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Relative Subjection

How far should submission go?

The Watchtower literature has drawn attention to several human authorities to which Christians must be in subjection, depending on their circumstances:

1) Wives should be in subjection to their husbands, and children to their parents.

2) Christians should be in subjection to the secular rulers of their community. 

3) Slaves should be in subjection to their masters, and employees to their employers.

4) Christians should be in subjection to those taking the lead in the congregation.

These four forms of subjection are based on the biblical principle of headship. As the Watchtower has said, "In the rightful exercise of his sovereignty, Jehovah has made headship one of the basic principles of the divine arrangement. Whether it be headship exercised by individuals, as by the King Jesus Christ or by individual family heads, or headship exercised through a body of persons charged with giving direction or making decisions and judgments under God’s appointed King, will we respect such headship in the New Order? Do we respect it now?" (w73 6/15, p. 368; see also Organized to Do Jehovah's Will [2005], pp. 159-60).

In regard to the first, we are repeatedly reminded, in line with scriptures like 1 Cor. 11:3 and Eph. 5:22-24, that wives need to subject themselves to their husbands. Similarly, children should subject themselves to their parents (Eph. 6:1; see Organized to Do Jehovah's Will, p. 162).

However, it is often emphasized that subjection to husbands, fathers, and mothers is not to be absolute subjection, but relative subjection. In other words, the head of the family is supposed to govern the family in line with Bible principles, but if he does not, if he demands that a family member do something that is in conflict with Bible principles, the family member does not have to heed him. 

"In some lands it is the custom to require absolute subjection to parental and other authorities in all areas of life. It is not unusual in such lands for men of 40 or even more years of age to refuse to read any literature of a religion different from that of their parents or to make any major decision without first consulting them, for fear of displeasing the parents. Yet, in such lands it is becoming more common to find young people rebelling outright against their parents. The Bible with its balanced view of matters helps us to avoid both extremes. The principle of relative subjection to human authority is clearly stated in Acts 4:19 and 5:29. Also, note how Paul encourages children to be obedient to parents, and yet he shows that it is not without some limitations when he says: 'Children, be obedient to your parents in union with the Lord, for this is righteous: "Honor your father and your mother;" which is the first command with a promise.'—Ephesians 6:1-3" (w87 2/1 p. 5).

"Are not children commanded to be obedient to their parents, and wives to be in subjection to their husbands? That is true, but observe that children are instructed to ‘be obedient to their parents in union with the Lord.’ Therefore, if the requirements of parents are in conflict with what the Lord requires, children are under obligation to obey God rather than their parents in those respects. The situation is similar with wives. The Bible says that one should 'obey God as ruler rather than men,' and that is true even if that man happens to be one’s husband.—Eph. 6:1; Acts 5:29" (w64 4/15 p. 249).

Similarly, Christians are told to subject themselves to the "superior authorities," that is, the governmental rulers of this world (Rom. 13:1-7;see Organized to Do Jehovah's Will, p. 162). However, if the secular authorities demand that a Christian do something that conflicts with Bible principles, the Christian may refuse to comply. 

"Subjection to political rulers is to be relative, not unlimited. When there is a conflict between Jehovah’s laws and man’s laws, those who serve Jehovah are to obey His laws. Notice what the book On the Road to Civilization—A World History says of the early Christians: 'Christians refused to share certain duties of Roman citizens. The Christians . . . felt it a violation of their faith to enter military service. They would not hold political office. They would not worship the emperor.' When the Jewish high court 'positively ordered' the disciples to stop preaching, they answered: 'We must obey God as ruler rather than men.'—Acts 5:27-29" (wt chap. 18 p. 162).

"Our subjection is relative, and the authority does not always recognize that there are Biblically set limits to what it can demand. If the authority demands something that offends a trained Christian conscience, it is going beyond its God-given limit. Jesus indicated this when he said: 'Pay back . . . Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.' (Matthew 22:21) When Caesar demands what belongs to God, we must acknowledge that God has the prior claim. Is this position subversive or treacherous? Not at all" (w90 11/1 p. 25). 

"Because of being a free people, however, our conscience cannot be subservient to the dictates and threats of any man or group of men. Our submission to rulers is voluntary and is limited by the superior commands of the Supreme Sovereign, Jehovah God. We cannot become the abject slaves of any man, rendering unquestioning obedience without regard for divine law. As the apostle Peter pointed out, Christians are 'slaves of God.' Hence, we gladly submit to the wishes of the governmental authorities to the extent that there is no direct conflict with our worship of the Most High. Otherwise, we must take the position voiced by Peter and the other apostles when before the Jewish supreme court: 'We must obey God as ruler rather than men.'—Acts 5:29" (bw chap. 6 pp. 65-66).

"But how far does this subjection to political authorities go? Is it unlimited? Is obedience to human law even more important than obedience to the law of God? Certainly not! Notice that in the scripture just quoted the 'compelling reason' for obedience is said to include 'your conscience.' So, one’s conscience is not to be ignored, especially if that conscience has been trained by the Word of God. Jesus Christ showed that there are two aspects to consider. Pointing out that it was proper to pay tax to the Roman State, he said, 'Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar,' and then he added: 'But God’s things to God.' (Mark 12:17) So it is vital for each one of us to examine his course of life to be certain that, above all, he is not contributing to the widespread disregard for the law of God.—Psalm 1:1-3" (tr chap. 18 p. 159).

In regard to slaves being in subjection to their masters, the Watchtower highlights the biblical view that such subjection is relative. 

"There is no question about slaves being in subjection to their masters, which subjection they are to render uncomplainingly. Not, however, in everything, but only in things to which their masters have a legal right. Masters may not properly interfere with the religion of their slaves, neither may they demand of their slaves criminal acts. This underscores the fact that the subjection of slaves to their masters is a relative, a comparative subjection, not a total one. It does not leave God out of consideration. To the extent that Christians today are beholden to employers so as to provide things honest in the sight of all men, to that extent they may be said to be similarly in subjection.—Titus 2:9-12" (w63 8/1 p. 471).

With regard to these three forms of subjection (wives to husbands, Christians to secular rulers, and slaves to master), we should emphasize that in all cases it is the individual Christian who is to determine, in light of his knowledge of God's word, if the authority is calling for something that is in conflict with the will of God. As the Watchtower points out, Paul, in reference to the governmental authorities, lays out a fine principle that can also be applied to our subjection to the other authorities. He says, "There is therefore compelling reason for you people to be in subjection, not only on account of that wrath, but also on account of your conscience." The compelling reason for obedience is said to include one's conscience. So one’s conscience is to be consulted when questions arise, especially if that conscience has been trained by the Word of God. So it is vital for each one of us to examine his course of life to be certain that, above all, by obeying the authority, he is not contributing to the widespread disregard for godly principles.

In regard to the fourth form of subjection, we are informed that the leaders of the congregation act on behalf of Jesus as head of the congregation. Christians therefore must subject themselves to these leaders as if they were Jesus.

"Christ Jesus expresses his headship to individuals through a body-like congregational arrangement" (w72 12/1 p. 731).

"Christ Jesus continues to exercise full headship of the true Christian congregation earth wide today. And, just as he did back then, he uses earthly agencies to express that headship" (w72 12/15 p. 755).

"Within the Christian congregation, we recognize Christ's headship and the authority he has given to the faithful and discreet slave class" (Organized, p. 161).

"How does Jesus Christ, an invisible, divine being in the heavens, exercise his headship over a visible human congregation here on earth? One way is through the inspired Scriptures. The congregation can only be considered to be Christian if it is obedient to the commands of Jesus himself and those given under inspiration by his apostles and other disciples.—Matt. 18:18; 28:19, 20. Furthermore, Jesus exercises his headship over the Christian congregation by means of the 'helper,' 'the spirit of the truth,' God’s holy spirit, or active force. (John 16:7, 13) Then, too, he makes use of angels in carrying out his headship of his congregation. (Matt. 18:10; 24:31; Rev. 14:6) Jesus Christ also exercises his headship over the Christian congregation here on earth by means of a body of faithful anointed Christians" (w80 5/15 p. 6).

What is strange is that the subjection to this authority is never presented as relative, as the others are, but always as absolute. 

"To hold to the headship of Christ, it is therefore necessary to obey the organization that he is personally directing. Doing what the organization says is to do what he says. Resisting the organization is to resist him.... One obstacle to obedience and submission is the tendency in imperfect humans to pass judgment on the fitness or otherwise of the instructions that come down to them. Instead of accepting these as from Christ through the organization, they debate within themselves, or with others, what they shall do. This may be normal procedure in the present evil world, but it has no merit in Jehovah’s eyes" (w59 5/1 pp. 269-270).

"Respect for Jehovah’s organization means to trust our proved, faithful brothers. These are the ones who through much hardship and experience have demonstrated that the spirit of God is with them. The rich blessing that has been poured out upon the visible organization is evidence that the governing body and those who represent it are deserving of our full support and trust. This we can demonstrate only by accepting every provision as coming from the Lord through the 'faithful and discreet slave'" (w57 5/1 pp. 281-282).

No explanation is given for this discrepancy. If the power of all of the other human authorities is limited, why not the power of the "body of faithful anointed Christians"? One might argue that, in this case, the authority of the "faithful and discreet slave" is higher than the other authorities. But this is not true. According to Scripture, the wife is told to be in subjection to her husband as if he were the Lord (Eph. 5:22). Similarly, the "superior authorities" are said to be put in place by God and to be his minister (Rom. 13:1-4).

Moreover, the faithful body of anointed Christians is no more perfect than a Christian husband or any other human authority. They make mistakes too. When Paul warns the Ephesians that Christian leaders, perhaps even their own elders, may speak "twisted things," he is showing that those in authority may teach improperly, and he implies that Christians, in those circumstances, should not obey them. When Paul speaks of those who teach "good news beyond what you accepted," he similarly implies that such ones should not be obeyed (Gal. 1:8). The context clearly shows that the good news "beyond what you accepted" is anything that adds to the good news that was preached by Jesus, Paul, and the apostles. In other words, the test of proper leadership is the word of Jesus and the apostles. If a leader preaches something beyond this, he is also beyond his authority.

So when we read scriptures like Hebrews 13:17 ("Be obedient to those who are taking the lead among you, and be submissive), we are to understand them in the same sense as Romans 13:1 ("Let every soul be in subjection to the superior authorities") and Ephesians 5:22 ("Let wives be in subjection to their husbands as to the Lord"). It is only reasonable and consistent to view the authority of our spiritual leaders as relative, not absolute. They are not above limit or correction.  

The Bible with its balanced view of matters helps us to avoid extremes in this regard. As the Watchtower has pointed out, the principle of relative subjection to human authority is clearly stated in Acts 4:19 and 5:29 and should be followed. Therefore, if the requirements of our religious leaders are in conflict with what the Lord requires, we are under obligation to obey God rather than them in those respects. Our subjection to "those taking the lead" among us is not to be unlimited. 

There is no question that we are to be submissive to those taking the lead among us, and to do this without complaining. Though Christians are free, they may not use this freedom as an excuse to flout the rules that do not conflict with God’s laws, nor to indulge in moral badness. Rather, Christians will give to all their due, honor and respect. They are not, however, to be submissive in everything, but only in things to which those taking the lead have a legal right. Spiritual authorities may not always recognize where the biblically set limits are to what they can demand. If they demand something that offends a trained Christian conscience, they are going beyond their God-given boundaries. They may not properly interfere with the personal relationship Christians have with their Master Jesus, neither may they demand of Christians acts or beliefs that are contrary to Bible principles. 

All this underscores the fact that the subjection of Christians to those taking the lead is a relative, a comparative subjection, not a total one. It does not leave God out of consideration. This subjection must be balanced with a fear of God and a conscientious regard for God’s will. As in the case of the other human authorities, it is vital for each one of us to examine his course of life to be certain that, above all, by obeying the authority, even a spiritual authority, he is not contributing to the widespread disregard for godly principles. Even if this involves facing the "wrath" of the spiritual authorities (in this case, judicial correction, including disfellowshipping), the Christian should do what he knows to be right.

Is this position subversive or treacherous? Not at all. Because of being a free people, our conscience cannot be subservient to the dictates of any man or group of men. Our submission is voluntary and is limited by the superior commands of the Supreme Sovereign, Jehovah God. We cannot become the abject slaves of any man, rendering unquestioning obedience without regard for divine law. Hence, we gladly submit to the wishes of "those taking the lead among us" to the extent that there is no direct conflict with our worship of the Most High. Otherwise, we must take the position voiced by Peter and the other apostles when before the Jewish supreme court: 'We must obey God as ruler rather than men' (Acts 5:29).

 



See further, "Should a Witness Disagree with the Organization Publicly?".



Early Examples
"About the time that Moses was born in Egypt, Pharaoh commanded two Hebrew midwives to kill all newborn Hebrew boys. The midwives, however, preserved the babies alive. Were they wrong to disobey Pharaoh? No, they were following their God-given conscience, and God blessed them for it. (Exodus 1:15-20) When Israel was in exile in Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar demanded that his officials, including the Hebrews Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, bow before an image that he had placed on the plain of Dura. The three Hebrews refused. Were they wrong? No, since following the king’s command would have meant disobeying God’s law.—Exodus 20:4, 5; Daniel 3:1-18." (Watchtower, 11/1/90, p. 26)
Does Subjection Ignore Conscience?
"Did the apostle Paul mean that Christians should be in total subjection, in which a person simply takes orders from above and becomes a mere mechanical robot, not letting Christian conscience dictate what is right and what is wrong according to God’s written Word? Does it mean a complete subjection of one’s will, in which the Christian offers unquestioning obedience in all cases to commands by worldly governments and authorities? Or does it mean a relative subjection? By 'relative' we mean a comparative subjection, a subjection that is related with other things. That is, it has to take other things of concern into consideration. It is not absolute or independent of other things. It has to be balanced with other things that dare not be overlooked. (Watchtower, 11/1/62, p. 651)
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