Well, this should be fun!
Let me start by saying, I struggle with this point as much as anyone. So, I’m not talking about it because it’s something that I love. In fact, if I had my way this wouldn’t be a part of church.
Most of the time, when people get dissatisfied with church it’s the organization that takes the blame. Things like style of music; topical, textual or expository sermons; egalitarian vs complementarian; congregational rule, elder led or elder governed and other church governments; sunday school, small groups or house churches; chairs or pews; and the list literally goes on and on.
People get dissatisfied with something about the organization. The organization doesn’t live up to their individual unwritten and unexpressed rules and expectations for church. Sometimes the rules are thought to be biblical, even though they’re often taken out of context. Many times, the rules are modern day cultural expectations being imposed on the text or the organized church or they are ideals rooted in some sort of church conflict.
Sometimes people will leave a church for the right reasons, which is something I’ll go into detail about in a future post. But, most of the time, that’s not the case.
Alright, so what is this “unknown” reason so many Christians get satisfied with church?
To be honest, there are many. But this is definitely at the top of the list. Are you ready for it? I’m nervous you aren’t and that you’ll stop reading as soon as I write the phrase. What is it? Submission to authority.
You’re mad at me aren’t you. Let me explain.
I have spent a lot of my life resisting the authority that God has placed over me. I have questioned it, challenged it, assumed motives and more. As someone who has been under authority I know what we do to authority figures in the church.
During my 15 or so years as an associate pastor, I heard and participated in negative talk about my pastor and other church leaders. When I should have had the courage to put out fires I stoked them with my own complaints.
In my 7+ years as a senior pastor, I’ve heard plenty of negative talk about myself, heard assumptions about my motives and a ridiculous number of accusations across the spectrum.
As Christians in America, we are ridiculously unkind to the pastors God has put in place in our lives as spiritual authorities. And I’m just as guilty of it as anyone. I’ve had to ask God and pastors I served under for forgiveness.
Americans Rebel Against Authority
Neuroscience has shown how our thoughts can actually have an effect on our DNA. “Cynical hostility” and “pessimism” can lead to shortened telomeres which can lead to physical problems like cardiovascular disease among others. (Ironic that cynicism and pessimism can lead to heart problems.)
Without getting too nerdy, there is hardwired memory that gets passed on from generation to generation. While our understanding of DNA is still pretty limited, there is evidence to show (and the Bible confirms) that sin can be passed on from generation to generation. (Feel free to challenge me or post clarifying questions in the comments.)
Not only is rebellion hardwired into our DNA as humans, but as Americans we have been passing greater levels or rebellion to authority on to subsequent generations since before our nations beginning.
Just look at the treatment of authorities in our day and age. Whether it was President Obama or President Trump, people in the opposing party would say: “He’s not my president.” We feel we have the right to resist authorities that we disagree with. And it’s not just the president, it’s any authority.
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.Romans 13:1-2
What we fail to understand is that bringing that same rebellion into Christianity is actually sin.
(Insert Wall-E “Woh, woh, woh, woh, woh” here.) “My rebellion against spiritual authority isn’t sin. It’s my right.” Maybe, but the starting point of following Jesus is denying ourselves and whatever we think are our rights, so…
Maybe we should look at some scripture:
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.Titus 3:1-2
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.1 Peter 2:13-17
Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.Ephesians 5:21
Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”1 Peter 5:5
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.Hebrews 13:17
But how does this lead to dissatisfaction?
It seems like it would be the opposite, doesn’t it? It seems like we would be more satisfied when we make decisions based on what we want and prefer, right?
But, that’s the lie we believe. “The more I can get things in my life the way I want them to be, the happier I will be.” The problem is, this puts us and our desires at the center of our universe. We get frustrated with church and justify our statements by saying: “I just think church isn’t supposed to be like this or that.”
Which is the problem, we read small selections of scripture out of context and “take it to mean” whatever best suits our personal desires.
We will never be satisfied with the church if our foundational approach to church is based on our personal desires and preferences.
The lie says “Do whatever you need to do to make yourself happy.”
The truth says: “Submission to God’s system of authority is where we will experience joy.”
You know that popular verse:
23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.Colossians 3:23-24
Do you know the context of these verses? Yep, Submission.
- “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands,”
- Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.
- Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.
Do you know what else is in these verses? Instructions for the people we are supposed to be submissive to:
- Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
- Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.
- Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
We say things like, “I have no problem submitting to authority as long as the authority is worthy of my submission.” The problem is, that’s not a biblical argument.
We are never told to submit to authority only if the authority is worthy of our submission. That’s not a biblical idea, that’s an American idea that we impose on Scripture. In fact, the opposite is taught several places. We’re supposed to submit to authorities even if they are mistreating us.
The path to satisfaction is paved with submission.
Over the years when I have been dissatisfied with a church I was a part of, my lack of submission only served to fuel greater levels of dissatisfaction. In fact, the majority of division that exists in the church today is not because of the organized church but because of the division we create due to our personal desires. It’s when we start fighting for our way and our rights that the church starts to divide.
We think we get dissatisfied when we aren’t getting what we want. The truth is, we stay in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction when we think the most important thing is getting what we want. Why? Because our motives and focus are in the wrong place. We’re motivated to please ourselves and our focus is on our personal desires.
Aren’t you just trying to get people to be submissive to you?
I can see why you would say that, I thought the same thing. But, WHO the authority is isn’t the point. Every time we submit to an authority, we are submitting to Jesus. Even the oppressive leaders? Apparently so.
If we can’t submit to the authorities we can see, how can we submit to God whom we haven’t seen? (1 Jn 4:19-21)
But what about Peter saying: “We must obey God rather than men.”
Again, we have to look at the context. Acts 5 is dealing with the apostles being told “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name…”. Peter wasn’t resisting their authority. He was simply saying he had to preach about Jesus. So that seems to be the one area where rejecting authority is okay. If your government leader tells you not to preach about Jesus, resist that authority. If your pastor tells you not to preach about Jesus, resist.
Does this mean we follow along blindly? No, but when there are issues that we feel need to be addressed, we do so in an unconditional love fashion and we do it the right way. We don’t stir up dissention by talking with all the wrong people about it and then vote with our feet when we don’t get our way. At the same time, we need to stop assuming the motives of leaders are usually selfish and impure. Of all the pastors I know, we all have one desire driving everything we do – making disciples and telling people about Jesus. Are there leaders with bad motives? Sure. But they are the exception, they’re the 1%. Should we follow them? We’ll talk about that in a later post.
We are rebels. We don’t like anyone telling us what to do. Neuroscience even shows that we don’t like ourselves telling us what to do. If you tell yourself you have to do something, your brain will fight yourself.
Our culture has embraced and celebrated this rebellion. We have embraced this same rebellion in the church. Rebellion is what led Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They didn’t want to submit to God’s authority, they wanted to be their own authority.
We can’t embrace rebellion in the church. We can’t support the ideology that supports rebellion against any and all authority. Instead, no matter how difficult it may be, we have to deny ourselves take up our cross and follow Jesus. What is taking up your cross? Well, for Jesus it was submitting himself to God’s authority, as well as Roman and even Jewish authority. Did Jesus resist the cross? Yes, but only to God. And in the end, what did Jesus say? “Nevertheless, not my will but your will be done.” Jesus submitted himself to the cross even though He was perfectly innocent.
We will never experience the joy of the church until we learn the joy of submission.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.Phil 2:3-4