SUBMITTING TO AUTHORITY IN THE CHURCH
Last week’s post was about authority in ministry. It was aimed primarily at Christian leaders and included a warning against a perverted version of authority gained by power grabbing instead of service.
I quoted a favorite verse in that post. Hebrews 13:17 reads like this:
“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.”
Last week I focused on the second half of the first sentence, “they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” It’s a sobering challenge for the leader to remember that he must honor God with every decision, every initiative, every conversation, every confrontation.
But obviously this verse has a message for followers as well as leaders, and I want to give a little space to that message here.
A CLEAR COMMAND
The Scripture is pretty clear: “Submit to their authority.” I’ve sat through many discussions of that troublesome word submit. It doesn’t fit well with the ethos of our culture. We live in a time and country where individual rights (read “preferences”) reign. “Don’t tell me what I—or my child—can and can’t do.” It’s the foundation of a dozen conflicts someplace every hour: in principals’ offices, before judges, with human resource directors, and at traffic stops. Again and again advertisers feed our tendency to “have it your way.” We’ve heard it so often we think we deserve it.
But then the Scripture tells us to submit:
• . . . to the government (Romans 13:1-7).
• . . . to our spouses (Ephesians 5:21-33).
• . . . to our parents (Ephesians 6:1-3).
• . . . to one another in the church (Ephesians 5:21; Philippians 2:3, 4).
• . . . to our employer (Ephesians 6:5-7).
• . . . to God (Ephesians 5:24; James 4:7)
• . . . to our Christian leaders (Hebrews 13:17).
In every case this submission is based upon the authority of God who commands us to submit. But the command makes us squirm. We try to explain it away or simply ignore it, concentrating instead on commands easier to obey (or to tell someone else how to obey).
But I believe most dissension in any local church grows from lack of respect for leaders, demonstrated in an unwillingness to submit to them. Admittedly, many Christians have been burned by leaders in the past who acted selfishly or foolishly, leaders who forgot their accountability to God. So I understand when church members are wary. But we can’t be happy with followers who won’t ultimately submit.
THREE SIMPLE PERSPECTIVES
“But what if I think their decision is wrong?”
Submission doesn’t forbid discussion. The mutual submission required by Scripture implies mutual respect, conversation, and consideration. But too often leaders encounter church members who attack them as if they were an irresponsible official or incompetent boss or immoral politician. Surely our dealings with each other should be different from interactions in the world among those who don’t know Christ.
To those who don’t agree with some Christian leader’s decision, I’d suggest a few simple perspectives.
• GIVE THEM THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT.
Unless you have proof that your leader is a charlatan or a crook, think twice before you assume bad motives from them. Look at the situation from the leader’s point of view. Assume that he or she has prayed about the decision and taken counsel from other leaders. Look for the good the leader hopes to accomplish.
• CHECK YOUR OWN MOTIVE.
Is your objection really because some truth from God has been violated, or are you simply pressing for your own preference? If the latter, you have the choice to support the leader for the good of the church or leave that congregation for another with a leader who does things your way. But don’t be surprised when you someday dislike a decision from that leader, too. Few situations will continue to please you in every detail.
• REMEMBER THE LEADER’S RESPONSIBILITY.
He’s doing his job, and his job is not your job. He’s accountable to God for his ministry; you are not accountable to God for his ministry. You are, however, responsible to God to associate with the leader so his work “will be a joy, not a burden.” Does your leader take joy in his work because of how you relate to him or her? That is the question God is asking of you.
In all of this I’ll quickly admit I’m still learning how to submit. And every week I encounter Christians also caught up in the struggle to put self second. If we’ll all stop to think about how to do this better, the church will be stronger and God will be glorified. That’s a good goal for leaders and followers alike.