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What Does it Mean to Submit to the Church?

  • Jonathan Leeman Author
  • 2010 27 Aug
What Does it Mean to Submit to the Church?

[Editor's note: This excerpt is adapted from chapter seven of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline, ©Jonathan Leeman, published by Crossway Books.] 


"If you love someone, set them free." (Sting)

Main Question: What does it mean to submit to a local church? Are their limits to the church's authority over the individual?  

Main Answer: Submitting to the church means submitting our whole selves to the church for its good and for Christ's glory, just as Christ surrendered himself for our good and the Father's glory. 

I talk throughout my book about church membership as a kind of submission and the fact that Christianity is congregationally shaped, but what does that look like? Are we really called to surrender our freedom? That's a tough pill to swallow. Didn't Jesus come to set us free, and isn't this what love always does—set the beloved free? It seems that freedom is a prerequisite to love. One person cannot be forced to love another. As the divine Father figure, Papa, in William Young's pop-spirituality novel The Shack, says, "It is not the nature of love to force a relationship but it is the nature of love to open the way."[1] How then can Christians be bound by or under the authority of a local church as part of defining love? Surely, we need to talk about the limits of the church's authority.

We have two tough questions to answer in this chapter: what does Christianity that's lived in submission to the local church look like for Christians, and how do we put limits on the church's authority so that we don't end up with plain old authoritarianism or legalistic fundamentalism? We will consider the second question first, which will require us to do just a little more theologizing. But then we will move quickly toward a concrete picture of what the congregationally shaped life looks like.  

Step 1: Christian freedom is not freedom from restraint, but the Spirit-given freedom to want what God wants and conform one's life to his.  

Negative Freedom versus Positive Freedom  

It was the fall of 1995 when I first read political philosopher Isaiah Berlin's landmark essay, "Two Concepts of Liberty." I don't think I was a Christian then, and I didn't know any theology other than the basic ideas a person acquires growing up in church. I did, however, have a basic familiarity with the Bible, thanks to two dutiful Christian parents and verses memorized in church programs. Yet, as I sat in the British Library of Political and Economic Science in London, England, hunched over a library desk, I distinctly remember being struck by the obvious theological implications of Berlin's essay for Christianity as he compared two concepts of liberty (or freedom). How disturbing these implications were!  

Two Conceptions of Freedom  

In the essay Berlin distinguishes negative liberty from positive liberty.[2] He defines negative liberty as the freedom we have when our ability to make decisions is unobstructed by others: "I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity."[3] It's a freedom from—from chains, law, coercion, obstacles, and anything that might prevent us from choosing whatever we want to chose.

Berlin defines positive liberty, on the other hand, as the freedom of self-determination or self-mastery. It's a freedom to—"to be conscious of myself as a thinking, willing, active being, bearing responsibility for my choices and able to explain them by reference to my own ideas and purposes."[4]

He concedes that these may not sound too different, but the key is to recognize that negative freedom focuses on what's external: is anything hindering our freedom from the outside? If not, we are free. Positive freedom focuses on what's internal: are we able to act in accordance with our reason, principle, and truth? The positive conception of freedom brings with it an implicit appeal to an internal reason, principle, law, or truth.[5] 

The Real Danger of Positive Freedom  

The danger of positive freedom, says Berlin, writing in the aftermath of the Holocaust and at the height of the Cold War, is that some larger social conception of the self, reason, and truth will be adopted as the individual's own. Someone living in a Fascist, Communist, or Roman Catholic nation will begin to think he is "free" when he acts in accordance with the Fascist, Communist, or Roman Catholic truths he's imbibed from the priests of propaganda. Berlin's essay, really, is a critique of the whole tradition of positive freedom and its promulgators, such as Rousseau, Herder, Kant, Hegel, and Marx.

Meanwhile, Berlin presents negative freedom and its advocates positively. Thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Mill, or Tocqueville, who are probably a little more familiar to British and American students, focused less on persuading their readers about the grand truths of history and more on securing some minimum area in which the individual can act unimpeded.

Berlin's preference for negative freedom over positive makes perfect sense. The history of politics and political philosophy, I would propose, can be summarized in humanity's embracing of one form of positive liberty after another—one new messianic ruler, system, ideology, or utopia that they hope will set them free. Yet all of these prove to be idols in the end (see Daniel 2). Some of those idols are more demanding than others, such as the idols of communism and fascism, but every form of positive freedom—every idol—relies upon a system of truth that opposes God. Unique about postmodernism and contemporary forms of philosophical liberalism is the correct insight that every form of positive freedom is in fact an idol that will eventually lead to oppression and enslavement. Therefore, those who hold to these contemporary views have opted for what seems like the least threatening of solutions—negative liberty. Negative liberty, in so far as it's able, makes no claim on truth except the so-called thin truth of agreeing to disagree. It only asks not to be bothered. Don't hinder me and I won't hinder you, just so long as we agree not to step on one another's toes.

I've taken a little time to get into the weeds of Berlin's essay here, because I think his distinction helps to illumine the difference between our understanding of freedom in the postmodern West and the Bible's understanding of freedom. I didn't use the language of negative freedom in chapter 1, but that's where we eventually landed: "Don't tell me what to think; just stay out of my way." Being free, finally, doesn't mean acting in accordance with the truth. It means not being restrained by parent, teacher, or pastor. In the West today, we then lay our definition of love directly on top of this negative conception of freedom. To love someone is to set them free—it's to remove all constrains and judgments: "If you love me with conditions or judgments, you don't love me because you're not letting me be free." Anthony Giddens called this the "pure relationship," one that is pure or uncontaminated by any moral obligation, any sense of duty or responsibility, any long-term commitment, any call to serve or care for the other. Right in line with the culture at large, post-fundamentalist evangelicals are often some of the first to shout "legalism" and "unloving" at the slightest whiff of pastoral authority or congregational constraint. Like Papa says in The Shack, "It is the nature of love to open the way." Remove those restraints. 

Christianity a System of Positive Freedom 

What disturbed me as someone who in 1995 called himself a "Christian" but who was very much bent on living for himself: Christianity is all about positive freedom.[6] Freedom in the Bible is knowing the truth and living by it because one desires it. Jesus says it himself: "You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32). The truth is that we must know and follow him: "So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (v. 36).

Jesus is a totalitarian. He's not some monarch of old who overtaxes the peasants to build his castle. He's like the old Soviet state that wanted to get inside people's heads and change the very way they think, calling submission to their doctrine "freedom." Their claim was total, and so is his. That's what Jesus means when he tells us that we must be like a seed that goes into the ground and dies, or that we must be born again, or that we must take up our cross and follow him. We become free when the truth of him become our internal operating principle—our affections, motivations, desires, and worship.

Paul also talks about freedom in this way. In Romans 6 to 8, he describes freedom and slavery in the categories of a positive conception of freedom. Freedom is not just about what externally constrains us but also about what internally motivates us. It's defined by our internal operating principle. This is evident in the fact that the freedom to act according to our internal motivations and desires is simultaneously described as "slavery" or "obedience." As non-Christians, Paul says, we were "enslaved to sin" (6:6, 17, 20). It had "dominion" and it "reigned" in us "to make [us] obey its passions" (6:7, 14). In speaking of the old man, Paul doesn't explicitly equate this "enslavement in sin" with a state of "freedom to sin," because his goal is not a philosophical definition of freedom and because that would diminish the meaning of freedom. The equation does become explicit when Paul turns to our new state in Christ. Through Christ, the Christian has been "set free from sin" (6:7, 22). We are "free in Christ Jesus" (8:2). But this freedom from sin and freedom in Christ are simultaneously a form of slavery: "But now . . . you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God" (6:22). We are to present ourselves to God as "instruments of righteousness" or "slaves to righteousness" (6:13, 19). That's what Paul means by freedom—being a slave to righteousness.  

In Galatians 3 to 5, the same understanding of freedom is at work. Before Christ came, "we were held captive under the law, imprisoned" (3:23). We were hindered externally by the law (negative), which means we were hindered internally because we couldn't do what we want (positive).[7] Yet, once again we see that Christ has set us free: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (5:1; also, 4:21-31). But this freedom is not a negative freedom from restraint; it's the internal freedom to live in accord with the loving requirements of God: "For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another" (Gal. 5:13). 

Peter, too, has this understanding of freedom: "Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God" (1 Pet. 2:16; also, 2 Pet. 2:19). To be free is to live as God's servant.  

The New Desires of a Spirit-given Heart 

Biblical freedom is this remarkable state in which we want what God wants. How does this happen? How are we set free to want what God wants? At one time God's righteous law imprisoned us, but now, we're to be "slaves of righteousness," and Jesus and Paul want to call that "freedom." How is that possible? It is possible because of the new covenant. The Spirit gives us new hearts. He creates new desires in us so that we desire to love God and love our neighbor (see Deut. 30:6; Jer. 31:33-34; Ezek. 36:26-27), which is to fulfill the law (Rom. 13:8-10). Both Jesus and Paul explicitly make this point.[8] Jesus sets his people free by granting them both the truth and the Spirit, creating a whole new reality within them and enabling them to keep his commandments. One must be born again by the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5; cf. vv. 6, 8). One can only worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24). Only the Spirit gives life (John 6:63), and the Spirit must be given to guide Christ's people into all truth (John 16:13; 14:17; 15:26). The Spirit alone convicts the world of sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11). Before ascending into heaven, Jesus breathed the Spirit upon his disciples so that they might know this freedom (John 20:22; cf. 7:39). Paul, too, is quite clear that this is the work of the Spirit who creates new realities in our hearts: "For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death" (Rom. 8:2), and "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Cor. 3:17).

Freedom in the Bible is consistently characterized as the knowledge of truth, the desire to heed the truth, and the ability to heed the truth. It's the freedom of being able to do what God created you to do—image him in all his glory, whether we have been designed as a runner, a thinker, an engineer, or a singer. Christ alone, then, was truly free because he knew the law and he kept it, which is precisely how every son and daughter of Adam was meant to live. We are free as Christians to whatever extent we walk by the Spirit and not by the flesh (see Romans 7-8). To whatever extent we let the passions of the flesh guide us, however, we are not free. God's righteous standards will feel constraining, even enslaving.

It's understandable that Christians today have been drawn into viewing freedom almost exclusively as negative freedom, whether intuitively or articulately (theologians describe it as libertarian freedom). The members of churches, aside from being Christians, are human beings who have suffered abuse and oppression along with everyone else through the course of political history's escalator of idols. Christians are therefore rightly suspicious of (almost) every form of positive liberty. But that's exactly what Jesus offers—a system of truth, a metanarrative, a worldview, a law, a gospel, apart from which freedom is impossible. 

Step 2: Since Christian freedom can only be given by the Spirit, and not the flesh, the godly use of authority in the church will does not seek to coerce individuals by the flesh; it will appeal to gospel realities given by the Spirit. 

Authoritarianism and the Limits of Authority

Throughout this book I have contended that the Christian life involves submitting to authority, whether the church's apostolic authority to bind and loose or a pastoral authority to "reprove, rebuke, and exhort" according to God's Word (Matt. 16:19; 2 Tim. 2:4). Yet this discussion of positive versus negative liberty should help us to understand both what's involved in submitting to the church and the limits of the church's authority. Let me draw out four lessons in particular. As I do, I employ a distinction between authority and authoritarianism. The former will be used either neutrally or positively, while the latter will be used pejoratively and understood to be sin.

            1) Christian freedom is not freedom apart from the Spirit. Apart from the work of God's Spirit in someone's heart, the freedom of Christianity is not freedom. It's an imprisoning and condemning law. Remember what Christianity says: a person must accept the good news of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection in order to have true life (e.g., John 3:18; 14:6; cf. Heb. 10:28-29). It says that a Christian must walk in obedience to Christ (e.g., John 3:36; 8:51; 15:1ff, 14), but it also says that a person cannot accept this news and command until he has been born again by the Spirit (John 3:5-8; cf. 5:21; 6:37, 44, 65; 8:43, 47; 10:3, 16, 27). Insofar as a person does not walk by the Spirit, therefore, he is not free to believe and follow. That's true for the non-Christian, and it's true for the Christian insofar as he walks by the flesh. 

Unbelievers hate God's love, God's gospel, and God's church because those things sounds like unfreedom to their unbelieving ears and unseeing eyes. It sounds like nothing more than an exclusivistic constraint on freedom. It's a stepping on their toes, which is why Isaiah Berlin and every other non-Christian lumps Christianity together with every form of positive freedom such as communism and fascism. They cannot believe it.

            2) Christian authority will always feel enslaving to fallen humans. If Christian freedom is not freedom wherever the Spirit of God is not in motion, then Christian authority will always look enslaving or burdensome apart from the Spirit's new-covenant work. If this chapter were a sermon, I would say that last sentence twice because it's so important. Apart from the work of God's Spirit in the heart, a godly use of authority will almost always feel like authoritarianism.

When the church or the pastor says, "God calls us to love," the flesh of the non-Christian and the Christian alike feels burdened and oppressed because it doesn't want to love. It wants to love itself alone, and the command is out of sync with this internal desire.

            The tricky thing is that the action of the Christian minister, which feels authoritarian and oppressive to a church member, may or may not be. In chapter 3 we noted that our understanding of authority in the church must be complex because the realities of both the fall and the Spirit's new creation are simultaneously present. I likened this present age to a movie screen upon which two film projectors project their light. We have difficulty discerning which images on the screen come from which projector since sometimes they overlap.

Consider some action of authority in the church, maybe a pastor instructing a younger man, or the church excluding an unrepentant sinner. In either case, the action might be a godly one or an authoritarian one. The action might be done in the Spirit for love's sake or in the flesh for power's sake. In either case, the recipient of the authoritative action will feel as if it's an authoritarian action if he or she is not in the Spirit. He or she will feel imposed upon. Therefore, when a non-Christian or an immature Christian walks away from a church, saying that it's legalistic or sinfully authoritarian, I assume that the church might be, or that the departing member simply thinks it is.

            That, after all, is the nature of all discipline (Heb. 12:11). Discipline does not accord with our internal desires; indeed, it's necessary precisely because our internal desires are out of accord.     

            3) Godly Christian authority recognizes these limits. What does all this mean for the limits of the church's authority? Often when people talk about the limits of a church's or an elder's authority, they are referring to a matter of domains, as in, "An elder may act authoritatively in this domain but not in that one." For instance, an elder has the authority to preach the Bible, but he does not have the authority to perform appendectomies, operate air-control towers, or legislate in congress. And let me affirm this point entirely: neither the church nor the elders have authority beyond where Scripture permits them to go.[9] 

At the same time, thinking about the limits of the church's authority in terms of domains might prevent us from seeing what's really at stake between a godly use of authority and authoritarianism. The key difference lies in the hearts of those acting authoritatively, as well as in the hearts of those under authority. As we saw in chapter 6, an authoritarian heart relies on its own strength to produce change. It staples apples onto trees. A non-authoritarian heart, however, knows that only God produces change. It feeds and waters the tree, but it asks God to give the growth.

So here's lesson three: godly Christian authority recognizes the limits described in lessons one and two above. That is, godly Christian authority recognizes that it's utterly and pathetically dependent upon God the Spirit to give true freedom, true love, and true light to the sinner's eyes (based on lesson 1). It also recognizes that every law, command, truth claim, or piece of good news that it places before people is, therefore, an imposition upon their fallen flesh, and their flesh will resist it (based on lesson 2). That's the ubiquitous risk of Christian ministry.

The right use of Christian authority, therefore, requires a church or an individual to recognize its utter helplessness and futility apart from the Spirit of God. It's an act of faith, not an act of the flesh. Preaching, discipling, and evangelism, which are indeed authoritative actions, must therefore always be performed by faith. 

We can summarize the attributes of godly authority within the context of the local church (or Christian home) as follows: 

·        Godly authority is by faith. It relies upon God to make change. It believes that God always has the power to change and that he will if he so determines.  

·        Godly authority exhorts the heart first and the will second. In other words, a godly authority will help people to consider what they truly desire before telling them what they must do.[10]  

·        Godly authority appeals to Christians on the basis of their status in the gospel, not on the strength of their flesh. A Christian pastor or counselor should not say things like, "I expect more from you" or "You're better than that." Instead, he will say, "Don't you realize that you've died and been raised with Christ? You're a new creation. Now, what should that mean?" A Christian authority will give commands (e.g., 2 Thess. 3:6, 10, 12), but these commands will be issued by virtue of membership in the gospel. It appeals to the new realities of the Spirit. The imperatives should always follow the indicatives of what Christ has given. 

·        Godly authority is exceedingly patient and tender, knowing that only God can give growth (1 Cor. 3:5-9). An immature Christian may need to walk a hundred steps before he arrives at maturity, but a wise pastor seldom asks for more than one step or two. Our example in this is Jesus. "Take my yoke and learn from me," he says (Matt. 11:29). To take his yoke is to become a disciple. It's to learn. But he is gentle and lowly in heart, and his yoke is easy and light (11:29-30).

·        Godly authority is always carefully measured or calibrated to where a person is spiritually. The godly elder and church seldom, if ever, make spiritual prescriptions without asking questions and doing the exploratory work of a good doctor.  

·        Yet godly authority is also willing to draw lines and make demands that it knows cannot be met. A good doctor not only asks careful questions, he identifies cancer when he sees it. Likewise, a church or an elder should not use its authority to obscure God's gospel realities but to illumine them. The power of the keys, for instance, is to be used exactly to this end. 

            In short, it's not enough to say that the church's or pastor's authority must be limited to certain domains. Rather, we must recognize that Christian authority—gospel authority—is of a fundamentally different nature than worldly authority since it works by the power of the Spirit, not by the power of the flesh. The church or pastor's authority doesn't root in the consent of those whom it governs. Rather, it roots in the authority of Jesus himself. But it always appeals to those whom it governs so that they might consent with one mind in the Spirit. It recognizes that any action that must be coerced or manipulated is not a true act of faith and therefore is not an act of true righteousness. It refrains from coercive or manipulative action. It doesn't puff out its chest and lay down the authority card whenever it can. Rather, it engages people in love. It spends time with them and gets to know them. It appeals to the Holy Spirit within them, calling them to greater and greater holiness.

            4) Authoritarianism in the church does not recognize these limits. The fourth lesson is just the opposite of the third: a church (or a Christian leader) that has been given authority by God becomes sinfully authoritarian or legalistic when it does not recognize its creaturely limits as understood in lessons 1 and 2. It staples apples onto trees, instead of feeding and watering the trees. Specifically:  

·        Authoritarianism commands the flesh and makes no appeal to the spiritual new man in the gospel.

·        Authoritarianism starts with the imperatives of Scripture, not the indicatives of what Christ has accomplished.

·        Authoritarianism looms heavily over the will, doing all it can to make the will choose rightly, apart from a consideration of where the will has its roots planted—in the heart's desires.

·        Authoritarianism requires outward conformity rather than repentance of heart. In so doing, it creates only Pharisees.

·        Authoritarianism often oversteps the boundaries of where the Bible has given it permission to go. It makes prescriptions about things such as "music with a beat" or partisan politics. This type of presumption is only natural when one has already begun to think that he has the power to change others by the strength of his flesh. 

·        Authoritarianism is impatient and forceful. Since it does not recognize that decisions have their ultimate foundation in the heart's desires, it feels successful whenever it produces a "right" decision, whether or not that decision was forced or manipulated. 

·        Authoritarianism relies on its own strength, rather than leaning on the Spirit by faith (see John 3:6; 6:63). 

Insofar as the authoritative actions of preaching, discipling, and evangelism are performed in the flesh, they move the actor toward authoritarianism—the use of fleshly strength to coerce and manipulate. Insofar as a pastor's heart relies upon his rhetorical powers in the pulpit, his reliance is no different from a fascist dictator's. Insofar as a pastor's heart relies upon the uprightness of his life in discipleship, his reliance is no different from the professed standards of the Soviet Politburo. Insofar as a pastor's heart relies upon his intellectual abilities to persuade in evangelism, his reliance is no different from history's worst party propagandists and con men.

That's not to say that Christian ministry should jettison all rhetorical giftedness or intellectual recourse. It's simply to say there is a difference between employing something and relying upon it. We employ things that are expendable; we rely upon things that are necessary. We employ farmers and grocers to manufacture bread, but we rely upon God to give us food, a distinction that's implicit every time we bow our heads and thank him for the meal before us. Faith, quite simply, means having the eyes to see the difference between the two. Not having faith means assuming that brain, brawn, or beauty are necessary to produce change. In each case, we're using the flesh to manipulate the flesh.

Insofar as contemporary church-growth strategies tempt church leaders to rely upon the devices of the world—style, lighting, music, rhetorical art, building design, intelligence, humor, authenticity, cultural relevance—they tempt those leaders to calculate change and productivity in precisely the same manner as every authoritarian in history has. Indeed, Hitler had political reasons for preferring the music of Beethoven and Wagner, while Lenin's social purposes were embodied in Soviet Constructivist architecture. Such churches may not strong-arm their members, but they do strong-charm or strong-mind them. Ironically, the evangelical who thinks that rock music is necessary to make his church grow is no different from the fundamentalist who says that all rock music is sin. By this token, to charge a church with pragmatism, if that's what it has fallen into, is to be far too kind.

            For those in authority, including the church as a whole, Jesus and Paul's discussion of freedom means that a church can easily assume that it's acting according to biblical principles, when it's really acting in a sinfully authoritarian manner. Is that image on the screen coming from the world's film projector or Christ's? Sometimes it's easy to tell; sometimes it's not. Worldly authority can look impatient, domineering, quick to speak, manipulative, and forceful, but it can also look humorous, sophisticated, and slick. Godly authority tends to look patient, slow to speak, gentle, and careful, but it can also look strong, powerful, and assertive. Let me sum up the matter with a few more comparisons concerning the exercise of authority in or by a local church: 

·        Worldly authority teaches with conviction. Gospel authority listens and then teaches with even greater conviction. 

·        Worldly authority often involves absolutizing one earthly teacher. Gospel authority often celebrates a plurality of human teachers, because it relies upon one Teacher.

·        Worldly authority enjoys hearing itself speaking. A gospel authority loves to speak the Word of God. 

·        Worldly authority is strong. Gospel authority is even stronger with God's strength.

·        Worldly authority likes to project humility, which it does by expressing doubt or a lack of certainty.[11] Gospel authority is humble, which it demonstrates every time it submits to the certainty of God's Word. 

Can we see why both pragmatism of seeker-sensitive megachurches and the professed humility of the Emergent coffeehouses are both apples that didn't fall far from the fundamentalist tree?  

Step 3: When individuals find themselves under an abusive authority, they should always trust God's provision and purposes; if possible, they should flee.  

Responding to Authoritarianism 

There are two further lessons to be taken from this comparison of authority and authoritarianism that are of particular relevance to the individual under authority. 

Flee an Abusive Leader If You Can  

I have known many Christians whose lives and discipleship were dramatically hurt by an oppressive father, an abusive pastor, or a legalistic church, which is why I said earlier that I was tempted to tell any church leader who already affirms the idea of authority to stop reading. I pray that nothing I have written would affirm any leader in a conscious or unconscious pattern of abuse. The best corrective is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were, but to reform the baby. That's why I have made a brief attempt at reforming our concept of authority. 

            Churches and church leaders, tragically, will continue to abuse the authority that God has given them until Christ returns. In so doing, they lie horribly about the very Christ they claim to serve. How would I advise a Christian suffering at the hands of an abusive church or church leader? First, I would advise him or her to escape the abusive situation if they can. Speaking to slaves Paul writes, "If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity" (1 Cor. 7:21).  

            The godly use of authority authors life. The abusive and exploitive use of authority does not, and I would council most people in such a church to leave it in order to protect themselves and not be guilty of supporting its work over the lives of others. Pastors should protect their sheep, not fleece them, and the ones who do will be severally judged (e.g., Ezek. 34:1-10).  

            Assessing whether a church or leader is truly abusive or exploitative is no easy thing. As I just said, it can be hard to discern which film projector is casting the image we are beholding, and a Christian should never trust his own heart entirely to do that work of assessment. There's wisdom in a multitude of counselors.  

Trust God's Provision  

At the same time, there are many situations in which a Christian cannot escape the abusive authority or in which the abuse is difficult but not so intolerable that the individual feels impelled to flee. Whatever the case, Christians should always remember that the kingdoms, powers, and authorities of this world are not ultimate. For that reason, Paul writes: 

Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. (1 Cor. 7:21-23)  

            This should not be understood as Paul's approbation of slavery. Rather, Paul is saying that our membership in the gospel is more important than our political state, no matter how wretched it may be in worldly terms. If that were not true, then the political freedom any human freedom fighter offered would be better news than the freedom Christ came to give. Paul's goal is to keep our eyes ultimately fixed on the gospel: "You were bought with a price." Therefore, to whatever extent a Christian suffers underneath an unjust leader, secular or sacred, he can take comfort in God's ultimate provision and authority in the gospel. We are promised that Christ has defeated all the powers and authorities in this world (Col. 2:15). Even if this victory cannot yet be seen with the eyes, this is where our faith must rest. 

            These last two points are probably worth a chapter—if not a book—of their own, but let me sum up the matter, perhaps unsatisfactorily, like this: just as we must view authority in this present world in a complex fashion, so our response to it must be complex. Indeed, Jesus' own response to the authorities of this world was complex. He simultaneously condemned their exploitation of power, while, in the final act, submitted himself to it because he trusted in the ultimate rule and provision of his Father in heaven. 

Step 4: Philippians 2 present the model for submission in the local church: Christ's incarnation and crucifixion.  

A Biblical Portrait of Submission to the Church 

It was Christ's very willingness to submit his life to the point of death that Paul then uses to paint a picture of the Christian life lived in submission to the local church. In Philippians 2:1-17, Paul presents us with a portrait of the Christian's life inside the local church, and inside that portrait he embeds a second portrait of Christ's sacrificial submission. These two portraits, taken together, essentially present the argument of this entire book: God's God-centered love mercifully pours itself out to rebellious sinners in order to mark them off from the world, reform them into the obedient image of his Son, and display them before the watching universe.

At the end of Philippians 1, Paul tells the Philippians to live a life worthy of the gospel, a life in which they stand firm in one spirit and one mind. Moving into chapter 2, Paul continues with his description of a life worthy of the gospel, reminding them of the encouragement and love they have known in Christ and the Spirit. He tells them again to be of one mind (twice) as well as to share one love. He tells them to humbly consider other better than themselves, looking to others interests and not just their own. He then explains that the "one mind" they are to share is the mind of Christ, who made himself nothing, took the form of a servant, and humbled himself by becoming obedient to death. Christ did this so that every knee would bow to him to the glory of the Father.

Paul then reminds them that they have obeyed in the past and encourages them to continue doing so as they work out their salvation, relying upon God to work for his own pleasure in them. He even gets into the nitty-gritty of what this one-mindedness and one love looks like: not complaining and grumbling toward one another. It's when they live in this distinct fashion in a crooked and twisted world that they can expect to stand out before all the world like stars in the night sky, all the while holding fast to the word of life. This is the picture of a life lived in submission to the local church. It's a life that mimics Christ's submissive love for the Father and his sacrificial love for others. It's when we love the other members of our church in this fashion that we define love for the world.

I fear that we often read this passage without the local church in view. Yet notice that Paul is writing to "the saints who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons" (1:1). He's writing to a local church. Therefore, when he tells them to be of one spirit, one love, and one mind, he's primarily addressing each of his readers with respect to the other members of their church. When he tells them to consider others better than themselves, he's addressing them, again, with respect to the members of their church. It's within the context of the local church that Paul is calling them to submit and become obedient to one another, just like Christ submitted and became obedient to the Father. That's not to say Christians should treat the members of other churches without such love. It is to say that this self-sacrificing love "begins at home"—under the oversight of one's own congregation and elders. He's not telling them to be of one mind and love with all Christians everywhere, though that is surely Christ's ultimate goal. He's telling them to be of one mind and love with the Christians right there around them.

A life lived in submission to the local church is working out our salvation by conforming our minds and hearts to this one corporate love. It's doing this with people who may not look like us and whom we don't know very well. It's interacting with them without rivalry or conceit. It's humbly counting each one as more significant than ourselves. It's looking to their interests above our own. It's not grumbling or questioning them, even when we are tempted to do so. Most importantly, it's imitating Jesus' complete self-surrender. 

Step 5: Christians emulate Christ's example by submitting to one another physically, socially, affectionately, financially, vocationally, ethically, and spiritually.  

The Different Aspects of Submission  

Older works on church membership and discipline would sometimes enumerate the duties or responsibilities that church members owed to other church members, such as gathering with them, praying for them, and watching over them. Such lists are helpful for practical purposes, yet if Christ's submission is our model for looking to the interests of others, then we are called to do something more involved than check off a list. We are called to wrap up our identities with theirs and share in their lives. It involves giving ourselves to the church, not just giving of ourselves while remaining at a safe distance. How do we give ourselves to the church for Christ's glory? We involve every area of our lives. We give ourselves physically, socially, affectionately, financially, vocationally, ethically, and spiritually. We will consider these in the context of a healthy, gospel-driven, non-authoritarian church.


Christians should submit to their local churches publicly, by which I mean formally or officially. They should join a church by committing to the local body of believers. This formal or public act is symbolic of that fact that we have submitted to a whole new reality. Joining a church goes well beyond adding our name to the membership rolls. 

Physically and Geographically  

Christians should submit to their local churches physically and perhaps geographically. We submit physically by gathering regularly with the church (Acts 2:42-47; Heb. 10:25). For all the technological advances made in communications and travel, nothing substitutes for the human presence. Even the author of the Hebrews affirms this in the first lines of his book. He compares God's communication to his people in the past through apostles and prophets, with the preeminent revelation of himself in the physical person of his Son. Christians should likewise submit their bodies to the presence of the members of their local church. Where the body goes, the rest of a person generally goes.

If this book were being written 150 years ago, or in some less urban areas of the world today, I might be able to conclude this point simply with the regular weekly gathering, since people's community lives through the week were more naturally integrated. In smaller and slower communities, the fellowship shared in the Sunday gathering more easily translates into times of fellowship throughout the week. When a person lives within walking distance of the church, it's easier to invite people to one's house for dinner, to watch one another's children while running errands, to pick up bread or milk for someone when going to the store. It's easier to integrate daily life when there is relative—even walkable—geographic proximity.

When I told one scholar that I was writing a book on church membership, he encouraged me to look for ways to account for the fact that we live in a commuter society in which people sometimes travel thirty miles to get to church. One obvious solution is to not live thirty miles from one's church. Living close to church is hardly a biblical requirement, but it may be prudent, even loving. Our culture's formula for home selection is simple: how do I get the most for least? But a Christian no longer belongs to himself. He belongs to Christ and Christ's people. Shouldn't his formula for of home selection, therefore, look a little different? Why not instead choose a residence that will let us count others more significant than ourselves and look to the interests of others? Part of doing so includes the availability of good schools for families with children, but it should also include price and geographic proximity to the church. Will the mortgage or rent payment allow for generosity to others? Will it give others quick access to us and our hospitality? Looking for a residence within walking distance of one's church may be more realistic in an urban setting than a suburban one, but the same basic principle applies in both settings. A young mother will more likely plan play dates with other young mothers in her housing development than with mothers in another part of town. Sometimes variables such as price and geographic proximity work at cross purposes. My point is simply that a Christian should think differently about home selection from a non-Christian, principally by placing a higher premium on relationships within the church.

I have witnessed in a number of people, both in my church and in others, deliberately decide to move closer to church, within walking distance, if possible. I have known others who, when moving to a new city for work, deliberately found a healthy church to join before beginning the house search. For my family, submitting geographically to the church didn't mean moving close to the church but moving into a neighborhood where several other church families lived.

When we moved to our present city several years ago, my wife and I felt divided between purchasing a newer, nicer, less expensive home fifteen minutes from anyone in the church, and an older, less convenient, more expensive home within walking distance of these other families. I sought the counsel of several elders, who separately advised me to prioritize relationships, which we did. That resulted in our choosing a house with a rotting front porch, drafty doors, and an occasionally flooded basement for more money than a well decorated, better-designed, more attractive home without (to my knowledge) need of immediate repairs. But how enriching it has been for our whole family to prioritize church relationships! My wife interacts with other mothers from the church almost daily. So do my children. I met with one brother every morning to pray and read the Bible for a year-and-a-half and still regularly meet with others. All the church families within this neighborhood encourage one another to carry out evangelism and to take advantage of ministry opportunities in our neighborhood. For all the time I have spent in this book talking about sociological concepts like individualism, I wonder if one of the Devil's best devices for depleting the meaning of church membership isn't our cultural lust for newer and nicer homes. How many Christians have effectively limited themselves to fellowship on Sunday mornings because of where they live? This isn't a call for Christians to isolate themselves in a Christian bubble. It is a call for them to more actively build their lives together for their sakes and for the sake of reaching their communities.


One of the purposes of submitting physically and perhaps geographically to a local church is the opportunity to submit oneself socially. I don't mean to suggest that churches should only aspire to be social clubs, but they shouldn't be less than social clubs. Christians should pursue friendships in and through their local churches.

Our friends are the ones we imitate and follow. We adopt their language and life patterns. We tend to spend money where they spend money. We value what they value. We raise our children like they raise their children. We pray like they pray. We trust their counsel and heed their rebukes more easily than that of those who are not friends. There's a reason that Paul says, "Bad company ruins good morals" (1 Cor. 15:33; cf. Deut. 13:6). It's because our friends play a large role in forming who we become as we imitate one another (see James 4:4).

Indeed, this is why there is no better friendship than the friendship of the Lord, a friendship which is given to those who keep his covenant and do his commands (Ps. 25:14; John 15:14). To say he is our friend is to say that we imitate him.

To be a friend, on the other hand, is to give, just as God gives. God gives to those whom he befriends, just as Christ has befriended us through his sacrifice (John 15:13, 15). Likewise, we should befriend the members of our church by giving ourselves to them. (Thomas Aquinas, in fact, built most of his discussion of love in the language of friendship.)

The local church community should be a place where Christians participate in forming and shaping one another for good through all the interpersonal dynamics of friendship. Christian friends are surely valuable inside or outside the local church, but friends within a local church will be formed by the same ministry of the Word, giving them the opportunity to extend that ministry more carefully into one another's lives throughout the week. Friendships are a God-given vehicle through which the church's ministry of the Word travels. Church friendships, in other words, will share all the strengths of friendship generally, but they should also be characterized by an element of discipleship.

In many respects, discipleship is merely friendship with a Christward direction or purpose—that of seeing another conformed increasingly to the image of Christ as one or both give in order for the other to receive. Indeed, Christian friendships take humility, because it requires humility to both give and receive. As God gives humility to churches, those churches should be increasingly characterized by discipleship friendships: young men befriending other young men for the sake of encouraging one another in the faith; young women doing the same with other young women; older men befriending one another and younger men; and so forth. 

            Sometimes people laugh at how particular phrases and mannerisms become contagious and overused within a group of friends or a church community, but that's exactly how discipleship works among imaging creatures. We watch and mimic, at least if we are humble. "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ," Paul said to the Corinthians twice in one letter (1 Cor. 11:1; 4:16; also 2 Thess. 3:7, 9). The author of the Hebrews likewise told his readers to imitate the faith of their leaders (Heb. 13:7), and John told the church he was writing to imitate what is good, not evil (3 John 11). 

            Giving oneself socially to the local church also provides Christians with the opportunity to move outside their social comfort zones in friendship—old with the young, rich with the poor, uneducated with the educated, blacks with whites, and so forth. It's one thing for members of different ethnicities to befriend one another, but it takes just a little bit more humility to seek out instruction and discipling from one another. Yet the Spirit delights to enable members of different ethnicities to stand fast in one spirit, one love, and one mind. He delights to do the same for those divided by wealth, class, education, and other traditionally divisive demographics.

In short, the friendships within a church should look the same and different from friendships within the world. When conducted without quarreling or arguing in a crooked and depraved generation, they will shine like lights in the world. 


One component of friendship, of course, is the sharing of affections, and one more way that Christians are called to submit to the local church is through submitting their affections to one another. What is it that gives me joy or grief? What is it that causes me to celebrate or mourn? 

            Fulfilling Paul's command to "count others more significant than yourselves" and to "look not only to [your] own interests" means giving more than just our body or even our friendship. Paul tells us elsewhere that we can surrender our bodies to the flames and still not give something that we should be giving our love and affection. Hence, he instructs the church in Philippi to be of the same mind and to have one love. This one love ascends, first and foremost, to the worship of the Son and the glory of the Father, but this very desire for the Son's worship involves the Christian in desiring this same good for the members of his church. So he says to the Romans, "Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor" (Rom. 12:10). And to the Corinthians he says, "Have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (1 Cor. 12:25). 

           It's difficult to conceive how a consumeristic approach to church can coexist with such love. What I fear is that the love and emotions we typically experience in the movie theater are what we strive for in our churches. Consider for a second the tears that are shed in movie theater seats. A moment of romance or tragedy occurs with which the viewer can remotely identify; in a flash, the mind and heart feel gripped, even immersed, in the sensations of empathy. Tears follow, seemingly out of nowhere, then the scene passes, the tears dry up, and all is quickly forgotten. When all is done, one is left feeling no more or less of a human for having experienced that strange rush of emotion. You are left unchanged as a person. 

            It's not like this when real life causes us to cry, of course. The circumstances that cause real tears to flow often change us, either for the better or worse. Tears in a movie theater, for me at least, are a strange experience. One moment I'm fully immersed. The next moment it's as if nothing ever happened because the movie is over and the lights have been turned on. Frankly, it often leaves me feeling manipulated. My concern, again, is that Christians today, trained by the sentiments of a movie theater, are encouraged to feel and love in the same way within their churches. A heart-tugging sermon illustration, special music that spirals higher and higher with every harmonic modulation, a praise chorus that's repeated over and over, are all ways of producing tears and the pleasant sensations of joy, love, and even conviction. But how transformative those emotions are once the service ends is less clear.

            Compare that with the affection Paul commands. It combines sentiment with action; delight with self-sacrifice. He tells us to put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and above all these, love, which binds everything together in perfect unity (Col. 3:12-14). These aren't the mawkish emotions of a movie theater. He commands us to rejoice with the brother who gets a big job promotion and all the money and prestige that come with it. Can we? He commands the thirty-year-old single woman who longs for marriage to rejoice with the twenty-two-year-old woman when she marries. Can she? Can the poor man mourn with the rich man when he loses his job? Can the older woman mourn with the younger woman whose melancholy strikes her as petty and maudlin? Saying yes to these questions, rather than saying yes to selfish ambition and vain conceit, requires something more than mere sentiment. It requires a gospel-altered heart and the power of the Spirit. The single woman rejoices for the married woman and the poor man mourns with the rich man when both find all their identity and joy in Christ. They feel affirmed in his love, which they see in his sacrifice. They know that no marriage and no riches will satisfy more than Christ. They desire nothing more than his praise, so they find themselves unexpectedly warm of heart toward all those who belong to his body, and they desire the same knowledge and joy for them.  

            When we view the church as a place for our own spiritual enhancement, will we love like this? When we spend more time concerned about whether our gifts are being adequately used, the music meets our standard, or the preaching is sufficiently engaging, is it likely that 'we give ourselves to rejoicing and mourning with others? No, true rejoicing and mourning occur when we identify ourselves with another, and that's the one thing the consumer and the spectator, by definition, always hold back—themselves. 

            Fulfilling Paul's command to "count others more significant than yourselves" with "one love" means knowing the love of Christ, who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, and then loving like him.


Christians should submit to their local churches financially. This will look different from context to context. In some contexts, it means regularly placing a check into an offering plate. In other contexts, where the economy does not allow for that kind of regularity, it might mean regularly helping other members of the church with the essentials of life. However it is done, Christians should look for ways to fulfill biblical commands such as these:

·        "Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality" (Rom. 12:13; also Gal. 2:10; 1 John 3:17). 

·        Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come." (1 Cor. 16:1-2; also Rom. 15:26)

·        "For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints. . . . But as you excel in everything . . . see that you excel in this act of grace also." (2 Cor. 8:3-4, 7) 

·        "The Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel" (1 Cor. 9:14; also, 9:11-13; Matt. 10:10; Luke 10:7; Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:17-18). 

Most Christians recognize that we should give financially, but I propose, further, that the firstfruits of a Christian's regular giving should go to his or her local church. There are several reasons for this. First, Paul says that "one who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches" (Gal. 6:6). Just as we have an obligation to support our children, we have an obligation to support the preachers of God's Word in our local church.

Second, it's one way to submit to our church's authority. Giving our firstfruits affirms and demonstrates trust for the church leaders and how they will use the money to grow the church and its outreach. Someone who claims to submit to a church and its leadership but does not give to it financially shows that his claim of submission may be hollow. The way in which people spend money, probably more than anything else except time, reveals what their hearts value and love. Someone who gives little or nothing to his church is a man with a high estimation of his own dominion and sovereignty.

            However, I sympathize greatly with church members who feel reluctant to give because their leaders have a poor track record in financial decisions. Personally, I would have difficulty financially supporting a church that demonstrated little concern with kingdom work, such as missions or church planting, but spent most of its money beautifying the church building or on other non-essential matters. Still, Jesus gave authority to the local church to oversee our discipleship, which includes how we spend my money and where we contribute to God's work. Somehow we need to balance the call to submit to that authority with the call to wise stewardship of the finances God gives us, even when those two callings might be at odds from time to time. 


For some, submitting to God and the local church means leaving secular employment and moving into full-time vocational ministry in a church. For every Christian, however, submitting to God and the local church means recognizing that the lives of our fellow members will stretch on for eternity, while our jobs will not. 

            Just as a Christian might consider choosing a residence close to where his church gathers, the same is true of secular employment. A Christian's job decisions fall into the realm of freedom and prudence, except in matters of biblical morality. Yet Christians should also consider how they can "count others more significant than themselves" through the job decisions they make. 

            I know men and women in secular employment who, for the sake of serving in their local church, have turned down promotions and more money; moved from larger, more reputable firms to smaller ones; turned down compelling job offers; and refused to move to another city. In each case the choice was made largely so as not to hinder the ability to care for the church. I have also known others who refused to work on Sundays, or have quit jobs because they were required to do so. They quit not because they are Sabbatarians, but because that's when the church gathers. 

            What's unfortunate is that many churches today tend to choose their elders from among successful leaders in the marketplace, giving less regard for the spiritual or biblical qualifications of those men. Some of the men whom I have most respected as elders have made sacrifices in their careers for the sake of serving the church. 

I don't mean to suggest that Christian maturity necessitates making sacrifices to one's career, yet we must consider whether we value growth and upward movement in our careers in the same way that our non-Christian colleagues do. Ambition is a good thing. It's one aspect of imaging God. We Christians should be more ambitious than non-Christians because we have more to be ambitious about! However, what does being ambitious about the kingdom of God and his righteousness look like with respect to our secular jobs and our local churches? Could it be that truly loving and serving might have a palpable effect on our career track? It's hard to know, when we are not even willing to ask the question. 

            When Christians do enter full-time vocational ministry, they should submit even more explicitly to the oversight and affirmation of the local church. Churches, likewise, should take ownership and responsibility for Christians who aspire to enter such work. I was working in journalism when I began thinking about vocational ministry. I mentioned this to my pastor over lunch one day, and he told me that, generally speaking, a man should not enter the ministry until his internal desires line up with the church's recognition of his character and giftedness. Individuals considering vocational ministry should submit those desires to the wisdom and guidance of the local church. We cannot always see our character or our gifts as clearly as others can. I don't mean to suggest that those who feel called to the ministry should allow a church to have absolute say in whether or where they enter it. But we should generally heed the counsel of a church.  


Christians should submit themselves to the authority of their local churches ethically. I certainly do not mean that they should make the church their absolute authority, any more than a child should make his or her parents an absolute authority. Rather, the Christian should look to the church for ethical instruction, guidance, counsel, accountability, and discipline, like the child does with the parent, all according to God's Word. Elders, therefore, are commanded to teach the Scriptures, which are profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16), while members are charged with helping to keep one another in the way of righteousness. Paul writes, "Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:1-2). Jude similarly writes, "Have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh" (Jude 22). The local church is the primary place where we seek to help other believers overcome their sin and where we, in turn, should open ourselves up to receive the same help.

            Submitting to a local church means willingly undergoing its corrective discipline when we have been deceived by sin and wandered into error. The scores of passages in the book of Proverbs that compare the wise son and the foolish son make for an excellent members' manual: 

·      "The wise of heart will receive commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin." (Prov. 10:8) 

·      "The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice." (Prov. 12:15)

·      "A wise son hears his father's instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke." (Prov. 13:1) 

·      "A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion." (Prov. 18:2) 

The local church is where we practice being the wise son and help others do the same.

Specifically, we help others by instructing, counseling, and correcting them when necessary. If a brother has something against us, we seek out reconciliation before going to worship (Matt. 5:23-24). If a brother sins against us, we go and show him his fault (18:15). If he listens, we have won our brother. If he doesn't, we take two or three others back with us to him. If he doesn't listen to them, we take it to the church (Matt. 18:16-17). All this is part of what it means to submit to the local church.

I don't mean that Christians should never counsel or receive the counsel of Christians in other churches, but I do mean that Christians have a higher obligation to open up their lives to the congregation that is ultimately responsible for binding or loosing them. If we reveal deeper levels of our sin to someone outside our local church, it deprives our church of its Jesus-assigned responsibility to keep watch over our soul. It keeps us safely beyond the reach of the church's discipline and, therefore, places our soul in a danger zone. Additionally, it deprives teachers of the Word of knowledge of how to preach more meaningfully to the congregation. If teachers are oblivious as to how their members are struggling morally, they will be less capable of shepherding. Also, it fools us into thinking that we are fully in charge of our own discipleship. A self-selected accountability partner outside of one's church can be easily dismissed.           


Christians should submit to a local church spiritually. In some ways this last category is a catchall for anything that hasn't already been covered, since it sums up everything that has preceded it, but it does include three specific things. First, the local church is where Christians should go to build up one another in the faith. Second, it's where we should seek to exercise our spiritual gifts. Third, it houses the people for whom we should intercede regularly in our prayers. Jude writes, "But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life" (Jude 20-21). Paul observes, "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (1 Cor. 12:7; also 12:4-11; also Rom. 12:4-8). 

            Again, I don't mean to suggest that this kind of spiritual submission and care should never be extended to Christians in other congregations. I'm simply saying that Christians should entrust their own congregation with the primary responsibility to oversee them spiritually. This is biblical, wise, and intuitive. 

            Our spiritual submission to the church is more active than passive. It begins passively, when we listen to the spiritual words of someone teaching God's Word (see 1 Cor. 2:13). God's Word, whether spoken through a sermon or a private rebuke, is the fount of all spiritual life—God's Word working together with God's Spirit in the Christian. Yet once the Word has been heard and received, it should convert to immediate activity in the local church. We respond to what we have heard. We begin to pray for the church, for its members and leaders, its witness and worship. We seek to build up others with our words of comfort and occasional correction (2 Cor. 1:3-7). We exercise our Spirit-given gifts. When such activity is lacking, it raises the question of whether we have truly heard the Word through the Spirit. In short, spiritual submission, even though it begins with receiving, has more to do with giving.

            Even though I have treated our By dividing up our physical, social, affectionate, financial, vocational, ethical, and spiritual acts of submission separately, I don't mean to suggest that these are unrelated aspects of our person. As used here, these are merely different themes that constitute a Christian's holistic submission to and freedom in the local church. Love involves giving ourselves for the glory of God, not giving of ourselves for the glory of self. To love another is to give our whole person in all of its aspects for God's sake. It's to identify with another for God's sake. It's to submit to another for God's sake. It's to make ourselves, in some fashion, vulnerable to another, even when, for God's sake, doing so might harm us or our reputation. Love is never given without a risk or a sacrifice. It risks all in the here and now for the sake of gaining all in eternity (see Matt. 16:26).

In spite of the fact that most people want to separate love and submission, everyone knows that love and submission involve risk. We see shadows of it in the stories of childhood  where the hero risks all for the happily-ever-after ending with the beautiful damsel. What's unexpected about Christianity is that its great hero doesn't risk all for a damsel but for a whore. Then he calls everyone that he saves to submit to this whore—the bride still being made ready, the church. When you get down to it, people are not afraid of submitting. They're afraid of submitting to ugliness. We love submitting to beauty. Even something such as the market for pornography reflects this fact in a dim and tragic sort of way.

Submitting to the local church is, in one sense, submitting to loving ugliness. It's submitting to loving our enemies—other sinners who have their own visions for glory that don't match our own. But this is how Christ loved us: "Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another" (John 13:34). Christ loves us with a love that transforms the ugly into the beautiful (see Eph. 5:22-31). So should our love for our churches be.  

Who can love like this? Only the one whose eyes have been opened and whose heart has been freed from the slavery of loving this world. "So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36).

Step 6: When the church contravenes Scripture or the gospel's witness, an individual should speak and act in dissent, but only reverently and in the fear of God.            

When and How to Disagree 

This entire discussion has been premised on how members should submit to healthy, gospel-driven churches. But does Christ expect Christians to submit to unhealthy churches? Also, does our call to submission prevent us from ever disagreeing with our leaders? If it's permissible to disagree, when and how should we? 

            The first thing to keep in mind is that no earthly church is perfect, just like no government is perfect. Despite that, Christ still calls Christians to submit to their churches and citizens to their governments (Rom. 13:1). It seems that God has his purposes in calling humans to submit to other imperfect humans. 

            Primarily, of course, a Christian should submit to the local church because of his ultimate submission to the Scriptures. Neither the church nor any of its representatives has ultimate authority; Christ and his Word alone do. Just as Peter and John told the Jewish authorities that they must listen to God rather than men (Acts 4:19), so a Christian's conscience is ultimately bound to God and no other with regard to life in the church. "True elders," says Alexander Strauch, "do not command the consciences of their brethren, but appeal to their brethren to faithfully follow God's Word."[12] 

            At times, disagreements and abuses can be born. At times they cannot, and a church's authority should be rejected. Unfortunately, there is no precise formula for determining when a Christian should do one or the other, other than that a Christian is not bound to submit to the church whenever it requires something that explicitly contradicts Scripture or implicitly contradicts the spirit of scriptural wisdom and reflects poorly on the gospel. Discerning the latter depends finally on the exercise of one's own conscience. 

            It is worth observing that submitting to the local church means submitting to its good and holiness. At times, this in fact means that our very submission will require us to disagree with our leaders, even rebuking them if necessary, whenever their words, actions, or leadership explicitly contradict the Scriptures or reflect poorly on the gospel. When this is the case, we express our disagreements or concerns discreetly, carefully, respectfully, and even affirmingly. We do this in meekness and with an eagerness to submit, but we do it. If, in the final analysis, submitting to the church's or the elders' authority would lead the church into something unworthy of Christ and his bride, the Bible instructs us to speak and act in dissent.[13]  

When an actual charge of a moral nature needs to be made against an elder, two or three witnesses are required (1 Tim. 5:19). Presumably, Paul requires this because leaders are in the line of the fire of sinful human beings who often regard their disgruntlements as uniquely important or just.

What should church members do when they have expressed their disagreements or concerns but have been ignored? Certainly they should not gossip and begin a faction. If the disagreement can be tolerated, then they should forgive anything that needs to be forgiven, speak of the matter no further, and determine to happily support the church anyway. One absolutely must not allow resentment to build up in the heart, nor should one say something to another—even one's spouse—that would undermine the authority of the church's leadership.

When I disagree with other leaders in my congregation, I want to be careful not to undermine their authority in my wife's life. I want her to be able to sit under their preaching week after week and benefit from God's Word without a heart that's been soured by her husband's complaints. That doesn't mean I always choose to say nothing, though often I do. It does mean that, if I say something to her about the matter, I do so only when I know my words can be used to help her love the church more. In the process, I also try to direct her gaze to some fault of my own for the disagreement, such as my impatience or my lack of love. As her husband, friend, and fellow church member, my goal should always be to protect and burnish her love for Christ and his bride, not trample on it. Such care should extend to every member of the congregation. "If anyone against anyone" in the church has a complaint, says Paul, he should forgive (Col. 3:13; literal translation).

If the disagreement cannot be tolerated, a member may decide to leave the church, but only in such a way that does not sow division or discontent in those who remain. Furthermore, one should make the decision to leave over a disagreement only with the greatest reluctance and after having taking every prudent measure to achieve reconciliation or shared understanding. Jeremiah Burroughs, a seventeenth-century Congregationalist pastor, explained the prayerfulness and reluctance of heart that should accompany such a decision:

Suppose there are some godly and conscientious men in a church, but there is something done in the church that they cannot believe to be the mind of Christ. After all examination, after prayer, after seeking to God, they cannot see it to be the mind of Christ, but they should sin if they should join them. They can testify to God, their own consciences witnessing for them, that they would gladly join with their church in all the ways of God's worship, but in such and such ways they cannot join with the church without sin to their own consciences. They labour to inform themselves; they go to the elders; and they go to others in all humility to show their doubts in this thing. After hearing what others have said, they depart and, in conscience to God, examine between God and their souls what was said, and they pray over these things. They pray that God would reveal these things unto them if they be his mind. Now after all this is done, if they still cannot agree, what would you have these men do? Suppose there be a hundred such men; they cannot communicate, yet they are not presently to rend from the congregation, but to wait a while to see whether God will convince them. Now if after all using every means to find a common mind, they cannot be convinced, shall these men live without the ordinances of the Lord's Supper all the days of their lives? Hath Christ so tied a member of a congregation that he must never join with another congregation, even if remaining with his church causes him to believe he sins against Christ? Truly there had need be clear warrant for this if any one shall affirm it.[14]  

            Compare Burrough's attitude with our culture's attitude toward pastors and leadership, in general. How quick and casual we are to disagree with those God has placed over us. We assume that it's our right, our prerogative, and the way good government works. Let the people have their say! This might make us good democrats, but it does not make us good church members. Let us therefore render to Locke and Jefferson what are Locke and Jefferson's, and to God what is God's. Disagreements may need to be addressed, and when they are addressed they should be done so reluctantly, discreetly, carefully, respectfully, prayerfully, and with a heavy heart. We must finally act according to our conscience, but we must do so fearfully, knowing that (1) Christ has given the church authority, and (2) we will one day be in the position of explaining to Christ why we thought it was necessary to dissent. 

Step 7: Our submission to the local church can be well articulated in a written church covenant, which serves to remind a church of its covenantal commitments to one another.  

A Written Church Covenant 

For the last several centuries, some churches have enshrined vows of submission in a written church covenant. As I said before, writing down a church covenant is a matter of biblical freedom. A number in the Old Testament voluntarily bound themselves to covenants with one another, such as Jonathan and David. In fact, we're told that "Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul" (1 Sam. 18:3). This is exactly what local church covenants should be made of. 

            My own church asks all incoming members to sign such a covenant, and then we stand and read this covenant aloud to one another every time we receive the Lord's Supper, which is monthly. On a monthly basis, then, we remind one another of how we aspire to give and receive care. 

            The following covenant—my church's covenant—begins with the indicative of what Christ has done; it begins with the gospel. Our love for one another is born out of his love for us. It reflects our hope to submit to one another physically, socially, affectionately, financially, vocationally, ethically, and spiritually:

Having, as we trust, been brought by Divine Grace to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and to give up ourselves to Him, and having been baptized upon our profession of faith, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we do now, relying on His gracious aid, solemnly and joyfully renew our covenant with each other. 

We will work and pray for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 

We will walk together in brotherly love, as becomes the members of a Christian Church; exercise an affectionate care and watchfulness over each other and faithfully admonish and entreat one another as occasion may require. 

We will not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, nor neglect to pray for ourselves and others. 

We will endeavor to bring up such as may at any time be under our care, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and by a pure and loving example to seek the salvation of our family and friends. 

We will rejoice at each other's happiness, and endeavor with tenderness and sympathy to bear each other's burdens and sorrows. 

We will seek, by Divine aid, to live carefully in the world, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, and remembering that, as we have been voluntarily buried by baptism and raised again from the symbolic grave, so there is on us a special obligation now to lead a new and holy life. 

We will work together for the continuance of a faithful evangelical ministry in this church, as we sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline, and doctrines. We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the Gospel through all nations. 

We will, when we move from this place, as soon as possible, unite with some other church where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God's Word. 

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen. 

            Reading this covenant aloud monthly reminds the members of the church that our discipleship to Christ is not an autonomous matter but a body-life matter. "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you' (1 Cor. 12:21). The Christian life is not something we can do on our own, because the very nature of the Christian life requires connectedness, obedience, and sacrificial love. We grow as we help others to grow. We become free as we help other to be free.

Sometimes keeping this covenant means raking someone's lawn. Sometimes it means leading a small group. Sometimes it means biting our tongue rather than retaliating. Sometimes it means employing our Spirit-given gifts, but sometimes it means doing the things we are not very good at, because nobody else will do them. Sometimes it means voting differently from how we intended to vote because the pastor asked us to. Always it means loving.


Submitting to the local church is not about submitting to a distant figure in a place like Rome or Canterbury. It's not about submitting to a historical tradition of doctrinal development and epistemic surety. When Christ calls Christians to submit to local churches, he has in mind something far more involved. He means for us to love. He means for us to love the folks sitting next to us in the pew or folding chair or patch of dirt. We're to love flesh-and-blood people with names like Jeanette, Charlie and Jessie, Marco, Paul and Alice, and Beth.

Do you know Jeanette? She's the one who gets a little cranky about making sure the pews are returned to their proper order after ever Sunday's gathering. And Charlie? You have to speak up with Charlie because he doesn't hear so well, but how he loves to sing Jesus' praises. Then there's Marco, who struggles with addiction. Paul and Alice—such a kind couple. You'll never hear Paul stop talking about how much he loves Alice, even though they've been married for sixty years. Finally there is Beth. She is a single mom learning to love Jesus more with every passing month. All these names and many more—we are to count them more significant than ourselves. We are to seek to have one mind and one love with them. We are to submit to the ones we like and the ones we don't like, to the mature ones and the less than mature ones.

To share one love with Jeanette, Charlie and Jessie, Marco, Paul and Alice, and Beth means to give ourselves to them for Christ's sake, not just give of ourselves for our own sake. We count them more significant than ourselves by binding our identity to theirs and giving them all the honor we want for ourselves—the honor of Christ. We stake our joy and sorrow in their progress in the faith, since love always hopes, always trusts, always perseveres.

As we love like this, we define Christ's love for the world.


[Editor's note: This excerpt is adapted from chapter seven of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline, © 2010 Jonathan Leeman, published by Crossway Books.] 

Jonathan Leeman (MDiv, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC, serves as director of communications for 9Marks and is the editor of its eJournal. He has been published in several major newspapers and Christian periodicals and is a PhD candidate in theology at the University of Wales.

9Marks Ministries exists to equip church leaders with a biblical vision for displaying God's glory through healthy churches.






[1] William P. Young, The Shack (Newbury Park, CA: Windblown Media, 2007), 192.

[2] Berlin's two conceptions bear a clear analogy to what Christian theologians distinguish as libertarian freedom from compatiblist freedom.

[3] Isaiah Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty," in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 196), 122.

[4] Ibid., 131.

[5] Another way to draw out the contrast is to say that negative freedom relies upon a "thin" conception of truth while positive freedom relies upon some "thick" conception of truth. A thin conception aspires to make no claim concerning life's ultimate metaphysical issues, but simply builds its ethics and political philosophy on some type of social contract between humans. Not surprisingly, the credibility of this project has been widely critiqued. A thick conception, on the other hand, explicitly grounds its political philosophy and ethics on a metaphysical foundation.

[6] Berlin says as much about Christianity ("Two Concepts of Liberty," 123 n. 2; 129 n. 2).

[7] Whereas the negative conception of liberty excludes the positive, the positive conception incorporates the negative.

[8] Peter does not explicitly connect freedom and the work of the Spirit as clearly as Jesus and Paul, but it is evident that the same theology of the Spirit undergirds Peter's understanding of sanctification and growth in the Christian (see 1 Pet. 1:2; 2:2, 5; 3:18; 4:14).

[9] A classic example of this occurs in Presbyterian James Bannerman's book in a chapter titled, "The Extent and Limits of Church Power," in which he limits the church's authority (1) to the spiritual domain, as opposed to the state's domain; (2) by the fact that it's derived from Christ's own authority; (3) to that which is prescribed in God's Word; and (4) to the rights of Christian conscience (James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, vol. 2 [Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1974], 247-48.  

[10] Here is where we find the strange convergence between Christian liberalism and fundamentalism. Both often prefer a libertarian conception of freedom which eschews any role for nature and desire. As a result, both tend to do ministry in the same way, only we refer to one as moralistic and the other as legalistic. 

[11] Benjamin Franklin's remarks on how he attempted to cultivate humility by mimicking the phraseology of humility, with no success, are instructive for our day and age when such a high premium is placed upon sounding humble in religious discourse. Franklin writes, "My List of Virtues contain'd at first but twelve: but a Quaker Friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud. . . . I added Humility to my list. . . . I cannot boast of much Success in acquiring the Reality of this Virtue; but I had a good deal with regard to the Appearance of it. . . . I even forbid myself . . . the Use of every Word or Express in the Language that imported a fix'd Opinion; such as certainly, undoubtedly, &c. and I adopted instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it so appears to me at present. . . . In reality there is perhaps no one of our natural Passions so hard to subdue as Pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself. . . . For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my Humility." Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography and Other Writings (New York: Viking Penguin Books, 1984 ed.), 102-3. A writer or church leader exposes a false humility, I apprehend, whenever he appeals to something like post-modernism as what should ground Christian humility. No epistemology produces true humility; only the Spirit does.

[12] Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, rev. ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: Lewis and Roth, 1995), 98. 

[13] It's over this point of dissent at which misunderstandings can occur between a high church conception of authority and what I'm advocating here (which is applicable to free-churches). Criticizing the baptist or congregational church polity, the nineteenth-century Presbyterian James Bannerman wrote, "An authority so conditioned and checked by the necessity of the consent of the parties over whom it is exercised, cannot, in the proper sense of the word, be authority at all. It is advice, or it is counsel, administered by one party to another; but it cannot be authoritative power, exercised by one party over another, when the concurrence of both is required before it can be exercised at all, and when either party refuse their concurrence at their pleasure."[13] To some measure, I agree with him. It's true that the authority of the church does not depend on the consent of the governed because it roots in Christ's own authority. Yet leaving our understanding of church authority here will yield authoritarianism or, at least, a law little different than the law given at Sinai. It tempts church leaders to say, "My authority comes from Christ, so do what I say. End of discussion." We should also recognize the authority of God's Spirit at work in his people (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 2:6; Gal. 1:6-9). Gospel authority always recognizes that a church's authority will prove efficacious only to the extent that God's Spirit has moved in the hearts of his people. In other words, a church's authority never goes beyond the Word, and that authority's usefulness never goes beyond the Spirit. It recognizes, as I said earlier, that any action that must be forced is not an act of faith. Therefore, gospel authority does not ask for blind obedience; it appeals to gospel realities in the individual and asks for a voluntary obedience. The same is true of how Christ exercises his own authority. His authority does not depend on our consent, but he asks for our consent nonetheless; then he gives it, when he wills, through his Spirit. He asks us to exercise our will in obedience to him; and our submission to him is a voluntary submission. Can we therefore dissent from Christ? No, because he is God and our ultimate authority; but that's not true of the church. Christians should dissent from the authority of the church, not "at their pleasure" as Bannerman says, misrepresenting a free-church position, but whenever it contravenes the authority of Christ's Word or gospel witness. Of course, Bannerman himself admits this last point in his discussion of the limits of church authority (Bannerman, Church of Christ). Since, therefore, gospel authority works not in opposition to the conscience but in concert with it, and since there's always the possibility for every earthly authority to error, there must be room for dissent.

[14] Jeremiah Burroughs, "The Difference between Independency and Presbytery," in The Reformation of the Church: A Collection of Reformed and Puritan Documents on Church Issues, ed. Iain H. Murray (Carlisle, PA, 1997 repr.), 287. I have attempted to simplify the language of this quotation in several places.

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