Absolute or Limited Submissio?

Absolute or Limited


Before leaving this earth and going back to His Father in heaven, the Lord Jesus made a very significant statement: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). Jesus here claims universal authority and this involves the corresponding responsibility on our part to submit to this authority and obey all of His commands.

When Peter and John began to proclaim Christ in Jerusalem, they were opposed by the religious leaders who commanded them “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). Since these disciples acknowledged the supreme authority of Jesus, they responded, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (vv. 19-20). Soon all of the apostles were called before the Jewish council to account for their preaching. Once again, the leaders opposed the disciples who insisted on disobeying the council’s orders. Peter and the other apostles courageously replied, “We must obey God rather than man” (5:29).

This leads us to the issue of authority and obedience. The Christian is to be submissive to governing civil authorities (Romans 13:1-6), masters or employers (Colossians 3:22-24), husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24), and parents (Colossians 3:20). But the Christian has a higher obligation—that of obeying God and Christ Jesus in whom absolute and unlimited authority resides. But what must be done when there is a conflict between the requests or requirements of a human authority and the will and commands of God? What if the state should require Christian parents to abort (kill) a child? What if an employer commands an employee to lie or charge the wrong price for a product? What if a husband should require a wife to dress immodestly or engage in some form of sexual immorality? What if a father or mother should require a son or daughter to shoplift, to tell a lie, or to cease reading the Bible? Many potential conflicts can arise in this world of sin. The true Christian will almost surely face different choices in life—choices that must be made between obedience to a rightful human authority and obedience to the God of heaven and earth. What should the Christian do when faced with such a decision?

Our study here is not meant to duplicate two other studies that are in print and available. A small booklet is available, entitled Is Biblical Submission Absolute or Limited? A longer study is also available, entitled Authority and Submission: Absolute or Limited? This present study offers a number of quotations, gleaned from various written works, that address this very subject of authority and submission. Each quotation relates to the perplexing and troubling question of what should be done when a legitimate human authority requires or requests the Christian to violate the will of God in some way. Consider these quotations carefully as you seek understanding of the Word of God concerning this contemporary and practical matter.


Wife to Husband

[Eph. 5:24] “This in all things is, of course, to be modified by the higher obligation to Christ. The wife is not bound to commit sin to please her husband; for Christ is head, and the husband under authority. But she is to please her husband in all things which do not conflict with the will of Christ” (R.E. Pattison, Exposition of Ephesians [Minneapolis: Klock and Klock Christian Pub., Inc., n.d.], p. 197).

[Eph. 5:24] “If a husband asks his wife to do something inappropriate for a Christian, again, she should not submit. Her attitude must be the same as the early church in Acts 5:29: ‘We must obey God rather than men!’ Every human relation is experienced as part of our relation with God” (Klyne Snodgrass, NIV Application Commentary: Ephesians [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1996], p. 316).

“Let us be clear at this point that the submission is one of love and respect and is given a new dimension by the love of Christ. . . . In certain obvious circumstances the wife will not be able to submit. . . . If her husband is not a Christian and seeks to interfere with the very basic relationship she has with her Lord, then she will reluctantly have to disobey him as graciously as she is able. Also, when she deeply believes something to be right or wrong, she will have to refuse to obey her husband if he asks her to go against her conscience. Whatever is not based on faith is sin (see Rom. 14:23). For example, if her husband asked her to sign an income tax form on which were definite false statements, she would be right to refuse to obey him. The same principle applies to any inaccurate or illegal proposal” (Peter Toon, Free to Obey [Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1979], pp. 119-120).

“The little phrase [‘in everything,’ Eph. 5:24] must, however, not be interpreted as if it meant ‘absolutely everything.’ If the husband should demand her to do things contrary to the moral and spiritual principles established by God himself, submission would be wrong (Acts 5:29; cf. 4:19,20). With this exception, however, her obedience should be complete” (William Hendriksen, Exposition of Ephesians [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1967], p. 250).

[Eph. 5:24] “The subjection is not limited to any one sphere or department of the social life, but extends to all. The wife is not subject as to some things, and independent as to others, but she is subject as to all. This of course does not mean that the authority of the husband is unlimited. It teaches its extent, not its degree. It extends over all departments, but is limited in all; first, by the nature of the relation; and secondly, but the higher power of God. No superior, whether master, parent, husband or magistrate, can make it obligatory on us either to do what God forbids, or not to do what God commands. So long as our allegiance to God is preserved, and obedience to man is made part of our obedience to him, we retain our liberty and our integrity” (Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1950], pp. 314-315).

[Eph. 5:22] “In everything, except that which relates to conscience and religion, he has authority. But there his authority ceases He [the husband] has no right to require her to commit an act of dishonesty, to connive at wrong-doing, to visit a place of amusement which her conscience tells her is wrong, nor has he a right to interfere with the proper discharge of her religious duties. He has no right to forbid her to go to church at the proper and usual time, or to make a profession of religion when she pleases. He has no right to forbid her endeavoring to exercise a religious influence over her children or to endeavor to lead them to God. She is bound to obey God rather than any man (. . . Acts 4:19); and when even a husband interferes in such cases, and attempts to control her, he steps beyond his proper bounds, and invades the prerogative of God, and his authority ceases to be binding. . . . [Eph. 5:24] In every thing. In everything which is not contrary to the will of God” (Albert Barnes, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1949], pp. 108-109).

“Paul didn’t even teach that a woman can’t refuse to be in subject to a man, for she must refuse in cases where a man’s instruction violates God’s (Acts 4:19; 5:29). Likewise, her will takes precedence over the government, an employer, and elders in a local church in cases where their instructions conflict with God’s” (Samuel G. Dawson, Women and Men in a Local Church, p. 16).

[1 Pet. 3:6] “There are potential fears for a Christian woman who sets out to be submissive to her unsaved husband, as to where such submission might lead. But Peter’s instruction to the wife is not to be intimidating or fearful, but as a principle, she is to submit to her husband. This precludes any coercion to sin, disobedience to God’s Word, or imposition of physical harm (cf. Acts 4:18-20; 5:28,29; Titus 1:6)” (John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, p. 1944).

[Eph. 5:24] “In every thing. That is, of course, in everything that is in harmony with the mind of God, for no loyalty can stand between the individual soul and God” (SDA Bible Commentary, Vol. 6, p. 1036).

[Eph. 5:24] The words en panti mean in everything within the proper circuit of conjugal obligation. If the husband trespass beyond this sphere he usurps, and cannot insist upon the obedience implied in the matrimonial contract. Obedience on the part of a wife is not a superinduced obligation” (John Eadie, Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1983], p. 413).

[Eph. 5:24] “She is to be subject in everything—that is, everything that is in accordance with the will of God. No wife would be expected to obey her husband if he required her to compromise her loyalty to the Lord Jesus. But in all the normal relationships of life, she is to obey her husband, even if he is an unbeliever” (William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary, pp. 1947-1948).

[Col. 3:18] “There are, of course, instances in which the woman cannot obey her husband and still be faithful to Christ. In such an instance, her first loyalty is to the Lord Jesus” [William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary, p. 2014). [1 Peter 3:1] “If he requires her to disobey a plain command of Scripture, then she must disobey her husband and be true to the Lord” (p. 2266).

[Eph. 5:24] “The phrase ‘in every thing’ is clearly limited by the context to those things pertaining to home relations. Even in this respect the rule must be qualified by the principle of allegiance to Christ. Higher obligations always take precedence over the lower” (Curtis Vaughan, Ephesians [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977] pp. 116-117).

[Col. 3:18] “’Fitting in the Lord,’ being in harmony with his will as revealed in Scripture. . . . It [submission] is not absolute. If a husband should ever ask his wife to do something which in her conscience (illumined by Scripture) she knows to be wrong, she has the right and the duty to disobey her husband (Acts 5:29).” (William Hendriksen, A Commentary on Colossians and Philemon [London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1964], pp. 168-169).

[Eph. 5:22] “Certainly the wife’s subjection to her husband is not unconditional, as is her subjection to the Lord; it is conditioned by the fact that he, unlike Christ, is a sinful and fallible human being like herself. It may be noted that the writer assumes that both husband and wife are Christians” (Francis W. Beare, The Interpreter’s Bible: Ephesians [New York: Abingdon, 1953], p. 719).

[Col. 3:18] “’In everything’ is limited by the context to that when the husband as such commands and which the wife as such has to do, but in neither contrary to the Lord” (John Peter Lange, Colossians [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1870], p. 100).

[Eph. 5:24] “There is to be no limit to the submission expected of wives, just as there is no limit to the Church’s obedient service to Christ. In this ideal picture of Christian marriage, the possibility is not even considered that wives’ submission to their husbands might conflict with their submission to Christ. . . . So in this writer’s vision of Christian marriage what is called for from wives is complete subordination to complete love” (Andrew T. Lincoln, Word Biblical Commentary: Ephesians [Dallas: Word Books, 1990], p. 373).

[Eph. 5:22,24] “For yourself? ‘In everything,’ even as regards yourselves. Yet there is a limit. Is there not a limit? Yes, blessed be God, there is a limit in the very text before us. Observe the twenty-second verse: ‘as unto the Lord’; no further. Act up to it, but go not beyond it” (Joseph S. Exell, The Biblical Illustrator: Ephesians [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973], p. 573).

[Eph. 5:24] “It is presupposed that the authority of the husband is in accordance with their relation as corresponding to that of Christ to the Church” (T.K. Abbott, ICC: Ephesians and Colossians [Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1909], p. 167).

[Col. 3:18] “Whatever she does for her husband involves Christ, Whom she must never compromise, even though, to avoid dong so involves disobedience to her husband” (Randolph O. Yeager, The Renaissance NT [Gretna: Pelican Pub. Co., 1985], p. 108).

“Submission is the key word. The only exception to this absolute rule is if the husband should ask her to do something that is contrary to the teachings of the Bible, such as stealing or committing adultery. They he is no longer acting under the authority of God, who never authorizes us to do something that He has previously disallowed. For the Bible teaches that ‘. . . we ought to obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29)” (Tim and Beverly LaHaye, Spirit Controlled Family Living [Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1978], p. 89).

[Col. 3:18] “Submission is not absolute. Obedience in this passage is reserved for children and servants. There may be times when a wife must refuse to submit to her husband’s desires (if they violate God’s Word) (John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Colossians and Philemon [Chicago: Moody Press, 1992], p. 168).

[Col. 3:18] “Submission demands obedience as a pattern, but there are times in which obedience to a husband may become disobedience to God.” “Such cases involve immorality, cruelty, and improper conduct. The guideline then is to obey God rather than a husband. Even then, however, the commitment must be to submission to God’s plan as a pattern of life and the best order of society” (Richard R. Melick, Jr., The New American Commentary: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon [Nashville: Broadman Press, 1991], p. 312, 312n70).

[Acts 5:29] “This passage should be the motto of every child of God who is called upon by others (be it government, employer, spouse, etc.) to compromise his faith. The Creator must take precedence over everyone else” (Wayne Jackson, The Acts of the Apostles [Stockton, CA: Courier Publications, 2000], p. 59).

“Wives are to submit to their husbands in everything that does not violate their first loyalty and obedience to God. An example of violating loyalty to God is Sapphira, in Acts 5. She was party to her husband’s dishonesty and came under God’s judgment. The wife should not submit if in doing so she would sin against God. However, if to submit is not sin, then failure to submit becomes sin and rebellion against God’s order of headship” (The Christian Contender, Feburary 2001, p. 12).

[Col. 3:18] “In this connection we are bound to recall the subordination of family loyalty to the allegiance of the individual to Christ and to God which is forcefully expressed in the teaching of Jesus. He rejects the family tie as supreme or decisive for himself (Mark 3:31-35, with its final, ‘Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother’); and he demands that his followers also shall subordinate it to loyalty to himself: ‘If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:26). It is clear that the coming of the gospel frequently brought strife into the household, as some believed and others rejected the message; and the believer was frequently obliged to make the harrowing decision between obedience to Christ and loyalty to his family. All too often a man’s enemies were those of his own household, as brother delivered up brother to death, and the father his child, and children rose against their parents and had them put to death (Matt. 10:21, 34-39)” (Frances W. Beare, The Interpreter’s Bible: Colossians [New York: Abingdon Press, 1955], pp. 225-226).

Son or Daughter to Parents

[Eph. 6:1] “Second, it means they should obey in all matters which are in accordance with the will of God. If their parents ordered them to sin, they should not be expected to comply. In such a case they should courteously refuse and suffer the consequences meekly and without retaliation. However, in all other cases they must be obedient” (William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary, pp. 1949-1950).

[Col. 3:20] “The only limit on a child’s obedience is when parents demand something contrary to God’s Word. For example, some children will act contrary to their parents’ wishes even in coming to Christ (cf. Luke 12:51-53; 14:26)” (John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, p. 1839).

[Col. 3:20] “Children are to obey their parents in all things. The only limit placed on a child’s obedience is when a parent demands something contrary to God’s law. Jesus knew that some children would have to defy their parents to come to faith in Him. In Luke 12:52-53 our Lord says, ‘Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two, and two against three. They will be divided, father against son, and son against father; mother against daughter, and daughter against mother; mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’ Later in Luke 14:26 He says, ‘If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.’ Salvation can bring a breech in the family so that children may have to reject their parents’ commands if they are contrary to Scripture” (John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Colossians and Philemon [Chicago: Moody Press, 1992], pp. 170-171).

[Eph. 6:1] “This obedience in the Lord may also imply obedience in every thing not forbidden by the Lord. Christ is Lord even of the parent” (R.E. Pattison, Exposition of Ephesians [Minneapolis: Klock and Klock Christian Pub., Inc., n.d.], p. 208).

[Eph. 6:1] “In the Lord. That is, as far as their commandments agree with those of God, and no farther. No parent can have a right to require a child to seal, or lie, or cheat, or assist him in committing murder, or in doing any other wrong thing. No parent has a right to forbid a child to pray, to read the Bible, to worship God, or to make a profession of religion. The duties and rights of children in such cases are similar to those of wives (. . . 5:22); and in all cases God is to be obeyed rather than man” (Albert Barnes, Ephesians, pp. 116-117).

[Col. 3:20] “Christian children who have unsaved parents are often placed in a difficult position. They want to be true to the Lord, and yet at the same time they are faced with demands made upon them by their parents. In general, we feel that if they honor their parents, God will in turn honor them. . . . Of course, they should not do anything that would be contrary to the teachings of Christ, but ordinarily they would not be called upon to do such” (William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary, p. 2014).

[Col. 3:20] “Since Paul has a Christian family in view [‘in the Lord’], he does not envisage the situation where parental orders might be contrary to the law of Christ. Clearly at that point the law of Christ must take precedence and children would have to obey God rather than men (cf. Acts 5:29)” (Peter T. O’Brien, Word Biblical Commentary: Colossians, Philemon [Waco: Word Books, 1982], p. 225).

[Col. 3:20] “This command assumes that parents will not demand anything unseemly from their children (cf. Mark 6:24-25). The command also takes for granted that the parents have the best interest of their children at heart. When their children ask for a fish, they will not give them stones (Matt. 7:7-9; Luke 11:11-13). . . . The child’s independent relationship with the Lord surpasses the relationship with parents, and Christ’s obedience to his Father in all things serves as the model” (David E. Garland, NIV Application Commentary: Colossians & Philemon [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1998], p. 246).

“The power of a parent is to teach, advise, and entreat. The duty of a child is to listen with respect; to examine with candor; to pray over the subject, and to be deliberate and calm, not rash, hasty, impetuous, and self-willed. But when the child is thus convinced that his duty to God requires a particular course, then here is a higher obligation then earthly law, and he must obey God rather than man, even a father or a mother” (Albert Barnes, Acts [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965], p. 84).

[Eph. 6:1-3] “The only exception to that obedience is in the matter of doing what is wrong. Every believer should refuse to do anything that is clearly against God’s will as taught in Scripture. He should say with Peter and John, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard’ (Acts 4:19-20). Otherwise, however, a child is to obey his or her parents ‘in all things’” (John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Ephesians [Chicago: Moody Press, 1986], p. 312).

“It should be observed . . . that the entire passage [in Ephesians] concerns relationships within the Christian family; Paul therefore does not contemplate unchristian attitudes on the part of parents” (Curtis Vaughan, Ephesians [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977), p. 120.

“It is assumed that such obedience is pleasing to the Lord; Paul has a Christian family in view (‘in the Lord’), and does not contemplate the situation where parental orders might be contrary to the law of Christ. In that situation the law of Christ must inevitably take precedence” (F.F. Bruce, Ephesians and Colossians, comments on Col. 3:20 [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1957], p. 291).

“[“In the Lord”] signifies that “whatever can be done in obedience to the parents without violating the law of God, that do; but beyond this no child dare go within deep condemnation upon itself.” He speaks of “the fearful doom of those who fail to obey God in order to please parents or propitiate the world. . . . When one does the will of parents rather than obey the commandments of God, or when he fails to do the commandments of God to please any earthly being, he shows that he loves that being more than he loves God” (David Lipscomb, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, p. 118.)

[Col. 3:20] “This supposes that the parents are worthy of obedience, and their commands are not contrary to God’s commands. So there are conceivable cases when a child would be justifiable in disobedience” (Edwin C. Dargan, Colossians, ed. Alvah Hovey [Valley Forge, PA: The American Baptist Pub. Society, 1887], p. 49).

“Paul’s admonition [Eph. 6:1] is brief, hence he does not enter upon the pitiful cases when Christian parents demand obedience in something that is unrighteous; this he forbids the fathers in v. 4” (R.C.H. Lenski, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, and to the Philippians [Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1937],

“While it is not Paul’s emphasis here [Eph. 6:1], it is certainly true that parents have no authority to demand that their children defy the laws of God” (Kenneth L. Boles, The College Press NIV Commentary: Galatians & Ephesians [Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1993], p. 324, n. 3.).

“In the Lord [Eph. 6:1] To ‘obey in the Lord’ is to give the kind of obedience that springs from being ‘in Christ’; it may also indicate the limitations that are inherent in any human commands, even those of parents to children. Parental requests should be in harmony with the will of God (Acts 5:29)” (SDA Bible Commentary, Vol. 6, p. 1040).

[Col. 3:20] “The children are exhorted to obey their parents ‘in all things,’ always subject to the limitation of Acts 5:29” (William Hendriksen, A Commentary on Colossians & Philemon [London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1964], p. 171).

[Col. 3:20] “He [Paul] here lays down the general rule. There are exceptions, of course, where ‘the all things’ do not apply. Jesus mentions one, for instance, if father or mother is hostile to Christ and seeks to keep the child from coming to Christ (Luke 14:26). If parents step in between God and the child, they have usurped God’s prerogative, and the child must obey God” (A.T. Robertson, Paul and the Intellectuals [Nashville: Broadman Press, 1959], p. 118).

Subject to Governmental Authority

[Acts 4:19] “Christians should obey governmental authority (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17), but when government decrees are clearly contrary to God’s Word, God must be obeyed (cf. Ex. 1:15-17; Dan. 6:4-10)” (John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, p. 1641).

[Acts 5:29] “This passage should be the motto of every child of God who is called upon by others (be it government, employer, spouse, etc.) to compromise his faith. The Creator must take precedence over everyone else” (Wayne Jackson, The Acts of the Apostles [Stockton, CA: Courier Publications, 2000], p. 59).

[Acts 4:19-20] “The apostles do not leave the impression that they may possibly obey while in their hearts they resolve not to obey; nor do they evade the issue by saying that they will think the matter over. They face the issue like men, squarely, openly. . . . All human authority must yield to divine authority. It is, indeed, a divine command that we obey the government (Rom. 13:1), but this obedience is never absolute. When the government or any human authority commands what is contrary to God, we are bound to obey God alone. The first members of the church who suffered for this principle were the Twelve, cf. 5:40; the history of all the martyrdoms that followed extends from that time until the present. Tears and blood have ever anew sealed this great principle in this wicked world. Some individuals have gone too far by having this principle justify rebellion and revolution. The apostles offered only passive resistance and not the sword” (R.C.H. Lenski, The Acts of the Apostles [Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1934], pp. 173-174).

[Rom. 13:1] “In the actual state of matters he will recognize the manifestation of God’s will, and will take no part whatever in any reactionary plot. But should the Christian support the power of the state even in its unjust measures? No, there is nothing to show that the submission required by Paul includes active co-operation; it may even show itself in the form of passive resistance . . .” (F. Godet, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1983/1956], p. 442).

[Acts 4:19] “Whenever a man faces such a choice between his honest conviction regarding God’s will for him, and the commandments of men, he can afford only to follow what he believes to be God’s will. If he attempts to serve two masters, he will succeed in satisfying neither and will sell his soul for the sake of expediency. But if he steadfastly recognizes God’s prior claim to his full allegiance, no man can call him dishonest, and his soul is safe” (SDA Bible Commentary, Vol. 6, p. 169).

[Acts 4:19-20] “Peter’s reply to their warning provides a model for all generations of believers faced with a choice between civil or religious tyranny and the will of God: They must obey God. . . [Acts 5:29] The principle is that when a conflict between God and Caesar occurs God must be obeyed, but ordinarily one must ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’ (Matt. 22:21). Nevertheless, the apostles never resisted arrest, and at least in this way submitted to authority” (Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, ed. Walter A. Elwell [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989], pp. 890, 892).

[Rom. 13:1] “There were cases where it was right to resist the laws. This the Christian religion clearly taught; and in cases like these, it was indispensable for Christians to take a stand. When the laws interfered with the rights of conscience, when they commanded the worship of idols, or any moral wrong, then it was their duty to refuse submission” (Albert Barnes, Notes on the NT: Romans, p. 291).

[Acts 4:19] “There are various authorities that we are bound to obey, one of which is civil government (Rom. 13:1-7), and Peter himself forcefully upheld that principle (1 Pet. 2:13-17). God, however, is the highest authority of all, and obedience to him takes precedence over obedience to any lower authority. . . . ” [Acts 5:29] “When there is a conflict between the commands given by human authorities and the commands given by God, so that we must choose between obeying human authorities and obeying God, we must obey God” (Johnny Stringer, The Book of Acts [Bowling Green, KY: Guardian of Truth Foundation, 1999], pp. 79, 103).

[Acts 5:29] “In this conflict between human law and divine they declared that the obligation to obey God was paramount to every other. The apostles and early Christians acted on the principle that human governments forfeit their claim to obedience when they require what God has plainly forbidden or forbid what he has required. They claimed the right of judging for themselves what was right and what was wrong, in reference to their religious and their political duties, and they regulated their conduct by that decision. It is worthy of notice that in [Acts] 4:19 they propound this principle as one which event heir persecutors could not controvert—i.e. as one which commends itself to every man’s reason and unperverted moral feelings. In applying this principle, it will be found that the apostles in every instance abstained from all forcible resistance to the public authorities. They refused utterly to obey the mandates which required them to violate their consciences, but they endured quietly the penalties which the executors of the law enforced against them” (Horatio B. Hackett, Acts & Romans, p. 80).

[Rom. 13:3] “As Paul does not here suppose rulers to be tyrants, so he does not teach us what they who live under an insupportable tyranny are to do. But we know that he would counsel us to obey God and the ‘higher law,’ rather than the civil power, which should bid us violate the divine law” (Albert N. Arnold, Romans, ed. Albah Hovey [Valley Forge, PA: The American Baptist Pub. Society, 1882], p. 273).

Slaves to Masters

[Col. 3:22] “Now when Paul instructs the slaves to obey their masters ‘in all things,’ he probably means, ‘not only in matters pleasant and agreeable but also in matters unpleasant and disagreeable.’ He cannot have meant, ‘in absolutely all things’ (see Acts 5:29)” (William Hendriksen, A Commentary on Colossians & Philemon [London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1964], p. 173).

[Eph. 6:5] “The term ‘obedient’ refers to continuous, uninterrupted submission to one’s earthly master or employer, the only exception being in regard to a command that involves clear disobedience of God’s Word as illustrated in Acts 4:19,20” (John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, p. 1814).


(1) Only God and Christ have all authority.

God the Father: “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24).

Jesus Christ: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18).

(2) Human authority is derived and limited, yet it is important in its rightful place:

Civil Government (Romans 13:1-6; Matt. 22:21; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-14).

Husband (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:22,24; Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1).

Parents (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20; Luke 2:51).

Master or Employer (Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22-24; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Pet. 2:18-20).

(3) Divine authority is unlimited and must always have the priority. When there is a conflict between devotion to God and Christ and devotion to any human authority, we must always choose the former:

“We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

“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).

“No one can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24a).

(4) We are never justified in sinning in obedience to a human authority:

“How then could I do this great evil, and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9b).

“Become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning” (1 Cor. 15:34a).

“The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a).

“And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), ‘Let us do evil that good may come?’ Their condemnation is just” (Rom. 3:8).

“He who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality” (Col. 3:25).

(5) We must be prepared to suffer persecution when we choose to obey God rather than an unjust human authority:

“For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God” (1 Peter 2:19-20).

(6) The statements that we have examined indicate that we are not to understand the words of Paul, Peter, or Jesus Himself out of harmony with the remainder of Scripture. We must not understand submission in a way that dethrones God from His place of absolute authority and allows sin in any form. Submission to civil government, masters, husbands, and parents is limited. It is not absolute. The current doctrine of “absolute submission and unlimited authority” of any human being must be seen as an aberration unworthy of the devoted Christian.

(7) Those who would choose to sin in obedience to a human authority (husband, parent, government, employer) and thereby reject obedience to God who has all authority, have overthrown the basic command throughout Scripture to have only one God. This, in effect, is the dreadful sin of idolatry—placing a human being before Almighty God.

“You shall have no other gods before Me. . . . I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God” (Exod. 20:3,5).

“Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:14).

“Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).

“No one can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24a).

The commands throughout Scripture to love God, obey God, serve God, and be true to God are expressed in a practical way when one chooses to submit to Him over and beyond a human being—when that human being seeks to have us sin or show some disloyalty to the Lord God.

Richard Hollerman



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