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  • John Small

Communal Submission Requires Christ

The Implicative Nature of Submission

Submission is an inherently personal word and concept. The act of submitting demands a

sense of a person in reference towards the acting agent. The statement or assertion that: “the tree

submits itself to the winds” befits itself as personification; the statement is empty of any

inclinations to be regarded as literal or non-figurative. Why? Because of the way we utilize this

word, it necessitates and implies to some degree a sense of personhood involved in the acting

agent; to attribute this to a tree must be either ridiculous or figurative. An action of submission

implies an immediate agent—the person who submits. Yet in the Pauline epistles, as he seeks to

exhort and instruct the Church, Paul frequently instructs the local church body to live in a

communal submission towards one another.

"For you were called to be free, brothers and sisters; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself"

(Galatians 5:13–14).

"And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled by the

Spirit: speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making

music with your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the

name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of Christ"

(Ephesians 5:18–21).

"If, then, there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any

fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, make my joy complete by thinking the

same way, having the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing out of

selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than

yourselves. Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others"

(Philippians 2:1–4).

What Type of Submission?

This instruction to communal submission both compounds and complexes the nature of

the instruction. It compounds the command by the addition of agents that seek to obey the

instruction. It complexes the command by invoking a group of people to consider others as more important and, in the same breath, to be considered more important by those very same people.

However, before embarking upon an investigation of this concept, it is worthwhile to discern

what type of submission Paul implies throughout these exhortations and commands. The type of

submission inferred, as Clinton Arnold suggests, is evident in the participle “in the fear of

Christ” that the Ephesians passage regards Christ as the example of the type of submission [1].

If Christ is the type of submission Paul is calling the Church community towards in

Ephesians, then assuredly the same truth is expounded upon in Philippians as well as Galatians. In Philippians 2, Paul not only calls the church at Philippi to love and serve one another in

humility, but Paul exalts the nature of this love, service, and humility to be like that of Christ. In

the Galatians passage, Paul is citing the teachings of Jesus to explain and strengthen his

argument. The type of humility that Paul instructs the church to hold ultimately does not

comment upon the political or ecclesiastical power structures; rather, it emphatically emphasizes

the importance of the posture of Jesus’s selfless love towards the Father and His Church. The

humility of Christ is rendered by Christ’s passion; hence, it is an equal and fervent love that

unites Christ’s church, not some denial of a position of power. Thus, the shared exhortation to

communal submission, which uniquely persists and exists in the Church, is a fruition of Christ’s

love and is also in likeness of Christ’s love.

The Implicative Nature of Communal Submission

Yet, if the action of submission implies the person, then what does the actions of

communal and shared submission imply? There are three paths that the mind wanders toward

when speculating how ought this instruction could be obeyed: a loose idea of submission, the ideal form of submission, or a personified type of submission. The community may seek to

submit to a loose idea of submission towards one another. However, such ambitions could

neither be unified nor shared since each person would necessarily have his or her own subjective

understanding of the best type of submission. Perhaps, the group might believe in and decide

upon acting in unison with the transcendent ideal form of submission itself, believing this to be

singular and hence would be able to be shared amongst the community. They could agree to

submit in a manner consistent with the perfect form of submission.

Yet, because the ideal form of submission is necessarily transcendent to human empirical experience, such an ideal form would necessarily be beyond both comprehension and expression of mere man; thus, would be both incommunicable and unable to be acted upon. Perhaps they would move away from an idea of submission or an ideal submission, rather, they would submit to a person who could personify, articulate, and express an idea of submission that they would all agree to adhere to. Yet, this

circumstance would revert to a similar fault of the latter being it the case that the interpretation of

the individuals perceiving the personification of the idea of submission would necessarily differ

and thus revert to a mere loose idea, shattering the potential for any shared communal submission.

The dilemma of Paul’s instruction towards a communal submission could be succinctly

stated as: either the community acts upon a non-sharable idea of submission, or the community

acts upon an un-actable yet potentially sharable ideal of submission. Has Paul instructed,

exhorted, and commanded the Church to the impossible? Is shared communal submission merely

a figurative paradox which merely coaxes us to try really, really hard to be empathetic and

compassionate towards one another? No. Rather, as Paul’s command to communal submission is

saturated in a call to submit in a Christ-like manner, Christ himself is necessary for the

fulfillment of such a command.

The person of Jesus is necessary for the church community to communally submit to one another. It is Jesus who personifies, equips, and communicates to His flock the ideal submission. Hence it is Christ who quite logically and relationally goes between the horns of our dilemma. Jesus offers a third premise, another way of life. The community acts in a shared submission because of a shared relationship and a shared provision—Jesus, the Good Shepherd and the Bread of Life. Jesus is the means by which the church community is both able to act and to know how they ought communally submit to one another. Christ is both the cornerstone and the centerpiece of the church community; the cornerstone and the centerpiece of how we relate to one another in the sanctified community.

Yet even as we think loftily, we must live lowly. Do we recognize the reality of the

necessity of Christ’s active involvement in our relation towards each other? Christian fellowship

is entirely dependent upon the work of the Cross in many ways—including even our idea of it! I

must confess this is a struggle. Too often, even when I seek to love my church community, it is

on my own terms. It is my own idea of how I should be obedient, or how I think I should love or

serve. As I enter my church, as I fellowship with my brothers and sisters, I plea to God: “Lord

help me serve and love these people as You deem good, as You desire.” Let that be our shared

plea as Christians that our Good Shepherd and Lord might give us the grace to communally love

and serve one another. Truly, Jesus was speaking truthfully:

Remain in me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me.

John 15:4–5


[1] Clinton Arnold. Ephesians. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary Series: New Testament , V. 10 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 357.

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