Leadership and Submission

Today a question: If it is almost universally agreed that we should all be submissive to one another (Ephesians 5:21, one would have to be fairly obtuse to object to that directive from the apostle Paul), what happens when a person is placed in a position of authority? How can one submit to those he (or she) is actually given authority over? How can you lead from below?

I hate it when I ask myself these questions. I ask better than I answer. But here goes anyway –

First of all, leadership is not inimical to submission. If it was, Jesus was the worst leader of all time. In fact, you could say that Jesus is the answer to the question how to lead from below and that would be the end of it, but then what would become of the rest of this post?

Leading from below involves certain behaviors that come from certain traits of character. First, leadership from below involves listening – not just hearing but actual active listening that forces one to accept and to process what the other is saying. Active listening itself comes from a trait of compassion and caring. The first thing you learn about someone who cannot listen is that they really do not care very much, either.

Second, leadership from below involves participation in the lives of those being led. In more bucolic terms, the shepherd needs to smell like the sheep. The best managers of an assembly plant are those who understand from the bottom up what it feels like to work on the line. If you are going to lead an elementary school, you had better know what it feels like to get down on your hands and knees with the kindergarteners. The best boss I ever worked for in my secular work life actually climbed in our planes and flew them occasionally. That let me know he trusted our mechanics, and it was kind of nice to see him on the flight line, too.

If you listen carefully and participate fully, then that means that occasionally leadership from below means suffering. No one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, and that means leaders as well. Perhaps less bucolic, but certainly no less colorful, is the illustration that was impressed upon me a long time ago: the higher you climb up the flag pole, the more people are going to see your rear end. When the water boy makes a mistake, no one in the stadium will know. When the head coach calls a time-out that he does not have, or when the quarterback throws an interception to end the game, everyone knows. Leadership from below means that we accept our frailty, and also accept that our mistakes are going to be more visible, and potentially more critical, than the mistakes of our followers. Leaders have to stand up and absorb the shots – and have the ability to grow from them.

I guess by way of conclusion I should say that leadership from below also involves a great amount of joy. I simply cannot express the joy I felt when I saw a student return from his/her check-ride and realize that there was a new pilot, a new instrument rated pilot, or a new commercial pilot, or a new flight instructor in the world. Of course I was responsible for teaching them (and a failure meant the FAA would be looking at my teaching skills), but the student had to study, to practice, to actually pass the exam. It is nothing but pure joy to see the “light bulb” come on and see a new babe in Christ emerge from the waters of baptism. So, not all is doom and gloom in terms of leading from below.

I guess it goes without saying that the opposite of these traits pretty much describes bullies and autocrats. They don’t listen, they do not help or participate in the lives of those being led, they certainly do not suffer, and I would suggest they are the most joyless individuals in the world. And the church is full of autocratic bullies. Heaven help the congregation that is led by a man (or men, or women) who refuse to listen, who never get their hands dirty doing ministry or teaching the kindergartners, who are too hoity-toity to even expose themselves to suffering, and whose faces would break if they smiled. God has a message to those who lead from the ivory tower, who dictate but never participate, who “bind heavy burdens on those who seek to obey, but do not lift a finger to help:”

He wants His church back.

Listening, participating, suffering, joy – what else would you add to the list in terms of “leadership from below?” I know my list is not exhaustive, probably not even comprehensive. But, I do hope that I have laid a foundation for the concept that leadership and submission are not mutually exclusive; indeed – they have to be inter-related on a very fundamental level.

Let us learn to lead from below!

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

2 thoughts on “Leadership and Submission”

  1. I agree with you Paul. However those who need to read this are more likely tradition bound, and sad to say, enjoy the power. And it is passed on to the next group or person, and the next, and the next. Disagreeing means that one is denying the Bible. And the cycle continues. I’m somewhat cynical about this. I know there are those who are practicing what you wrote but one or two can change that as well. Thanks again for a good article.

    Like

    1. Much appreciated, George, and I share your concerns – and your observations. It is terrifying to me to stop and consider how “outside” Jesus would be if he showed up in some of our congregations. Would he be an outsider if he showed up where I preach? Would he have to use the words he used in Matthew 23 against me? Am I not just as guilty of leading from “above” as the ones that I have in my mind as I wrote this post?

      I think you gave me the seeds for another post. I appreciate your comments so very much – if for no other reason but that I know someone else is reading these posts!

      Peace –

      Paul

      Like

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