Author: Ron Graham
Submitting to the Elders
—A milestone not a millstone
When people grow up, even before they do, they want to make their own decisions and not "submit" like children. They want to assert their own individuality. "You young people submit to your elders" (1Peter 5:5) is the sort of statement that can terrify some younger people.
When Hebrews 13:17 says, "Obey those who rule over you and be submissive" that can worry some not-so-young as well. The principle of submission can be misunderstood, and that causes reluctance to appoint an eldership.
A MILESTONE NOT A MILLSTONE
The appointment of elders ought to be a milestone, not a millstone. The environment which a good eldership creates is one which allows you to grow and mature and be more and more responsible for your own life in God. It is a free environment, not a restricted one, but peaceful, positive, orderly, and it embraces you as a worthy person whose contribution is appreciated.
A church without shepherds often lacks that environment. It is usually more frustrating than free. Don't confuse freedom with lack of leadership.
1 Submitting First to the Selection Process
Some think that without elders, we don't have to obey or submit to anyone, and they like that better. Once elders are appointed, they think they'll have to obey and submit, and they don't really like that idea much. So there is an incentive to postpone having an eldership as long as possible. So there is resistance, a lack of submission and cooperation, to the process of selecting and appointing elders.
In its worst form, this problem manifests itself in one or two men of the church who won't give their consent. The church has been practising a rule of "no decision and no action without unanimity" and so one dissenter can block the process. Of course it is hardly a scriptural form of church government where one man rules by dissent.
THE GENERAL PRINCIPLE OF SUBMISSION
Submission is not a principle exercised only under an eldership and only with respect to the elders. It is a general principle exercised in some measure by everyone.
It's just like where Paul says, "Wives be subject to your own husbands" (Ephesians 5:22). In the previous verse he has said, "be subject to one another" (Ephesians 5:21). There are special relationships of submission, but over all there is a general principle where we all sumbit to one another.
Likewise, there is a special relationship of submission by the church to its elders. However before that relationship exists, and even when it comes into being, there is always the requirement for us to "submit to one another in the fear of Christ".
We see the same thing in 1 Peter 5:5. After saying, "You younger people submit yourselves to the elders," Peter then adds, "and all of you be submissive to one another..." Submission is not a new thing that happens when elders are appointed. It is already a natural part of the member relationships in a congregation.
It is not right, therefore, that people's refusal to submit to one another in the selection and appointment of elders and deacons should prevent a church from having elders and deacons. It might be a case of having to "reject a factious man after the first and second admonition" (Titus 3:10).
2 The “Rule” that Elders Hold
There is a theory that having to "obey those who rule over you and be submissive" (Hebrews 13:17) refers to a congregation with an eldership, and a congregation without an eldership isn't obliged to do it. That theory is wrong.
The "rule" in this verse is nothing more than a commanding of respect. The Greek word for "rule" is the same as the word for "deem" in 1Timothy 6:1. "Let as many bondslaves as are under the yoke deem their own masters worthy of all honour..." If that Greek word meant to rule in the sense of to have dominion over, then it would hardly be appropriate to be telling slaves to "rule" their masters, would it? They "rule" their masters worthy in the sense that they "judge" or "deem" them so.
It is understood that this "deeming" may ignore some shortcomings, but generally gives honour to whom honour is due. The same word used in Hebrews 13:17, has the same meaning, except in the reciprocal sense. Here the "rule" is viewed as being in the hands of the one to whom it is granted. In other words, the congregation "deems" the elder to be worthy of honour and respect, and does so because the elder commands such respect. Elders "have the rule over" the congregation only in the sense that they have the congregation's considered respect and following. They do not have the dominion.
When we say that a person "commands respect" we don't mean that he orders people to respect him and pity help them if they don't. Rather, we mean that he is the sort of person who is easy to respect and submit to, because, although he is not perfect, he has a goodly measure of such qualities as render him deserving of respect. Of course, some will show him disrespect anyway, but they will be disapproved of by the majority who hold the man in high esteem.
The obedience and submission must be that which springs from this kind of "rule" —not an abject obeisance to a dictator, but a voluntary co-operation with the recognised leaders.
As we mentioned earlier, this "rule" is exercised in some measure by everyone, and leadership of this type is not confined to elders alone, or appointed leaders (elders, deacons, evangelists) alone. In 1 Peter 5:5, after saying, "You younger people submit yourselves to the elders," Peter then adds, "and all of you be submissive to one another..." Submission is not a new thing that happens when elders are appointed. It is already a natural part of the member relationships in a congregation.
The "rule" of elders, and the congregations "obedience" and "submission" to this "rule" is really nothing more than a maturing of the essential order and government which should exist in the congregation from the first day of its existence. How will the congregation act toward the men it appoints elders, after it has appointed them? No differently than before it appointed them. The appointment of elders is only a recognition, ratification, and promotion of a developing relationship which should have tacitly been in place for some time already.
In some ways the appointment of elders is like the wedding of a couple who have been living together for years. It's not a very new or different relationship that results. It's just that the existing relationship is made proper and recognised for what it is.
3 They Pass No Laws
Another important aspect of obedience and submission to elders, is found in the question, "What must we obey?" The verse we have been considering (Hebrews 13:17) says whom to obey, not what to obey. The Boston heresy, for example, says that you must obey anything you are told to do so long as it doesn't conflict with God's word or your conscience. And even your conscience, they say, must be re-educated to accept your leaders’ commands!
This leads to a sect-like environment. In Acts 6:5 we find the congregation doing what was suggested, because "the saying pleased the whole multitude" —not because it was a command they were to obey without question or input. Elders have no special right to demand that a congregation do anything. They can only recommend and urge. If the saying pleases the whole multitude, then the congregation will carry it out willingly and intelligently, not because they have to, but because they see the sense in it. Hebrews 13:17. assumes that kind of leadership, and urges the congregation to be the kind of multitude that can be pleased, and that can come to a consensus, when led in a responsible, appropriate, and consultative manner.
AN ELDER’S AUTHORITY
It's not as though an elder has no authority in the day before he becomes an elder, but the day he becomes an elder his has dictatorship. The only authority, strictly speaking, is the word of God (2Timothy 3:16-17). The word of God has as much authority in the mouth of a babe as it has in the mouth of an elder, although an elder is much more competent to use the word of God in teaching and directing the church.
Elders have no right to bind their opinions or rules on a congregation. Before any member submits to what an elder says, that member should be satisfied that he or she is submitting to what is good and helpful and not unscriptural. On the other hand, members do not have the right to be unreasonable and obstinate, or to demand that every i be dotted and every t be crossed. Members do not have the right to have everything their own way. But they do have the right to be satisfied that they are submitting to what is...
- for the common good,
- the will of the church generally, and
- appropriate in carrying out the Lord’s will
Elders are not dictators, "lording it over" the brethren (1Peter 5:2-3) and whilst they certainly have special authority, it is not an absolute and arbitrary authority, nor is it an authority granted from heaven alone without reference to the will of the church. They are servants and shepherds, followed and submitted to because they have the interests of the sheep at heart, and they demonstrate that they are worthy of trust and full of the Spirit. They may make many decisions for the church, but only because the church trusts them to make those decisions with wisdom and competence.
I once saw a dozen sheep bolt under a fence and out on to a main road. A few cars sped noisily by, one tooted its horn. The sheep became confused and milled around. I knew that I could not force these beasts to do anything. Nor, like a true shepherd could I call them to me, and have them follow me. But I held out my arms, and stood erect, and walked slowly toward them in the direction of the gate, calling out in a gentle sing-song voice, "Back Ha!" They knew what I meant, and turned as one, and went back to the safety of their paddock. There was no law, no compulsion, just my leadership and their co-operation.