Everyone answers to someone. The words authority and submission are very offsetting today. Submission is culturally conceptualized as abusive, patriarchal, and outdated. In kind, authority is what furnishes bad marriages and abusive relationships. Together, they make a recipe for disaster.
God’s revelation on the subject of submission and authority is quite different to the cultural evaluation. God, in fact, is the one who ordained submission and headship from the very beginning (see 1 Cor. 11:3). A brief preview of Ephesians 5:21-6:9 illustrates how that submission and authority harmoniously work together within all relationship contexts. Paul uses a pattern of 3’s to show what he means in 5:21 where he says, “submit to one another…” In 5:15-18 Paul gives three contrasts, the last one being: “be filled with the Spirit.” In 5:19-21 he gives three commands all relating back to this final contrast. The last command is, “submit to one another,” (v. 21). In 5:22-6:9 Paul goes on to give three contexts, showing what he meant by the command- submit to one another. Paul was not teaching the backward, illogical idea that is often termed “mutual submission” in v. 21. No, Paul was essentially saying, “Submit to the authority that God has ordained in your life, and here are three contexts to bear out this point.” The three contexts he chose are as follows- wives to husbands, children to parents, and employees (servants) to employers (masters). This is not an exhaustive list of relationships in which Christians must submit, but it does provide a nice, round starting point.
Remember, everyone answers to someone. It is because this faithful saying goes unheralded or altogether unmentioned, that two things abound in the visible body of Christ: baptized believers who fail to take up membership with a local body of believers, and church members within a local body who refuse to submit to the church’s leadership. These are both problems, problems that must be addressed.
God approved and God ordained leadership takes on more shape and size than simply kings in the Old Testament and church elders in the New Testament. God seems to have been pleased with Jethro’s advice to Moses in Exodus 18:21, as he advised appointing judges over the people, men that feared God and were full of integrity. Likewise, Paul commanded, that’s right, he commanded the church members at Corinth to submit to those men in the congregation who were recognized as leaders (1 Cor. 16:15-16). These men were not labeled as elders, neither were the “leaders” in the book of Hebrews (see 13:7,17,24) to whom those Christians were told to submit. Summarizing up to this point, every Christian is called, like Paul in Acts 9:26, to take up membership with a local congregation (i.e. Corinth, Philippi, Colosse, Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, etc.). Likewise, every Christian is called, like those at Corinth, to submit to the leadership that congregation, for leadership within the local church is God approved and God ordained. This holds true even in the absence of elders (1 Thess. 5:12-13). In the absence of elders, it would seem God appointed those called “teachers” (i.e. Eph. 4:11; James 3:1) to lead the church; these are men like Stephanus (1 Cor. 16:15).
When these directives are not followed by baptized believers, the Lord’s church suffers. Failing to take up church membership on a local congregational level presents its own problems, but for the rest of this study, we will focus on those who refuse to submit to church leaders. This is called rebellion, and often times the result is what this author has termed migrating members. Migrating members are baptized believers who go from congregation A to congregation B without asking permission from congregation A’s leadership, leadership to whom they are supposed to be submitting. Many times people go from one congregation to the next without asking their leaders, not intentionally disrespecting those men. At other times people church hop for the very reason of refusal to be submissive to those men. Both accounts are improper, the latter being high handed rebellion against God ordained and God approved church government.
People leave churches for a slew of reasons. Here are a few examples that need second thought- they told my family member he was sinning; the preacher taught something that didn’t sit well with me; I just didn’t feel the love there; I wanted my kids to be around more people their age; that congregation was so small and wasn’t doing anything for me. Most of these reasons are telling of a Christian’s inner character. That is, many have not pondered on the adaptation of John F. Kennedy’s famous saying, “Don’t ask what your church can do for you, but what can you do for your church.” It is sad that people would leave congregations for any of these self-centered reasons, but such is often the case.
In response to such migrating members, there is often silence. The leaders from congregation A are often glad to see said person leave, and the leaders from congregation B are glad to see more people in the pews. The result: a continuous cycle of unaccountability, undisciplined contentions, and congregations left to struggle. Instead of being silent when members migrate like this, leaders should kindly approach new members and ask the appropriate questions. Did you leave congregation A in peace? If not, was congregation A teaching or harboring false doctrine that led you to leave? Did you inform and get consent from the leadership at congregation A before you left? Such questions can quickly get to the bottom of the person’s migrating and resultingly facilitate the process of fixing unresolved conflict if necessary. This can also help reinforce the concept of submission to leadership to which many members are innocently naïve.
In those cases where members migrate whimsically from church to church, God’s ordained leadership has been subverted, and many times the story of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram gets reenacted in live action role play, without the earth opening up and all that bit (read Numbers 16). Instead of this terrible unsightliness, may God’s people and leaders work harmoniously together in maintaining the God given pattern meant to promote unity in the church. Ask the right questions. Be honest with yourself. Maintain the peace. Respect your leaders.