Elders, Submission, and the Rebel in Me

by Jim Tune

With so many poor models of leadership around us today, we may cringe when words like submission, authority, and rule come up.  We’ve become accustomed to thinking about abuse and power in the same sentence.  We have difficulty separating authoritarianism from authority, creating a latent suspicion of authority in our society. 

This general spirit is also alive and well in the church.  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, “pastors,” “bishops,” “overseers;” see 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 men. That is why I have gently corrected people who called me the pastor. 

My experience with church planters reveals 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.  They ask: “How do we get the elders to go along with this?”  Manipulation and politicking almost always result.  This creates a backlash that erodes trust and further bogs things down. 

Church planters are spooked when they see these dynamics. 

I’ve concluded that in many cases, church planters, whether they know it or not, are really not resisting the idea of eldership, but are instead reacting to a system, to the way elders ruled in the churches they’ve experienced.  But allow me to comment on the benefits of having elders. 

Installing an eldership was a huge win for me as a preacher.  I am a rebel at heart and I need to submit for my own safety.  It helped me immensely in my pastoral work, knowing I could lean on the collective wisdom of men recognized as godly and gifted. 

The development of a committed eldership made our church stronger.  I received encouragement and accountability.  Sometimes the elders did rein me in, but they did it so I didn’t wear myself out!  I love to be busy and make things happen.  If I’m not careful, I shift into workaholism, pursuing good things in personally destructive ways.  I always want the light to be green, but my elders sometimes signaled a yellow (caution) or even an occasional red (stop), for my own good. 

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).  When God says he opposes the proud, that includes un-submissive leaders. 

I am a rebel at heart, and that is the human way.  But God never blesses it; in fact, God opposes it.  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 world with no God. 

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