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Submission And Authority
Matthew 8:5 - 13


I recently heard a message by a brother in the Lord concerning "submission and authority".  I've studied this topic over the last thirty five years because I was involved in submission and authority when it was both  popular and controversial in the 1970's and 1980's. I believe I know what I'm talking about. 


"Submission and authority" teaching states that Christians must align themselves under, and submit to,  the authority of one man in their local church group who is over them in the Lord.  There are variations from place to place to what submission means, but that's it in its simplest form. 


I can't address all aspects of this subject in one article.  I could right chapters on the topic.  I'll only comment on Matthew 8:5 to 13.  Invariably, those who teach "submission to one man who is over you in the Lord" will use this passage in their defense.  It was the first Scripture used in the message I recently heard.  This passage has been used in every teaching I've heard on this subject, and it's always been misinterpreted.


In Matthew 8:6 we see a centurion who has a sick servant.  A centurion was a Roman military officer who had one hundred men under his authority.  It is important to understand that this man understood "submission and authority" in a Roman dictatorial context, because that was the nature of the society in which he lived and worked.   


One day this centurion sees Jesus and says, "Lord, my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering."  This military officer called Jesus "Lord".  This doesn't mean he understood Jesus to be God in a human body.  The word "lord" was commonly used in those days as a term to show respect.  This man respected Jesus as being someone important.  I suggest the text implies that the centurion thought Jesus was a man with Roman style authority.    


In verse 7 Jesus replies by saying that He would go to the centurion's home to heal his servant. 


Verses 8 and 9 are the key verses that "submission and authority" teachers use to support their position.  The centurion replies to Jesus by saying, "Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.  But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.  For I myself am a man under authority and have soldiers under me.  I tell this one, 'go', and he goes, and that one, 'come', and he comes.  I say to my servant, 'do this', and he does it." 


This man worked and lived in an authoritative system.  He submitted to a man over him, and those under him submitted to him.  Obedience was key in his world.  He also had slaves that submitted to him in obedience.  Because of the chain of authority this man lived in, he just had to speak a command and it would be obeyed without question by those under his authority.  It's important to know that this is how the centurion  understood submission to authority.    


The obedience to commands based on the centurion's place in the chain of authority is the point he is making to Jesus.  He saw Jesus as having authority "as he himself had."  He saw Jesus as one who had the authority to command the sickness to leave his servant.              


In verse 10 we see that Jesus is amazed at what this Gentile soldier said.  Why was Jesus so amazed?  Was He amazed that the Roman system of submission to authority was the same system of  submission to authority that was to be found among God's people?   Did Jesus believe in submission and authority in the same way this military officer believed?  Submission and authority teachers will tell us that this is exactly why Jesus was amazed.  They state that Jesus was amazed because this military commander understood the authoritative system he lived in was the same system that should be seen among God's people.  Submission and authority teachers actually use the term "chain of command" as I recently heard from my brother in the Lord's message.  


I see things much differently. The above understanding of why Jesus was amazed clearly misrepresents the text.  It totally ignores Jesus' own statement that tells us why He was amazed at what the Roman commander said. 


The centurion understood Jesus to be important, being one in authority over others, as he himself was.  Jesus did have authority, but not the same kind of authority this man had.  We need to be clear on one point here.  It is poor Biblical interpretation to say that this man's thinking on submission to authority is Biblical truth.  His frame of reference concerning this subject was the Roman dictatorial system, not the Bible.  This Roman officer was not a student of the Bible.  He didn't know the Biblical perspective on these things.  We will see later that Jesus has a different frame of reference on this subject which looks nothing like this officer's thinking.     


Verse 10 makes it clear why Jesus was amazed at this man.  Jesus said that he had not seen "such faith in all of Israel."  Israel was to be a people of faith, but this Gentile man had more faith than most Israelis.  Jesus makes no comment on submission and authority in this passage.  He says nothing about the centurion's place of authority over men in the Roman army, or over his slaves.  He says nothing about a chain of command in the church.  Jesus only commented on one thing, and that was the centurion's faith.  This passage is about faith, not submission and authority.


The centurion wasn't making a statement about submission and authority anyway.  Notice how the text reads.  Verse 8 says, "… just say the word and my servant will be healed, for I myself am a man under authority…"   The word "for" is important because what comes after it supports the main point of the soldier's statement that precedes it.  The centurion's point was that Jesus could heal his servant "because", or, "for", He had the authority to do so with a simple command.  The submission and authority phrase was only added to support the soldier's point that Jesus could heal.  The centurion wasn't suggesting that Roman authoritarianism was something God's people should adhere to.  It's poor hermeneutics to suggest that Christians should follow a Roman soldier's lifestyle.  It's also poor hermeneutics to suggest that Jesus agreed with this man's lifestyle of submission and authority.  He says nothing to suggest such a thing.     


Besides all of this, we know Jesus wasn't excited about the Roman government.  In Luke 22:25 Jesus said, "the kings of the Gentiles 'lord it over them', and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors."  That means the system this Roman soldier lived under was a dictatorship, and the dictators benefited from those who were compelled to submit to them.  Jesus goes on to say, "… you are not to be like that…"  The Roman system wasn't, and still isn't, the example for God's people to follow.  Jesus wasn't impressed with Roman style authority this man lived under.  He was impressed with his faith.


This passage of Scripture has nothing to do with Christians submitting their lives to one man who claims to be over them in the Lord.  This passage is all about the faith of one Gentile man.  We cannot use this passage of Scripture to support a doctrine of submission and authority, but we can use it to show how important it is to trust Jesus.     

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