When we talk about authority, we tend to sort people into groups: those who have authority and those under authority. There’s also a good chance we think of friction between these two groups — one controlling and the other resenting. But that’s not how authority is meant to work in God’s church.
I’ve started a study on how true Christians relate to authority, and if you haven’t read last week’s post you’ll want to click here and do that before reading this one. In that post, we talked about Jesus’ saying His church will be run differently than the way authority works in the world. He is the only Lord and He has all authority. The people given authority under Him are supposed to act as servants. Some, like Paul, even gave up rights they could have demanded because serving the brethren was more important than proving they had power.
As we all know (many of us first-hand) church leaders don’t always wield authority in a right and godly way. But whether they’re doing what they’re told to or not, all of us still have to respond in the ways God wants us to. We’re responsible for our own actions. So how should we respond to authority in the church, whether good or bad?
A Responsibility To Peace
Firstly, we have to remember to treat those in authority the same way we do other brethren. God wants peace in His church and among all His people, regardless of what role they play in His church.
Make my joy full, by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through rivalry or through conceit, but in humility, each counting others better than himself (Phil. 2:2-3, WEB)
We’re to cultivate this kind of relationship with all our brethren, including those who are in some kind of authority position. Entering ministry doesn’t make someone fair game for your criticism or hostility. You’re still bound by the instruction, “If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18, WEB).
Principle of Mutual Submission
Talking about submission in the Bible usually brings to mind verses about wives submitting to husbands (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:1). But submission is actually something everyone in Christ’s body does. Children submit to their parents, as young Jesus did (Luke 2:51; Eph. 6:1). Everyone is to submit to governing authorities (Rom. 13:1-5). Servants submit to masters, whether or not they’re kind (Tit. 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:18). We’re to submit to those in ministry (1 Cor. 16:15-16). And, of course, every single one of us must submit to God (James 4:7).
Yes, all of you clothe yourselves with humility, to subject yourselves to one another; for “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Pet. 5:5, WEB)
Everyone in the church, whether they have authority or not, is supposed to submit to one another. And this applies regardless of the other’s actions. If someone else refuses to be humble it doesn’t invalidate your responsibility to submit “yourselves one to another in the fear of God” (Eph. 5:21, KJV). We’re supposed to be respectful of others because we serve God, regardless of what people do or say (Col. 3:22-23). Note that this doesn’t mean we can’t disagree or speak out, but we do have to show respect when someone’s in a position of authority (Acts 23:4-6).
This is a hard thing to talk about. It’s an even harder thing to do. We seem hard-wired (at least in the U.S.) to respond very badly to anyone infringing on our rights. But remember that we’re not told to obey blindly. We’re told to submit, which is a different thing. And you’re not under any obligation to stay in a bad situation (for example, in 1 Cor. 7:21 Paul tells servants who can become free of their masters to take that opportunity). But we are supposed to keep following Jesus’ example of peace in every circumstance we find ourselves in.
The Sin of Rebellion
Submitting one to another doesn’t mean you blindly follow someone off a spiritual cliff or overlook sinful behavior. But when we submit to and respect Jesus’ authority, that also means respecting the fact that He put in place ministers, elders, teachers, and others in the church who have the right to act as leaders (Eph. 4:7-12). They’re under His authority and are responsible for using what they’ve been entrusted with in a right and proper way. You’re responsible for responding to them according to the principles of Godly conduct.
For the moment, let’s set aside situations where an authority figure is doing something that’s clearly against God’s word. With those cases off to one side for now, let’s think about how we respond to authority. Because if we’re rebelling against and/or grumbling about authority just because we think we could do better or because we disagree on something, then we’re treading on dangerous ground.
Woe to them! For they went in the way of Cain, and ran riotously in the error of Balaam for hire, and perished in Korah’s rebellion. These are hidden rocky reefs in your love when they feast with you, shepherds who without fear feed themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn leaves without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots (Jude 1:11-12, WEB edited)
Rebellion is a serious sin. When Korah rose up, he accused Moses of elevating himself above the rest of Israel. After all, they’re all God’s people so why should one man be in charge? It actually sounds like an argument some make today. But God didn’t approve. The earth swallowed Korah and his followers, and fire from Yahweh consumed another 250 rebels. Then 14,700 more died in a plague the next day because they murmured against God’s justice (Numbers 16).
Jude identifies people who have that sort of rebellious spirit as a rocky shelf that can shipwreck our love (most translations say “love feast,” but the word is simply agape in Greek). Rebellious, murmuring dissension in a church group wreaks peace and love between brethren. It’s doesn’t accomplish anything good.
Handling A Serious Authority Problem
There are, unfortunately, situations where brethren have legitimate complaints about people in authority. This can be everything from aggressive, oppressive misuse of power to something illegal as well as immoral. Respect for authority does not extend to protecting someone who is sinning against others, especially in the more serious cases. I’ve actually heard from people who were assaulted by prominent church members and were then told by other members they were wrong for reporting it to the police! God hates it when people abuse others, especially if they do so while pretending to serve Him. And He also hates it when His people excuse such behavior. If something evil is going on it must be dealt with, not covered up.
But what about situations when someone isn’t leading rightly, but also hasn’t done anything illegal by this world’s standards? Who do you go to then? We can begin by following the structure Christ laid-out for confronting a brother who sinned against you (Matt 18:15-17). People in authority are our brethren, so that’s where to start. But often if they’re abusing authority they’re not going to listen to the “little people.” So Paul says this sort of thing can be taken to other church authorities. And he tells Timothy, as someone in authority, how to handle it.
Don’t receive an accusation against an elder, except at the word of two or three witnesses. Those who sin, reprove in the sight of all, that the rest also may be in fear. I command you in the sight of God, and Christ Jesus, and the chosen angels, that you observe these things without prejudice, doing nothing by partiality. Lay hands hastily on no one, neither be a participant in other men’s sins. Keep yourself pure. (1 Tim. 5:19-22, WEB)
If you’re in authority and at least two people come to you with a complaint about one of the human shepherds in God’s church, you’re supposed to observe the situation without prejudice, not show partiality, and correct openly when appropriate. You’re not to ignore the problem, which would make you a participant in the sin.
God Will Rebuke Misused Authority
Lastly, or perhaps this should be firstly, we can take problems with misused authority in the church to God. He hears when His people cry out under oppression and He promises to deal with those shepherds who abuse the power they have (Jer. 23:1-8; Ezk. 34:1-31). And while we’re waiting for Him to respond, we can take comfort in the fact that the only one with ultimate authority over our lives is still the Good Shepherd. We can keep following Him even if the situation in our church is bad, including if it gets so bad that we have to leave a fellowship group.
It’s a difficult thing to respond in a godly way to authority used in an ungodly way. But rebellion and sewing discord are not the answer. In Matthew 23, Jesus told His disciples that they should honor the scribes and Pharisees’ authority but not follow their examples. Because that group had inherited their power from Moses, they deserved a certain amount of respect. They also had the ability to cut you off from fellowship with other believers, which is never an ideal situation. There are times when we may have to politely and respectfully listen to what church authority says because God expects His people to lead non-rebellious lives and so that we can continue meeting with the local church body. But if the leaders aren’t teaching right things, we shouldn’t follow them. We follow Jesus.