“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 13:17)
“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.'” (1 Peter 5:5)
Throughout my years of ministry, there is one thing I have found that the church lacks. It is a healthy understanding and practice of submission. Most often the commands regarding submission are ignored. At other times, these commands are abused, and people suffer because of it. When dealing with submission, one has to be very careful. A power hungry person who wants to manipulate others can easily do harm to a group of Christians who are striving to do God’s will. On the other hand, we cannot dismiss these passages of Scripture. God has given them to us for a reason.
What Submission is Not…
Submission is not following someone as long as they are leading you where you would choose to go yourself.
Submission is not only bending to leadership on the points in which you agree.
Submission is not suffering abuse because you have no other choice.
What Submission is…
Submission is intended to benefit you spiritually.
Submission is a choice you make.
Submission is a discipline you commit to ahead of time.
Not all submission is the same. In 1 Peter 2:13-15 we are commanded to submit to the governmental authorities so that we might present an example of living peaceably and silence critics who may be hostile towards Christianity. This is far different than submitting to the elders of a congregation who “are keeping watch over your souls” (Hebrews 13:17). Within a congregation, we are to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21). We are to yield to one another on matters of opinion in order to maintain unity. We are to do this out of respect for Christ who is the ultimate example of submission and humility (Philippians 2:3-8).
There are different reasons for practicing submission in each area of our life. The government does not have our spiritual health in mind, but the elders of our local congregation should. We must recognize the difference in submitting to a person or institution in order to be an example or live peaceably and submitting to a person in order to receive spiritual direction. I would like to focus on the benefits of submitting to elders and spiritual leaders for the sake of growing in Christ.
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Proverbs 14:12)
We live in a culture that cherishes individuality. We want to be our own boss. We don’t want anyone telling us what to do. Scripture tells us this is dangerous. We need community. We need tradition. We need to be aware of the people who came before us. We need spiritual leadership and guidance in our life. All of these help us in our Christian walk.
Submission to the elders or a spiritual leader must begin with trust. The elders must possess certain characteristics that make them trustworthy. They must also work to develop trust among the people they lead. If there is a lack of trust in the relationship, then submission for the sake of spiritual maturity will never work.
Once trust has been developed, the membership must be willing to go where the elders lead them. The purpose of the leading should always be to strengthen faith and help mold people into the image of Christ. The elders should be able to recognize things in our lives that we might not be able to see. They may recognize a dangerous habit we have developed, or they may see potential in us that we never saw ourselves. When they speak, we should listen. We also need to be ready to heed their advice and follow the instructions they give us. Part of submission is doing things we typically would not do. We are not submitting when our life looks the same as if we were making all the decisions.
This type of submission is hard work. It is rarely practiced because we do not devote ourselves to it as we should. Sometimes leaders fail to develop trust in the relationships they have with members, or they don’t involve themselves in the lives of members and therefore do not know what they need spiritually. Other times members refuse to submit because they don’t want anyone telling them what to do, or they do not make themselves available to the elders or the congregation. They may show up for worship, but they are out the door before the closing prayer. If we want to be the people God would have us to be, then we need leaders in our lives who have our spiritual interest at heart. We need to be guided. We need to be fed. We need people around us who care about us, love us, and are willing to help us live a Christ-like life.