Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

The Duty of Mutual Submission

Written by Rev. Maurice Roberts
This editorial is taken by permission from the Banner of Truth, February 2001, Issue No. 449, published by the Banner of Truth Trust, The Grey House, 3 Murrayfield Road, Edinburgh, EH12 6EL, Scotland. The author is well known for his spiritual insights into the practical truths of Scripture.
Among the varied duties set before the Christian in Scripture is that of mutual submission: "Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God" (Eph.5: 21). Peter has the same exhortation: "Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another" (1 Pet.5: 5). This is explained and amplified: "Be clothed with humility; for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time" (vv. 5-6). In point of good order, the wife is to submit to her own husband and the younger Christian to the elder, but as a matter of Christian love, all are to be submissive to one another. There can be no denying that this is how the New Testament addresses those who belong to Christ.

This grace of submissiveness is easy to overlook in the reading of the Bible. It is a duty that is seldom preached on and seldom referred to. Like many other exhortations of God's Word, it flies on the page of truth but is hastily skimmed over. The preacher's trawling eye does not consider it important enough to make it his text, nor does the Bible reader pay much heed to it. We miss the more modest duties of Scripture since we are in a hurry to scale the high mountains of elevated doctrine. But this we do to our loss and to the hurt of the church at large. How many churches have vanished because half their members would not submit to the other half? Doctrine they had, but not submission.

It is never a Christian's duty to submit to his brethren when they go wrong. The Bible knows of no charity that would promote peace at the expense of truth. An unprincipled unity built on some nebulous and creedless consensus may be graced with the name of "church," but it is not a church in the New Testament sense. Where there is no creed, there is no Christ. And where a church has no Christ, mutual submission is no better than a conspiracy to rob God of his honour. A Christian who finds himself in a church situation where truth is not acted on must voice his strong protest. This is how the Old Testament prophets acted in days when the policies of godless kings and queens aimed at the suppression of true religion. This is how Christ acted when the visible church of his day was overspread with traditions and regulations contrary to Scripture. So did the apostles when they refused to obey the corrupt commands of the Sanhedrin.

The Christian's duty is never to submit in heart or conscience to what is contrary to the clear teaching of the Bible. Rather, he must "obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

There is nowhere in the Bible any commandment to submit to being silent when the church sets out on a course of sin and evil. We submit to one another as Christians, whoever we are and whatever gifts we have, because we all have one and the same Master. This means that we differ from one another, whether we be young or old in the faith, only as brethren in the Lord. As brethren, gifted or not, we have something to share with one another which all can benefit from. The youngest believer, and the least gifted, has in his soul an experience of Christ's pardoning love, which is profitable for the most advanced saint to hear. Even the apostle Paul at the height of his powers could speak of looking forward to "being comforted by the mutual faith both of you and me" (Rom.1: 12). Evidently the apostles did not disdain the company or conversation of young converts.

God has given to us this duty of mutual submission to check ugly faults in our unsanctified natures. Nothing blows up our proud hearts so much as being elevated to some place of importance in the church. Not without cause has Satan been, through the centuries, an advocate of unscriptural offices in the church. High office produces, as a rule, high-mindedness. Even the biblical offices of elder and deacon are enough to elevate some professing Christians so high that they look down on lesser brethren as hardly worth listening to. It is to curb and cure this superior spirit that God bids all his people, the great as well as the small, to "submit to one another."

There is another good reason why Scripture bids us be subject one to another. It is that we might not be "wise in our own eyes and prudent in our own sight" (Isa.5: 21). There are churches and fellowships which become so exclusive that they will have no fellowship with any but those of their own group. This is a regrettable and an unscriptural attitude to adopt. It is justified entirely to refuse to treat other churches as churches if they do not accept the sole authority of Scripture. But where other churches seek honestly to walk by the rule of Christ's Word, we are obliged to treat them as brethren and to have, at least, cordial and fraternal association. "Salute every saint in Christ Jesus" (Phil.4: 21). "Whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing" (Phil.3: 16).

The sad effect of having fellowship with none but our own group is that we unconsciously become convinced that "we are the people and wisdom shall die with us" (Job 12:2). It is good to be made self-critical, lest we suppose ourselves above criticism. To mix only with those Christians who share our identical practice is to run the risk of not noticing that God gives excellent gifts also to those not of our group---and sometimes God gives more grace and usefulness to them. This is not to say that we should give up our good practice because gifted and good men do not share it. But it should send us back to God's Word to "prove all things" (1 Thess.5: 21). Our best practice may, in some cases, be built on nothing more substantial than the venerable opinions of respected leaders and nothing more.

Hard as it is for our over-confident minds, it is good for us to meet with faithful men who are not of our group. It is good for us to be forced to test our beliefs and our practices. Where we are right we shall be the stronger; where wrong, we shall be obliged to reform. "As iron sharpeneth iron," so brethren whose rule is Scripture will correct and refute one another by mutual converse and religious discussion. Even where we cannot adopt a brother's views or opinions as our own, we can submit ourselves to him to the extent that, respecting his sincerity, we permit ourselves to be influenced by him for good whenever possible.

If we are to submit to one another in the Lord, we shall have to learn to listen to one another in conversation. Fellowship is sharing and, in conversation, that means give and take. The art of conversation is to ask a few questions now and then, and to wait for an answer.

We submit to one another when we request their prayers. This the apostles did frequently. "[Pray] for me, that utterance may be given unto me" (Eph.6: 19). "Brethren, pray for us" (1 Thess.5: 25). We submit to one another when we "confess our faults one to another" (Jas.5: 16). In the course of the Middle Ages this formula was altered to mean that the layman should confess to the priest. But no such thought is intended in the New Testament. There are times when it is perfectly proper for the older, more experienced Christian to confess his shortcomings to the younger. The writer recalls once hearing a famous preacher confess his sorrow at not keeping a promise many years before. The obvious grief that this still brought to the venerable man's mind was a lesson for life. It emphasized the importance of keeping one's word better than ten sermons from some other preachers could have done.

Though the woman is not to preach or to take eldership in the church (1 Cor.14: 34; 1 Tim.2: 11; 3: 1-2), she can do excellent work in a private capacity, even in the realm of teaching doctrine. Apollos' advancement in gospel light came not only from conversation with Aquila but also with his wife, Priscilla (Acts 18:26). Spurgeon confessed he learned his theology from a cook! A cook who is sound in the faith is worthier of being a private tutor in Christian doctrine than a learned scholar who denies God's truth either by his lip or by his life.

It is quite proper for Christian men, whether ministers or not, to submit to listening to wise words from the lips of godly women in the context of a Christian group or gathering. Sometimes good women make a virtue of contributing nothing in company, when a choice word from them would be an ornament of gold in the eyes of those gathered for fellowship. We submit to one another when we seek advice from one another. "In the multitude of counsellors there is safety" (Prov.11: 14).

Never make an important decision hastily--especially when you are tired or depressed. Rather, go to trusted friends in the Lord and seek their mind on important decisions. Of course, we are not to follow any man's advice uncritically. Take soundings from three or four if possible--then weigh the advice and pray for clear light. If in doubt, wait. Many a good man has blundered into a thicket of troubles for want of submitting to the kind counsel of wise friends. If we are not in a mood to take advice, we are in no fit state to take decisions. If only those men who resign hastily from the ministry would talk first with their real friends!

A wise man will listen to the rebuke of a faithful friend. "'Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head" (Ps.141: 5). The measure of our sanctification is the degree of our readiness to listen to a well-aimed rebuke. The truth hurts us because it is the truth about us. But grace teaches us to prefer being hurt with a good rebuke rather than be given over to our own wisdom. "Thou art the man" (2 Sam.12: 7) hurt David like a sharp sword, but this bitter medicine was the remedy his soul needed. When Christians love one another they will at times need to rebuke one another. To such rebukes, when just and fair, we do well to submit, with thankfulness to God.

Love is very thin in any church or fellowship where a benign rebuke is badly taken. The rule is: "Thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him" (Lev.19: 17) .The trouble with many of us is that we prefer a cowardly silence to giving a faithful admonition. The result is that all sorts of sins are tolerated which sadly mar the fair face of Christ's church.

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