In our first three posts, we’ve learned that submission is a Universal Biblical Command, that submission to God is the Proper Foundation for all submission, and how Authority Transfers work.

Decline of Authority and ‘Optional’ Church

The organized church has lost a lot of the authority it once had in the world. There was a time, even in American history, when the church was the center of society. Think for a moment about movies that are set back in the old days. I don’t mean the 50s and 60s, I mean the late 1700s through the 1800s. One thing that always seems to be consistent with these shows is that the church was often at the center of much of life in society. The church wasn’t just a place to get spiritual teaching, but it also doubled as the school during the week. Churches and their leadership weren’t just held in high esteem, they were submitted to as an authority in the town. Further, they were also seen as the center for benevolence and aid. During these times you didn’t run to the government, you ran to the church. Church membership was a vital part of being in a community. If we step back even further in church history, there was a time when the Catholic church had it’s own military and, at times, competed with the governments of  its day.

Fast forward to the present. 

The church has become, at best, an option. Although it pains me to say this, the church (as an organization) appears to have been reduced to a religious niche of entertainment. In fact, many churches actually run much of their organization like the entertainment business—they continually try to appeal to the comfort and excitement of their audience. This perception that church is merely an option has crippled the organization in many ways. No longer does the pastor/elder wield the authority and respect in the church, but the people have grappled it away by threatening to withhold their time, talents, or money. Pastors and deacons find themselves submissive to the authority of the whim of the people as they struggle, day to day, to keep a fledgling organization afloat all the while trying to appease those who hold their participation and involvement as a ransom.

If the pastor/elder attempts to push back against the whim of the people, there is often either a split, or the people move on. When I was going through high school I used to joke with co-workers about going church hopping. Sadly, church hopping isn’t a joke. People hop from church to church looking to find something that suits their religious fancy. It’s like deciding what restaurant you want to go to. If you’re not in the mood for burgers, you can always hit the pizza joint down the road. Church hopping isn’t the worst scenario. In many cases, Christians have decided that if their demands can’t be met, if the church won’t submit to their authority, they’ll stay at home. They don’t need to eat out. They can make a nice burger and sit in the comfort of their own home.

Submission – A Biblical Command

Seeing church as an option has led, in many cases, to a total disregard for the pastor/elder rule in the church. It has all but eradicated any form of church discipline. When people don’t need the church, and don’t respect the authority of the church, they simply do away with it as a part of their lives. Unfortunately, the decision to do away with church is an unbiblical, even sinful, reaction. That’s fine if you’re not a Christian. Church leadership wasn’t meant to be submitted to by unbelievers. It’s a Christ ordained institution that believers are supposed to willingly submit to.

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith… Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
-Hebrews 13:7,17

In sections of Scripture like Titus and Timothy, we are given a basic construction of authority for the church. Ultimately, we know that Christ is the head of the church. However, Christ has transferred some of his authority to his apostles and, subsequently, to leaders in the church. The simplest understanding of this hierarchy is that God has ordained spiritual leaders in the form of elders (pastors) and deacons. A quick side note, trustees are not a biblical authority in the church. They are, however, required in many states and various churches to handle the trustee position differently. As it  pertains to the church, elders (pastors) and deacons are the authorities.

According to Hebrews 17, we are to obey our leaders and submit to them. As we continue reading Hebrews, it becomes apparent that the leaders being referred to are not civil authorities, but spiritual authorities. As you read this, ask yourself what spiritual authority, if any, are you submitting yourself to? The most natural way this takes place is through church membership where we voluntarily bring ourselves underneath the authority of a local body of believers and its leaders. It’s not the old days anymore. In the old days, there wasn’t a church on every corner. No, in the old days there was usually one option for church. Back then people didn’t just hop in their cars and drive 30 minutes to church. They submitted themselves to the church in their community. Today, in America, we have a plethora of options of churches to submit to and very few excuses not to be in submission to a local church.

If we are not submitting ourselves to a local church, we are not in line with Hebrews 13. If we are willingly choosing not to obey God’s Word, by not coming under the authority of a local church, we are sinning against God. Repentance requires we do a 180 degree turn. In this case, it means bringing ourselves under a local body.

No Excuses

As I write this, I can already anticipate one excuse or complaint: “We don’t have any good churches or leaders.” Re-read Hebrews 13:17. Does the verse say “Obey only your good leaders, and submit to them.” No, it doesn’t. One of the reasons God wants us to submit to earthly authorities is because he wants us to learn humility. He wants us to be like Christ. Jesus Christ submitted himself to parents, synagogues, and governing authorities. Remember, when Jesus went to the cross it was the religious leaders who first deemed him a blasphemer. Rome simply executed the sentence that the religious leaders had placed on Christ. Even then, Rome executed this sentence of death with much hesitancy. Pilot washed his hands of the whole thing.

Jesus was a better leader than every leader he submitted to. Jesus was a more powerful leader than any leader the earth has ever seen, or will ever see. In fact, Jesus is the God of the universe by whose hand all leaders were created. Still, he submitted to earthly leaders, even bad earthly leaders. Imagine the result if Jesus had decided to usurp the earthly leadership, as many wanted him to do, and unleashed legions of angels on the world. It would have been a triumphant scene, but we would all still be condemned in our sins without a sacrifice.

When God calls on us to submit to earthly authorities, and we choose not to, we’re not just usurping the authority of a terrible pastor, we’re actually usurping the authority of God himself. We don’t always understand why we’ve been called to submit to earthly leaders, but God’s ways are always higher than our ways. Don’t forget that we are not to submit to any authority that God himself hasn’t called us to submit to. Further, if submission to an earthly authority undermines God as the proper foundation for authority then we must follow God and not men.

The Shattered Joy of the Pastor

One final caveat regarding the end of Hebrews 13:17 which says “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” As you read this, you may think I’m making a lot of it up. You may be inclined to buck the system, correct the pastor/elder, and push back when leaders are wrong. As a pastor myself, I can tell you that this type of attitude does not bring the pastor joy. In fact, it shatters their joy and passion for ministry. You many not realize it, but most pastors treat the pastorate seriously and they have a deep and sincere concern for each of the sheep that have been placed under their care.  I want you to take a moment and read the following stats regarding pastors compiled by President Andy McAdams of Multiplication Ministries International:

– 23% have been fired or pressured to resign at least once in their careers.

– 33% felt burned out within their first five years of ministry.

– 33% say that being in ministry is an outright hazard to their family.

– 50% feel unable to meet the needs of the job.

– 57% would leave the pastorate if they had somewhere else to go.

– 90% work more than 50 hours a week.

– 94% feel under pressure to have a perfect family.

– 1,500 pastors leave their ministries each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure.

These stats reveal that many pastors are serving with little or no joy. I would contend that this is, in large part, due to the fact that they are constantly being pressured, critiqued, evaluated, and very rarely obeyed and respected. The sad result is revealed to us at the end of Hebrews 13:17 when it says that a groaning pastor is of no advantage to you. The church’s leadership is weakened day after day as we try to usurp and undermine God’s transferred authority to pastors/elders and deacons. All the while our dissension is actually leading to the stunting of our own spiritual growth. Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if you are obeying your leaders as commanded in Hebrews 13:17:

Questions for Discussion

Are you a member of a church?

When was the last time you obeyed your pastor/elder?

When was the last time you told your pastor/elder you obeyed something they said?

How often do you bring concerns, criticisms, and corrections to your pastor?

How often do you listen to your pastors concerns, criticisms, and corrections of you?

When was the last time you apologized to your pastor/elder?

Have you ever done what the pastor said, even when it seemed ill-advised to you?