Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Submission in Congregations

[This entry follows a sermon titled "Follow the Leaders".]

This past Sunday, we finished our sermon series on church leadership with a study on the congregation's response to its pastors.  Namely, we talked about "the 's' word"...submission. 

Submission is really a nasty word in many people's minds.  In our culture, submission (in general) is taken to mean that the one submitting is less important, less valuable, viewed as expendable, etc., while the one to whom submission is given is viewed as a demeaning, domineering dictator.  This misunderstanding of submission is why people rail against it being applied in the home, in society, and in the church.

However, biblical submission does not require the exaltation of the one and the demeaning of the other.  The greatest example of this is in the submission of Jesus to the Father.  Consider a few texts (with emphasis added by me):
  • "For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment - what to say and what to speak.  And I know that his commandment is eternal life.  What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me." - John 12:50
  • "For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.  This charge I have received from my Father." - John 10:17-18
  • "Jesus said to them, 'My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.'" - John 4:34
  • "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." - John 3:17
  • "And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." - Philippians 2:8
All of these texts indicate that what Jesus said, did, and how he died was in submission to the will of God the Father.  Yet, at the same time, Jesus is fully God (Col. 1:15-20).  There is not less divinity in the Son than in the Father, and Jesus is not demeaned by His life of submission.  Rather, He is glorified because of it (cf. Phil. 2:9-11).  Jesus was the ultimate example of His own teaching: "...whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Mt. 23:12).

So, if biblical submission is not the demeaning and suppression of a less valuable human being, then what is it?  Biblical submission is the voluntary act of yielding to the authority of another person for the glory of God.  That's what Jesus did...He voluntarily yielded to the will of the Father for the glory of God.  This is how biblical submission should be viewed in the home, in society, and in the church.

It is this last one that interests me today, especially as I serve in a Baptist church.  If, as a congregational church, we understand the New Testament to teach that God has entrusted authority to the congregation (and we do believe this), then what does it look like for congregations to "obey your leaders and submit to them" (Hebrews 13:17)?  This is a great question.

First, let me review the four main ways that I see the congregation functioning with authority in the New Testament.
  1. Doctrine - In the New Testament, there are many letters written to whole congregations...congregations who must take care not to walk away from the gospel that has been preached to them.  One glowing example is the book of Galatians.  This letter is a staunch defense of the one true gospel by the apostle Paul, and yet it is not written to a pastor or to a group of pastors.  It is written "to the churches of Galatia" (Gal. 1:2b).  Paul says that he can't believe they have been so quick to walk away from the gospel, and he charges them to condemn anyone who preaches a gospel other than the one they received (Gal. 1:6-9).  In other words, these local congregations are charged with making sure that what is preached from the pulpit and received by the hearers is the genuine gospel of Jesus Christ.  That is an act of authority.
  2. Discipline - In both Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, we have teaching about how to deal with those who are caught in sin.  In Matthew 18, we have one who refuses to repent after admonition, and in 1 Corinthians 5, we see the account of a man in open, licentious sin.  In the first case, Jesus says failed attempts to secure repentance means the whole church should be involved in disciplining the man or woman (Mt. 18:17).  In the second, the apostle Paul charges the church to have the immoral man removed from their fellowship (1 Cor. 5:2).  Neither is addressed only to the pastors of the church...this is congregational involvement in excluding those whose lives contradict their professed faith in Christ.  Again, this is an act of authority.
  3. Membership - In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul talks about the punishment...the discipline...carried out by "the majority" of the church.  [I understand Paul to refer to the man from 1 Corinthians 5, but there are varying positions on this.]  Note, he is calling on the congregation "to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.  So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him" (2 Cor. 2:7-8).  It seems that the church disciplined the man, as we discussed in #2, and now, Paul is calling on the congregation to restore the man to their fellowship.  In other words, just as being removed from the congregation is done by congregational authority, being received into the congregation is done by congregational authority.
  4. Deacons - As we look at Acts 6:1-4, we find that the crisis of unfair food distribution was handled by involving the congregation.  They were to make a selection of seven men, and they were to select these men based on their character.  Verse 3 says they must be "men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom..."  Please note...this choice is not like that of the voters for American Idol, where popularity is meant to rule the day.  This is an authority entrusted to the congregation...to evaluate the character of the men among them and choose servants based upon that evaluation.
Having laid that out, we can now address the question.  Let me pose it again.  If this is what the New Testament teaches, then what does it look like for the congregation to both (1) have authority and (2) submit to the authority entrusted to pastors?  Let me finish by giving examples of how both are at work in our own congregation.
  1. Doctrine - Our pastors feed the church sound doctrine through the regular preaching and teaching of God's Word, and the congregation then receives that sound doctrine (having examined the Scriptures for themselves).  Then, that sound teaching is used as the means by which the congregation will maintain sound doctrine for itself.
  2. Discipline - In our congregation, the process of church discipline is lead by our pastor (me).  Ideally, it is led by a plurality of pastors, who seek to understand the situation fully, walking forward in grace and truth until it becomes necessary to take it to the church.  At that point, the final exclusion of a man or woman from fellowship is not in the hands of the pastors but in the hands of the congregation.  The pastors relay enough information to inform the congregation without exposing every single detail, and the congregation acts.
  3. Membership - We have a membership process through which each prospective member must go.  It includes a membership class and an interview with some of our leadership team.  Upon being satisfied with a person's testimony of faith in Christ and understanding of the gospel, the leadership team nominates the individual for membership.  At that point, the church must receive the person into membership.
  4. Deacons - Our congregation has an open nomination of deacons, and from there, our leadership team does interviews with those who will be recommended to the congregation for affirmation.  The final word, though, rests in the congregation's affirmation of her deacons.
It is like a beautiful dance where a man and woman move along the floor in such a way that you almost lose track of who's leading and who's following.  Both are taking steps, making gestures, and doing their part...and they are perfectly synchronized.  Such should the life of the church be.  The pastors are clearly leading, and the congregation is exerting its authority while still being guided and led by its God-given leaders.  The dance gets difficult to watch and awkward when one or both of the partners lose their way and forget their part.

May we all dance this beautiful dance for the glory of God and for the good of His church!