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The Biblical Doctrine of Submission (Part 1)

By R. J. Rushdoony
April 01, 2002

There is no lack of general agreement on the importance of and the necessity for the Biblical doctrine of submission. The differences, however, are great as to what it requires. For example, a story popular in some medieval circles (of priests and men) told of patient Griselda, who meekly submitted to sadistic treatment by her socially superior husband and, after many years, was rewarded for her submission. (Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, 10th day, 10th Story.) But we know that medieval women, in high places and low, were aggressive and very vocal, so patient Griselda was by no means representative of her era.

Another example of submission of an historical nature is the Jesuit Order. Jesuits voluntarily took a vow of unreserved and unqualified submission to the pope. This made them a powerful force for the Counter-Reformation, but created an intense hatred for them both in and out of the Roman Catholic Church. Within the Roman Catholic Church, the animosity and slander was so great that Catholic monarchs demanded the suppression of the order. In the brutal events that followed, Russia and Russian Orthodoxy, and some Protestants protected many Jesuits. All kinds of slander were directed against the Jesuits which still survive.

The problem for the critics was a simple one. Unquestioning and absolute obedience to God is one thing, but a like obedience to the pope or to the church is another. Outside the Jesuit Order, not many Catholics agreed with that; nor do they agree now. The general opinion was that anyone making such a submission was capable of anything.

Protestant Jesuits
Today we have in many Protestant circles a Jesuit-like demand for submission on the part of members and clergy. The results are deadly, as always.

Among the Biblical texts commonly used to affirm the doctrine of submission, two notable ones stand out:

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. (1 Pet. 1:13-14)
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive of themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. (Rom. 13:1-5)

Submission to the State
These two texts do not deal with submission in the church, nor in the family, but in the civil state, in the state or civil government. Their basic premise is, first, that we live in a world governed and predestined by God. Our rebellion, however evil the circumstances, is a revolt against God. The world indeed is full of sin, but our rebellion does not remove the fact of sin but aggravates it. Second, God's way of transformation is not revolution but regeneration. The state is a ministry of justice, the church a ministry of salvation. Man finds it easier to turn to revolution and conflict because it demands no change in him. God's way requires not only that we submit to His will and be obedient, but also that in Him we be made a new creation. The only efficacious change comes by regeneration. Thus, the Biblical doctrine of submission has as its necessary correlative the doctrine of regeneration. The fallen man wants revolution, or an external imposition, as the only way he sees of affecting change. If he believes in education as an alternative, it is in compulsory statist education, no less a revolutionary device. The Christian must affirm that humanistic efforts and devices are superficial and that only God's regenerating power can affect change. Thus, we cannot separate submission from regeneration.

Third, social order is not maintained by every man doing that which is right in his own eyes, as in the days of the Judges. Such a condition prevails when God is not king over the nation and its peoples (Jud. 21:25). Even the worst rulers must maintain some kind of social order.

Fourth, rulers are ordained of God. If we have bad rulers, it is because we are a bad people, and the solution again is not in revolution but in regeneration. This does not preclude using peaceful means to alter society, but it does mean that our essential hope is in regeneration.

Rulers are "ministers of God." Not all ministers are good, as any look at the church will tell us, but neither are we the people. Godly submission begins with submission to God and His law-word. It means that the problem of sin and evil is not countered with violence and death, and His regenerating power makes us into a new human race, one empowered to do good and to establish justice.

Fifth, this makes submission a matter of conscience. It is emphatically not a surrender to evil. It is a recognition that sin is not eliminated nor curtailed by revolution and violence, but by good works, and these Christ's people must supply.

The Romans 13:1-5 text cannot be separated from that which follows it, namely, first, that paying taxes is a religious duty, according to verse 6, in order to maintain some semblance of social order. Thus verse 7 requires all due tribute, custom, fear, honor, and dues to be paid as a form of obedience to God — no tax revolt, in other words. Second, we are to be debt-free as a normal thing, although debts for up to six years are permitted by God's law. Our service to God involves avoiding bondage to men. Our obligation to other men should not be money or debt, but love. Third, love is the fulfilling or putting into force of the law. We do not commit adultery, meaning that we respect the integrity of our neighbor's marriage. We do not kill, i.e., we respect the integrity of his life. We do not steal, i.e., we do not violate his property or possessions. We do not bear false witness: we respect his good name and reputation; and we do not covet what is our neighbor's so that in word, thought, and deed, we manifest our love for our neighbor by obeying God's law in relationship to him. "Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom. 13:7). Love is thus defined as keeping the law of God in relationship one to another.

Submission to Christ
Fourth, it is time for us to wake up out of the sleep of our dark world and to put on the armor of light (v. 12). We can only change the world by submission to Jesus Christ and His law-word. We must, fifth, "walk in honesty, as in the day, not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying" (v. 13). We are a people with work to do. Sixth, this means "put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof" (v. 14). We are not here to please ourselves, but to please God, and we dare not forget this. It is not what we want from God that is all-important, but what God wants from us.

The verses which follow 1 Peter 2:13-14 are similar to those in Romans. The alternative to civil revolution is the godly re-ordering or reconstruction of our lives and our world. We are told, first, that it is the will of God for us that we submit to evil to "put to silence the ignorance of foolish men" (1 Pet. 2:15). All kinds of foolish charges are made against Christians by the ungodly; we must not provide grounds for more. Second, we are to live as free men in Christ, as servants of God, never using our freedom as an excuse for misconduct. This means, third, that we love our fellow believers, honor all men, reverence God, and honor the king (v. 17). The world looks with hatred towards others than its own; we must treat all men as God would have us do. Fourth, "servants" are now addressed. This term can include anyone who works for another person. Such a relationship is not perfect, and it does involve sometimes "suffering wrongfully." We must be patient. We are called to live in an evil world, as did Jesus Christ, and this means "suffering wrongfully" at times. He sets the example for us of patient endurance (vv. 19-25).

Fifth, in 1 Peter 3:1-7, we are told of the duties of wives and husbands, the regenerated life rather than a revolutionary one. Peter goes on to say much more, but this is enough to indicate that the Christian life is regenerative, not revolutionary and destructive.

Our texts have dealt with the Christian in a civil and social context, in an unsaved world as in the New Testament era. Submission thus has been viewed in the context of a fallen and unchristian world. But what about submission within the Christian community? In part, Peter touches on this in his counsel to husbands and wives. This is submission in the Lord. We shall now see what more is involved. But before we do, let us use the premise of regeneration versus revolution to examine a contemporary problem. We have here two kinds of opposition within the Christian community. On the one hand, we have had some who aggressively oppose abortion by lawless acts aimed at abortuaries, imitating radical civil tactics. But men cannot be regenerated by violence. The way of fallen man is to try to change the world by violence, not by regeneration.

On the other hand, many Christians have worked to counsel women seeking abortion, to offer godly help and Biblical solutions. Much remarkable work has been done because the basis of their effort is to save the life of the unborn child and the soul of the mother.

The answer of humanism to problems is compulsion and violence, ultimately death. For the Christian, it is Christ and life. The two ways could not be more different.


Topics: Reformed Thought, Biblical Law, Christian Reconstruction

R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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