Elders, Submission, and the Rebel in Me!
With so many poor models of leadership around us today, we may cringe when words like submission, authority, and rule come up.
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” With that line in the final chapter of Animal Farm, George Orwell delivered his critique of Karl Marx and the government of the Soviet Union. We know the story: animals rise up, a barnyard revolt is launched, and the animals displace the human owners of the farm and begin to run the farm for their own benefit. It was a paradise run by animals for animals, or so the story goes.
Of course, the utopian experiment fails, and in the end a new elite emerges—the pigs—and by the book’s conclusion they’re putting up these signs: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Orwell’s book resonated with the times. We’ve become accustomed to thinking about abuse and power in the same sentence. We have difficulty separating authoritarianism from authority. Consequently, there is a latent suspicion of authority in our society. With so many poor models of leadership around us today, we may cringe when words like submission, authority, and rule come up.
This general spirit of anti-authoritarianism is also alive and well in the church. As a result, the already challenging task of church leadership has become even more complicated as elders interact with visionary preachers, multiple staff, and church members. Having experienced dysfunctional leaders and leadership structures, we shy away without ever realizing the great benefits of submitting to godly men who humbly shepherd the flock.
As a church planter, I wrestled with the how, what, and why of establishing an eldership. I understood that the Bible called for church oversight to rest in the hands of a plurality of elders, also called pastors, bishops, and overseers (Acts 20:28; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:2). Elders are to be chosen for ministry according to clear biblical requirements (1 Timothy 2:11–3:7; Titus 1:5-9). Elders are always spoken of in plurality because God intends for more than one man to oversee the church as a safeguard for both the church and the man. That is why I gently correct people who want to call me the pastor.
My experience with other church planters reveals that they struggle with the following concerns: protectiveness toward their “baby” church and its vision; fear of rigidity and legalism; fear that a “hireling” mentality will emerge; and a legitimate concern about the possibility for impotent, committee-style governance (as modeled by so many traditional congregations).
As I discuss governance models with other preachers, they often share their frustration when it comes to gaining buy-in for their ideas from their elders. They ask: “How do we get the elders to go along with this?” Manipulation and politicking is almost always the result. This creates a backlash that erodes trust and further bogs things down. Church planters are spooked when they see this dynamic.
I’ve concluded that in many cases, church planters, whether they know it or not, are really not resisting the idea of an eldership, but instead are reacting to a system, or the way elders rule in the churches they’ve experienced. I’ll have more to say about this in a soon-to-be-published, follow-up article—including how we selected and installed our initial eldership at Churchill Meadows. For now allow me to comment on the benefits of having elders.
Installing an eldership has been a huge win for me as the preacher. I am a rebel at heart and I need to submit for my own safety. It has helped me immensely in my pastoral work, knowing I can lean on the collective wisdom of men recognized as godly and gifted.
As the planter of Churchill Meadows, most major decisions fell upon my shoulders. Increasingly that was becoming a crushing load. I was making complex decisions and doing my best to apply biblical wisdom. I frequently found I was second-guessing myself and sometimes standing alone in my defense when my decision created controversy.
Today these issues no longer fall to me alone, but to the elders as a whole. While this is sometimes cumbersome, it has the immense benefits of rounding out my gifts, making up for my deficiencies, supplementing my judgment, and creating congregational support for decisions, leaving me less exposed to unjust criticism.
As a church-planting pioneer, I used to take all the arrows. Today I operate in a liberating circle of safety!
The development of a committed eldership has made our church stronger. I receive encouragement and accountability. Sometimes the elders do rein me in, but they do it so I don’t wear myself out! I love to be busy and make things happen. If I’m not careful, I can shift into workaholism and end up pursuing good things in personally destructive ways. I always want the light to be green, but my elders sometimes signal a yellow (caution) or even an occasional red (stop), for my own good.
An eldership also makes leadership more rooted and permanent, and allows for more mature continuity. It is essential that this church outlast me. A strong leadership team encourages me that it will. It also encourages the church to take more responsibility for the spiritual growth of its own members and helps make the church less dependent upon the staff. Pastoral care is accelerated, and future leaders are discipled and groomed.
I am convinced the Bible teaches that submission (even when a person is treated unjustly) results in favor from God. Wise elders will create an environment that makes it a joy for the preacher to submit. That said, there will inevitably be moments of tension and disagreement. Learning to be determined yet submissive is without a doubt the finest lesson I have ever learned in ministry. I am not always right. The Bible says, “In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:5, 6).
This is a phenomenal truth! God is opposed to the proud (in this context the proud would be the unsubmissive leader). Why do we so often get aggravated and rebellious? We do so because someone is in control and it isn’t us. There are some things we want to happen and they aren’t happening. Consequently we power up, lobby the leaders, and complain about the perceived injustice.
This is the human way. This is my natural bent. But God never blesses it; in fact, God opposes it and it is of no advantage to me or my church. If I never submit, I may be right on the issue and still be wrong. It’s a question of biblical authority. A world without authority would be like desires with no restraints, a car with no controls, a major intersection with no traffic lights, a game with no rules, and a world with no God.
Jim Tune serves as senior minister with Churchill Meadows Christian Church in Toronto, Canada. He is founder and director of Impact Canada, a national church planting organization, and serves as a contributing editor for CHRISTIAN STANDARD.