In 2015 the World Economic Forum conducted a “Survey on the Global Agenda.” A startling eighty-six percent of respondents agreed there was a leadership crisis in the world. In China, ninety percent of people surveyed by Pew said corruption was a problem. Separate studies found that seventy-eight percent of Brazilian respondents and eighty-three percent of those in India regard dishonest leadership as a serious issue. Has any of this changed in any significant way in the intervening six years?
Disturbingly, the only people to rank lower than government leaders in the Survey on the Global Agenda were religious leaders. Fifty-eight percent of respondents had concerns that religious leaders would abuse their positions, and fifty-six percent thought that they were unlikely to be of help in addressing global problems. Is there any reason to think this has changed in any significant way in the intervening six years?
Yes, we have a leadership crisis. There is, I believe, an important aspect of leadership that is customarily overlooked, even in discussions about Christian leadership or biblically-based leadership models. I’ll summarize the missing principle with the phrase “mutual submission.” The typical model of leadership in our culture focuses on strength and resolve while all too often bordering on bullying, name calling, and scapegoating. In other words, power—gaining power and protecting acquired power. But one of the most vexing aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching is the paradoxical claim of ultimate power and Jesus’ consistent refusal to use that power to accomplish personal and kingdom goals. It’s obviously not a blanket refusal to use power. We frequently see Jesus’ exercising such power (or authority or strength or right or force) on behalf of those in need or suffering, yet without power. Our struggle, and that of the disciples around Jesus, is the unwillingness of Jesus to exercise his authority to save himself and forcefully inaugurate the rule of God.
The biblical idea of mutual submission is consistently found in the New Testament but usually only surfaces in discussions about communities in crises. This focus on mutual submission may just be the missing link in meaningful community life because it is also the overlooked and undervalued trait of leadership in general.
One biblical text that highlights mutual submission is Ephesians 5:21. The preceding paragraph gives us the required context and the ‘household code’ that follows gives practical examples of how it would look in everyday Roman life. The context is about living ‘Christianly’—avoiding foolish choices and, instead, following the leading of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul employs a series of participles that exemplifies what it means to be filled with the Spirit: speaking (v. 19), singing and making melody (v. 19), giving thanks (v. 20), and submitting to one another (v. 21). He will then explore mutual submission in the context of a typical Roman household (husbands/wives, parents/children, slave owners/slaves). When compared to contemporary household codes, Paul’s explanations are surprising and startling.
But our focus is on that last participle—“submitting to one another.” The essence of that command was difficult then, and it is demanding still. But what would happen in our communities, our churches, our cities, and our nations if leaders embraced mutual submission as a required leadership trait? And what would be the attitude of the citizens and members looking to those leaders?
Mutual submission is reflected and explored in other texts by Paul, such as Philippians 2. The attitude is exemplified by Jesus in what is traditionally known as the “Christ Hymn” (Phil. 2:5-11). However, listen to the verses introducing the hymn, to the things the Apostle Paul exhorts all followers of Jesus to demonstrate: “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too” (Phil. 2:3-4).
The pattern seems obvious and repeated: power hungry leaders find an audience, and that audience becomes equally power hungry, protecting its like-minded friends and followers. Angry leaders find and promote angry constituents and organizational members. And so on, and… well, the pattern is apparent. Citizens, church members, and communities take cues from leaders. What would happen if those leaders valued and modeled mutual submission?
I consider mutual submission to be the missing link for three reasons.
1. Mutual submission is modeled by Christ. Jesus didn’t just say it, he lived it, and as Maundy Thursday approaches we are all encouraged to revisit Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and encouraging them to follow a new commandment. That new commandment sounds a great deal like mutual submission: wash one another’s feet; love one another as I have loved you; your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.
2. Mutual submission consistently reminds us of the divine image in everyone. The temptation in policy battles, tax discussions, border regulations, club memberships, school decisions, battles over worship models, and arguments over the color of church carpets and floor patterns is the temptation to reduce the image of God in others and magnify it in myself. We are right; they are wrong. My way is better; their way is worse. Our team is more important. My concerns take precedent. And yet the Apostle Paul writes, “Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.” Mutual submission is an active reminder that the image of God in everyone must be treated with respect, heard with honesty, and included in the decision-making equation.
3. Mutual submission embraces the power of love rather than the power of force. From Isaiah to young Mary, the clear vision is that when the time finally comes and God’s will is realized, the world order will be reversed. Where will that leave us? Jesus taught us to pray for God’s will to be done, and he taught us what that will is. Do we have the courage to embrace it? Do we have leaders with enough faith and courage to model it? The real challenge of mutual submission is that every ‘I’ must submit along the way. Everyone!
“Eighty-six percent of respondents agreed there was a leadership crisis in the world.” That also sounds like an incredible opportunity for someone, for some organization, to model and promote a better way. A way that empowers the powerless, a way that promotes unity, a way that counters hateful speech and violent actions, that generates more equality, and that values love over force. But most of those changes feel threatening to someone or some group, and those threats contributed to the death of Jesus. But Easter is just around the corner and with it, a new dose of resurrection hope. This year of all years, can the church at-large find the faith to believe in the life modeled by Jesus, outlined by Paul, and attempted by the early followers of Jesus? Someone has to model a better way, both leaders and followers. Imagine what could happen if we try. Imagine what will happen if we don’t try.