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Questions About Spiritual Authority and Submission

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. — Hebrews 13:17

So I’ve been assembling notes for a non-fiction, memoir project that will chronicle my path into and out of the Christian ministry. The pivot of my Spiritual-Authorityspiritual sojourn, and probably the most difficult season of my life, was when I was publicly disciplined for the sin of pride and was asked to step away from the pulpit for a year. This eventually led to the collapse of our church and my leaving the ministry after eleven years.

As you can imagine, there were many factors, many elements, that brought us to such a point. Our church was formed through a merger of two churches. Church mergers are notoriously difficult. In our case, we brought two different cultures and two different leadership styles, which inevitably grated. Long story short: After years of struggle and defection, the senior pastor believed I was undermining his authority and that I should publicly confess this and “come under” him. It was a watershed decision for me. I felt that if I didn’t “submit,” I would split the church. Furthermore, I am a proud man. How could I be so foolish as to not admit this?  I came to believe that submission to spiritual authority was the biblical way toward resolution and healing.

Either way, the church eventually collapsed.

Shortly after the church disbanded, charges of “spiritual abuse” and authoritarianism were leveled. Some said I should have stood up to the senior pastor, that I’d allowed myself to be manipulated. Others described me as an enabler, a co-conspirator, sitting shotgun while the church bus was driven headlong into the ditch.

It’s an issue that I still haven’t resolved and, frankly, don’t believe I’ll ever fully understand in this life. What was God doing? Where did I go wrong? Did I go wrong? It’s a painful subject, to say the least.

Anyway, before I was publicly disciplined, I read a lot about spiritual authority and submission to spiritual leaders. The Bible says much about the subject. During this time, I read Watchman Nee’s Spiritual Authority. It’s a very thorough treatment of the subject. Nee’s primary point is that delegated authorities are an extension of God’s authority. Of course, they are flawed and imperfect. Nevertheless, We submit to God by submitting to our spiritual leaders.

The difficulty comes in the application.

One the one hand, are those of the Shepherding Movement mindset, power hungry pastors who tend to set themselves up as God and freely pronounce judgements on anyone who disagrees with them. On the other hand are spiritual leaders who genuinely feel called to “watch over you as men who must give an account.” Jesus is the perfect example of a Shepherd who leads a flock, and appoints earthly leaders as His representatives.

In our age, spiritual leadership seems to get a bad rap. Face it, we want to be autonomous. We don’t want to be told what we should and shouldn’t do. We resist judgments being made about our character and conduct. Besides, in the end, it’s God I’m answerable to not my pastor. But are we too quick to dismiss the spiritual leaders over us? Isn’t there a certain “safety” in identifying and submitting to spiritual leaders over you? (And, of course, I’m referring to reasonable, moral, degrees of submission.) Aren’t we better humbly listening to rebuke and reprimand, rather than rejecting it ad hoc?

It’s a complex issue that I’m still trying to get a good handle on.

So how do you understand this subject of spiritual authority and submission? Do you believe God appoints spiritual authorities over you? If so, how do you know when your “submission” to them is healthy or unhealthy?

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{ 29 comments… add one }
  • Morgan L. Busse February 14, 2013, 9:16 AM

    Mike, those are questions that I am still asking myself. Early in our marriage, my husband and I attended a church where you obeyed without question. When we saw young people blindly following the counsel of the pastor, advice that went against both their parents and their teacher’s advice, we began to question this blind obedience.

    When we entered ministry, my husband and I were let go from one church when he respectfully and quietly approached the senior pastor about how he was treating the people under him. Then we were let go from another church when those with money and power pressured the business committee to fire my husband. In both instances, no one stood up for us. We could have fought and torn apart the churches. Instead, we shared with the elders what had happened, but nothing was ever resolved.

    I have seen good spiritual leaders, and bad leaders. I have seen those who questioned authority in a respectful way tossed out of the church. And I have seen spiritual abuse occur because people were not allowed to think for themselves.

    In the end, I think it comes down to being innocent as doves, but wise as serpents. We need to be discerning and know God’s word, and listen to His Spirit. There are wolves in the church, and they might be dressed like pastors or other spiritual leaders. Be smart.

    On the other hand, don’t tear down a genuine leader who is trying to shepherd your soul. Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t complain about my husband. What they don’t know, or see, is how much he is on his knees, praying for them, praying for direction, and carrying the weight of being a spiritual leader who will have to give an account someday.

  • Abimael February 14, 2013, 9:43 AM

    First of all, congratulations by your blog.
    Well, it is very hard to say about this things. It’s very hard to verify what or who are the real shepperds and the wolves .. but, as Mrs. Musse wrote, we need to verify and discern with the God’s Word to see and verify for the right ones , I mean, real shepperds.
    Real shepperds sometimes need to bring us to the proper way because (sometimes) we have very good intentions but are not correct before the Lord.
    Obviously, I am writing a short commentary, because I know that there are a lot of questions, but, I think that we can bare our minds with simple points :
    1) REal shepperds really will use the Word of God and will try to keep us in the right way. They will take care of use, but will use the Word of God.
    2) Real shepperds love us and we will fill the love, or at least, we should fill.
    Anyway, it is very hard, because (as you wrote) we want to be autonomous and frequently we forget that we are sheeps and we need shepperds. However, our shepperd should follow The Shepperd as well.
    How we can discern if the shepperd is correct or not ? We really need to read the Bible to know when are “words of men and not word from God” .
    I am Brazilian and I think that we have similar problems and issues as you have despite the fact of cultural differences.
    May God bless you all.

  • Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) February 14, 2013, 11:25 AM

    You have wrestled with this issue a great deal more than most of us. And if you don’t have an answer…..
    The problem is and always has been that all churches have people in them.

  • Joel Q February 14, 2013, 11:45 AM

    I’ve heard the saying a man needs two other men in his life, a mentor and someone to mentor.
    To pick a mentor or a person to follow, to submit too, one must choose wisely, not out of emotion, haste or heirarchy. The phrase “as men who must give an account” interests me. Haven’t looked anything up on this, but I assume these men must answer to God. But now we have boards of directors and groups of elders.
    Being a pastor does not automatically give that person spiritual authority over you. You must decide to submit. And that is between you and God.
    If your pastor or mentor is not answering to someone else, it’s time to get out. A lack of accountability can lead one down a dark path, along with anyone willing to follow.
    If you are not growing spiritually, mentally… if the mentor is not asking you the tough questions of life, if the mentor is not guiding you, encouraging you, critiquing without judging… you might want to find someone else.


  • Bob Avey February 14, 2013, 12:12 PM

    I admit to being kind of new to some of the topics discussed here. However, it seems to me that a person should submit only to God. While it’s true that churches must have leaders, it’s the individual’s responsibility to assess everything in light of the Word of God. Church leaders should be there to teach, encourage, and advise; not to seek power or submission from others.

    Joel Q presented a good point concerning the need for accountability with any type of leadership.

    • Bobby B February 15, 2013, 8:35 AM

      Bob, I hear exactly what you’re saying; I’d just add that a person claiming “I submit only to God” is, in my mind, just as suspect as the leader claiming “everyone should follow me because I’m an authority sent by God.”

      Both parties are claiming to be beholden to no one but God, and therefore anyone and everyone who tries to counter/rebuke/debate either of the two can be easily repulsed simply because either party has the “no one tells me what to do but God” card right up their sleeve.

      Your right about accountability, and I think there’s room for a kind of “little S” submission to church eldership, just as the eldership is held accountable. Many Christians would say they submit to church leadership not as a form of hero worship or blind following but to ultimately illustrate subordination to God.

  • Nicole February 14, 2013, 12:46 PM

    Tough, tough questions. Having served in lay ministry under two ultra-control-freak pastors, I think the accountability factor is huge. However, control-freak pastors usually display humility to their mentors and just enough to the average congregation to “earn” their loyalty. Both pastors left the ministry, one after over 20 years because of divorce, and the other temporarily after some of his control personality tendencies caught up with him, exposed him, and burned him out. These were/are men who loved Jesus but had trouble with their own areas of submission.

    Control is a big issue with pastors. And it usually proves to be a strong factor in resisting the leading of the Holy Spirit and taking ownership of the church, rather than yielding to the Spirit’s control. Conflict eventually surfaces from one place or another.

    It’s a difficult, trying, taxing job, but most jobs in ministry become that way because of our human tendencies to overtake what God wants, to take it all on as if no one else can do it “right”.

    I know I didn’t directly address the issue of submission to pastoral authority. I guess to that I’d say when it’s obvious that some things going on don’t coincide with what I perceive is in unity with the Spirit of God, submission is out of the question. JMO. It’s similar to the political argument and submission to authorities in power. Some think that scripture means unequivocally – even when it’s obvious it’s anti-God, i.e. Hitler. No can do.

  • Jim Hamlett February 14, 2013, 2:25 PM

    Wow–I’ve seen this, Mike, and my heart goes out to you. I sympathize with your wrestling match on this subject.

    I agree with the need for anyone in leadership to have accountability to others. This is why I believe a plurality of elders is the best (and most biblical) form of government in a local body.

    While our church is not perfect, I admire our leaders for their transparency and submission to one another and to the body in general. We’re not without politics, but overall, our congregation is very fortunate to be blessed with good leadership.

  • R. L. Copple February 14, 2013, 2:44 PM

    I’m wondering if you’ve looked at the topic in the early church period, say the first couple hundred years or so.

    Humility only comes through obedience. But a leader has to answer to Christ for those put under their charge. They can do no less than to lay down their lives for those under them, pastor, priest, bishop, or mentor. But we don’t answer for them. We will be responsible for how we handle ourselves. The Saul and David dynamic is certainly one to study when leadership goes wrong.

    But one thing, blind obedience is never called for. Consistently through Church history, one never follows a spiritual authority teaching heretical beliefs. There is a saying that the path to Hell is lined with bishops, which only goes to show how dangerous a spiritual leadership position is, and how easy it is to abuse it by us fallible humans.

    • Bobby B February 15, 2013, 8:39 AM

      This is good, R.L. People absolutely loathe authority, esp. free-minded Americans. But so often obedience is an outward sign of a teachable spirit. Yes, you don’t blindly follow a church leader like a lemming, but the willingness to voluntarily follow a church leader can many times be a good barometer of a willingness to follow God.

  • R.J. Anderson February 14, 2013, 3:54 PM

    I think one of the biggest contributing factors to the problem here is the existence of one-man leadership. As soon as you have a single pastor in the position of authority, there is a danger of that man becoming a Diotrephes, running the church to his own liking and finding ways to get rid of anyone who disagrees with him. Which is not to say that there are not a great many humble and godly men with true shepherds’ hearts involved in one-man leadership as well, but I think the temptations generated by the position and title of Pastor (or Senior Pastor) are unfortunate and indeed unnecessary.

    I think this article does a good job of summing up the evidence that the early church had a plurality of elders who were equally responsible for shepherding their local flock, rather than a single overseeing pastor with elders and deacons beneath him. And it makes me wonder why so many churches seem to view this pattern as outdated and unnecessary, when so many problems have been caused by ignoring or modifying it.

    Yes, abuses can still happen in a plural leadership, if one elder has a forceful and contentious personality and bullies the others into following his lead or resigning. But such problems are usually the result of appointing or recognizing men who do not fulfill the spiritual qualifications of eldership (i.e. “Oh, this man was a successful businessman so he knows how to run things, let’s make him an elder,” or “Well, I know this man’s kids are running wild, but he seems like a nice guy so I’m sure it’s not his fault,” or “Sure, he can be pretty contentious and harsh at times, but we need a strong leader.”).

    Of course, part of the difficulty in letting go of the one-pastor system is that we’ve come to believe that good ministry and sound doctrine can only be dispensed by men with a particular level of formal theological education at a seminary, and that the job of Pastor is a full-time proposition which requires a regular salary. It’s pretty hard to switch to plural leadership if you think your elders all need to have degrees in theology and they’re all expecting to be paid to do their work full-time. But that’s the problem of the modern system we’ve instituted and the artificial distinction we’ve made between clergy and laity, not any fault of the scriptural model of leadership.

    • Jessica Thomas February 15, 2013, 5:43 AM

      “I think this article does a good job of summing up the evidence that the early church had a plurality of elders who were equally responsible for shepherding their local flock, rather than a single overseeing pastor with elders and deacons beneath him. And it makes me wonder why so many churches seem to view this pattern as outdated and unnecessary, when so many problems have been caused by ignoring or modifying it.”

      I agree with this. The U.S. has the same idea of checks and balances. It protects us from our own sinful natures.

      Right now my church is light on elders because men have chosen to step down for various reasons and we’re having trouble finding people willing to step up. I could see it becoming a problem in the long term, but right now we are doing okay. Our elders are actually “above” the pastor in authority, but in reality, they all work together in making the decisions for the church. Its a healthy church that’s been around for over one hundred years and has never suffered a “split”.

    • Bobby B February 15, 2013, 8:41 AM

      I’d say you can even tell the quality of a one-man show by how many checks he’ll willingly allow to either be placed upon him or place on himself.

  • Jason Joyner February 14, 2013, 4:55 PM

    I think R.J. Anderson is onto something there. I’ve been under leaders in a hyper-charismatic church that were veering into the Shepherding Movement types of theology, and in our most recent traditional church, we separated because the local leadership of the denomination gave bad advice to our new (as far as experience) pastor in a misunderstanding that blew up all over the place.

    Mike, Morgan, and I talked about this some at the ACFW conference. Since then I’ve been doing a lot of reading and pondering. I think, like R.J. alludes to this, that we’ve created an office of “pastor” that doesn’t match up to what the New Testament teaches. Now, before the stones fly, I believe that there are many, many godly men performing humble and fruitful ministry in this pattern. However, if you look at the NT, the term pastor is used only in Ephesians 4 (I’m pretty sure) and really means shepherding, in the context of the “five-fold” ministry of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and teacher. I think we’ve made the modern pastor fulfill many of these roles when they are not necessarily gifted for them. We’re the body for a reason – the gifts are given to the body to work together.

    Another blog I read is by Alan Knox, who studied New Testament church practices and started writing about the things he learned – ideas that didn’t always match up with modern practice. He talks about the idea of elders, deacons, and overseers as being mature believers who are identified after they have proven themselves in the body, rather than offices that are filled by a professional class of clergy. If people are considered elders or leaders after they have demonstrated godly character, I think that is ideal. Our modern seminary system puts a lot of emphasis on teaching and proper doctrine, when the heart can be overlooked.

    If we stay with the modern church structure (that seems closer to a corporation at times) then we’re going to continue to have insecure men (and women) in positions of leadership that abuse their sheep instead of feeding them. I think the church would be well served if it walked in the “one anothers” of the New Testament and searched itself to see if everything we do is truly what was meant from the NT.

    Since last summer we’ve been meeting in a group that has an open meeting format. We are targeting a low-income housing area. We eat together, feed whoever comes for food, then we gather in a circle and share some Scriptures and discuss them, or share our testimonies of what the Lord is doing, or answer questions, as the Spirit leads. It is different and it has been amazing so far. I’m not going to say that everyone needs to do what we’re doing – too many books and denominations have been formed because someone thinks they’ve got the answer. What I would submit is that things can be done differently and it needs to be led by the Spirit and fit the context of ministry and discipleship that presents itself.

    If anyone’s curious, I’ve been posting about this on my blog under the tag “Outreach Saga.” Other references besides Knox have been Alan Hirsch and Frank Viola. A very good book I can recommend is Post Charismatic by Rob McApline, who does an excellent job talking about excesses in the Charismatic movement and covers the Shepherding Movement. http://frankviola.org/2009/05/01/rob-mcalpines-post-charismatic/

  • Shannon McNear February 14, 2013, 5:32 PM

    After many years of wrestling with this same issue, here’s where I am at this time. When someone uses phraseology like, “you don’t have to agree with me” or, “you don’t have to put me first,” to me that’s abuse and/or a controlling spirit. Whether that person does or doesn’t have Biblical authority over me is immaterial. I don’t need anyone permission to disagree with them. 🙂 I also don’t need someone else’s permission in how I order my life and family priorities. I’m accountable only to God for how I walk out my faith. I’m accountable for how I lead my children and what counsel and ministry I offer others. My husband, my pastor, and a select few others are accountable for me as well, but I’m not necessarily accountable TO them. Even in submission to my husband, I am free to disagree, but ultimately unless it’s a sin issue, I can trust God to lead our family in the right path through him, even if my husband doesn’t *appear* to be following him. This may apply to shepherds/pastors in a limited way, but I’m also free to disagree with them, as well. I’m responsible for taking their counsel and concerns to the Lord in prayer, and to examine them carefully, but I believe there’s Scriptural room for believers to be in disagreement and both still be in the will of God. (Paul and Barnabas come to mind, also Paul’s last departure to Jerusalem in Acts.)

    Another thing–when situations are continually “spun” so that it’s always my fault, my issue, and the other party never has to own up to their own flaws … that also smells like abuse of authority. (And vague statements like “I know I’m not perfect” doesn’t equal owning up to one’s flaws, LOL.)

  • Lisa Godfrees February 14, 2013, 8:50 PM

    Hi Mike. I’m sorry for your struggle, but without it, you wouldn’t be where you are today. I wonder if you would have started writing/blogging if you were still pastoring a church? That might be the answer to “why”. You obviously have a teaching gift and I would suspect that your sphere of influence is wider now than it was when you pastored.

    “So how do you understand this subject of spiritual authority and submission?”
    I think you have to go by what the Bible says. The verse you quoted is the one that stands out to me as well. You cited Hebrews, there is also Romans 13:1-2 “13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 13:2 So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment.” Of course, this applies to government authority, but I suspect the spirit of the verses go with spiritual authority as well. The short answer is that there is a spiritual hierarchy. My husband is the spiritual leader of our household, and he is under the authority of the church leaders, who answer to God. (Not a popular view, I know).

    Do you believe God appoints spiritual authorities over you?

    “If so, how do you know when your “submission” to them is healthy or unhealthy?”
    We have to test everything against Scripture, like the Bereans did in Acts 17:10-15. There is quite a lot in the New Testament with regards to problems in the church (all the NT letters were written to address various problems in the church). There’s quite a lot about false teachers. If you’re in a church where the person in charge is not teaching the Bible or the real Jesus, then there is a problem. From your example, I can’t tell whether this was an issue or not. I’m guessing that it was not, otherwise the way ahead would have been clearer for you.

    You said you had a problem with pride, so you felt that the best way forward was to humble yourself in public for the unity of the church. I applaud you for that. Not many people would be able/willing to do that. I wonder about the other pastor that felt the need to handle the situation in that way? There is certainly precedent about confronting church leaders in public when they are going against biblical teaching: for instance, when Paul confronted Peter in Galatians 2:11-14. But that was a point of justification (by faith, not works). I don’t see your humility or lack thereof something that would have warranted public censorship. It’s not a salvation issue. It seems it would have been more productive for the other pastor to speak to you privately and ask you to start supporting him. That would have gone farther to support church unity. Perhaps the other pastor’s heart was in the right place, but it sounds like it was not. My guess is that your pride wasn’t the issue, his was.

    The best answer to your question(s) is to search Scripture and pray. The Holy Spirit will lead you in the right direction. He has placed you where you are now. If those in spiritual authority over you was an unhealthy situation, the Spirit would convict you to go somewhere else or rectify the issue in some way.

    Blessings, Mike.

  • R. L. Copple February 14, 2013, 10:42 PM

    One thing no one has addressed is that in most churches, the pastor doesn’t hold all the cards in authority. Usually there is one or two key people in a particular parish who run the church. If the pastor doesn’t get on their good sides, he can expect to not last long in that church.

    The multiple elder concept, without someone in charge, will resort to that group dynamic. I’ve seen it work in church board meetings, where an idea is floated and everyone waits to see what brother so-and-so will say, and whatever he says, everyone will agree with him.

    To paraphrase Jesus, the abuse of leadership, whoever it is, will always be with you. That’s no reason to toss the idea anymore than we should ban all vehicles because so many abuse their use.

    • R.J. Anderson February 15, 2013, 1:11 PM

      The multiple elder concept, without someone in charge, will resort to that group dynamic.

      I respectfully disagree. In my experience of lifelong involvement in multi-elder churches with no pastorate, only the multiple elder concept without fully qualified elders will resort to that dynamic. If the elders have the Biblical qualifications, they will be faithful and hold fast to their convictions on the basis of Scripture, rather than allowing one man’s personality or the fear of offending key members of the congregation to sway them. That’s what makes them elders.

      • R. L. Copple February 15, 2013, 11:08 PM

        That dynamic is natural group dynamics. In any group, one or two people will tend to guide the whole group. In many cases, if these people are humble and sensitive to God, it isn’t that apparent. Same for a pastor. Doesn’t mean people don’t have input, but when push comes to shove, how that one person votes usually determines how most everyone else will vote on any board. Power struggles and splits happen when you have more than one person filling those shoes and who believe they are right and following God’s will.

        But just like a majority of pastors don’t abuse their position, a majority of group leaders, designated or not, don’t abuse their positions. But that some do is not in dispute.

        Note: it is rarely the person or persons speaking at the pulpit who control and have power in the church. Only in the case where a pastor has been there for years might he get that kind of control, or is a founding pastor of a church. The last time I looked, the average stay for a pastor was under 2 years. Not too many last 7 or more years that it takes for a pastor to begin to wield some real weight.

        But I will say that there is also the issue of spiritual leadership that a pastor has, to some degree, by their position. That can always be abused as well, but that would be true of anyone, because those are one-on-one situations. Multiple elders wouldn’t prevent that kind of abuse, though it might limit its spread.

        • Andy Decker February 16, 2013, 4:19 PM

          “The last time I looked, the average stay for a pastor was under 2 years. Not too many last 7 or more years that it takes for a pastor to begin to wield some real weight.”

          Where are these statistics?

          • R. L. Copple February 16, 2013, 9:14 PM

            Well, “last time I looked” was back in the 90s when I was a pastor, and that was the statistic given at meetings. I was a pastor of a Nazarene Church. So I did some checking. Found the following:

            Tenure: The average length of time pastors in the Church of the Nazarene have served in the churches they have pastored is now 4 years and 5 months. This increase from 3 years and 3 months in 1988 and 1996…

            So I wasn’t far off on what I recall. It was back then a little over a year longer. Some other searches pulled up other statistics, which appear to suggest that the average for various denominations varies, but on the whole for Protestants, the average generally falls between 5 to 7 years, or there about within the last few years.



            Back in the 90s, when I was pastoring, Barna put out the “The Second Coming of the Church, (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998),” which had the following quote on page 5:

            The average tenure of a pastor in Protestant churches has declined to just 4 years—even though studies consistently show that pastors experience their most productive and influential ministry in years 5 through 14 of their pastorate.

            The average is bigger than I recall or was told, but still below the time frame when a pastor has been in a church long enough to gain effective power. Apparently the majority have their pastorate end before or at the beginning of their most productive years.

  • Mark February 15, 2013, 9:57 AM

    I think I’ve mentioned here in the past, but I recently started looking for a new church because the one I was in basically went through a silent church split. There was a disagreement in the elder board about how the church pastoral structure should be, and all but two elders left the board and the church as a result. The church is half the size it once was, and the people who have stayed are saying, “We must submit to the leadership God has given us.” Well, when you completely disagree with the leadership, what do you do?

    • John Robinson February 15, 2013, 10:20 AM

      “Well, when you completely disagree with the leadership, what do you do?”

      Short answer? Beat feet.

      My wife and I did, five years ago. We’ve used that time for for healing, but although the bones seemed to have finished knitting and the skin has scabbed over, we’re still very chary about trying again.

      Once bitten, twice shy.

  • D.M. Dutcher February 15, 2013, 11:45 AM

    I don’t think there is safety in submitting. I’ve just heard about too many abuses from it. I mean, in one sense we all have to submit to be part of a church; we need to accept the pastor’s authority to teach and for private and public rebuke if need be. But deeds for positive character formation or rebukes based on spiritual condition I’m wary of. It can become a woman getting spiritually disciplined for wearing pants instead of a dress.

    I guess leadership would be different, but discipling and shepherding just are big warning bells to me. I’m a loner by nature though, so I don’t have the best view on this.

  • Katherine Coble February 15, 2013, 12:47 PM

    I’ve kind of held my tongue on this because I tend to have an outlook different from most people.

    Alright, everyone. Time for me to say my usual piece. 3..2..1..

    “Growing up in the Mennonite Church…”

    But seriously, this is but one of the many reasons I’m grateful to Anabaptism for its teachings and church structure. Mennonites focus very much on Christ. Two verses that are key are “Christ is our high priest on the order of Melchizadek” and “Some say “I follow Apollos” or “I follow Paul”. I follow Christ.” ”

    Anabaptists have church leadership in a plurality of elders and deacons. But it’s a plurality. Every person’s ultimate spiritual authority is God/Christ/Holy Spirit. The Elders and Deacons and Pastor* are there to guide and instruct and gently correct when needed. It is a COMMUNITY of Christ followers.

    I asterisked “pastor” because you’ll note that Anabaptists call no man or woman “Reverend”. That is because we do not believe that any human being is revered, reverence is for God.

    Another thing you’ll notice in an Anabaptist church…except for the rare occassions when an instructional video is shown, the house lights stay on. There is not a time when all the houselights dim and the pulpit is lit. Because the Pastor is not elevated to a stage presence. He is a community member tasked with teaching. He looks out over the community to see the impact of his words, to realise that he is part of this place.

    I bring all of this up because it affects how I see the question and answer the questions you pose. I have in my life seen a lot of broken hearts and broken fellowship from churches where men assert authority, especially one man or a cabal of “elders” designed to prop up one man.

    • R.J. Anderson February 15, 2013, 1:05 PM

      I’ve spent my life in the open brethren “assemblies”, so I have a similar experience of plural leadership and not putting too much focus on the pulpit. Which is by no means to suggest that the assemblies are perfect — they have their own problems and blind spots, and areas where I believe we could be more faithful to Scripture and less bound by tradition. But I know of very few chapels with the particular problem of a single man, or one or two powerful individuals, controlling everything that is said and taught — because typically we don’t have one speaker in the pulpit on an indefinite basis. Visiting speakers are still held accountable what they say, and if they teach something the elders disagree with, the elders will address that with the individual and also mention it to the congregation. (And if the error is bad enough and the speaker refuses to stop teaching it, that person will not be invited to speak again.) So there isn’t the same opportunity for one man’s personality or opinions to dominate and influence the whole congregation.

  • Andy Decker February 15, 2013, 9:16 PM

    I’ve been a pastor for almost seventeen years – same church. It is not easy. A pastor has to have a thick hide and a strong ability to rise above all kinds of things. A few things to remember include the fact that a pastor is leading an all-volunteer organization. Let’s see a CEO do that. It’s also best to head off trouble before it becomes trouble – gotta be proactive and when the ‘pastor-sense’ (think Spiderman) tingles, the pastor better listen. Bad news will not get better with age. I’ve had a belly full of challenges (anonymous letters to everyone in the church but me, divorces, a third of the members left over something I still don’t understand, so on, and so forth). Maybe one saving grace is that we’ve never had more than sixty members. I’m thinking things change in terms of how people perceive power after a certain number. And one might be tempted to say those low numbers are a reflection on my leadership. Then again, God gives the increase and God knows we’ve tried. Somehow, ‘just’ Bible teaching and preaching isn’t enough to grow the flock when people are out ‘shopping’ for a new church with the same mentality they use to figure out where to go to lunch – Christian consumers indeed. As far as Pastoral authority goes, I’ve learned to pick my battles. Most things outside of doctrine and fiscal responsibility don’t worry me that much. I’ve heard horror stories about goofy things like the color of the new carpet and how people get all wee-weed up (thanks for the term, Mr. President) and divisive over things like that. My concern is to keep the peace and make sure people understand the priority of what’s really important. That might be a silly example, but it works on serious matters too. Pride can hit us all at times and in those really trying situations I’ve learned (and am still learning) to let go and let God. He does all the heavy lifting anyway.

  • Patrick Todoroff February 16, 2013, 7:04 AM

    I’ve come to a place in my own journey where I stand on the notion that God ordains authority structures but individuals in offices don’t necessarily fill those positions in the intended manner. Respect is due but never blind obedience. Stewardship extends to matters of intellect and conscience. If you know better, you’re accountable.

    Mistakes are inevitable, a sense of proportion critical, but no believer is obligated to submit to long term violations. The Nuremberg Defense won’t fly on Judgment Day.

  • royston March 27, 2013, 9:42 AM


    Thought is the opposite of true meditation and in our world
    it hardly ever stops. We need a new religion, a new philosophy
    and therefore, a new awareness of the world, fit for this
    twenty first century. A century where each one of us may begin
    to intuit and feel the world as a whole, so that our lives have

    Now faith, unlike belief, is always open to new visions of the
    world. One might say ‘empty ‘. Belief however cannot be faith
    for belief is a closed mind full of preconception. The draw-bridge
    is up, so to speak, guarding its particular contents back to its
    first principles of misinterpretation. True faith is more like
    being in love with that which infinitely transcends finite vision.
    That which always ‘is’ which remains untouched by our thoughts.
    To be at the foot of mystery without preconception is the only
    true, spiritual position. It is the finite before the infinite, the small
    before the vast and great. We may then be touched by the infinite,
    or the divine in such a way as to be fed, with increased ascending
    consciousness. Always on guard against our innate tendency to
    interpret and misinterpret. – J.D. Krishnamurti reminds us that
    ‘ when the small projects upon the great it can only come up with
    a small answer’. Man has done this repeatedly, down through the
    ages, thus we have mind-sets, closed and locked up in their own
    particular keeps. For such people there is no other way of looking
    at the world and their religions have proved to be in the past,
    quarrelsome and divisive. Today is no exception, as with the
    culture gaps they give rise to, which are downright dangerous.

    What ‘ is ‘ as opposed to that which ‘ is not ‘ does not need knowledge
    of itself in us, for we are what it is doing. Doing to itself. In as much
    as we become aware of this and are prepared to ’ be ’ before its
    mystery without thought, then we would be more attuned to the
    causal spirit within us which is that mystery. Getting closer to a new
    and holistic religion or spiritual condition for our future world.
    May our thought and reason be for a world within that awareness!
    Doubt everything born of thought, beware of tradition for it is what
    the human mind has wrought and just look at the state of the world.
    Doubt all except doubt itself, because ultimately, the universe is
    ‘ something ’ and the cause of that universe appears from ‘ nothing ‘ .
    Nothing being simply the face of that which transcends finite, human
    vision. We may intuit realms of consciousness beyond space and time
    (and for me this is undoubtedly true) but, if I were mistaken about this
    I would never know it.

    The potential, unique relationship we may have with the divine is like
    knowing without knowing. An intuition that somehow imbues a certainty
    until we try to circumscribe or name it, when it is entirely lost.
    In short, true mysticism is that where

    “No preconception
    Blocks or fills its mind,
    The void is its capacity,
    Its fruit, the windfall kind.”
    (From Roy K Austin)poetry.

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