Leadership, Servanthood, and Submission

by R.P. Nettelhorst

       In facing the question of the place of women in the Church and the relationship of men and women, one text that has rarely been used in the issue perhaps would clarify and eliminate the problems fairly simply.

       Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:25-28; cf. Mark 10:42-45 and Luke 22:25-27)

       The nature of "man, the head of the woman" is perhaps explained by remembering the nature of leadership in Christianity. The issue is not the woman submitting to the man, but rather, of the man submitting to the woman. The husband that would truly be the head of his household must be a servant. How rare that is! Yet this is precisely what the Bible demands, something that is completely alien and at odds with the American ideal as popularly imagined, even within Christianity.
       Does this mean that the man does whatever his wife tells him to do? No more than it means the wife does everything the husband tells him to do. Being a servant does not mean being a door mat. It means being a lover!
       Jesus always did what was best for the human race as a whole, and for his disciples in particular. So when the disciples suggested he do something stupid, he didn't listen to them. Peter wanted to build shrines for Jesus and Moses and Elijah. Jesus told him no. Peter - and all the disciples - tried to dissuade Jesus from the cross. But he died for our sins, anyhow.
       Doubtless we have all seen men and women taken out by their spouses. I have seen women use their husband as an excuse to leave the church or to lessen their involvement. It essentially boils down to, "I can't do what's right and good because my husband won't let me." The opposite happens just as often - in fact, perhaps more often. Over the years, I have witnessed several men leave leadership positions in their church, and then saw them leave their church altogether, because, for whatever reason, their wives "just weren't happy" with the church or the pastor, or they were mad over some perceived slight.
       Eve's words, "this serpent..." or Adam's words "this woman you gave me" express the same attitude: seeking someone else to blame for his or her own stupidity. It is a lie to believe that someone or something else is responsible for our own failure to be righteous.

       Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
       Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
       Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church-for we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery-but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (Ephesians 5:21-33)

       This is illustrated by 1 Corinthians 7:4-5

       The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.

       Submitting for Christians is simply another word for love. We do for someone else because we want what's best for them, not because we're looking for what's in it for us. The wife submits to the husband just as the church submits to Christ and the husband loves his wife as Jesus loved the Church and gave himself for it. This is submission and this is love, no matter how you cut it. How did Jesus love the church? Philipians 2 describes how he humbled himself and became a servant, becoming nothing for the sake of the human race.

       If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself and became obedient to death-
even death on a cross! (Philipians 2:1-8)

       How does the church love Jesus? Look at Stephen or Paul or any other person of faith and godliness in the Bible.
       There is no place in the church for men to "lord it over" the women, or for leaders to do the same over those whom they lead. Likewise, there is no room for meekly going along with whatever the whims might be because we must obey. Who cares about what's right.
       Based on the scriptures quoted above, leadership in the Christian context means mutual love, respect, and submission - three words that to a large extent are synonymous. Being a doormat is not part of the equation, because submitting to evil is something that a Christian must not and cannot do.

       Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
       Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
       Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. (Colossians 2:20-3:6)