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When Should Men Submit to Women?
A church benefits when it allows expression of the clear leadership giftings of the Spirit in the lives of both men and women.

My wife Carolyn and I recently attended a viewing of the movie, Whale Rider (2003, by Niki Caro). The movie was filmed in New Zealand and tells the mythical story of a young Maori girl, Pai. She is called to leadership in her tribe—a people who have lost their way and are mired in social problems of all kinds. Pai begins to experience her sense of calling to a leadership role in her community, similar to the biblical figure, Deborah (see Judges 5:6-7).

Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes)
Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes)
in a scene from Whale Rider
©2002 South Pacific Pictures/

Meanwhile, her grandfather, who also senses the need for renewal, is diligently looking for a new leader in all the wrong places. Such a leader would assume the mantle of "whale rider" or tribal chief. Pai's grandfather continually overlooks the clear potential for leadership in the young girl despite repeated signs that Pai is being called to serve her people. There is a dramatic conclusion which I won't share with you, just in case you wish to see this thought-provoking movie for yourself.

Several important lessons hit home to me as I watched this movie. First of all, it is clear that a tribe, community, or church is blind if it neglects the clear giftings of the Spirit in the lives of each and every one of its members. 1 Corinthians 12: 4-11 teaches us that the Spirit distributes a wide variety of gifts "just as He determines". We would be wise to be open to what God is doing as He equips His sons and daughters for ministry: "In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy … " (Acts 2:17 ).

In the New Testament, the concept of calling to ministry is clearly linked to the graceful gift of submission. The very word "submission" is, unfortunately, almost a bad word in some Christian circles—with a few popular writers even trying to redefine basic New Testament vocabulary because the whole concept of "submission" is offensive to them. Why should the attitude and act of submission bring to mind ideas of inferiority or discrimination? This is both sad, and unnecessary, when we see submission as the graceful choice that it is.

Most Christians would readily agree that they should willingly submit to God (see James 4:7; Hebrews 12:9). Jesus Christ epitomized this kind of submission when he humbly accepted the will of the Father to come to earth as our Saviour (see Philippians 2:3-7). We also find that submission is an integral part of the most intimate relationships within the Godhead (see 1 Corinthians 15:27 -28).

There is another sense in which the word submission is used in the New Testament. Submission can speak of Christians who voluntarily yield to another sister or brother for the sake of Christ and His Gospel. This is the sense in Ephesians 5:21, "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." This is described as one of the four direct results of "being filled with the Spirit" (v.18).

Submission is like a lubricant in the Body of Christ—a graceful salve that enables us to live together in community and harmony. In Christ's service, we may lead a sister or brother one day and submit to the same sister or brother the next day in a different context. Why would we submit to each other like this? This graceful attitude towards each other springs from our common dedication to the cause of spreading of Christ's Gospel.

Paul exhorted the Church to honour and support other brothers and sisters in ministry. In Philippians 4:3 we read: "Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the Gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life."

In his letter to the Corinthians, the members there are exhorted: "You know that the household of Stephanas (likely including both male and female members) were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. I urge you, brothers, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work, and labours at it" (1Corinthians 16:15 -16). This family was so clearly called to ministry that the only appropriate response was to support them in every way possible.

Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes)
Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes)
in a scene from Whale Rider
©2002 South Pacific Pictures/

So, when should a man submit to a woman? We read one clear answer in Romans 16:1-3: "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant (minister leader) of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me."

Paul speaks to both men and women in the congregation of Christ in Rome and appeals to them to offer both welcome and support to their sister in Christ, Phoebe, who is active in the ministry of Christ. As we have seen, the voluntary yielding spoken of here is fundamental to graceful Christian relationships. Christian men should want to both honour, support, be responsive to and pray for godly women as they enter into their God-appointed service to his people. If we love the cause of the Gospel, we can do no less.

In our local congregation, we are glad to see courageous women increasingly stepping forward to serve our Lord with conviction and boldness. "Be brave and get moving," as one woman missionary prayed as we commissioned her for Gospel service in the tough inner-city of Winnipeg . There is a great harvest to be reaped in our communities. The Church today needs to value and use all her members in this great task.

Alan Redmond pastors a Worldwide Church of God congregation in Winnipeg, MB.

Originally published in the Northern Light Magazine, July/August 2004.




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