Why Pastors Should Submit to Each Other
“Every leader is in some sense a follower. If a man does not follow, he cannot lead.”
These words, spoken by a pastoral mentor, summarize the humble character of pastoral ministry. But unfortunately, it likewise exposes an endemic issue among disqualified pastors. They were taken down by a proud, authoritarian spirit that couldn’t follow.
Such pride threatens every pastor’s heart—the arrogant refusal to acknowledge God’s goodness to limit his competency and authority. No pastor is omnicompetent. Nor is his authority absolute. Consequently, godly leaders must also be humble followers.
In this regard, every senior pastor should submit to several sources of authority: his Chief Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4, Heb. 13:17), his own congregation (Matt. 18:17–20, Gal. 1:2, 6–9), his fellow elders (Acts 20:28), and the biblical standards for “life and doctrine”, particularly those that are summarized in his church’s governing documents (1 Tim. 4:7).
This article will focus on those latter two sources, demonstrating how fellow elders and founding documents guard a senior pastor against the pride of authoritarianism.
SUBMIT TO YOUR FELLOW ELDERS
Pastoral ministry is challenging. Satan is ferocious against God’s church. False teachers, like ravenous wolves, devour it from the outside. Sin, like leaven, consumes it from within. These form the everyday context for pastoral ministry and inform Paul’s final words to the Ephesians elders: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock” (Acts 20:28).
The word translated “pay attention” carries the sense of being in a state of alertness or on guard. A church’s elders cannot adequately guard the flock if they do not guard one another.
Moreover, this kind of guarding care is impossible without mutual submission. Each elder should entrust his life and ministry to fellow elders, and the senior pastor is no exception. But how can a pastor practically cultivate a leadership culture in which he is a leader and a follower?
1. Let Fellow Elders Guard Against Pride
“What three graces does a minister need most?”
Augustine famously replied, “Humility; humility; humility.”
Tendencies toward heavy-handed pastoral leadership spring from the wicked pride of self-glory. C.S. Lewis described it as “the pleasure of being above the rest.” Every pastor is vulnerable to this temptation and must heed Scripture’s warnings, promises, and commands concerning sinful pride versus godly humility (Prov. 29:23; 1 Pet. 5:5–6; cf. Jas. 4:6).
These passages reveal that a genuinely humble pastor fears God above all. His chief aim in ministry is to glorify and enjoy God. He knows that a desire for God’s glory fuels a holy motive to serve, while a lust for self-glory energizes a worldly desire to be served.
“Forget not,” Abraham Booth wrote in his Pastoral Cautions, “that the whole of your work is ministerial; not legislative—that you are not a lord in the church, but a servant.”
Godly elders must guard their church’s senior pastor against pride, and he must submit to them. Relying on God’s Word, fellow elders help a senior pastor measure himself against God’s majesty They pray alongside him regularly, with thanksgiving (Phil. 4:6). He starves his ego by talking less during meetings and listening to fellow elders more, even at efficiency’s expense. In short, when fellow elders serve and submit to one another, they suffocate authoritarian pride.
2. Lend Fellow Elders Your Ear
Senior pastors must also lend their ears to godly encouragement and criticism. Joel Beeke and Nick Thompson, in their helpful book Pastors and Their Critics, diagnose why this may be difficult for a pastor:
The gospel-humble pastor will incline his ear. This is not something that comes easy for most pastors. We are used to doing the talking. Our job consists in an unending sequence of preaching, teaching, counseling, and giving advice. . . . We become very good at moving our mouths, but not so good at lending our ears.
Consider this statement in light of Jesus's words in Luke 8: “Take care how you hear” (v. 18). This recalls Jesus' earlier teaching: “As for the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience” (v. 15).
The tragic disqualifications of many talented preachers reinforce Jesus’s point: a pastor’s spiritual vitality and fruitfulness do not finally depend upon how well he speaks God’s Word, but how well he hears and obeys it (cf. Heb. 5:11, Matt. 7:24–27).
Therefore, every pastor should “lend his ears” to his fellow elders. He must be humble in listening, teachable in receiving correction, and willing to submit to a brother’s admonishment. Exemplary elders guard one another with their words and ears by speaking the truth in love to one another (Eph. 4:14–16).
Senior pastors, in particular, should create intentional spaces where they actively give and receive godly encouragement and criticism from fellow elders. These might include service reviews, off-the-record “executive sessions” in elder’s meetings, or lunch and coffee meetings, to name a few possibilities.
In summary, elders cannot guard one another without mutual submission. Pastoral submissiveness requires godly humility. And this kind of humility compels a senior pastor to submit to fellow elders as they protect his life and ministry by speaking God’s Word to him in spiritually beneficial ways.
SUBMIT TO YOUR FOUNDING DOCUMENTS
Even if a church has not yet recognized a plurality of elders, every senior pastor is accountable to his church’s founding documents. Good founding documents summarize and apply the Bible’s teaching on matters of sound doctrine (confession), godly living (covenant), and church polity (constitution).
When churches employ these in wise ways, a pastor becomes accountable to his congregation, and his congregation is protected from pastoral caprice. Specifically, a church’s founding documents shape a pastor’s ministry in three ways:
1. Teaching According to the Church’s Confession
A church’s confession is more than a page on their website and curriculum for their membership class. Much more, a confession says, “This is what we believe and how we interpret the Bible with other true churches around the world and through the ages.”
Some may protest that using confessions in this way undermines sola Scriptura. But that’s untrue. Scripture is supreme. A church’s confession submits to Scripture. But a pastor’s interpretation of Scripture submits to the confession.
I keep a copy of our church’s confession within reach while preparing sermons for three reasons. First, it guards my teaching and preaching. Second, it allows me to bind my congregation to what they have already knowingly bound themselves. Third, it helps me promote charity and Christian liberty on disputable matters beyond our confession's scope.
In these ways, a confession protects congregations from being misled or wrongly bound by a pastor’s individual, private interpretations of Scripture. Likewise, a pastor who submits to his church’s confession can “watch his life and doctrine closely” and guard the integrity of his Word ministry (1 Tim. 4:16).
2. Living According to the Church’s Covenant
Character is everything in pastoral ministry. The Bible encourages elders to be “examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3). They are to be “above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2). Paul told his pastoral protégé that “godliness is of value in every way” (1 Tim. 4:8; cf. 6:6).
If a church’s confession summarizes sound doctrine, then a church’s covenant summarizes a godly life. It encourages a congregation to grow in godliness and commends a pastor’s exemplary character. Furthermore, it prevents pastors from turning right-and-left issues of Christian liberty into right-or-wrong matters of Christian obedience (e.g., alcohol, education, etc.).
My church’s covenant explicitly commits me to Christian unity, love, holiness, evangelism, family worship, generosity, and more. So, as their pastor, I want to hold up our church covenant and say, “Brothers and sisters, follow me as I aim (always imperfectly) to follow Christ in these ways, by God’s grace.”
3. Ruling According to the Church’s Constitution
A church’s constitution is more than a legal document. It’s a blueprint for a biblical polity that summarizes Scripture’s teaching on how church membership and leadership work together to guard the gospel. How is church discipline to be executed? How are new elders and deacons affirmed? How do elder leadership and congregational authority practically work together?
The answers to these questions require prudential applications of Scripture, agreed upon by the congregation. A constitution describes how a church will constitute its life together. It’s a manual for church polity.
Our church’s elders put our constitution in front of our church as often as possible to prove ourselves above reproach and show our congregation we are not leading by fiat. For matters on which our church must vote—membership applications and resignations, elder and deacon nominations and affirmations, church discipline, etc.—we include the relevant portions of our church covenant in the member’s meeting packet. Our goal is to equip our church to think well about biblical church polity and say to them, “Hey! We’re not making this up as we go!”
How might pastoral authoritarianism be undermined if churches took their confession, covenant, and constitution seriously? These are good guides for godly leaders and healthy congregations. And senior pastors, above all, do well to submit to them.