the weblog of Alan Knox

Submission is given not taken

Posted by on Nov 4, 2008 in elders, service, synchroblog | 19 comments

This post is part of a monthly synchroblog. The topic for November is “leadership”. At the bottom of this post you’ll find links to other posts about leadership.

Today is election day in the USA, and many Americans are thinking about leadership. In the church, Christians often think about leadership as well. In fact, as Hans Kung has stated, leadership defines the church to such an extent that, for many, ecclesiology is simply an exercise in hierarchiology.

Whenever we discuss church leadership, the question of submission arises. Who is supposed to submit to whom? How do those “above” get those “under” to submit to their decisions? I suggest that these questions demonstrate a flawed understanding of the leadership that Scriptures teaches the church.

Starting with Jesus, he said:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25-28 ESV) 

Thus, according to Jesus, leadership among Christians is to be radically different – not front and center – but among and under. Leaders who follow Jesus’ example are not in front of a group directing them, but among and under a group serving them. Jesus was not talking about “servant-leadership”, but “servants”.

However, the more important point for this post revolves around the idea of “submission”. According to Hebrews 13:17, we are to “Trust our leaders, and submit to them.” This passage, and others like it, are often used by leaders to force, encourage, persuade, even cajole people into acquiescing to the decisions made by the leaders. This practice demonstrates a misunderstanding of submissions.

Leaders cannot force people to submit to them. This is not submission, but subservience. Instead, submission can only be given.

We often take instructions given to others and apply them for ourselves. For example, husbands often feel it is there responsibility to force their wives (or at least remind them strongly) to submit. Yet, the instruction is for wives to submit, not for husbands to force their submission (which is not submission but subservience or enslavement). Instead, husbands are instructed to love their wives. What does a husband do if his wife does not submit? He loves her.

The same can be said of leaders. We are told to follow or submit to those who are leading us. In reality, our submission demonstrates who our leaders are. Leaders are never told to force or even try to persuade others to submit to them. What are leaders to do if others do not submit? Keep living as an example of a disciple of Jesus Christ. We cannot choose whether or not people submit; we can only choose to obey for ourselves.

To look at it another way, is someone a leader if no one is submitting? If someone chooses not to submit (or follow) then I am not their leader – it doesn’t matter what “position” I hold, or what they say about me being a leader.

When Jesus began to teach about leaders among Christians, he pointed his followers to the “Gentiles” and said, “It shall not be so among you.” Today, most leaders in the church model themselves after the prevailing Gentile cultures and norms. But, this is NOT the type of leadership that Jesus taught.

Its time for believers to start following servants, not those who place themselves in the front of the group because of position or education or knowledge. And, its time for leaders to stop trying to force people to submit (which is not submission), and instead simply live their lives as examples of Jesus Christ. We persuade people to follow Christ, not our decisions and our leadership and our vision.

Submission is something that can only be given; submission cannot be taken.


Below is a list of other bloggers who are taking part in the synchroblog on “Leadership”:

Jonathan Brink – Letter To The President
Adam Gonnerman – Aspiring to the Episcopate
Kai – Leadership – Is Servant Leadership a Broken Model?
Sally Coleman – In the world but not of it- servant leadership for the 21st Century Church
Alan Knox – Submission is given not taken
Joe Miller – Elders Lead a Healthy Family: The Future
Cobus van Wyngaard – Empowering leadership
Steve Hayes – Servant leadership
Geoff Matheson – Leadership
John Smulo – Australian Leadership Lessons
Helen Mildenhall – Leadership
Tyler Savage – Moral Leadership – Is it what we need?
Bryan Riley – Leading is to Listen and Obey
Susan Barnes – Give someone else a turn!
Liz Dyer – A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Polls…
Lionel Woods – Why Diverse Leadership is Good for America
Julie Clawson – Leadership Expectations
Ellen Haroutunian – A New Kind Of Leadership
Matt Stone – Converting Leadership
Steve Bradley – Lording or Leading?
Adam Myers – Two types of Leadership
Bethany Stedman – A Leadership Mosaic
Kathy Escobar – I’m Pretty Sure This Book Won’t Make It On The Bestseller List
Fuzzy Orthodoxy – Self Leadership


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 11-4-2008

    You are right. A leader gets out in front with the baton and leads the parade.

    A little in the back with a bullwhip is in a cattle drive and is a tyrant.

  2. 11-4-2008

    Alan you said:

    “To look at it another way, is someone a leader if no one is submitting? If someone chooses not to submit (or follow) then I am not their leader – it doesn’t matter what “position” I hold, or what they say about me being a leader.”

    I love that statement brother. Let me ask you then. Why is it that many Theologians are writing books and preaching on “submission” so much today. Why do you believe that they are trying to convice people that they need to submit to them because they are their leaders?

    By the way here was take on Heb 13:17, let me know what you think.

  3. 11-4-2008

    Good post. It’s all a matter of attitude – of the leader, that is.

  4. 11-4-2008

    .. great post- attitude in leadership is all important- we need to ask ourselves how and why we are leading.

  5. 11-4-2008

    Alan, To pick up on what Lionel said about your comment.

    “”To look at it another way, is someone a leader if no one is submitting? If someone chooses not to submit (or follow) then I am not their leader – it doesn’t matter what “position” I hold, or what they say about me being a leader.””

    If we look at it this way, then Jesus was certainly not the “leader” of the disciples in the end because they all betrayed him to the cross.

  6. 11-4-2008


    Actually at the end, Jesus was their disciples, the story doesn’t stop at the cross it stops at The Revelation.

  7. 11-4-2008


    Not in front pulling and not in back driving… but in the middle serving… that a leader to me.


    You asked, “Why is it that many Theologians are writing books and preaching on ‘submission’ so much today.” Because we don’t really believe that simply serving people (Jesus’s way of leadership) is effective, so we have to come up with other “biblical” methods of leadership.

    By the way, in your last comment, did you mean that Jesus was their disciple or their dicipler?


    Yes. But, I would say attitude and actions of both the leader and others. Unfortunately, those of us who are not leaders often demonstrate a wrong attitude and actions by following the wrong people – not the ones serving.


    Yes, I think we should often ask ourselves how and why we’re leading, and if anyone is following our example.

    Joe (J.R.),

    Actually, I think Jesus perfectly illustrates my point. He became a servant – even to the point of death. While he was dying, very few followed him. But, later others started following him – even to their death.


  8. 11-4-2008

    I think Jesus gave away power. And people liked that.

  9. 11-4-2008

    Alan, what I find important is that we don’t use numbers to determine the success of a leader. If we take that one moment in time of Jesus’ life, he was not a good leader, but as Lionel suggests, the long term picture is much different. (to be clear, i don’t think this was suggested by your article or by any comments, it is just something that came to my mind as I was reading)

    I shared my concern about this a short while back.

    I agree though, I don’t think this in any way contradicts your post and it fits in well with most of what you write on.

  10. 11-4-2008


    Why do you think people liked that Jesus gave away power? (I think I agree, but I’d love to hear your take on it.)

    Joe (J.R.),

    I agree. In fact, I think when we start trying to figure out how many are following us, we become less of a leader. Instead, we should simply serve. And, if others decide to follow – or even recognize us – that’s between them and God.


  11. 11-5-2008

    Hi Alan–
    Did Jesus give away power, or only acknowledge where it rightfully belongs–within each of us?

    Thanks for this thoughtful post!

  12. 11-5-2008

    hi alan, thanks for these thoughts here. i like this line “it’s time for people to start following servants” not just necessarily those who are up front. one of the reasons certain leadership models are perpetuated is that people follow them because of knowledge or ability or you name it. peace, kathy

  13. 11-6-2008


    Thanks for the comment. I think, of all people, Jesus alone has the right to exercise authority (power). However, he chose not to do so, but to allow others power instead.


    Yes. I’ve learned alot over the last few years about who to follow. My life has changed drastically by following servants.


  14. 11-6-2008

    Hi Alan, thanks for your relevant post. I have also posted on leadership but from a South African perspective, quoting our biggest daily newspaper that asks “Where is OUR Obama?”

  15. 11-8-2008

    This is one of the most encouraging posts I’ve read in a while. Thanks!

  16. 11-8-2008


    Thanks for telling us about your post. I have several blogs from South Africa in my blog reader, and I’ll add yours as well.


    Thank you for the compliment!


  17. 7-13-2011

    I may be way off, but I tend to interpret the word submit as receive. For example: wives receive your husband(his love). Recive one another as in Christ …basically is about giving love to one another and receiving love from one another.
    Also, I don’t have to receive or submit to another’s hate but I can still offer love to them which is my part in one anothering. (that’s hard and I screw up, but that’s our goal right?)
    receiving someone doesn’t mean you have to
    submit to everything they do or want you to do.
    Jesus is the only one who has all the
    “commands” worth obeying. When I am lined up with his goals even his difficult commands

    become a desire because I can trust they are

    the strategy for reaching our then mutual goal.
    Like any healthy relationship, it takes a lot of
    back and forth communication(prayer -listening
    and discussing) to grasp what he wants me to receive. Faith is trust. Giving and receiving is based on trust- so in my understanding submitting is based on trust and I can love trust.

  18. 11-8-2012

    Alan as soon as I read this I remembered when I was in the Navy. An Officer demanded that I respect him, as a young kid, I still remember my thoughts. Demand respect? I thought it was earned.

    Today we see this played out, in ways that are packaged different than my military example, but with the same intent. The intent is from their misunderstanding of respect, and of the misunderstanding of the priesthood of all believers. Within the body of Christ there are leaders, this is only in and through the manifestation of Jesus Christ.

    When a group comes together under the headship of Christ leadership can come from any one of the saints. As Christ moves someone to speak, this person is the leader. We lovingly submit to this true authority. The leadership isn’t in the persons title, or position. This leadership is from the indwelling presence of Christ. This is yet another example of the ‘one another’ principle in action. This is dynamic, just as the Holy Spirit is, and when we mutually respond to this, there is a greater revelation into the Life we share ‘in’ Christ.

    “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”
    Paul of Tarsus

  19. 11-8-2012


    Thanks for sharing your experience in the Navy and how it relates to our relationship with Christ and one another.