Authority: Submission in the Church

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Authority. Click here to see the entire series.


The following verses are not nearly so popular, not nearly so often read, and not nearly so often taught, as the passages about submission in the family.  Nevertheless, they are a vital part of the doctrine of authority.

I Corinthians 16:  15-16 says, “Now I urge you, brethren (you know the household of Stephanus, that it was the first fruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves for ministry to the saints), that you also be in subjection to such men and to everyone who helps in the work and labors.”

Ephesians 5: 23-24 says, “…as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being Savior of the body.  But as the church is subject to Christ…”

Hebrews 13: 17 says, “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.”

Lastly, I Peter 5:5 says, “You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders…”  (This passage is in the context of I Peter 5:1 which says, “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you…shepherd the flock of God…”  This passage is frequently misunderstood by those who interpret the phrase “be subject to your elders” colloquially and understand it to be simply a general exhortation to honor the elderly.)

It is understandable that these verses of Scripture are frequently ignored.  Pastors and teachers are seen as pedantic and self-serving when they preach and teach a passage that orders others to submit to them.  So as not to offend anyone and so as to not appear to be in any way a tyrant, these verses are relegated to the dustbin of the preacher’s repertoire.

Although it is understandable why these verse are ignored; it is also reprehensible that they are ignored.  It is the duty of the preacher and teacher to declare the entire Word of God, without favoritism to any passage and without any respect of persons.   To allow self interest of any fashion to creep into what is selected to be preached is dead wrong.

The majority of the Evangelical churches in the United States are ordered according to a congregational form of government.  The idea of being in submission to an elder and congregational government does not mix well.  The majority of Evangelical Christians in the United States are indoctrinated to believe in the quasi biblically ordained concept of democratic government in which the leaders (elders) are expected to be servants who submit to the orders of the congregation.  I will come back to this problem a bit later in this essay.  For now, it is sufficient to say that there is a great presuppositional bias lurking in the minds of most Christians that makes it almost impossible for them to understand what is being taught in the four passages listed above.

Paul orders the Corinthians to submit themselves to the representational authority of the ministers.  Paul spells out the chain of authority to the Ephesians when he says that Jesus, to whom all authority has been given, is the Head of the Church, and the Church is subject to Him.  Within this Church he has ordained His representatives.  The writer to the Hebrews makes it very clear that it is the moral duty of the members of the congregation to be under the delegated authority of Jesus seen in the leaders of the local church.  To refuse to submit to that representational authority is unprofitable for the members!  Why?  Because in their refusal to submit to the delegated representative of Jesus, they are, in fact, refusing to submit to Jesus Himself.  That rebellion against the chain of command that God has established has serious negative consequences for the rebel.

The warning that non-submission is unprofitable to those who practice it is entirely consistent with the teaching on representative authority seen in the example of the Centurion.  Refusing to follow the orders of the superior does not injure the superior authority.  The consequences of refusing to submit to the superior authority fall squarely upon the head of the insubordinate one.  Therefore, insubordination primarily harms the spiritual welfare of the rebel, not the designated authority.

Most churches today are fearful of exercising authority.  Indeed, the situation is so horrendous that most churches make the conscious decision to not even instruct the congregation on their duty to submit.  Such is not the case with the third class of verses that speak about the necessity of submitting to representational authority.  Those are the verses that speak of the civil magistrate.

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