Pecking order is God’s design
If you know me, you know I love my dog, Gemma. C.S. Lewis once went so far as to say, “Man with dog closes gap with God.” He meant that there is no way to understand a man’s affection for his dog without doing theology, without coming a little closer to appreciating God’s affection for mankind.
Regardless of whether or not that’s true, “man’s best friend” is certainly a well-thought-out adage. Dogs are lovable companions in a way that humans typically aren’t. They enjoy the things you can give them, but ultimately, they just want you for you.
And yet, this relationship, this friendship, is not just a 50/50 partnership. There’s a pecking order. That’s the only way it works.
The above pictures are of Gemma as a several month old puppy. Gemma is now a full-grown, 50+ pound pit bull. That’s fairly average to small for a pit bull, but pit bulls are sort of like piranhas – the destructive potential is less about overall size than it is about jaw strength. They’re crazy stubborn and capable of a lot of damage. To help train and manage Gemma, we have a collar with a remote that gives her a jolt of static electricity whenever she’s misbehaving (As a side note, for the dog’s sake, I’d recommend not putting the remote in the pocket of a pair of hipster skinny jeans. Just saying’. Those buttons are fairly responsive.)
Anyways, if Gemma ever gets the impression that she’s the leader of the pack, chaos inevitably ensues. She’ll help herself to anything she can find in the garbage, on the counters, or in the cat’s litter box (which you don’t realize until later on, when she comes over to try to give you a kiss). Without an awareness of pecking order, Gemma will literally barrel you over to grab the food in your hand. She will gladly eat every pair of shoes in your closet and then shove them in your face to taunt you. She will urinate on your bed, look you in the eye, and challenge you to do something about it. Like a child, she doesn’t inherently understand boundaries, so she’ll push until she meets a resistance point that someone establishes for her.
But when Gemma knows I’m in charge, she’s actually much happier. After all, she understands that I’m the one who meets her basic needs (i.e. “the provider”) and therefore she wants to see me in a position of power. She wants to sense me in control. This is why when we’re outside and she sees something unfamiliar, she immediately runs to hide between my legs. She craves the structure and dependability of God-given order. It helps her feel secure in a strange, cruel world.
So I’m in charge. This is how our relationship works best. And this shouldn’t surprise any student of the Bible, which teaches us that this is the way God designed it to be. In paradise, God said to Adam and Eve, “Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen. 1:28) Variously tiered roles (i.e. a “pecking order”) were a perfect, godly thing.
Sinful humans don’t like the idea of pecking order
The illustration I just gave is about humans and animals. (PLEASE NOTE: Let me make it abundantly clear that the above analogy of Gemma and me is ONLY intended to be illustrative of the fact that God established an order between us. The illustration is not to be stretched beyond that one point moving forward.) The next step, naturally, is to inquire about the roles between humans and other humans.
Because human beings have a sinful tendency to distort and abuse hierarchical relationships, we often tend to view progression of command exclusively in terms of value and power. We assume talent and hard work always flows from the top down. Consequently, we long to be at the top, in leadership positions, not so much because we truly desire to lead, but because we want to validate our worth. We think that if we’re at the top, then we must be valuable.
But what if, regardless of talent, we voluntarily chose to submit ourselves to the leadership of another. What if “What am I capable of?” wasn’t the only consideration. What if our worth wasn’t based on society’s verdict, or even self verdict, but God’s objective verdict? Wouldn’t that free us to uniquely serve in roles that a selfish society would rarely value or dream of serving in?
This reminds me of a story I once heard about Dr. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He was a surgeon in London in the 1920s, and he was a man of great standing and distinction. However, after he became a Christian, Lloyd-Jones, who was recognized to have a tremendous gift for public speaking, wanted to enter into Christian ministry. So he became a pastor. It was supposedly about a 90 percent cut in salary. Some years after that happened, a reporter came to him, and the reporter said, “Dr. Lloyd-Jones, many people were intrigued when you made this choice. You gave up so much. There were so many things in your life you had to give up, and I’m sure there has been a great deal of enjoyment and satisfaction doing what you’ve done. But I’ve come here to find out, on balance, after reflecting and weighing everything up, was it worth it?” As the story goes, Lloyd-Jones responded back, “I gave up nothing. I received everything.” He was suggesting that when you reorient your life around the gospel of Jesus, you’re no longer trying to find your value in your money, your title, or your social status. Only a person whose life didn’t revolve around the gospel and was blind to its innate riches would think to even ask such a question.
For our purposes here, when you reorient your heart around the gospel of Jesus, you’re no longer so worried about what rung on a worldly status ladder you happen to be on. You can humbly accept whatever God’s calling for your life may be. You’ll stop trampling over others to become a master, because you’ve found the real master. And you start serving others because you know that’s your real master’s purpose for you.
Specific Implications for Christians
While there are many ways to apply the teaching of godly pecking order, I’m going to keep it to two here:
“But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Cor. 11:3)
I’ve already written at length regarding the biblical concept of complementary roles of men and women. But to summarize, I’ll say that while marriage is a partnership, it’s not just a simplistic 50/50 business agreement.
For instance, if God ever comes to your family and questions your motives, priorities, decisions, and behavior (and yes, we’ll all have to give an account in the end), GENTLEMEN, he’s coming for YOU first (Gen. 3:9). According to his all-surpassing wisdom, he’s put you in charge. So, placating your wife and coming along for a spiritual ride in life won’t be “man” enough in the end, not according to God’s clearly intended roles.
Whether you signed up for it or not, God designed men to be leaders in the marriage relationship. God surely could have arranged your chromosomes differently. But he didn’t. This means you now have an important responsibility and privilege to lead, one that should never be shirked by either 1) avoiding the leadership role in laziness or cowardice, or 2) abusing the leadership role for selfish gain. It’s an important and fulfilling role. But remember, you’re in this position for the purpose of service, not self. Your wife’s well-being is more important than your own. And God calls you to lead that way.
Ladies, it’s also necessary for you to realize that God has put him in charge. “But pastor, do you realize how many men out there sometimes act like fools?!?!” Yes. I’m one of them. I don’t pretend to know WHY God created men first or WHY he put them in a leadership role. But it’s reasonable to assume that the engineer of humanity knows better how his product works than I do. And this is the pecking order he designed.
Furthermore, ladies, not only does God want you to recognize these roles, but he wants you to recognize the weight of the responsibility that’s been placed on your husband and respect him, encourage him, and support him when he embraces that leadership.
And finally, the fact that men are in the headship role does not at all suggest women are inferior. Women are not less intelligent, less capable, or less faithful. In fact, it seems fairly obvious that women are uniquely designed as superior in a number of areas. For example, whereas men often excel when one (and only one) task/project is placed before them, women generally dominate in areas that require multi-tasking. As a result, women tend to be much better than men when it comes to people/office organization, event planning, and yes, things like child rearing. Why? Those tasks all require you to juggle many things at once. Put men in these positions and you’ve got missed appointments, missed details, and missing children. These are generalizations, of course, but I don’t think the majority would disagree with the basic thought – women multi-task better than men – evidencing that headship is not a talent thing.
My bigger point then is that God established this pecking order for unknown, but not inconceivable reasons. And if you read Paul’s words from 1 Cor. 11 again, you realize that the gender roles of the Bible simply cannot be an importance or talent issue, because you’ll notice that Christ himself is on a level below God in the pecking order. Now is Jesus, in any way, inferior to God? Of course not! But he does respectfully follow the will of his Father. And therein you find the key to headship.
2) Church Leadership
“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” (Heb. 13:17)
For some reasons, perhaps because Americans tend to deify democracy, we see the need for democracy in EVERYTHING. Every opinion must count equally. All input must be considered legitimate. Or at least this is how the thought process goes.
Outside of a few votes taken in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 1 & Acts 6), for which I would not mandate a democratic form of church governance, you primarily see godly servant leaders directing and appointing in churches. By the way, in both of those examples from Acts, the vote was still occasioned by the direction of the disciples. So even the democratic parts are not entirely democratic.
The point is that not every thought, feeling, or opinion is equally valid. Godly church leadership is certainly always going to gather input and be sensitive to the hearts of the souls entrusted to their care. But too many churches accomplish too little because they’re trying to listen to a hundred voices at once. So let’s be practical about it. Jesus never ran a democracy. If every vote amongst his crew was equally weighted, he likely never would have gone to the cross to pay for our sins (Matt. 16). He would’ve been outvoted. And what sort of predicament would we be in then?
Shepherds are not called to sheep. They’re called to shepherd. Therefore, gospel shepherds have to correct, rebuke, train, and encourage. That requires wisdom, faithfulness, humility, and guts. It also requires a flock that’s on board with the biblical concept of pecking order too. There were many Old Testament prophets who possessed all the qualifications of good shepherds, but got nowhere because people refused to humble themselves before the words and direction of God’s prophets.
Okay, so the cynic in all this might say, “Well, Pastor, how convenient? You happen to fall into the leadership responsibilities of both those examples! Jerk!!!”
So let me confess….
Almost weekly I feel like running from responsibility. Husband, pastor, Christian, doesn’t matter. I sometimes catch myself fantasizing about irresponsibility. I literally haven’t experienced the sensation of “boredom” since the 90s, cause I always feel like there’s probably something that needs to be done. And don’t get me wrong – I’m no martyr and I do fail and I do repent of occasionally shrugging off my responsibilities. But I also take them seriously. What I’m trying to say is that the weight of true headship, if the grace of God is not continuously kept in mind, can be nearly suffocating.
Additionally, EVERY person, pastors too, should be under the headship of someone. I’d like to think that the elders in my congregation or my circuit pastor (who functions sort of like a pastor to pastors in our church body) would lovingly crack me upside the head if I wasn’t being a faithful husband, pastor, or otherwise. So it isn’t like pastors don’t have functional headship in their lives. Everyone but God himself needs headship.
My point here is this: whatever level of headship in your life, it is neither better nor worse than a different level. But it is a reality that isn’t to be merely acknowledged, but rather should be lived. Your role is the position of life in which God has placed you, presumably for his divine reasons. And you glorify God by respectfully submitting in and/or lovingly leading in that role.
If husbands abuse or defer leadership OR wives usurp leadership, BIG problems. If pastors/elders abuse or defer leadership OR church members rebel against leadership, BIG problems.
Pecking order is godly.
Your Example, Savior, and Motivation
Don’t forget, Jesus voluntarily humbled himself and placed himself under his Father’s perfect will. “Though (Jesus) was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Phil. 2:6-7 ESV)
Paul said in one sentence what I just took like 2500 words to do. Jesus, with the talent of God, glorified God by lowering himself to serve man. In doing so, he saved you. He saved you from hell. But he also saved you from wasting your whole life in efforts to become a somebody who dies a has-been. Instead, now you’re free to empty yourself into someone else’s life, for the sake of eternal impact.
When Jesus embraced his role in the order of God’s plans, he saved billions of people. What is God going to do when you embrace your role?