Last year I was asked if I would give a short talk on the topic of submission, and what it looks like in my life. I think this is a really important topic, and to be honest I said yes without thinking too much about it. On the day of the conference I was certainly wishing I’d been a little more thoughtful about that decision!
Because I think this is an important topic, I’m sharing what I said at the conference in this short article. But there are five things I want to acknowledge at the start:
1. This is a hard topic to talk about. I felt very nervous on the day of the conference, and I feel quite nervous now about sharing my thoughts more widely. I think that’s because I’m sharing my personal experience of trying to put God’s word into practice in my life, in an area that can be complicated.
2. This topic is not only complicated but also controversial. Before we even think about putting it into practice, the word ‘submission’ is laden with all sorts of ideas. I’m not going to address all of those, but as you read on please know that I think submission is about willingly allowing someone else to exercise leadership over me.
3. I don’t always get this right.
4. What submission looks like for me might be different from what it looks like for you. I hope that sharing my experience is helpful, but I’m certainly not the model of what it looks like for everyone. Additionally, my experience has been very good. I’m aware that, sadly, this isn’t the case for everyone.
5. As a single woman in full-time vocational ministry, the main area in which this works itself out in my life is in ministry, and particularly in a ministry staff team—so that’s what I’m going to be talking about.
With those qualifications in place, let me explain how I try and put the biblical concept of submission into practice in my life.
When I think about what submission looks like for me, I have to ask myself who I am actually called to submit to. There are two straightforward answers, and then it gets less straightforward.
The first answer, which always needs to be front and centre, is Jesus. I am to submit to Jesus. That has nothing to do with my job or the team I’m working with. As a Christian, my life should demonstrate submission to the Lord Jesus. This may seem obvious, but it’s helpful to intentionally reflect on—because it’s possible to be in a situation where you have to choose between submission to Jesus and submission to someone else, and you should always choose Jesus.
Next is my boss. While we often think of submission only in the context of women submitting to men, this is an example of submission that has nothing to do with gender. On a staff team the senior minister is the boss; he’s ultimately responsible for everything that happens. He’s the leader, and all those working under him are called to submit to his leadership. As I think about how to willingly allow him to exercise his leadership, I want to apply some of what Paul says about slaves and masters. I’m not suggesting there’s a direct correlation between that relationship and our boss/employee relationships, however I can take the principal of what Paul’s saying and work out how I apply that principal in my situation.
For example, Ephesians 6:5 says:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. (NIV 2011)
What stands out for me here is the instruction not simply to obey, but to obey with respect and sincerity. How do I show sincere respect for my minister? Not just in front of him, in staff meetings and during the week when it’s just the staff team around, but how do I show sincere respect both publicly and privately with other people? In particular, how do I keep doing that when he makes a decision I disagree with?
For me, the answer lies in everything that happens before that moment—the process behind the decision-making, and the conversations in staff team. We’re looking today at submission, but that’s just one side of the coin. The other side is leadership; the two things work together. My experience is that good and trustworthy leadership makes submission easier, but also that godly submission makes leadership easier.
A former boss and I once had a conversation about how we were going to work together and what would happen when we disagreed on something. He said something along the lines of, “When we’re making a decision about something we disagree on, I’ll give you every opportunity to change my mind. And if that doesn’t work then I’ll give you the opportunity exercise godliness by submitting to my decision.”
It was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but for me it was incredibly helpful. It’s actually a good summary of how we worked together. The most helpful thing for me was him saying, “I’ll give you every opportunity to change my mind”—because that meant my input was wanted and valued and taken seriously. Sometimes I did change his mind. But in those times when we still disagreed, I didn’t have to wonder whether he even listened to me, which then meant I could trust his wisdom and godliness. So even if I didn’t agree with his decision, I did trust it, which meant I could support it.
Good and trustworthy leadership certainly makes submission much easier, but the difficult truth is that we aren’t called to submit only to good leadership. Even when we don’t feel our respect is deserved, and even when we simply don’t get along with our leaders, the instruction to Christians remains the same:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. (Heb 13:17)
What submission looks like in the instance of bad leadership is something that requires a lot of thought and wisdom; more than can fit in this article.
Despite that complexity, I think those are the two straightforward answers when it comes to who I’m called to submit to: Jesus, and my boss.
But what about the rest of the staff team? Do I have to submit to the other men on the team? Does it make it difference if they joined the team before me or after me? What if they’re part-time staff members—does that matter? What about student ministers?
Behind all of those questions is this one question: Am I, as a woman (and particularly an unmarried woman), called to submit to every man in every situation? I think the answer is no. But again, the Bible gives me a principle that I want to put into practice.
In Ephesians 5, as Paul talks about a wife’s submission and a husband’s sacrificial love, he goes back to creation and the first husband and wife:
“Therefore a man will leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:31-32)
Submission in our relationships should reflect our submission to Jesus, and should also be a reflection of God’s created order for men and women. So the question I need to ask myself in any tricky situation is not “Do I have to submit to this person?” but “How do I reflect God’s created order in this relationship?” That’s still a complex question, but I find it helpful to move the question away from action and towards attitude.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But through this process I’ve found some good questions to keep asking myself as I try to honour Jesus in this area.