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Topic 41: Submission


 The word  upotasso: The word,  upotasso, often translated to English as “submit,” in its basic New Testament context of relationships between believers suggests a voluntary Christ-like act, a self-giving without the implication of being forced or coerced by another.

(A) The noun upotage is used four times in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 9:13, Galatians 2:5, 1 Timothy 2:11 and 3:4).

(B) The verb tasso means “to order, to position, to determine.”

  • (1) With upo in the active voice, it means “place under, subordinate, subject.”
  • (2) With upo in the passive voice, it means “become subject to someone or thing.”
  • (3) With upo in the middle voice, it means “voluntarily submit oneself, defer to, surrender one’s right.”

(C) The verb upotasso is employed thirty nine times in the New Testament.

◆ “The woman is reminded, always in the context of an appeal to the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ, that she has been subordinated to man by the Creator and that it is for this reason that she should willingly accept this divine arrangement” (CTCR-WIC, page 31).

The motivation for voluntarily submitting oneself: Never does the New Testament remind the woman “that she has been subordinated to the man by the Creator.”

(A) Contrary to the CTRC implication in the above quotation, the woman is reminded to subordinate herself as Christ subordinated himself.

(B)  “Order of creation” ideology never is given as the reason for self-submission.  The Greek word for “subordination,” as used in the New Testament,  is related not to any,”order of creation” theology, but to Christology and soteriology.  Note the following chart:

Verse                                                                      Object                                         Rationale

Luke 2:51         Jesus was subject                 to his parents

Romans 13:1    Let every person be s.         to the governing authorities           by the mercies of God (12:1)

Romans 13:5   One must be s.                      (to the governing authorities)        for the sake of conscience

1 Cor. 14:32     spirits of prophets are s.     to the prophets                                 for God is…a God…of peace

1 Cor. 16:16     be subject                               to such…fellow workers                  for they have refreshed me

Eph. 5:21         be subject                               to one another                                  out of reverence for Christ

Eph. 5:22        Be subject                               to your husbands                             as to the Lord

Col. 3:18          be subject                               to your husbands                             as is fitting in the Lord

Titus 2:5          and submissive                     to their husbands                             that…Word…not discredited

Titus 2:9          slaves be submissive            to their masters                                that…they may adorn doctrine

Titus 3:1          Remind them to be s.           to rulers and authorities                  for we…once foolish…saved

1 Peter 2:13    Be subject                                to every human institution            for the Lord’s sake

1 Peter 2:18    Servants, be s.                        to your masters                                that you follow in (Christ’s) steps

1 Peter 3:1       wives, be s.                             to your husbands                             so that they…may be won…

1 Peter 3:5       were s.                                    to their husbands                             person of heart…precious to God

1 Peter 5:5       you be s.                                 to the elders                                      for God…gives grace

Each time the object of upotasso is specified, with the exception of 1 Corinthians 14:34.

“Submission” is mutual: Frequently, when someone is admonished to “be submissive,” the one to whom the person is to be submissive is also exhorted and reminded of the need to defer from the normal cultural pattern of domination (see also the discussion in Kittel, TDNT, 8, pgs. 39-45).

Verse                                                            Object                                    Corresponding Admonition

Romans 13:1    Let every person be s.        to the…authorities                  for he is God’s servant

1 Cor. 16:16      be subject                             to such…fellow workers         devoted to the service of the saints

Eph. 5:21          be subject                             to one another                         out of reverence for Christ

Eph. 5:22         Be subject                             to your husbands                    husbands, love your wives

Col. 3:18           be subject                             to your husbands                    husbands love your wives

Col. 3:20          Children, obey                     your parents                            Fathers, do not provoke… children

Col. 3:22          Slaves …                                not with eye service                Masters, treat… justly and fairly

Titus 2:5          and submissive                    to their husbands                    younger men…control themselves

Titus 2:9          slaves be submissive           to their masters                       (compare Philemon)

1 Peter 2:18     Servants, be s.                      to your masters                        (compare Philemon)

1 Peter 3:1       wives, be s.                            to your husbands                     Likewise, you husbands live…

1 Peter 5:5       you be s.                                to the elders                              So I exhort the elders among you

The purpose of submission is not authority but service:

(A) 1 Peter 2:13-3:6 and 1 Corinthians 9:19-23: to win the other for Christ;

(B) 1 Corinthians 11:11: for mutual care;

(C) 1 Corinthians 7:35: “to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”

The dynamic of submission is

(A) “be subject …”:  self-initiated, not imposed “from above”  (vss 22 and 26: the middle voice of the Greek leaves the initiation for submissive behavior with the wives themselves).

(B) Compare Philippians 2:3-8, Christ’s self-emptying (kenoo).

(C)”[vs 21] …out of reverence for Christ“:  the submission is done in obedience to Christ, and is grounded in one’s faith, not in an “order of creation” teaching.

(D)”Mutual submission” and agape inform kephale, not exousia.

“To obey” and “to submit oneself” are not synonyms.

(A) Upotasso does not mean “obey.”

(1) “To obey” means to respond under a required order from a higher authority.

(2) There are three other New Testament words which express “obey” better: peitharxein, peithesthai, and upakouein. 

(3) Upotasso does not imply a blind, uncritical acceptance or agreement to the person being submitted to (Acts 5:29; Acts 4:19-20).

(4) “The problem of “upotassomenoi allelois in Eph. v. 21 is to be solved not by attempting to explain away the idea of reciprocity, but by recognizing that upotassesthai here does not mean ‘obey.’  The real meaning of the phrase becomes clear when we compare Rom. xii. 10… and Phil 11. 3 f. …  The three phrases, upotassesthai allelois, te time allelous proegeisthai, and allelous egoumenoi uperexontas eauton, would all seem to mean essentially the same thing” (Cranfield, “Some Observations on Romans XIII. 1-7,” pg. 243).

(5) The motive for “submission” or “deference,” then, is an inner one, one’s faith relationship to Christ and through Christ to one’s neighbor.

(6) “A complete and wholehearted submission amounts to giving oneself so completely that one lays down his or her life for the other.  This, in fact, is precisely what husbands are told to do in Ephesians 5:21-33.  Ironically, this is the passage most frequently used to mandate the wife’s universal and unilateral submission to the husband’s authority over her”(Groothius, Good News for Women, pg. 164).

“The word which Paul uses to describe this order –subordination–(The Greek word for subordination is `hypotage, which is formed from the word tasso–to appoint, to order, to arrange, and hypo–under)–does not carry with it any notion of inferior value or oppression.  This term is used by Paul simply to refer to order in the relationship of man and woman to one another.  St. Paul teaches in 1 Cor. 11:7-9, ‘For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man.  Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.)'”  (LCMS’ Commission on Theology and Church Relations, “Women in the Church” (Sept. 1985), pg. 23).

The appropriate English referents need to be found for upotasso.

(A) Note the following English definitions of the word “submit”:

(1) “Synonyms: yield, relent, bow, defer, submit, capitulate.  These verbs all have a sense of abandoning or retreating from a position or stand.  Yield has the widest application.  It can refer to giving way for reasons ranging from recognition that one is overmatched to acknowledgment that an adversary’s position is the more correct one … Defer can mean either giving way to authority or changing one’s stand as an act of courtesy, respect, or recognition of another’ s superior knowledge, judgement, or the like.  Submit implies giving way out of necessity after opposing unsuccessfully…” (American Heritage Dictionary of the American Language, 1980,  pg. 1484).

(2) “Yield: any sort or degree of giving way before force, argument, persuasion, or entreaty… Submit suggests full surrendering after resistance or conflict to the will or control of another….Defer implies a voluntary yielding or submitting out of respect or reverence for or deference and affection toward another…” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, pg. 1368).

(B)  The word “subordination” in English clearly implies “inferior, placed in or occupying a lower class, rank, or position” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1989, pg. 1175).

(1) The same source gives no indication that the word can be used as it is defined in CTCR-WIC, pg. 23.

(2) The dictionary definition of “submit” is the least in corresponding to the theological Greek word, ὑποτάσσω.  The New Testament understanding is not “giving way out of necessity after opposing unsuccessfully” nor “full surrendering after resistance or conflict to the will or control of another.”

(3) If upotage “does not carry with it any notion of inferior value or oppression” (CTCR-WIC, pg. 23) then careful scholarship asks that we find an English equivalent of the Greek to say what the Greek says.  If it does mean “to appoint, to order, to arrange…under,” then we need to use those terms.

(4) As a noun, “order” suggests structure, rigidity.  As a verb, “to order,” it implies God’s action and puts the emphasis not on a created structure or ranking but in the Creator who continues to order all existence.

(5)  “In fact, the closest thing Paul gives to a definition of the term [upotasso] in the context of Ephesians 5:21-33…is the word ‘respect’ in 5:33, where he plainly summarizes his whole exhortation to wives” (Keener, quoted in Groothius, pg. 164).

(C)  The CTCR fails to heed its own understanding of approaching the Scriptures: “The undeniably necessary effort to hear a text of Scripture first of all in its particularity, its meaning ‘then and there,’ must be balanced by an equal effort to hear the text both in its integral relation to all the rest of Scripture and its meaningfulness for all who hear it today.  This effort does not require an arbitrary flattening out of the rich variety of the Biblical witness into a dull one-dimensional uniformity” (CTCR, “A Lutheran Stance Toward Contemporary Biblical Studies,” pg. 10).

Additional commentary:

◆ “Assumption of that office by a woman is out of place because it is a woman [emphasis added] who assumes it, not because women do it in the wrong way or have inferior gifts and abilities” (CTCR-WIC, pg. 36).

 “Social structures would disintegrate into anarchy and chaos were mankind to seek to live by a purely egalitarian model of communal life.  To conceive the personal dimension as an I/thou fellowship does not imply an egalitarianism that knows no level of authority and obedience, no super- and subordination in society.  In fact, in the concrete structures of life, women ought to be subordinate to men as the occasion demands.  By the same token men ought to be subordinate to women as the occasion demands.  It is not the subordination of some women to some men, but the subordination of all women to all men, because they are women, that constitutes the indefensible thesis, indeed the unscriptural thesis. … Since men and women are equally in the image of God, what is true for one is true for the other [emphasis added]. … Men and women are persons related as partners in life.  Hence neither men nor women by nature are born to command or to obey; both are born to command in some circumstances, to obey in others.  And the more personal the relationship between them, the less there is of either; the less personal the relationship between them, the more there is of both” (Jewett, Man as Male and Female, pgs. 130-131).

“Just as we do not believe that wifely subjection excludes the wife from loving her husband, we should not believe that husbandly loving excludes the husband from subjection to his wife” (Mollenkott, Women, Men and the Bible, pg. 27).

Mutual submission involves not obedience but reciprocity.  Obedience cannot be a synonym for submission; rather in Ephesians 5 “love” seems to be the synonym for “submission” (cf. Groothius, Good News for Women, pgs. 154-155).

◆ “If we admit that Christ has authority over his church, it is crystal clear that man has authority over woman” (Christian News, 23 June 1986).

◆ “As in the husband-wife relationship  (the husband the head, the wife the helper), so in the church the same role differences apply” (Tom Trapp, Newsletter of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Church’s Campus Ministry).

There is no biblical suggestion in the original context that “head” (from Ephesians 5) and “helper” (from Genesis 2) are opposites.

Titus 2:9 also uses the word submissive: “Bid slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect.”  The Gospel has transformed that relationship (consider abolitionist pre-civil war thought!).  The same applies to woman: what is the cultural context and similarity for women today?  The Scriptures are problem-solving literature, and the Scriptures give divinely inspired examples of problem solving, addressed to special situations and contexts, which must not be read as “eternal principles.”

“The first century Jews understood very clearly that when Jesus claimed to be doing the work of God his Father, he was claiming equality with God.  For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God (John 5:18 NIV).  And the response of the Father to the voluntary submission of Jesus was immediate exaltation.  Because Jesus submitted to death on the cross, ‘therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name’ (Philippians 2:9 NIV).  So if we are going to talk about the relationship between the Father and the Son as a model for Christian wives and husbands, we are talking about a model of complete unity and equality, involving only a voluntary submission and a voluntary exaltation which is to be an example for both males and females” (Mollenkott, page 64).

“The instruction, ‘Let everyone be subordinate …’ has been so seriously misunderstood, and then abused, because of the failure to respect the complete context in which both the word hypotassesthai and the other similar invitations to obedience, honor, to humiliation are found.  All of these words give expression to an essential mark of Christian relationships to one’s fellow man: in the congregation, in the family and in the city, for brethren, for non-Christians, and also (in political contexts) toward the bearers of power.  The call to ‘be subordinate,’ to ‘obey,’ to ‘regard another as higher than oneself’ is addressed to men with regard to their wives and vice versa, slaves toward their masters (and again vice versa, compare Philemon), children toward their parents (and the parents should honor their children by not irritating them), the young toward the old, and the elders toward the congregation which they lead.

“If then one does not regard the imperative, ‘Be subordinate,’ in isolation, it immediately loses the bad taste which the word ‘subject’ has taken on in German history and literature.  Hypotassesthai then does not mean playing along at every price, not slavish obedience, not bowing before the throne and altar.  It is not the attitude of the loyal citizen in the time of national absolutism.  It is rather founded, in accord with an ethical theme which runs clear through the New Testament, in the person and the way of the Lord, who is at the same time the norm and the realization of this self-abasement; cf. 1 Tim. 2:3-7; Titus 3:3-7; 2:11-14; 1 Pet. 2:21-25, 3:18; Eph. 5:25-27; 4:32-5:2; Phil. 2:5-11; Col 2:18ff; 4:1; Eph. 6:1-9; 1 Cor. 7:20ff; 8:11f; Rom. 14:7ff; 15:3f; Gal. 5:24; 6:2, and many other texts.

“The best-known example, the Christological Psalm of Phil. 2:5ff, grounds the imperative to the church to ‘regard one another as higher than oneself’ by pointing to the self-abasement of the Lord of our salvation.  The concrete definition of the meaning of hypotassesthai comes from the crucified and risen Lord who, being free, abased himself for our sake and gave himself for us. Since we receive our life from this deed of this Lord, it is fitting that we subordinate ourselves to one another in a way that corresponds to this gift and this example.  The form of love among us is defined by that love which was shown toward us by the Lord who served us and rescued us.

“If on the other hand one understands hypotassesthai in isolation, then one has made of this root word for discipleship a formal and a passive obedience which takes from the ‘subject’ his own arbitrariness.  But the blame for this misunderstanding does not belong to the New Testament but to our unbelief, which has made out of the call to freedom and discipleship and the way of the cross an invitation to duck out of danger, to get out of the way, for the benefit of whatever group may be in power…

“If then hypotassesthai (and the other substantially synonymous terms) is in principle a posture ‘befitting’ the gospel of the self-abasing Lord of the world, then it is in every situation a free, extremely aggressive way of acting, taking very clear account of the situation, including feeling and understanding and will, always including the possibility of a spirit-driven resistance, of an appropriate disavowal and a refusal, ready to accept suffering at this or that particular point” (Hamel, “Erwagungen zur unchristlichen Paraenese” (JH Yoder, pgs. 159-161).

To adopt the free act of submission or deference for the Christian is recognition that God has created and redeemed the other and is a sign of parity and fundamental worth with the one to whom one freely submits or defers.  Addressed to the subordinate person in the social order, such an address makes of this one a decision maker, assigns renewed responsibility, and makes this one’s service an arena of witness and ministry.

If slaves, then, are to be submissive—and in today’s social context we would argue that slavery is evil—, this injunction regarding women must also be seen in the same light.

Some conclusions:

(A)When Christians are asked to submit or to defer to another, the theological reason given is never “order of creation,” but Christological or soteriological or doxological.  “Order of creation” rationales are never used with upotasso.

(B)The submission or deference of one Christian to another is the “recognition that the other person is the representative of Christ to one, in accordance with Matt. xxv. 40, 45.  It is the glad recognition that the other person, as Christ’s representative to one, has an infinitely greater claim upon one than one has upon oneself” (Cranfield, page 243).

(C) God is not setting up or reinforcing a created hierarchy; he is talking about equal relating and equally submitting oneself.

(D)The injunction to be submissive or show deference is always directed to the one under authority, never to the one the person is to subordinate oneself to.  For example, in Ephesians 5, wives are counseled to show deference to husbands, but husbands are never told “Subordinate or subjugate your wife.”

(E) Upotasso, in New Testament usage, contains the seed of reciprocity.  Pleas to “be submissive” or “to defer” are counterbalanced also by a word to the second party regarding that person’s behavior toward the one giving deference.

(F)“The vast majority of feminists are pleading for the equality of men and women.  But the Biblical answer is submission: not the submission of one category of persons to another category, but rather the voluntary and loving submission of each individual to all the others” (Mollenkott, page 32).

(G) Upotasso is a Christian virtue, what one does from faith and not what one does because she is female (or conversely, male).  In Ephesians 5 the key is mutual submission (cf. 1 Peter 5:5) of one to the other, as to Christ, recognizing Christ in the other.

(H) Christ is the example of submission (Philippians 2:3-10);  here in Ephesians 5 his voluntary humbling is pictured as a model for the Christian husband, not the wife

(I) Upotasso means “to arrange or order one’s life to be of benefit to the other.”  Given the reality of Genesis 3:16, the “head” is addressed to take the lead in ordering for the benefit of the other.

(J)Biblical references admonishing women to be subordinate are all in relation to each woman’s individual husband (not to men in general).

◆ “Women must not be permitted to exercise authority over man …” (Ft. Wayne Exegetical Department, 1976, quoted page 200, LCMS’ Pittsburgh Convention Workbook).

(K)The phrasing “women must not be permitted …” violates the sense of the use of upotasso as it is used in Scripture.  In the Scriptures it is middle passive, reflexive, what one does to oneself without outward compulsion.