Submission can be quite a thorny issue at times. What is the biblical perspective on submission vs godly leadership? I know that we are required to submit to those in authority - to our husbands, church leaders, leaders of countries etc. What happens when the leader (especially a church leader) stands over you with a whip and causes you to become so fearful of not submitting that any form of questioning is seen as an act of rebellion and not submission. What should a Christian do if a church leader says “I submit to God and therefore you should submit to me?” How far should your submission go? Do you allow yourself to be bullied into doing things that you would normally question? What does submission really mean?
God calls Christians to submit to their church leadership who are assumed to be spiritual leaders fulfilling their biblical responsibilities. That is why He gave us qualifications to use as guidelines for selecting church leaders in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9 and why He told us what these leaders should be doing.
They have two primary responsibilities according to 1 Timothy 5:17,
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. (NASB) 1 Timothy 5:17
They are to “work hard at preaching and teaching” and they are to “rule well.” The Greek word for “work hard” has the idea of agonizing in their study of God’s Word and their preparation for teaching and preaching. Pastors and leaders who have little depth in their message or come unprepared are guilty of not “working hard” and, even worse, they are not spiritually growing as a result of not being in the Word very much. Many pastors will admit they start preparing Saturday night for the Sunday morning sermon and due to experience, their Sunday morning messages appear good. God says the one who works hard, the one who agonizes, the one who grows tired in the study of the Word is the one who should be honored!
The second major responsibility of church leaders is to “rule well.” The word literally means ‘standing before.’ It has the idea of someone being in charge. In Hebrews 13:17 the Greek words for “obey” and “submit” have the idea of “to be persuaded” and “yield, give way, or submit to someone’s authority.”
Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. (NASB) Hebrews 13:17
Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. (NASB) Hebrews 13:7
The person in this case is a spiritual leader. This is a command and Hebrews 13:7 tells us to “imitate” or “mimic” these leaders only after we consider their Christian faith. This means their walk with God and their doctrine is consistent with scripture. This includes their lifestyle and spiritual maturity (the result of their conduct).
I heard of a pastor who was in the middle of a controversy within his church. He was apparently the central issue. Upon being confronted by a church member he told this member that to disobey him was to disobey the Holy Spirit. It should remind us of 1 Peter 5:3,
. . . . nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. (NASB) 1 Peter 5:3
The word for “lording” comes from the Greek word “kurios” which the New Testament uses for “lord.” We use it for the name of Jesus – our Lord Jesus. Spiritual leaders are not to act as a lord, master, boss, or supervisor.
When Do We Submit?
As we saw in Hebrews 13:17 above, we are to submit to the Word of Truth that our leaders teach us. We are also to submit to our leaders as they implement church discipline as outlined in Matthew 18:15-20. Scripture also encourages us to mimic the godly faith of our leaders (Heb. 13:7). Finally, we are to submit to the administrative guidelines and regulations of the church as outlined by our leaders because God has given them the responsibility of ruling well.
But there are exceptions! We are told to reject false teachers (Galatians 1:6-9; 2 John 1:7-11). We are told to discipline leaders who sin according to 1 Timothy 5:19-21 (see the example in Gal. 2:11-15). Hebrews 13:7 also implies that if a leader’s life or conduct does not demonstrate godly faith, we are not to follow him. Obedience is not blind. Our leaders are accountable too!
Jesus’ idea of leadership is to serve others – not to be served. We humans are funny creatures who always seem to want to control others. Listen to Jesus’ words,
But Jesus called them to Himself, and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (NASB) Matthew 20:25-28
Jesus calls church leaders to humility. Would it not be wonderful if church leaders started voluntarily resigning when and if they became disqualified due to sin in their life. That would spiritually transform churches and glorify God!