On Mission Through Submission

Jesus Submits to the Father

As Christians, we all want to be used by God. We want to be able to use the gifts and abilities he has given us for his glory. The question we may ask ourselves is how are we to be used by God? We seem to either not know how to begin or after having begun we don’t know how to keep going. This struggle can become frustrating because nothing seems to be happening. It can also lead us to try and make things happen, which leaves us begging God to bless what we have done rather than doing what God has promised to bless. Whether we are frustrated or trying to make things happen, we are rendered less effective or totally ineffective because our focus is off God’s mission and on ourselves.

Jesus did not try to make things happen outside of submitting to the will of the Father. He was faced with the ultimate call to lay down his life and he “set his face like flint,” toward that which the Father commissioned him to (Is. 50:7, Lk. 9:51). Had he tried to do things in any other way, had he tried to manufacture the Father’s will, or had he given into Satan’s offer for the burden of his call to be lifted, he may have saved himself, but no one else. He leaned heavily on the Father as Hebrews 5:7 tells us and through his obedience he purchased salvation for all that the Father gave him. Jesus’ dependence on the Father kept him on mission and allowed him to save and send out disciples who are also commissioned through submission.

I have experienced this frustration and given into this temptation to make things happen. They only lead to feelings of stagnation and confusion. Throughout my experiences, I have always believed and affirmed that God defines what it is that he actually commissions and equips us to do. That, of course, means that it might not be what we think, what we would like it to be, or when we would like it to happen. “God reserves the right to interrupt your life,” as one of my mentors always says. Yet, I was not always living according to my belief of how God commissions and equips. I was not always submitting to God. That was until I had an opportunity to begin a year-long internship at my church to help discern my call to ministry.

The Church Submits to Jesus

Scripture defines the church as the “body of Christ” among other things. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). Theologically, that concept of the church being the body of Christ is rich and has several implications, but at the very least it means that the church is a representation of Christ.  We see this in how both Paul and Peter describe believers being built together as the church for works of ministry (Eph. 2:19-22, 1 Pt. 2:4-5). These works of ministry are commissioned by Christ for the church to perform and empowered by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19-20, Jn. 14-16).

Ephesians 5, which is usually referred to for how we look at marriage, offers insight into this issue of submission to Christ via the church. Paul wrote: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (Eph. 5:22-24).

While we often look at this text from the standpoint of how the relationship of Christ and the church gives us a picture of marriage, we should also look at what it is saying about submission in the church. When Paul says, “Now as the church submits to Christ,” there is no command there; it is an assumption that the church is submitting to Christ. He refers to those that are submitting to Christ as the church; therefore, believers should be submitting to the church (i.e. being a part of the church, submitting to the leaders and serving) in order to submit to Christ.

Scripture also calls us to submit ourselves to God through offering up our lives. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). As we offer our lives as a living sacrifice, we are commissioned through submission.

We see this as Paul calls the church in Thessalonica to respect those that are over them in the Lord, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you” (1 Thess. 5:12). Therefore, submitting to the local church or the body of Christ is in fact part of our submission to Christ. Through submitting to the local church we are all commissioned to offer our lives to Christ in accordance with our gifts, for the edification of the church, and for our own growth in him.

In Acts 13, the Apostle Paul, when he was still referred to as Saul, was with Barnabas and others at the church in Antioch. “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2-3). Even the Apostle Paul here is submitting to Christ via the local church and it is in that setting that the Holy Spirit sends them out to do God’s will.

On Mission through Submission

When we live according to our nature, which is corrupted by sin, we do not desire to submit to anything or anyone and society affirms in us that fear and dislike of submission. Yet in our attempt to not submit, we end up being slaves to anything other than God and his will. Our lack of submission to God and his church leave us as slaves to sin (Rom. 6). The gospel frees us from thinking that we need to live according to any story for our lives that society, our nature, or any other voice may tell us. We are freed to live according to the story of God, which is sovereign over any other story. In Christ, we are free to submit to God and his church. Submission to God and his church calls us to humility, vulnerability and to be like Christ:

  • Humility–Submitting to the leadership of our local church and to God develops humility in us. We open ourselves to those who are over in us in the Lord to evaluate God’s call on our lives along with us (Heb. 13:17).
  • Vulnerability–Opening ourselves up to correction, encouragement, and service in the church leaves us feeling incredibly vulnerable. However, it is in that place of weakness that God works in us as he increases our dependence on him and our trust in him (2 Cor. 12:9).
  • Christ-likeness–To submit to the church is to submit to the body of Christ and ultimately Christ himself. To submit to Christ is to do what Christ himself did, which was to submit to the will of the Father (Phil. 2:5-11).

So as we seek to understand God’s will for our lives, let us be like Christ. We could say that to understand God’s will for our lives, we have to actually submit to God’s will. Our misconceptions about submission are proved gloriously wrong as we humbly bow before Christ and open ourselves to what He would do in and through us. As we do this, he shows us that though the world, our sinful nature or Satan may call us to submit to things in sinful ways that harm us, Jesus calls us to submit to him for our greatest good and his glory.

Nick Abraham (DMin student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) lives in Navarre, OH with his wife and daughter. He serves as an Associate Pastor at Alpine Bible Church in Sugarcreek, OH. He is a contributor to Make, Mature, Multiply: Becoming Fully-Formed Disciples of Jesus and blogs at Like Living Stones.