The Beauty of Submission

Our culture dislikes the idea of hierarchy. I think this is an inevitable result of a belief in instrumental value (i.e., the idea that our value comes from our abilities, what we contribute to society) rather than intrinsic value (where our value comes from being human beings made in the image of God). If our value is a result of what we do, then any preference for a hierarchical structure will be interpreted as a claim that those higher on the ladder are more valuable than those who are lower. But if we’re all equally made in the image of God, then our varying roles are merely the different ways we work to serve others, not statements about our value.

It’s within that second framework that the Bible calls husbands to “love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her,” and says, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church” (see Eph. 5:22–33).

As a complementarian, I think the Bible calls husbands to lead in the home and wives to submit to their leadership. That statement no doubt enrages many, but I think that’s mostly because people have a distorted understanding of both leadership and submission.

The Christian view of leadership and submission does not include what Wayne Grudem calls “errors of passivity” (husband: wimp, wife: doormat) and “errors of aggressiveness” (husband: tyrant, wife: usurper). Instead, the Christian ideal is “loving, humble headship” and “joyful, intelligent submission.”

Leaving behind the issue of husbands and wives for a moment, I can give you a less-emotionally-charged example of a beautiful leadership and submission hierarchy in another kind of organized group I’ve been involved with for years, and in which I’ve seen these same errors and ideals lived out at various times: the hierarchy observed by musicians. As with the family or the church, musicians bring their varied parts together to create a complete, harmonious whole. But in order for this goal to be reached, there must be a clearly defined leader and the other members must submit to him or her.

Thinking specifically of flute quartets I’ve been involved with, I’ve found that the following is necessary for the creation of music—for optimally fulfilling the purpose for which the group was formed:

1. The leader must lead. (No wimps.) When no one’s taking charge to move things along for four women flute players in a practice room, there’s more talking and less playing.

2. The leader must bring the best out of the other players. (No tyrants.) I’ve been part of groups where the leader was so demanding and harsh that no one was able to play well. The good leader will encourage, expand, and increase the talent of the other players rather than beat them down so they’re hampered by fear.

3. The players must play. (No doormats.) Each player has an equally valuable, unique contribution to the group. If even one of them is not making an effort to fulfill her role, the music fails.

4. The players must follow. (No usurpers.) There’s a granting of authority to the leader that must take place on the part of the players if everything is to go smoothly. It’s impossible to lead those who won’t submit. If they are to accomplish anything as a group, the players must respect and support the office of first chair (though they are usually equally talented to, and occasionally even more talented than, the one who holds that office).

To sum up, every player—including the leader—must have her eyes on the goal (making music) rather than on herself.

As an example of how #4 can go terribly wrong, I was once assigned first chair flute in a quartet, but one of the players (who I suppose was upset she wasn’t first chair) made the subtle decision in her heart not to grant me the authority to lead her. What was supposed to be fun quickly became tedious as it proved impossible for the four of us to create anything together without the joyful and productive submission of all the players to my leadership. Her eyes were on herself; her desire was for my role instead of for the ultimate goal of the creation of music, and so she was not able to obtain either, and she destroyed the effectiveness of the entire group. Nobody was happy about this, including her.

As an illustration of error #1, I’ve also been part of an ensemble where the director had the idea that there should be no first chair—no designated leader with the responsibility of governing within each instrument’s section. He thought that since we were all there to have fun, we didn’t need a hierarchy. Wrong. This lack of an assigned leader led to tension, confusion, and hurt feelings. Who’s going to play the solo? Who should play which part? Who has the right to address those who are out of tune or playing something incorrectly? Who gives the final word for decisions that affect the flute section as a whole? Trust me, having an “equal partnership” structure for the entire section kept us from functioning in an optimal way.

On the other hand, when everything works correctly and the loving, humble headship of the leader meets the joyful, intelligent submission of the other players, the result is fulfilling for all—and not just for those who are playing, but also for everyone who is listening. This, to me, has become the illustration of hierarchical leadership and submission that finally helped me make sense of the subject. Having been both the submitter and the submittee, I know the value and joy of both, and I also know the irritating ineffectiveness that ensues when the structure is not accepted.

Luckily, musicians usually do accept and work within the structure that has been created for their good. Perhaps this is because they understand and appreciate the necessity of every part and have experienced the value of submission, even submission among equals. But imagine what would happen if all musicians were to reject submission just as many in marriage relationships have done. The result would be fruitless chaos…and no music.

Leadership and submission exist for the sake of beauty, fulfillment, fruitfulness, and peace. Most everyone has experienced successful leadership and submission in one way or another; but for some reason, when it comes to the husband-wife relationship, our defenses go up, and fear, anger, and resentment rear their ugly heads. It doesn’t have to be this way. Biblical submission is beautiful, and it leads to the creation of beautiful things.

blog post |
Amy K. Hall

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