Voluntary submission and hierarchy in the church

Hierarchy distorts human relationships and segregates those with more varying levels of authority from each other. In more extreme cases this has an extremely toxic affect on community. Human authority influences human behaviour through rewards and punishments. In extreme environments the punishments are harsh. It is fear that keeps people obedient and fear severely limits human capacity for true faith, sincere love and abiding trust.

Strong hierarchies also categorizes levels of responsibility. The person in charge is also the person responsible. The followers are not responsible for their own actions, they are just responsible to do what they have been assigned or what they have been told to do. Unfortunately this bleeds into our relationship with each other. We are no longer responsible for each other. Only those who have authority from above or from the outside (like a board of directors) are responsible for the person at the top.

Accountability is the goal of these structures. In any leadership system where people are motivated primarily by external rewards and deterrents, true accountability can be illusive. People just aren’t honest about their failings if they know confessing such failings risks a punitive response. In a world where a whole lot of sin can be private, getting help as a leader can be a difficult task. In my social circle I’ve known of a few evangelical pastors that go to Roman Catholic spiritual directors for support and guidance. It is often thought to be wise to go as far away from one’s denomination as possible in order to safely confess certain things.

We often don’t feel responsible for the people who are in authority over us. The leader is accountable to the other people higher up in the chain of command.

I recent years I watched someone I care about steadily descend into burn out. Someone I had and still have great respect for was increasingly showing signs that the pressures of his role in the organization were becoming too heavy for him. This was not a man that was so full of arrogance that he couldn’t have been reached. Many of us watched his decline. I remember making my own modest effort to tell him that if his job was killing him he didn’t have to keep going. He didn’t owe the organization his life. There were modest concessions made, a few short sabbaticals but in the end he fell off a figurative cliff. The body that this person was accountable to could have forced him in to a long term sabbatical/stress leave. He might not have interpreted such actions well. No one knows how much pressure it would have taken to divert him from the path he was were on. I feel as though we as a community of faith failed my friend. My friend takes responsibility for his own failings and the community has definitely learned from the experience.  We move on in grace.

It bothers me that I didn’t try harder or do something different. One of the barriers was that I was several levels below this person in the hierarchy of leadership. “Who am I” I thought. “Who am I to think I know better than the people in the levels above me.” This bugs me because I let that kind of thinking allow me to opt out of the responsibility that I had as a friend.

Hierarchy distorts human relationships in other ways. Many pastors are instructed to avoid personal life giving relationships with the people they lead. That is what I was taught while was in an internship. Conventional wisdom instructs pastors to be vulnerable but only to a point because if they reveal too much of the brokenness and humanity that marks all of us, people will lose confidence in them. It is believed that without the illusion of model Christian leadership the pastors influence on the congregation wanes.

This approach is one the main culprits behind the significant numbers of pastoral burn outs. It is also one of the main reasons why there is so little true voluntary submission in the church. We like to think that if we give people good ideas and principles they will apply them on their own. But people don’t generally do that. They imitate and often they just kind of follow the herd. If a church leader desires that the people they lead open up their lives to each other he or she has to as well. The bible instructs elders to teach well and be good examples. Sometimes we get the teaching part done all right. We can be good examples if we aren’t hiding and we’ll never be good examples if we can’t be ourselves. We are all broken. We are all fallen. We all need the support of life giving Christian fellowship. We don’t receive it if we are pretending to be better than we really are. The conventional strategy of getting that fellowship from outside the congregation is a weak one.

Many organizations and churches create structures to support or establish relationships of accountability. The concept of accountability between church members is not directly expressed in scripture. There is no record of someone like Paul encouraging people to meet regularly to confess their misdeeds to each other. I do believe that there is a similar, but broader and more healthy concept that involves elements of accountability called fellowship or mutual submission.

Mutual submission is where people develop relationships of love and trust and freely and voluntarily open up their lives to each other, faults and all, for guidance, healing, confession and personal growth. While organizational accountability structures often rely on fear to motivate people, in biblical submission it is the promised assurance of safety that frees people, and the promise of acceptance and love that motivates people. Efforts to organize peers into relationships of accountability usually aren’t fear based, but elements of fear are always present when the accountability goes up the hierarchy.

Voluntary submission is one of these most powerful elements of life changing community. One of the reasons people don’t change in church is because they are too scared to truly open up to anyone. I think this is due in part to models of leadership and organization that don’t make spaces for honesty, transparency and confession. The bigger culprit is our half hearted understanding of grace. We are afraid to open up to each other because we are afraid of being condemned and even ridiculed by other members of the church. There are others who have written entire books on this. A lot of them are reformed and I am not but their central message is often spot on.

1. Yes Jesus really does love you.
2. Yes God’s grace really does cover all your sin
3. Yes he who began a good work in you with carry forth to completion
4. Yes all you have to do is have faith and trust in Him

In many churches the gospel is yes, Jesus really does love but if you step outside his moral law you’ll suffer his wrath. Yes, God’s grace covers your sin, as long as you walk in step with the accepted behaviour of our community and stay submitted to leadership. God has began a good work in you, but you now need to keep striving so that it keeps working by jumping from one thing to another to another. Trust in God, and in leadership, and in this book, this conference, this education, this whatever. 

In organic church leadership being vulnerable and openly submitting yourself to others in the group is essential in multiple ways. First and foremost it will set a good example for others to follow. It moves the group toward a place of safety. If people know they are safe and they are loved they will open up their lives. Until that you only see shadows and wisps of the reality of what is truly going on inside them.  Until people can be real, there won’t be much tangible positive change.

One thought on “Voluntary submission and hierarchy in the church”

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