If the congregation as a whole is the final court of appeal, what does it mean for a church to submit to its leaders?
The Bible teaches that elders are to teach the Word, set a godly example for the flock, and oversee the affairs of the church (1 Tim. 3:2; 1 Pet. 5:3; 1 Tim. 5:17). Scripture therefore calls all Christians to “submit” to the leaders of our churches (Heb. 13:17). At the same time, Scripture teaches that the congregation as a whole has final authority in matters of discipline (Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:4-5) and doctrine (Gal. 1).
Do you see the dilemma? If the Bible located church authority exclusively in the elders, the idea of submission would be simple: the elders would make the decisions, and the congregation would submit to those decisions. But what does it mean for a congregation to submit to its elders when the congregation itself holds final authority?
Instead of considering this question in the abstract, let’s do it in an actual setting you may encounter.
Consider a case of church discipline. I would argue that, even in a congregational church, the process of discipline should be led by the elders. To work to work to restore someone who is in sin requires spiritual maturity (Gal. 6:1, Jude 23). Therefore, it makes sense for the elders to be the primary group who work behind the scenes to address sin issues in the congregation.
Still, the congregation maintains final authority. The decision to excommunicate must finally be theirs. The elders cannot simply “announce” that they have excommunicated so-and-so. They must bring all irresolvable cases of unrepentant sin to the congregation for a final decision.
Now, the real tricky question is this: How much does the congregation need to know in order to legitimately exercise their authority in a matter of public discipline?
This is a sensitive issue. On the one hand, it would not edify the congregation to air out all the details, and doing so may unnecessarily aggravate the erring member. On the other hand, the congregation needs to know enough to make an informed decision and exercise their responsibility with integrity.
Imagine you’re at a congregational meeting and the elders recommend that the congregation discipline a man for “habitual, unrepentant drunkenness.” The elders use those exact words and explain that they’ve been working with this individual for some time, and he has stubbornly persisted in his sin. They further explain that the apostle Paul clearly teaches that people who live in this way will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:11). So they’re recommending that the church act to exclude this individual from membership and to pray for his repentance and restoration.
Now it’s over to you and the other church members. How do you respond? What does it mean to submit to your elders when you, along with the other members of your church, are called upon to make a decision in this matter?
A full answer might differ from case to case, but here’s a crucial part of it: trust.
An unsubmissive member won’t be satisfied with the seemingly sparse details the elders have provided. Instead, he will demand a full account—details of specific incidents, transcripts of the elders’ conversations with the individual—or else he won’t go along with it. He’ll insist on having all the facts, so that he can make an independent judgment. He’ll want to hear opposing arguments in the interest of “fairness.” He won’t take the elders’ word for anything.
He doesn’t trust the elders, and he will cloak that mistrust in the language of “responsibility,” or “transparency,” or “rights.”
But that kind of attitude makes church discipline—and many of the church’s other responsibilities—virtually impossible. It leads to the kind of committee-of-the-whole congregationalism which understandably gives congregationalism a bad name. It paralyzes the church’s elders by giving them a title and responsibility but then hanging them out to dry when they most need a church’s trust.
A submissive church member, on the other hand, won’t set himself up as an independent review committee for every decision the elders make. Instead, he’ll recognize that elders have been recognized in order to lead, and that in order to lead, they need to be trusted.
So a godly church member will be inclined to take the elders at their word. He’ll be inclined to trust their assessment of someone’s sin. He’ll trust that they have faithfully followed the biblical steps that precede public discipline. He’ll trust that that the elders have good reasons for not telling the congregation all the gory details. That doesn’t mean he’ll never under any circumstances dissent or voice disagreement; for example, there may be times when a church member knows something crucial that the elders have somehow missed. Nor does it mean he’ll never ask questions. It does mean that he is willing to follow the elders despite not knowing all the details. He will submit to them by trusting them.
In order for a congregation to exercise its responsibility in discipline, the elders must give them enough information to act wisely. But in order for them to exercise that responsibility in a submissive manner, a congregation needs to trust its leaders.
What if you don’t trust the elders to act responsibly? Perhaps you should be at a different church. Not all elders are trustworthy!
But if you’re the type of person who would have trouble trusting the elders at any real, not-hypothetical church, the problem just might be with you. There might be more pride in your heart than you realize.
We who are called to submit to our elders should be willing to follow them without having all the answers—just like we follow the Lord who appointed them.