A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com
Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 10/31/99
We arrive today at Eph. 5:21, submitting mutually to one another in the fear of Christ. Nothing comes less naturally to American christians than submission. We started our existence as a nation by declaring our "independence," and fought that war under a banner that warned, "Don't tread on me!" But while such independence can be a virtue and does have its place, a properly functioning church is not it. Therefore I will develop this last participle describing the Spirit-filled Christian with a perfect progression of palpably positive points patently punctuated by a potent parade of perilously prominent P's:
First and most importantly, the Prerequisite of Submission: being filled with the Spirit, v. 18. We have seen that speaking, singing, thanking, and submitting flow from Filling, and that any attempt to produce these things apart from the Holy Spirit's work can only produce an ugly caricature of the reality--hence the glib, forced gaiety characteristic of so much Evangelical piety--and hence, here, women putting up with abuse out of false guilt, widows sending their social security checks to fund air-conditioned doghouses [for high-maintenance dogs!], etc. Therefore it must be understood: no submission will be healthy, no true submission possible unless it flows from the Spirit. This verse is not so much about who can tell whom what to do as it is about the attitude that Spirit-filled believers have toward other Spirit-filled believers.
So what does the Holy Spirit have to do with mutual submission? Being filled with the Spirit means being under His control, His influence. Under His influence, my own desires, will, plans, advancement, glory--my own personal agenda--becomes secondary to His. His agenda is to glorify Jesus Christ in the Church. Therefore, to the extent that I am under His influence, I will want to believe what Jesus teaches, do what Jesus commands, and love what Jesus loves. This means I will love supremely my brother for whom Christ died. Flowing through me from the Spirit will be the attitude portrayed in Rom. 12:10 and Phil. 2:3. Unless this attitude is flowing from your heart, you are not being influenced by the Spirit, and you are not ready to start applying v. 21--much less vs. 22. You have to go back to vs. 18. There is no other way, no short cut; you have to go through vs. 18 or you will make something ugly that will be destructive to your relationships and bring reproach rather than glory to the name of Christ.
Second, the Profile of Submission. What is it, what does it look like? The Greek verb is hypotassomai, a military term which means literally ranking or ordering oneself under. The picture is men in a military regiment under a single commander and in obedience to his legitimate authority. So we must ask, what is the legitimate authority that one believer has over another?
First, it is not absolute. No human has an absolute right to another's obedience. See Deut. 13:1-10, Acts 4:19. Even a legitimate authority's right to my obedience ends when it transgresses the Word of God.
Maybe a better way of asking the question is, "What does another believer have a right to expect of me by virtue of our mutual membership in Christ?" And to answer this we must think of what it means to be in Christ together. Hypotassomai makes us think of being fellow soldiers in the same regiment. A soldier cannot afford to have his own personal agenda--he has to obey his commanding officer, period. But that is not the fellow believer but Christ. So the issue is not whether I sacrifice MY agenda to YOURS, but whether we BOTH sacrifice OURS to CHRIST'S. If I look at submission as my agenda being in competition with yours, and mine has to loose because I am supposed to submit, I've got the whole idea wrong. Neither of us has a right to any agenda but Christ's in the first place. The other picture prominent in Ephesians is being members of the same Body. When I sprain my ankle, the other leg doesn't say, "Well, tough." It immediately begins to compensate, trying to get back on the ground quickly to take pressure off the wounded member. We call this limping. So the good leg subordinates its own interests to that of the hurt one for the sake of the whole body. Likewise, being right-handed, I throw and write better with that hand. My left hand does not say, "Well, I'm as good as you, so I insist on getting to make half the throws." It yields to the right for the good of the whole body, so that I perform better in the softball game. That is what mutual submission should look like in the Church.
Above all, we must do everything in the spirit of Mat. 20:25-28. In other words, submission is not primarily about who gets to boss whom around, or who are the people such that I have to sacrifice my agenda to theirs. As long as we are asking these questions we have not even begun the first lesson. That is the Gentile way, not Christ's. Submission is about both of us serving the Lord's agenda, and serving each other to that end. You cannot even begin to practice it unless you are both filled with the Spirit--i.e., with Christ's interests above all.
What in in the third place, is the Purpose of Submission? Well, what is the purpose of anything in Ephesians? Of walking worthily in general? It is to fulfill God's eternal purpose, which is Eph. 1:10, 2:19-22, 3:10, 3:20-21. It is so that Christ may receive glory in the Church. Specifically, it manifests the love of Christ; it makes the Church more effective because everybody is working to one end, with one will as it were; and it pleases our Lord.
Finally, the Power of Submission. It unleashes the dynamic of Phil. 2:3-11, cf. 1 Pet. 5:6. Nobody in this room is worthy of your submission. But Christ is. Therefore, in submitting ourselves to Him, we also mutually submit to one another, thus having the mind of Christ, so that God may exalt Him--and ourselves with Him. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.