Submission and Leadership

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Steven Cuffle

When talking about servant leadership, I’m often asked, “How can leaders expect people to follow if they don’t have ‘real power’?” First, there is a difference between worldly power (coercive, dominating, autocratic power) and spiritual power (influential, instructive, gracious love). Second, this is a great question as it highlights the necessity of submission; any study of Biblical leadership must also include the proper response to leaders: submission.

Briefly, again, the Son of God did not come to earth as an autocratic despot. He came “to serve” and to “seek and save the lost.” He “emptied himself, by taking on the form of a servant” even taking on the role of a household slave, washing the feet of his disciples (1). These are the words and actions of a selfless shepherd, not a draconian dictator. Jesus did more than talk about leadership; he showed us leadership.

If we insist on leaders like Jesus, then we must insist on followers like Jesus. His first spoken words in the New Testament are those of a submissive follower: “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business (2)?” He is the perfect example of an equal humbling himself in submission. He is equal to the Father in all respects, however, he didn’t view that “equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…” (3)

The willing submission of followers is how Biblical leadership work. There is no scriptural method for forcing someone to do anything; no demands may be placed on disciples by someone who is their equal. However, if we have respect for Jesus, we will submit to our equals, just as Christ and Holy Spirit both do with the Father. We know all disciples are equal for “[we] are all brothers,” but we must be willing to “[submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ (4).” Willing submission is especially necessary toward those who serve as leaders within the body of Christ.

Hebrews 13 is important when learning how submission and leadership work together. First, in verse 7, notice leaders are those who teach the word of God and live faithfully. We often substitute the word “elder” for “leader,” but there’s no real Biblical basis for doing that. Certainly, shepherds are leaders, but they aren’t the only leaders. Paul lists “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds” as various teachers who equip the saints for service (5). Deacons must “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” and the first seven selected were to be “full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom (6).” While not specifically listed in Ephesians 4, deacons are still leaders whom God expects to teach and handle the Scriptures well.

These leaders must not only teach the word but live faithfully, too. Their lives serve as examples to all the saints. They should be able to say, like Paul, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (7).” Their leadership stems from the influence of a life lived well. People see the difference faith has made in their lives, and they want to have the same outcome.

We follow this pattern in other areas of life. If we want to be a great chess player, we look to grandmasters like Magnus Carlson or Gary Kasparov. If we want to learn how to throw a great curveball, we look to Greg Maddux or Clayton Kershaw. If we want to live spiritually successful lives, doesn’t it make sense to imitate the leaders among us who are already doing that? This foundation of excellent, faithful living demonstrates leaders know how to apply the word of God, and it gives the rest of us a good reason to listen to them.

The power of influence from faithful living is the authority behind New Testament leadership. Jesus himself called the unbelievers in his day to examine his works. If they wouldn’t believe the things he said, they should at least be willing to accept the things he did (8). Likewise, the life of a shepherd, evangelist, or deacon is the evidence we need to trust their leadership. If they know how to live spiritually, then they can help us to grow and live spiritually, too.

Hebrews 13.17 presents this very idea. It says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them…” “Obey is the Greek word πείθω (peithō), which means “to cause to come to a particular point of view,” or to convince, persuade, or appeal to someone (9). Since peithō is in the middle voice, we do this to ourselves (10). We don’t obey leaders because they have some innate authority, but we choose to be persuaded by someone with proven character. They are spiritually wise and great at living for Christ. They deserve a full hearing and the benefit of the doubt. Maybe a better way to translate the idea would be to say something like “Allow yourselves to be convinced by your leaders and submit to them…” Translating Hebrews 13.17 this way captures the essence of both New Testament leadership and highlights the importance of submission.

So what does this look like practically? It looks like Acts 15. The early church was in turmoil with the divisive issue of what to do about Gentiles. How could they be integrated into God’s family without causing major problems for the Hebrews? The leaders of the church at Jerusalem met together, with the whole church, and discussed what to do. Peter related how the Gentiles had come to hear the gospel first through him, and Barnabas and Paul “related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles (11).” It was clear that God approved of them, but how should they move forward? What should they do?

This is where New Testament leadership kicks in. Notice that no one commands, dictates, or publishes edicts. James stands before the group and gives “[his] judgment (12).” Because the people in Jerusalem trusted James, they allowed him to persuade them. They submitted to his judgment and followed his wisdom.

New Testament leadership and submission look like this. Equals submit to those who teach and live exemplary, faithful lives. There isn’t a hierarchy. No one is “in control”. The saints submit to the leaders among them because the leaders have earned their trust and display wisdom in applying the word of God. Biblical leadership is amazingly simple, it produces peace and harmony, and it leads us all closer to God as we trust his revealed word. Let’s strive together to make these things part of our lives.

1 Matt 20.28; Luke 19.10; Phil 2.7; John 13.1-17.

2 Luke 2.49.

3 Phil 2.6-7.

4 Matt 23.8; Eph 5.21.

5 Eph 4.11 can be read as “apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherds, that is, teachers.” This rendering make sense as all four roles derive their teaching authority from God’s revelation for the purpose of building up the body of Christ to maturity.

6 1 Timothy 3.9; Acts 6.3.

7 1 Cor 11.1.

8 John 10.37-38.

9 Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker, Walter Bauer, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 791.

10 Heiser, Michael S., and Vincent M. Setterholm. Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database Terminology. Lexham Press, 2013.

11 Acts 15.12.

12 Acts 15.19.