It’s a hot day and I’m moving stuff around the front of our church building. We’re in the midst of a renovation of the exterior—new siding, new steeple, new landscaping. The man in charge of this project is one of our deacons. He owns a small business and designs these kinds of projects in his sleep. He’s really good.
I may have been trained to teach the Bible and have read many books on ministry and theology, but I’m not really good with a shovel. I can dig, but I can’t plant and am nearly useless in trying to discern between flower species. Also, I’m color-blind and you most certainly don’t want me picking out paint.
At this moment—when I’m being asked to help lift some siding and to avoid stepping on the flower beds—I’m not in charge of anything. Sure, I’m the pastor of the church. I’m the leader of my family. But I’m submitting to the leadership of this deacon, because he is supervising this project and because we don’t want our church to end up on Fixer Upper.
This is what submission is.
Recoiling at Responsibility
When we read the Bible and our eyes first come across that word we often read through gritted teeth—submission—it makes us recoil.
We don’t like the word and with good reason. Submission evokes, for us, mastery, unflinching subservience, and the loss of our dignity. What that word brings to mind are the ways, in the past, it was used to excuse slavery, how today it can often be a euphemism for abuse. We think to submit is the end of our flourishing.
But this is because we don’t truly understand what God is calling us to do. Sure, God has ordered the world according to certain healthy structures. Leadership responsibility in the home and in the church is not something to be tolerated, but to be embraced as God’s good design for His people. However this is not all that submission implies. Before Paul even addresses household codes and church governance, he simply says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21 NIV).
We think to submit is the end of our flourishing.
What does it mean to “submit to one another?” In the context of leadership and responsibility, I think it means that in a diverse body of believers, we are often in positions of leading and positions of following.
So when my pastor is preaching from the Scripture, I'm submitting to his leadership in that moment as he delivers the Word. But I'm also submitting to my small group leader, who has not been to seminary and arguably knows less about the Bible than I do, but in that moment as God reveals something to him for me, I submit.
In a sense, submission is merely about acknowledging the gifting of those in the church who are tasked with callings I don't have. So even though I’m in a leadership position in our church, I’m submitting to the lay person as he's helping me understand the nuances of insurance coverage. Even though I’m preaching this Sunday, I’m submitting to the worship leader as he tells me when to get on and off the stage. And even though I’m an elder, I’m submitting to the children’s ministry director as she tells me where to drop off my children for kids’ worship.
Submission is a kind of unconscious rhythm for the disciple of Jesus. In everyday situations, we are submitting to each other. When a sister rebukes my attitude, I'm submitting to her kind and gentle reprimand. When a person of color invites me into his world, I'm submitting to an authority I don't have. When I read a book on theology by a dead saint, I’m submitting, in a way, to his wisdom and scholarship.
King David—Israel’s greatest monarch—submitted to a prophet named Nathan. David had the crown, but Nathan had the voice of God.
Think about how this works its way all throughout our lives. At work, I’m the leader of an organizational team, who sets the tone and direction. But when my creative director, who knows way more about design than I do, tells me how we should layout our next website, I am, in a sense, submitting to him. At home, I’m the leader of our family, but when my wife is encouraging me after a difficult season or pointing out areas where I’ve been wrong, I'm submitting to her spiritual counsel as a sister in the Lord.
All of this, of course, doesn’t imply that leadership structures are unnecessary. Throughout Scripture, God has ordained order and structure while at the same time encouraging all believers to fulfill their specific God-given positions of authority. Families, churches, institutions, and communities rise and fall on leadership.
But this kind of vertical leadership—while important—is not the only kind of leadership. Nor are these top-down relationships the most common in the rhythm of daily life. Horizontal leadership, where we work side by side with people and subconsciously submit, is much more important to our flourishing.
King David—Israel’s greatest monarch and the Old Testament’s biggest hero—submitted to a commoner—a prophet named Nathan. David had the crown, but Nathan had the voice of God.
Be willing to listen to those around us who might, like Nathan, be voices sent from God.
This is what Paul means when he says to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. He is telling us to stop thinking about who is in charge, about our rights and our privileges—and instead be willing to listen to those around us who might, like Nathan, be voices sent from God. Sometimes it’s in the little things, like acknowledging the wisdom and input from coworkers, friends, and family. In other moments, it could be the difference between life and death, between stubbornly going our own way and heeding the spirit-filled rebuke of a faithful friend.
The truth is that we are, actually, always submitting. There is always a voice in our ears. Such as when we listen to the whispered lies of the enemy about our identity or when we let cultural forces shape our decisions or when we allow our disordered desires to rule. We may say we don’t like submission, but we are continually submitting, to someone or something. Like Peter, we are either bowing to the enemy by the fire or heeding the voice of the Lord on the water. Like Eve, we’re either obeying the “take and eat” from the serpent or the “come and dine” from Jesus.
When we understand true submission, then, it becomes less ominous and more beneficial, a good gift from a gracious God. And rather than serving as an irritant, it is a kind of salve that brings health and vitality to our best relationships.