As stated in the previous post, I still have many questions regarding God’s delegation of authority, but I have arrived at one firm conclusion:
Jesus is God’s delegated authority for the church, and all of its members have equal access to him. There is no hierarchy of revelation. There is no hierarchy of leadership. There is no hierarchy of authority. We are all called to submit to him, and to one another. (Eph.5:21) There are different functions and gifts within the body of Christ, but only one head.
However, just as questions beget answers, answers beget other questions. How do we practically function in our day-to-day life submitting to one another? What does it look like? How does submitting to one another correspond with the passage of Hebrews 13:17 which admonishes us to obey our leaders and submit to them? If there is no hierarchy of leadership, then who are the leaders we are encouraged to obey? How do we identify them within the family of God?
Let me begin by addressing the latter questions. First, how does submitting to one another correspond with Hebrews 13:17? Well, I believe the answer greatly depends on the way the passage is viewed. If interpreted as a command to practice strict adherence to positions of authority within an institutional church, it seems to contradict the idea of mutual submission. If, on the other hand, it’s understood as an exhortation to be persuaded by leaders of a community, then the passage fits mutual submission like an indispensable piece of large puzzle. Frank Viola writes:
The word translated “obey” in Hebrews 13:17 is not the garden variety Greek word (hupakouo) that’s usually employed in the New Testament for obedience. Rather, it’s the word peitho. Peitho means to persuade or to win over (297).
Look at a previous passage of encouragement from the same chapter of Hebrews:
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7 NIV)
The Hebrews 13:7 passage tells us to “consider” and “imitate” our leaders. This seems to be more in line with a “be persuaded by” concept than a “mindlessly obey” notion. It also suggests that one of the qualities of a leader is to speak the word of God. If we believe we are members of a larger community (the church), and our desire is to submit to the authority of God through Jesus, and we recognize that all of the members of that community have equal access to God, then imitating those who display leadership qualities, and allowing ourselves to be persuaded by the word of God spoken by them, seems to be a natural way to fulfill that desire.
So who are the leaders, and what are those leadership qualities by which they can be identified? I believe the answer, in part, was given when Jesus addressed the question of hierarchical authority in the passage below:
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant …” (Mt.20: 25-26 NIV)
Here lies the paradox of kingdom leadership. Jesus says, in contrast to the way the Gentile world operates, true greatness is accomplished by being a servant. The very opposite of being the highest in rank is what makes you the highest in rank. To identify true leaders, look for those who are willingly submitting to, and serving everyone else. Look for servants.
Since servants are under their master’s authority, we could push the above stated principle to its logical extreme and conclude that to be in authority you must be under everyone else’s authority. Since a true leader is servant to all, then we should eagerly desire to submit to those who desire to submit to us. By doing so, we all submit to Christ. That is one reason why the “body” metaphor for the church (I Cor.12) is such a powerful one. Each member of the body is directly under the authority of the head, just as every member of the church is directly under the authority of Christ. Yet, each member of the body submits to each other member in order to fully obey commands from the head. Not submitting to one another is not submitting to Christ.
Watchman Nee puts it this way:
Yet, right here lies the common fault of God’s children. We need to recognize in other members the authority of the Head (80).
How often do we fail to recognize the authority in each other? The problem with hierarchical authority structures and positional authority figures is that they lack the practice of mutual submission. For example, if I believe that those who rank under me should submit to me, and that I should submit only to those who rank above me, then I will not practice submission to those who I believe rank under me. I become concerned with how to prove, exhibit, and exercise my authority over others. I teach others that it is rebellious to disobey my authority, just as it would be rebellious for me to disobey the authority above me. I practice control and teach dependence. I have no desire to seek the permission or advice of those under me; I only seek their approval, for approval strengthens my authority.
As well, many Christian communities often fail to acknowledge the authority of those in other Christian communities. It always amazes me when an organized church that stresses submission to authority chooses to totally ignore other churches in the same area. If there is one Christ then there is only one body. To ignore any member of that body is to miss the full abundance of Christ.
Watchman Nee goes on to say:
We ought not refuse the function of any member. If the foot should reject the hand, it is the same as rejecting the Head. But if we accept the authority of a member, it is the same as accepting the authority of the Head. By way of fellowship all other members can be my authority (80).
If we’re not willing to submit to each other, we’re not willing to submit to Christ; and if we are not willing to submit to Christ, we are living in rebellion.
So how do we practically function in our day-to-day life submitting to one another? What does it look like? I believe it looks like a body. All members receive instruction from the head and submit to it; but in so doing, it is essential for all members to equally submit to one another. There will be roles and gifts of leadership displayed. The eyes may take the lead in one situation with the rest of the body responding in submission to what to what the eyes have seen. Each member receives instruction directly from the brain regarding the specific role to be played in response to what the eyes have seen. At the same time, the eyes equally submit to all other members in similar fashion.
The same is with the body of Christ. Some with specific roles and gifts of leadership will take the lead, and we should recognize this and submit to their leadership. At the same time, those in leadership are constantly seeking to serve and submit to the rest of the body. All of the members are constantly striving to promote, serve, support, and submit to one another, while receiving instruction directly from the head, who is Christ. It is not the individual member to whom we are ultimately submitting, but Christ in that member.
Again I’ll say that I still have many questions regarding submission to God’s delegated authority, but of this I’m sure. If we are not striving to submit to one another, we are living in rebellion to God.
Viola, Frank. REIMAGINING CHURCH: PURSUING THE DREAM OF ORGANIC CHRISTIANITY. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2008.
Nee, Watchman. SPIRITUAL AUTHORITY. New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, 1972.