This is the first in a series on the subject of “Leadership, Authority and Submission” in the “Church” that Jesus Christ established.
Two Different Systems of Governance
As a college student, I attended one of our nation’s federal military academies. After graduating I served on active duty in the U.S. Coast Guard for twenty-two years. The military system of governance is a top-down command and control structure. Today’s military is still structured very much like that of the Roman Army that occupied Palestine during the time of Jesus. Having been part of a military governance system, I am familiar with the subject of leadership, authority and submission from a worldly perspective. Also having been a Christian for over thirty-three years I am familiar with the concept of Biblical leadership, authority and submission within the Church. What I have concluded is that the two systems are very different, or at least should be.
What do the scriptures have to say about the subjects of leadership, authority and submission? Well, Jesus had a lot to say about spiritual leadership. He said that leaders in the church should be servants. Christian leaders should not act as gentiles who “lord it over” people. A good example of this principle is found in Matthew chapter 20.
Matthew 20:25-28 (KJV) – “But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
What the scriptures reveal is that authority in the church is very different from authority in the world. Church leaders must first and foremost be servants. In Matthew chapter 20 we see Jesus making reference to Gentile rulers. At this time, Israel was occupied by the Roman army and its’ system of regional government. The Romans had set up an elaborate command structure with multiple levels of authority.
The Jews hated the Romans and desired to throw off the yoke of Roman government and oppression. Jesus was discouraging His followers from developing authority structures that were like Rome. That being the case do you believe that Jesus who is the “author and finisher of our faith” would then place us under a similar system of church government?
Matthew Henry Commentary has this to say in regards to Matthew 20:25-28: “Nothing makes more mischief among brethren than desire of greatness….”
Adam Clarke’s Commentary has this to say: “The government of the Church of Christ is widely different from secular governments. It is founded in humility and brotherly love: it is derived from Christ, the great Head of the Church, and is ever conducted by his maxims and spirit……. Every kind of lordship and spiritual domination over the Church of Christ, like that exercised by the Church of Rome, is destructive and anti-Christian.”
It is clear that the spiritual kingdom should be very different from the kingdoms of this world. We as Christians are to teach, counsel and comfort one another but not to exercise dominion over them. The “authority” we must line up with is the Word of God.
1 Peter 5:1-4 (KJV) – “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.”
1 Peter 5:3 makes it clear that no one is to lord it over God’s heritage. This scripture forbids the abuse of power. It also forbids the claim or use of any such secular authority as the princes of the Gentiles lawfully exercise. Human nature being what it is it is hard for vain men or even good men for that matter to have such authority and not let it go to their heads.
In my experience there are a number of Bible passages and issues regarding leadership, authority and submission that have been misapplied, misunderstood and misused by Christian leaders. A church leader who has to rely on title and position as the source of authority will often quote one or more of these passages and misrepresent their meaning. While this is not an all-inclusive list I think its a good start:
- 1 Samuel 15:22-23 (KJV)
- Hebrews 13:17
- Romans Chapter 13
- 1 Peter 5:5
- Psalms 105:15
- The Shepherding Movement
- Exodus 19:12-13
These passages are often taken out of context to make the case for submission to human authority instead of to God and His Word. When misused, there is no attempt to study the meaning of each scripture. There’s no attempt to look at the whole body of scriptures, dealing with the subject of authority and submission. Concordances, commentaries and other Bible translations, other than the King James Version (KJV), are probably never consulted or studied. Whether done out of ignorance or malice, the word of God is never rightly divided. Let’s take each passage and see what the scriptures reveal.
1 Samuel 15:22-23
1 Samuel 15:22-23 (KJV) – “And Samuel said, Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.”
In this scripture we see that King Saul had made God his enemy. Samuel, the Old Testament Prophet, spent a whole night pleading with Saul. This scripture is frequently misapplied by authoritarian church leaders. There’s never an attempt to explain to the congregation who “they” are to “obey.” The misuse of this passage comes from inferring that it is referring to obedience to a Pastor or other religious leader. Moreover, anyone who does not “obey” the religious leader is deemed “in rebellion”. Furthermore, this “rebellion” is “as the sin of witchcraft“. “Witchcraft”, wow! This is a serious charge against someone, wouldn’t you agree? However, what is the correct meaning and intent of this passage?
The truth is that the half-verse, “to obey is better than sacrifice,” has absolutely nothing to do with “obeying” any human being. It is all about obeying God! It is clear from the context of 1 Samuel chapter 15 that King Saul was disobedient to God not Samuel. Samuel, the Prophet pleaded with Saul to obey God. Samuel was simply warning Saul. Remember one of the essential rules of understanding the scriptures – context is important! Some uninformed leaders use this passage to convince their congregations that they are to “obey” their every command as if it was coming from God. However, the Bible teaches that it is the “voice of the Lord” we are to “obey”.
Saul Rejects the Word of God
Now let’s look at the next verse: “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He also has rejected you from being king” (1 Samuel 15:23). I want you to take particular note of the first sentence in the above verse because it applies to all of us. Again the implication here is that if you no not “obey” a religious leader that you are in “rebellion”. And that this “rebellion” is “as the sin of witchcraft”. While sin often harms another person, ultimately, all sin is against God. Again this passage is not about submission to man but submission and obedience to God. Using this half-verse “to obey is better than sacrifice” without explaining that the “obedience” is to God is a twisting of the true meaning of the scriptures.
This is the first in a series of articles on the subject of “Leadership, Authority and Submission” within the Church. The articles focus on the misuse of scriptures that relate to this subject. The next article will focus on the passage in Hebrews 13:17.