Vol 4:9 Mission and Leading Christ’s Community – Part 5: Mutual Submission

Rarely when we think about leadership and leading, do we think of submission. After all those who lead are seen as leaders because they have followers who, more or less, submit to their leadership. But I contend that mutual submission is an integral part of mission and leading Christ’s community – mission and submission go hand in hand. Mission cannot happen without submission.

On the one hand, I would concede that many see the relationship between mission and submission. As Jesus expressed in John’s Gospel, all that he did and said came from his seeing and hearing his heavenly Father. Jesus did not have a ministry agenda of his own, but submitted himself to carrying out the mission of God in the world. So yes, mission and submission are interrelated.

But what about leadership and submission?

That relationship is not so often addressed, much less embraced. Yet, when I read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, I clearly hear him express the character of mutual submission in the community of Christ. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). Now yes the context is Paul instructing on how Christian households are to operate, however, the principal of mutual submission out of reverence for Christ applies to all of life because in all of life we live in light of the way of Christ Jesus.

Therefore, mutual submission is not merely for husbands and wives, it is also for apostles, pastors and teachers in relation to the community of Christ. The literature on leadership often expresses how followers of leaders are to be in submission to their leaders, but I contend that in being missional and leading missionally, as ones leading we need to explore what it means for those in leadership to exercise submission to the community. How are leaders to lead so that it expresses a submitting to the community out of reverence for Christ?

I believe that is worth exploring. Here are some initial thoughts.

Leaders recognize that they are not above the community, they are an integral part of the community. The Spirit of God has placed them within the community to exercise their gifts of leading – not to highlight their leadership, but to enable the community to discern the leading of the Spirit and to follow in the ways of Christ. Eugene Peterson has expressed that pastors need to recognize themselves as being a sinner within a community of sinners – i.e., those who lead are within the community in which they serve by leading.

Leaders submit to the community by leading in the way of Jesus. Jesus led sacrificially – Jesus gave himself for the church (read the rest of Ephesians 5). In Philippians 2 we read that Christ did not grasp hold of his divinity but emptied himself and gave himself. Now, Christ has set humanity free from the power of sin and death – so our sacrifice does not entail a salvific element, however, our leading has to be carried out in the same attitude as that of Jesus Christ (read the Carmen Christi in Philippians 2).

Leaders submit to the community not by having a word from God to the community, as if the word from God comes from outside the community, such as from a mountaintop retreat experience. Those kind of revelations happened in the Old Testament, where God spoke to a Spirit-empowered person such as Moses or other kings and prophets. However, since Pentecost, the Spirit of God has been poured out upon the people of God, upon the community of God – and so the place to hear the Spirit of God speaking to us is not outside of the community, but within the community.

The role of leading is to hear the Spirit within the community. God is speaking to the community through the community – particularly as the community reads Scripture together, reflects on Scripture together, shares insights as to what the Spirit is revealing in Scripture. God speaks to the community through the community as the community prays. Here we are speaking with God, hearing from God. God speaks to the community through the community as the community engages in spiritual conversations, guides one another spiritually. The community is rife with Spirit activity – and the way pastors and leaders reveal their mutual submission is by walking alongside and among the community, so to encourage the engaging of Scripture, praying and spiritual conversations, but also to hear what is being expressed (the understandings, the questions, the passions, the insights, the stories, the witnessing of God’s presence) – for this is the Spirit speaking.

In hearing what the Spirit of saying, the pastor exercises the gift of leading, not by “manhandling” the congregation, but by giving voice, by articulating into a hearable frame what indeed the Spirit is saying – where the Spirit is leading. Such submission does not exalt the leader’s agenda, but the leader serves the community by giving clarity to the moving of the Spirit of God in the midst of the community. This challenges the whole way leaders have been taught to cast vision for the community – vision is not cast, it is rather uncovered, discerned and given voice.

As you reflect on the mutual submission of leadership, I would be interested to hear some of your insights into how leading is to be exercised as an act of submission.

iMissional.org | Roland Kuhl