This is an essential topic in laying a foundation for understanding the concepts of leadership, authority, submission and obedience in the Bible. God is very interested in our relationships and having them be healthy. This includes submission and obedience where some relationships expect it and more equality where other relationships don’t setup authority over one another. While I was attending school, we studied a book on Western Civilization. I will never forget the introduction in this book (written by secular authors) to Hebrew culture. The essence of what it conveyed was that one of key and unique features of Hebrew culture that hadn’t fully existed (at a broad societal level) before the Hebrews came along was personal responsibility. Before Hebrew culture, there is believed to be at least one system of law that governed men (e.g. Code of Hammurabi) in a society but it did not apply to the entire society. When the Hebrew culture entered the a full set of laws was established which touched on every area of life and was applied to all the people of Israel. The effect of these laws was the establishment of personal responsibility. A person was no longer solely reliant on the will of a leader to understand how to relate to society and to God. You could learn and apply the rules from an objective source that didn’t change. For the modern mind, it can be hard to understand how important this is. It’s hard to imagine living in a society where personal responsibility isn’t more of the norm.
Deuteronomy 4:7-8 – For what great nation has for it a god near to it as Yahweh our God, whenever we call upon him? And what other great nation has for it just rules and regulations just like this whole law that I am setting before you today?
If you take some time to study the various laws and commandments of the Old Testament and then a little more time to summarize, you can observe that the law setup the key constructs for having proper relationships in two ways
- Between God and Man
- Among Mankind
Jesus famously summarized and expressed the essential core of all the law and the prophets in exactly this manner:
Matthew 22:35-40 – And one of them, a legal expert, put a question to him to test him: “Teacher, which commandment is greatest in the law?” And he (Jesus) said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets”
Every aspect of Old Testament law resolves itself back to these two things which form the core of
- A right relationship between God and man
- A right relationship among men
The Old Testament establishes the boundaries and expectations of how to have a relationship between God and man and among men more in terms of “don’ts” (but not exclusively). Don’t do this, don’t do that. If you mess up and do it, here is what you do to rectify it properly. The New Testament switches and speaks more in terms of “dos” (but also not exclusively). The reason for the switch is because believers have the power in them to accomplish these things through Christ.
This means that our understanding of how to have right relationship with God and right relationships with other people are extremely essential to an obedient walk with the Lord that can glorify Him.
Working Definition of Authority
We will introduce a definition of authority to try to demystify this word in a way that will help us review this subject. In relationships, authority is the right of one person to choose on behalf of another person. It’s that simple. The scope and level of authority within in each type of relationship varies, but the core idea is that someone else gets to choose for another person. The person with authority has the right to make the choice and expect it to be complied with.
This is a sufficient core definition to support this subject. There are other facets of authority which are not addressed with this definition.
Relationships in the Bible
Important Note: All aspects of the following relationships addressed in this section are directed at the audience of believers in Christ. For example, when the Bible speaks to a “master” in the master/slave relationship, it is referring to a “master” who is a believer. If a master is not a believer, but the slave is one then the guidance from the Bible for the slave remains the same but the master cannot be expected to take up his responsibility to the Word since this master has no relationship to God. The master may or may not relate well to the principles set forth in the Word. The slave in this relationship should remain focused on their part of the relationship.
We won’t look at every single type of relationship that the Bible discusses. We want to focus on the ones that are related to our subjects of leadership, authority, submission and obedience. The following is a table which shows the relationships we are most interested in. The ones we are mainly interested in are the ones that connect to the relationship between men, not the relationship between God and man
|Government – Government Official <-> Citizen|
|Work – Master <-> Slave||Parallels a bondservant to God (like Paul)|
|Family – Husband <-> Wife||Parallels Christ <-> Church|
|Family – Parents <-> Children||Parallels God the Father <-> Believer|
|Family – Siblings||Parallels Siblings in Christ|
|Body of Christ – Siblings in Christ||Parallels Siblings in a Family|
|Body of Christ – One Leading <-> Other Believers|
We are going to explore each one of these relationships looking specifically at the Bible for how these relationships are defined and setup by God. For each defined relationship, we will find that God has instituted roles and responsibilities for each party in the relationship. When we get to the relationships in the church things get more difficult to understand. As a result, I will be presenting a diagrams of each relationship as a visual tool for conveying what the Bible teaches on each of these relationships.
Roadmap to Understanding
Integrating Old Testament and New Testament
The New Testament does not stand on its own in this subject. There are some core principles in the Old Testament that have to be balanced in or your understanding can become skewed. The Old Testament introduces a core framework that needs to be grasped at a basic level in order for our review of the specifics in the New Testament to be “plugged in” to this framework and make cohesive sense. The impact of what will be shared next may not be completely obvious at first, but it is important to this subject. The Old Testament is a series of Word Pictures that are pregnant with meaning. We will look at a few essential ones to introduce a cornerstone for understanding relationships with a cohesive view between the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Let’s go back to the time in the Old Testament after the children of Israel have gone into Egypt and have been brought into an enslaved status. At this time, all the children of Israel were slaves. Their master was Pharaoh and all of his government officials. This is a picture of us as believers when we are not saved and living in “the world” as slaves to sin. After hundreds of years God sent a deliverer, Moses, to deliver his people out of this slavery and bondage. God delivered the children of Israel out of Egypt and to Himself and He set Israel in relationship to Himself. His original design was that the children of Israel (all of them) would be a holy priesthood in ongoing relationship to Him. The stories of the children of Israel coming out of Egypt and coming into relationship with God as a priest are also a picture of us as believers.
(Just after exiting Egypt) Exodus 13:3a – And Moses said to the people, “Remember this day when you went out from Egypt, from a house of slaves, because with strength of hand Yahweh brought you out from here…
(At Mount Sinai) Exodus 19:3-6 – And Moses went up to God, and Yahweh called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you will say to the house of Jacob and you will tell the Israelites, ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and I brought you to me. And now if you will carefully listen to my voice and keep my covenant, you will be a treasured possession to me out of all the peoples, for all the earth is mine, but you will belong to me as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you will speak to the Israelites.
Important: See 1 Peter 2:9 for confirmation of both the “deliverance from Egypt” and the “coming into relationship with God as a priest” being applied to New Testament believers.
Next, we will see the cornerstone mentioned above. God established this new relationship based on the free will of the children of Israel. This means that the relationship between God and the children of Israel was based on freedom, not slavery. This is essential.
(At Mount Sinai, immediately following verse 6 above) Exodus 19:7-9 – And Moses came and called the elders of the people, and he placed before them all these words that Yahweh had commanded him. And all the people together answered and said, “All that Yahweh has spoken we will do.” And Moses brought back the words of the people to Yahweh.
Wow… God didn’t force, he asked, AND THEY CHOSE… They said, YES. The right to choose is part of freedom.
Immediately following the establishment of this free will relationship, God established His law for His people, Israel, whom he was setting in a covenant relationship to Himself. Immediately following the preceding verses in Exodus 19, The ten commandments are given in Exodus 20 and form the core of Mosaic law. Mosaic law is expanded upon through the rest of the first 5 books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) to be a full set of moral, civil and religious (aka ceremonial) laws, statutes and commandments. In summary, if you review the entire set of Mosaic law it is about establishing relationships.
As mentioned before the two key relationships are a) between God and man and b) among men.
This is where the next extremely important point should be made and understood. God’s law is built upon the fundamental underpinning of freedom!!! The establishment of an objective set of laws that you can grow to understand and choose how you want to relate to them is built on the foundation of freedom. God did not bring the children of Israel out of a “house of bondage/slavery” to another “house of bondage”, but to freedom. If this isn’t clear, then consider the amount of disobedience that is described throughout the Old Testament. It is pervasive and exists everywhere. God allowed His people to continue choosing. If God was like Pharaoh He would have put a stop to it more quickly. God is not like Pharaoh. What God did was establish a set of laws, statutes and commandments that would allow each individual to choose how they wanted to relate to these laws. Proper relationship to these laws kept relationships in a good status. Improper relationship to these laws produced problems and breakages in relationships. God made provision through the sacrificial system to recover from any errors committed along the way and to restore full and right relationship with Himself. The law did not stop there. It established the right and sufficient way for relationships to be restored among men when things when wrong (either by accident or intentionally). This all works in the context of freedom, not slavery.
Again, this is all maps to a picture of us as believers in our relationship with God and with others. It should be taken as a central point that our relationship with God through Christ is established in freedom in much the same way it was for the children of Israel. The underpinning idea that has to be integrated into our thinking about authority and submission is freedom. The key (and monumental) difference between the Old Testament way and the New Testament way is that we have been given the means to fulfill the law through Christ living in us and through us if we walk in Him.
The outcome of reviewing this picture is establishing that the normal relationship with God and among men according to God’s way is that of free men relating to one another and to God.
Stated another way for emphasis… We, as believers are free and we relate to other believers in freedom with a few exceptions. These exceptions are the focus of the rest of this study. The New Testament had to clarify how believers should relate in several key relationships because of the differences from Old Testament scripture. The New Testament did not override the underpinning principles of the Old Testament. It enhanced and refined them so that believers could understand how to interact with them now that God’s people were not in a nation-state (Israel) under the civil law of Israel. God’s people were in a foreign society where the civil laws were not instituted by God, but by the men in these new societies.
Any study of relationships in the Bible and especially when the subjects of leadership, authority, submission and obedience are brought in, must account for the core concepts of the Old Testament and how God established the relationship between Himself and His people in freedom.
Note: The freedom spoken of here includes the freedom to sin, but in sinning we position ourselves outside the protection of God. Exercising selfish freedom in violation to God’s precepts ends up being slavery, but in a different way. It is spiritual and soul bondage.
Roles and Responsibilities
In each relationship defined in the Bible, there are responsibilities placed on each party within the relationship. It is never one-sided. If you are in one of these relationships (for example, as a child to your parent), the expectation to fulfill your responsibilities in that role (as the child) are not dependent upon the other party (your parent) fulfilling their responsibilities in the relationship. This isn’t black and white and should not be taken legalistically. There is truth in the need to fulfill your responsibilities in each of your relationships, but having done so properly according to the Lord’s leading there can come a point where other principles of truth may come into play. For example, in the case of a parent and a child we have to account for the fact that the relationship changes when marriage occurs. The requirements on the child change when they marry. It is not possible to portray all these variations from what the Bible defines as core responsibilities within each relationship here in a few statements.
If both parties are fulfilling their responsibilities within the relationship then we see healthiness in the relationship. When one or both parties is not fulfilling their responsibilities then we see various aspects of unhealthiness. Since no one is perfect in any of there relationships the actual state of a relationship fits somewhere on a scale from a) completely healthy to b) completely unhealthy.
In summary, we need to know the responsibilities we have in each relationship from a Biblical view while also understanding that our understanding should not be fully formed by just the core aspects of our responsibilities. For each relationship we examine we will be presenting the Biblically defined responsibilities for each party. There are numerous writings by other authors on this subject, so the primary reason for including a brief summary here in this writing is to help setup the discussion on our primary subjects (leadership, authority, submission and obedience).
There are other forces that come into play in real world situations. There is also the very real possibility that these relationships can overlap. For example, when a parent is also a sibling in Christ. How might this affect how a child relates to their parent. Again, we cannot explain all the nuances here. It is important that what is shared next is not taken legalistically and applied according to a ‘fleshly understanding’. All these principles still have to be applied with a ‘spiritual understanding’ and being exercised in prayer before the Lord to ensure that what we are doing is not just in line with our own personal interpretation of a passage of scripture in the Bible, but also in accordance with the mind of God in the particular situation we are dealing with in our lives.
This writing is not a full treatment of this subject matter and the reader would be wise (and encouraged) to seek out writings by other christian authors if you are struggling with particular relationships in your life.
Review of Relationships
For each relationship we will consider a few important biblical concepts and answer the following questions:
- In general, what are the Biblically defined responsibilities for each party within the relationship? What are the behavioral expectations set by God to fulfill these responsibilities?
- Specifically, what authority has God granted to each party within the relationship? What is the extent of this authority? What are it’s limitations?
- What requirements for submission and obedience have been placed by God to each party within the relationship? What is the extent of this submission? What are it’s limitations?
- What Old Testament Pattern / Example can inform our understanding of each relationship? What are the parallels? What are the differences?
The following realms of relationships do not cover everything. There are some gaps. The Bible doesn’t leave any gaps, but I have. Some key items not considered in this review are:
- Believers <-> Outside World (Non-Believers) – this comes from the Old Testament idea of those who were foreigners in Israel and not citizens of Israel.
- Siblings – this is a more complicated study in the Bible, the main idea from the sibling relationships is equality under one father where only seniority based on age may distinguish between siblings
Civil / Government
Body of Christ
Note: I have specifically avoided using the word “church” as a title because many people translate this into the idea of “my church” (or where I specifically meet). This is not a broad enough definition. The following relationships are set in the context of the universal church. They have their greatest applicability in the local setting, but it is not limited to “your church”. It is everywhere you encounter other believers in your life.