Thursday, August 13, 2009

Food for Thought Regarding Submission

Sooner or later, if a Christian dares to criticize an authority figure or another person within the Body of Christ, one is likely to be accused of "divisiveness" even though it's most often the case that such criticism merely calls necessary attention to disunity which already exists, rather than creating the disunity in the first place. In my experience, criticisms of that nature are often disingenuously used in order to prevent or shut down honest, mature, biblically centered conversations about problems which badly need to be addressed.

I acknowledge that there are cases in which it's legitimate to criticize people for being needlessly divisive or needlessly critical. Note, however, that the act of criticizing someone simply for being critical, regardless of whether or not that person's criticisms are valid, is an inherently self-contradictory act. If indeed it's invariably wrong to criticize others, then it is hypocritical to criticize people for being critical, inasmuch as one is doing the very thing which one claims is wrong.

Criticism for its own sake or criticism which is motivated by malice or jealousy is indeed destructive and worthy of condemnation, but not all forms of criticism fall into that category.

Without the freedom to criticize, Christians are unable to fulfill their biblical responsibilities to "test the spirits". There are some who think that such responsibilities are the exclusive domain and prerogative of people who hold privileged (and usually paid) positions of authority within the church. I am aware of no scriptural evidence to support such a claim.

I find it ironic that many of the people who make such claims are the same people who praise church reformers such as Martin Luther. There is something strange about Protestants who argue that Christian pastors and leaders within their own churches are somehow exempt from criticism. The word "protestants" is derived from the word "protest". Without the willingness of men such as Luther to protest the unbiblical teachings and practices of existing church leaders, there would be no Protestant churches today.

It's interesting to me to notice the relationship, in I John 4:1, between a failure to test the spirits and an inability to prevent false prophets from going out into the world.

What is the mark of a false prophet? In the Old Testament, false prophets were typically "ear ticklers" and "man pleasers". In the modern vernacular, they were "yes men". False prophets told leaders who had gone astray what those leaders wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear. False prophets were afraid of being accused of "rocking the boat" and "being divisive," so they chose to lie in the name of God rather than speaking the plain and honest truth. True prophets spoke the truth. They were not jerks, but they were not afraid of stepping on a few people's toes if necessary, nor did they allow themselves to be intimidated by bogus appeals to authority into staying silent.

What was their earthly reward for speaking the truth? In Luke 13:34, Jesus said that many of the prophets were stoned to death in Jerusalem. ("O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!")

Biblically, stoning was supposed to be reserved for false prophets. But it's clear from the aforementioned passage that the ones being stoned in Jerusalem by the religious leaders of the day were the true prophets, not the false ones. It caused Jesus to openly grieve. True followers of Christ should likewise grieve when we see examples of the oppressive misuse of authority.

Does this mean that Christians ought not to submit to authority? No, of course not. But we ought to have a better understanding of the biblical meaning of submission.

Unfortunately, when some people use the term "submission," it calls to mind images of hierarchical and inherently unequal relationships. But a clear reading of the scriptures (in which Paul told married people to submit "to one another") ought to refute the idea that that's what the Bible means when it talks about godly submission.

The unbiblical manner in which Christians have sometimes defined the term "submission" has led to abusive situations, or to the perpetuation of such situations. It has led to situations in which the key component in those relationships has been power, not love.

In the Bible, the word "submit" is used in a manner which has nothing to do with dominance of other people or disregard for their feelings or needs. The Bible emphasizes mutual submission (in which each person genuinely cares about the well being of the other person), as opposed to the lopsided type of submission which gives one person a disproportionate amount of authority over another person.

The mutuality of biblical submission ought to be applicable to all human relationships, whether one is talking about the relationships between pastors and laity, employers and employees, teachers and students, or even parents and children. People who exercise power without regard for the feelings and needs of others are not acting with God's authority. Such people are bullies, pure and simple, and they ought to be treated as such.

In Luke 12:42-48, The Bible says, "To whom much is given, much will be required." As an example of what is meant by that statement, the passage gives the example (beginning in verse 42) of a servant or steward to whom a household has been entrusted. But the steward abuses his authority, "and begins to beat the male and female servants" (NKJV). How does the master of the house respond? "(T)he master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the unbelievers." Folks, this is serious stuff! According to the preceding passage of scripture, abusive leaders will be harshly punished by God, even to the point that they will be treated as if they had been unbelievers. How will unbelievers be treated? According to the scriptures, they will be damned to hell. I'm not making that up, it's in the word of God.

Authority is not a blank check to treat people however we feel like treating them. Authority is a stewardship from God, and people in positions of authority will be held accountable for how they treat other people. Leaders are not exempt from the Golden Rule.

Even Jesus, who was certainly entitled to throw his weight around if he'd chosen to do so, demonstrated that he saw leadership as a position of service to others, not as an authorization for riding roughshod over the feelings and needs of others.

Whether one is talking about the home, church or the workplace, we need more humble leaders who understand that they are called to serve. Arrogance is not a trivial offense which we can afford to overlook when assessing the qualifications, or lack thereof, of pastors and other leaders.

One final relevant comment: I recently attended a church which, in most respects, seemed to be a great church. However, two of the three pastors had made a couple of comments from the pulpit, and I was bothered by those comments, because they suggested that the pastors had very little empathy for people who were suffering (as I had recently suffered) from depression in relation to negative circumstances. So I went to the lead pastor and attempted to address these issues, hoping that he'd alleviate my concerns by assuring me that if I was depressed for some reason, I could talk to him without fear of condemnation. Instead, he cut me off almost as soon as I'd begun to express my negative feelings about what he'd said from the pulpit. "If you don't like the way we do things here," he said, "then leave here and start your own church."

Maybe it's just me, but that statement didn't seem to exhibit the type of humility which ought to be exhibited by Christian leaders. So I wrote a letter of complaint to the district superintendent of the denomination of which that church was a part. The letter was completely ignored. My followup e-mail, in which I asked why there had been no response to my letter, was also ignored.

Apparently, both the pastor and the superintendent felt threatened by anything resembling criticism, so they considered that they were exempt from criticism, and that they had no obligations to respond to such criticism with anything resembling humility.

Starting my own church, contrary to the pastor's insinuations, was not an option for me. (I was, and am, barely paying the rent on my own tiny room at the YMCA.) But leaving that church, as he'd suggested that I should do, was an option. So I did. And so should you, if you find yourself in a similarly abusive relationship. Yes, you should pray for reconciliation, and you should be willing to forgive if there's an indication of genuine repentance on the part of the person who has abused your trust. But you have no biblical obligation to be anyone's doormat. Not even a spouse's or a pastor's.

No comments: