Hupotasso: Is Submission a Dirty Word?

Word of the Week

August 26, 2023

Hupotassō: Is Submission a Dirty Word?


Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution . . .

1 Peter 2:13 NASB


To many Americans, submission is a dirty word.  “Don’t ask me to submit to a husband . . . or to the government . . . or to a clueless boss!”

It’s an understandable attitude, because history is studded with dictators and tyrants who have abused their authority.  Unjust judicial decisions upset us and immoral leaders infuriate us.  Spousal abuse and parental cruelty fill the headlines.

In that context, it does seem criminal to ask someone to yield themselves to the power or authority of such monsters.  They need rescue, not mindless exhortations to submit.

However, the Bible treats submission as a wonderful word.  It stands as one of the keystones of the Christian life.

Obviously, the Christian concept of submission is different from the world’s image.  1 Peter 2:13 instructs us to submit ourselves to every human institution . . . for the Lord’s sake.  Why would God want us to do such a thing?

The Greek word for “submit” in this verse is hupotassō. It was originally a military term formed from two Greek words that mean “to arrange under.”  When a company of troops would hupotassō, they would arrange themselves in formation under the leadership of their commander.  It was a parade ground term.

In the New Testament, the word had a much wider range of uses.  When used in the active voice, it meant “to compel someone to submit to authority.”  After Adam’s sin, God made the universe subject to futility (Romans 8:20), but in the age to come, He will make every creature subject to His Son (1 Corinthians 15:27-28; Philippians 3:21; Hebrews 2:5-8).  At one point in Christ’s ministry, He sent out 72 disciples to teach and preach – and they discovered that even the demons were subject to them (Luke 10:17, 20).  When they said “Go,” the demon had to go!

Most of the time, however, hupotassō appears in the middle or passive voice.  This describes a voluntary choice to submit to someone with higher power or authority.

We ultimately submit to God because He has all authority.

  • We are all subject to Christ (1 Peter 3:22).
  • The church is subject to Christ (Ephesians 5:24).
  • The Father has made all things subject to the Son (Ephesians 1:22).
  • Israel got into deep trouble because they refused to submit to God’s law (Romans 10:3).
  • We should submit to the Father of spirits (Hebrews 12:9).
  • God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble; therefore, we should submit to Him (James 4:7).

God has delegated authority to certain human institutions, and we should submit in those settings.

The book of 1 Peter outlines four primary institutions where submission to authority is appropriate.

  1. Government (1 Peter 2:13; see also Romans 13:1, 5; Titus 3:1)
  2. Slavery or employment (1 Peter 2:18; see also Titus 2:9)
  3. Marital relations (1 Peter 3:1, 5; see also Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:5)
  4. Church leadership (1 Peter 5:5; see also 1 Corinthians 16:16)

Let’s note three important facts about biblical submission:

  • Submission does not mean that you are inferior or less valuable than your authority.

When Jesus was twelve years old, he went home from the Temple and was submissive to His parents, even though He was the Son of God (Luke 2:51).

  • Submission does not mean that you must always obey your authority.

Peter and John faced down the Jewish authorities, announcing, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge” (Acts 4:19).

  • Submission is not just for the person on the bottom of the totem pole.

Paul exhorts the Ephesians to “be filled with the Spirit” (5:18), then continues with a list of the actions that flow from such a filling:  speaking to one another . . . singing and making melody . . . giving thanks . . . and [literally] being subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (5:19-21).  The sentence structure makes it clear that every Christian should be filled with the Spirit.  And as a result, every Christian should display all these other characteristics – including the duty to be submissive to one another.

Here’s the bottom line:  We are not free to follow our every impulse.  When we submit to God, we allow our actions to be limited by His will.  And when we submit to human institutions that God has designed, we will limit our actions to stay within the boundaries of those authorities.  And when we live with others, we will choose to channel our actions in ways that meet their needs, rather than doing everything that comes to mind.

God paid a great price for us, and we belong to Him.  Living under His guidance is our most direct path to the life we want.


Study Hint:

Words have multiple meanings, and we have to look at the context to determine which meaning is at play in a particular passage.  The word hupotassō occurs 40 times in the New Testament, as well as numerous times in secular and Jewish sources.  Secular writers in classical Greek use it most often to describe military discipline, while biblical uses focus on submission to God.  It is very helpful to look at each passage individually, paying attention to who submits and to whom they submit.



Q – Is it true that Paul uses agricultural terms to describe the Christian life in Colossians 1:10?

A – Yes, this is accurate.  We often talk about “Christian growth,” an English word that can apply to many situations, but one that aptly describes plants in the field.  Paul does the same thing in Colossians, where he prays that the believers will “be fruitful in every good work” and “grow/increase in the knowledge of God.”  Both words literally describe what happens on a farm, and both serve as figurative descriptions of our development in maturity and Christian character. The New Testament is filled with numerous such references to farming.


Coming Up

Most people find that the evening news causes a rise in their blood pressure.  Prophetic passages in the Bible say that things will get worse and worse as the return of Christ approaches, and the headlines seem to confirm it!  It’s easy to respond in fear, but we will look at a Greek word next week that offers a better response.

©Ezra Project 2023

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for this enlightening explanation. We in America need it because our concept of liberty and freedom has little room for submission and a good deal of damage can be done in families, communities, and our nation when we misunderstand submission to be surrender.

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