Submission is based on the legitimate authority that has been delegated to a person despite their personality or character flaws. There are examples in Scripture of persons who are in a position of authority and who behave harshly toward subordinates, but their harsh behavior is not sinful, nor are they demanding those under their supervision to commit sin. The account of Sarai and Hagar in Genesis 16 provides a good example.
The account opens, “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife had borne him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar (Gen. 16:1). A decade earlier, God had promised a son to Abram (Gen. 12:2; 13:15-16; 15:5), and though they’d tried to produce an heir, Sarai was not able. Because of impatience, Sarai proposed Abram marry her servant, Hagar, as a solution to their problem. “Sarai said to Abram, ‘Now behold, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her.’ And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai” (Gen. 16:2). And, “After Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife” (Gen. 16:3).
In the legal custom of that day a barren woman could give her maid to her husband as a wife, and the child born of that union was regarded as the first wife’s child. If the husband said to the slave-wife’s son, “You are my son,” then he was the adopted son and heir. So Sarai’s suggestion was unobjectionable according to the customs of that time. But God often repudiates social customs.
What Sarai proposed to Abram was socially acceptable in their day; however, there’s nothing in Scripture that reveals they’d consulted the Lord about the matter, and we know from other Scripture that it was not God’s will, and that Ishmael would ultimately be rejected as Abram’s heir (see Gen. 21:1-12). Hagar’s status had been elevated from servant to servant-wife, and Abram “went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her sight” (Gen. 16:4). Promotion is not always easy to handle, and it’s possible that Hagar became prideful about her new place, and for this reason despised Sarai and treated her disrespectfully. “Hagar became a slave wife, not on equal standing with Sarai. However, if Hagar produced the heir, she would be the primary wife in the eyes of society; when this eventually happened, Hagar become insolent, prompting Sarai’s anger.” Sarai got upset and said to Abram, “May the wrong done me be upon you. I gave my maid into your arms, but when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her sight. May the LORD judge between you and me” (Gen. 16:5). Sarai felt jilted by Hagar after she’d conceived, and she brought her complaint to her husband, Abram. At this point is appears Abram returned Hagar to servant status, saying to Sarai, “Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight” (Gen. 16:6). Having been reduced to a servant again, we learn that “Sarai treated her [Hagar] harshly, and she fled from her presence” (Gen. 16:6).
Hagar was probably hurt and confused over all that had happened to her and we can understand why she ran away. God, who is very compassionate, extended grace to Hagar and appeared to her while she was running away from her troubles. “Now the angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur” (Gen. 16:7). The “angel of the LORD” is later identified by Hagar as God Himself (vs. 13). And the Lord said to her, “where have you come from and where are you going?” And she replied, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai” (Gen. 16:8). God then said, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority” (Gen. 16:9). The command to return translates the Hebrew verb שׁוּב shub (Qal imperative), which is used of someone “who has shifted direction in a particular way and then shifted back from it in the opposite way. As long as there is no contrary factor the assumption is that such persons or people will turn back and reach the original point from which they departed.” God expected Hagar to return to Sarai, and once there, to submit to her authority. Submit is a rendering of the Hebrew verb עָנָה anah, which commonly means to be bowed down, afflicted, or humbled. The verb form is imperative which means it’s a command, and the stem is reflexive (Hithpael), which means that Hagar is to act upon herself; in this case, to humble herself. No one is forcing Hagar into submission, as she must to do it to herself in compliance with the divine mandate. To obey the will of God she must submit herself to Sarai’s authority. Lastly, the word authority translates the Hebrew noun יָד yad, which is the word for hand. “The phrase ‘into (or ‘under’) someone’s hand’ conveys authority involving responsibility, care, and dominion over someone or something.” Here the word denotes the authority Sarai has over Hagar. It is possible that submission to Sarai’s mistreatment could be in view, hence the CSB translation, “You must go back to your mistress and submit to her mistreatment” (Gen. 16:9). It is likely that Sarai’s anger was not born out of a deep-seated hatred of Hagar, which might result in long lasting mistreatment of her; rather, it seems to be the anger of the moment which will pass with time.
The command for Hagar to return and submit to Sarai’s authority was God’s will. God strengthened Hagar by telling her, “I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count” (Gen. 16:10), saying further, “Behold, you are with child, and you will bear a son; and you shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has given heed to your affliction” (Gen. 16:10-11). The name Ishmael (יִשְׁמָעֵאל Yishmael) means, God hears, and speaks of the compassion God had for the cries of Hagar, who was suffering unjustly. God then described Ishmael, saying, “He will be a wild donkey of a man, his hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand will be against him; and he will live to the east of all his brothers” (Gen. 16:12). This description by God reveals that Ishmael, unlike his mother, would be free to live where he pleased. “The prophecy is not an insult. The wild donkey lived a solitary existence in the desert away from society. Ishmael would be free-roaming, strong, and like a Bedouin; he would enjoy the freedom his mother sought.” These would have been very encouraging words to Hagar. Operating from divine viewpoint, Hagar stated, “You are a God who sees” (Gen. 16:13). Knowing that God was aware of her plight, and promised to bless her in the midst of her suffering, Hagar was internally strengthened and sustained by God’s Word as she returned to Sarai and submitted to her authority. Hagar’s return was an act of faith as she obeyed God’s Word. With every harsh word or action against her, Hagar could think of her son and rejoice in God’s blessing, which outweighed any hardship she would endure. The historical account closes with the statement, “So Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to him” (Gen. 16:15-16).
Submission to harsh authority is never easy, and like Hagar, we might feel tempted to run away. But as Christians who seek God’s will above all else, who desire to submit to His authority, we must be willing to subordinate ourselves to those whom He’s placed over us, even if those persons are at times harsh. And, like Hagar, we know God is a God who sees and that He will strengthen us to endure the hardships of life.
In the New Testament, the apostle Peter addressed the subject of suffering under harsh leadership. He wrote to Christian-servants who were dealing with harsh masters, saying, “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable” (1 Pet. 2:18). We do not have servants and masters like those to whom Peter was writing, but certainly an employee and employer might serve as a suitable analog. The word servant is a translation of the Greek word οἰκέτης oiketes which refers to a household servant, as over against the general term for slave (δοῦλος doulos). The term master translates the Greek word δεσπότης despotes which refers to “one who has legal control and authority over persons, such as subjects or slaves, lord, [or] master.” The word master is used both positively and negatively, depending on the character of the individual. In fact, the word is used of God (Luke 2:29; Acts 4:24) and Jesus (2 Pet. 2:1; Jude 1:4). Biblically, some masters were recognized as good and gentle, while others were unreasonable. We’re always pleased to submit to a good and gentle boss who is thoughtful, kind and generous; but the unreasonable boss is a challenge. The word unreasonable translates the Greek word σκολιός skolios, which was used in secular Greek literature “of rivers and roads…also to the movements of snakes, and may refer, too, to a labyrinth or to ringlets or matted hair.” In this passage it refers “to being morally bent or twisted, crooked, unscrupulous, [or] dishonest.” It is likely the unreasonable boss is one who lives by a worldly ethic and is selfish, overbearing, controlling, and perhaps dishonest. It is only natural that we would recoil and rebel against such a person, except that we are governed by God’s Word and the Holy Spirit. “Obedience should not vary according to the temperament of the employer. Anyone can submit to an employer who is good and gentle. Believers are called to go beyond that and be respectful and obedient to the harsh, overbearing boss. This stands out as distinctly Christian behavior.” Submitting to a harsh employer does not mean obeying illegal or sinful commands, for this would be wrong. “This submission is not in the sense of carrying out devious activities but in the sense of complying with a crooked master who demands legitimate actions. Such obedience is the evidence of grace in an individual’s life.”
It is natural to ask why the Christian is to submit to an unreasonable boss, especially if the boss is hostile toward an innocent worker. Peter answers, “For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly” (1 Pet. 2:19). The phrase, “For this finds favor,” communicates the idea of what is commendable in the sight of another; and in this instance, the other person is God. “The reason we should behave this way is that this behavior is God’s will (cf. vv. 13, 17). The fact that this is how God wants us to behave is sufficient reason for compliance. Our conscious commitment to God should move us to do what is right resulting in a clear conscience.” Christians are to operate according to divine viewpoint, which means God’s Word defines our reality and serves as a filter through which we interpret our experiences and bring our will into alignment with the will of God. Scripture serves as a divine guide to help us respond to various situations as God would have, and to operate according to the ethical standards He prescribes. The answer, Peter tells us, is a matter of “conscience toward God” for the Christian who works under a difficult boss. Peter goes on to say, “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 Pet. 2:20). Certainly there’s nothing commendable about those who patiently endure harsh treatment, when such treatment is the result of being disobedient and doing wrong. However, it is commendable in the sight of God when His child patiently endures unjust suffering from the hand of an unreasonable supervisor.
Christian employees must never take advantage of Christian employers. Each worker should do a good day’s work and honestly earn his pay. Sometimes a Christian employee may be wronged by an unbelieving coworker or supervisor. For conscience’ sake, he must “take it” even though he is not in the wrong. A Christian’s relationship to God is far more important than his relationship to men. “For this is grace [thankworthy]” to bear reproach when you are innocent (see Matt. 5:10–12). Anybody, including an unbeliever, can “take it patiently” when he is in the wrong! It takes a dedicated Christian to “take it” when he is in the right. “This is grace [acceptable] with God.” God can give us the grace to submit and “take it” and in this way glorify God.
Biblically, there is no greater example of dealing with unjust suffering than the Lord Jesus Christ, and Peter points this out to his readers, saying, “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). The phrase, “For you have been called for this purpose” means that suffering is a part of the Christian life (Matt. 10:38, 16:24; Luke 14:27; Acts 14:22), and it is purposeful (Rom. 5:3-5; Jam. 1:2-4). Peter then points to Jesus, saying, “Christ also suffered for you.” Jesus suffered for doing good—which resulted in our salvation—and becomes our example for suffering while doing what is right. The word example translates the Greek word ὑπογραμμός hupogrammos, which occurs only once in the Bible (a hapax legomenon), and means to write under. The word was used of a writing template that a child would use as a guide to practice proper writing or drawing. Here, the word is used of Christ, who is our model of example that we are to pattern our lives after. We are to copy Jesus and follow in His steps, even when it leads us to suffering.
Jesus did not suffer as one who deserved punishment; rather, Peter describes Him as one “who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:22-23). We know from Scripture why Jesus suffered and died, and we rejoice that He did, for without His sacrifice, we would be lost in sin and forever damned. But the suffering and death of Christ affects more than just our salvation, as it also serves as a template, a paradigm, for the believer to endure unjust suffering at the hands of harsh leaders. And as our example, Jesus did not revile or threaten His persecutors, but presented His case before the Supreme Court of heaven, “to Him who judges righteously.” Likewise, Christian servants, while living holy lives, free from the lust and tyranny of self-vindication, can submit to harsh supervisors, and do so with kindness, never seeking retaliation, but trusting that God sees and will judge righteously.
We’re not always given the reason why we suffer unjustly at the hands of those who are in authority over us, but we know that God is sovereignly in control of all things, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Sometimes God uses difficult people or circumstances to shape our character to be more like the character of Christ. In this sense we can rejoice, because even though the suffering is difficult, it is purposeful, as God is using it to shape us into the people He wants. He has our best interests at heart, and the trials we face serve as a vehicle to transform us into better persons (Rom. 5:3-5; Jam. 1:2-4). We must always remember that God is more concerned with our Christian character than our creaturely comforts, and our behavior should always be motivated by a desire to please the Lord above all else.
Christians will, at times, suffer unjustly at the hands of those whom God has placed in authority over us, like the suffering Hagar experienced at the hand of Sarai. And, the harsh or immoral character of leaders should never dictate our response; rather, we should be governed by God’s Word, as we look to Christ as our example of unjust suffering. Lastly, we should obey those in authority over us, doing what they command, so long as they do not command us to sin.
Steven R. Cook, D.Min.
- Submission to Authority – Part I
- Submission to Authority – Part II
- The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53
- The Apostle Paul: Chosen to Suffer to Suffer for Christ
- God Allows Suffering
- The value of Suffering
- A Theological Look at Suffering
- Early Church Persecutions
- Learning to Live by Faith
- Bible Promises that Strengthen our Faith
- Reasons why we obey God
- The Faithfulness of the Lord
 It appears God intentionally created a dilemma in which Abram and Sarai were helpless to produce a son, so that it would be obvious in the end that what God had promised them, only He was able to execute (cf. Rom. 4:18-21). This leads to the principle that a promise delayed is not a promise denied.
 Allen P. Ross, “Genesis,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 56.
 Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Ge 16:3.
 Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 1429.
 Ralph H. Alexander, “844 יָד,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 362.
 Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Ge 16:12.
 Concerning slavery in the first century, the NT writers were not called to reform society, and so their letters were not written to governing officials who might affect political, economic, or social change. Rather, their sphere of authority was to the Christian church, and so they wrote to those who were members of those churches (husbands, wives, children, masters, slaves, free person, rich, poor, etc.), directing their values and behavior within the church. This is important to understand, because NT writers, though acknowledging the institution of slavery—which was very different than the American form of slavery—did not address the evils of that institution or its creators and managers. Slavery was common to the Roman world, and as many came to faith in Christ and were added to the church, it was proper that they should be addressed as equals, like all members of the body of Christ (Gal. 3:26-28). In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul addressed both slaves and masters who had believed in Christ as Savior, and made it very clear they both have one Master in Heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 6:9). And, when writing to his friend Philemon concerning the return of his runaway slave, Onesimus, Paul instructed Philemon to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Phm 1:16). However, there were times when a Christian-servant did not have a Christian-master, and submission to authority was strained.
 The word is used four times in the NT (Luke 16:13; Acts 10:7, Rom. 14:14, 1 Pet. 2:18).
 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 220.
 Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1985), 1046.
 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 930.
 William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, ed. Arthur Farstad (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 2264.
 Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, The Messianic Jewish Epistles: Hebrews, James, First Peter, Second Peter, Jude, 1st ed. (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 2005), 349.
 Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), 1 Pe 2:19.
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 406.