This does not say the father is to do that as long as the children obey. Neither does it say the children should obey as long as the father is doing those things.

Masters should not be harsh or threatening. But should do the will of God towards their slaves. This applies in today’s world for bosses and employees. But again, one is not dependent on the behavior of the other.

Our obedience should not be merely outwardly, but we should do the will of God with sincerity. And we should render this good service to GOD. It is about God, not about the people under whose authority we are.

1 Timothy 2:12

I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.

But does this mean that only women are to submit? No.

Hebrews 13:17

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

Men AND women are to submit to those who lead us, as they keep watch over our souls and they will given an account to God. Our leaders will answer to God for how they treat us, but how they treat us should not change the fact that God has said to obey them.

1 Peter 2:13-20

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. 15  For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Act as free men, and do not use your  freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as of God.  17 Honor all people, love the brotherhood,  fear God, honor the king.  18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with  all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are  unreasonable. 19  For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God  a person bears up  under sorrows when  suffering unjustly.  20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience ? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.

Paul tells us that we have the choice of being slaves to righteousness or slaves to sin. In context, this is speaking of the need to obey God.
Romans 6:16
Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness ?

We see why we have the need to obey God in John 3:36 and Hebrews 5:9.

John 3:36

“He who believes in the Son has eternal life ; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

Hebrews 5:9

And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation


In fact, we need to obey God rather than men when what men tell us to do is contrary to what God has said.
Acts 5:27-32

27 When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.30 “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. 31 “He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. 32 “And we are witnesses of these things ; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom  God has given to those who obey Him.”

And here is where we see the limitation to submission: we must not sin. That is to say, we must obey God when what men want us to do is contrary to what God wants us to do. This principle is applied in many areas. If we are told to murder someone, but God’s word tells us to love them and not to murder, then we must obey God. If we are told to lie, but God’s word tells us to not lie, then we must obey God. If we are told to steal, but God’s word says to not steal, then we must not steal. If we told to exasperate our children, but God’s word teaches us to not do that, then we must obey God.

Another limitation is found implicitely in Ephesians 5:22, where each wife must submit to her OWN husband. A woman is not required to submit to men who are not their husband unless he is her boss or a governmental official. And even then, the limitation to submission of not sinning would exist.

In short, the only limitations I can find in scripture to submission is that of being submissive to those who actually have authority over you (children are to obey their parents, wives are to submit to their own husbands, church members submit to church leaders, everyone submit to the government) and we are not to sin. So if someone who is has authority over you tries to get you to sin, you should obey God intead.

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