In a time when clerical scandals find their way into screaming headlines, we are ever more leery of any calls to submit to church leadership. Thus, clergy and laity find themselves at an impasse for no leader can lead when none follow and followers, rubbing their chain-chaffed wrists, are rightly reluctant to subject themselves to tyranny. Perhaps no leader told you of visions telling him to claim your teenage daughter as his wife but you may have been blinded by your pastor’s new gold watch as you listened to the treasurer’s sobering report. You may never have had to surrender your entire savings to the church but you might have been blacklisted by an overzealous elder threatened by your worldview.
Authoritarianism in the church often arises from power hungry ulterior motives but it might also be an attempt to prevent fragmentation. Indeed, it could be a dark mixture of the two. Every group has individuals able to move people to some objective and are driven by benevolent motives or otherwise. It is a bitter pill to swallow but they can often perceive dangers and opportunities that the rest do not. While loyal opposition is at times necessary, violent arrogant insurrection adds to the problems that it seeks to solve. Humble, thinking and willing submission are necessary for progress.
Church leaders would do well to remember that Christian leadership carries no chains:
I want to encourage the elders among you. I’m also an elder, a witness to Christ’s sufferings, and I will share in the glory that is to come. Look after Gods flock you have been given to care for, watching over it not because you’re forced to, but gladly, as God wants you to. Do this willingly, not looking to make a profit from it. Don’t be arrogant, lording it over those who have been put in your care, but be an example to the flock. When the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive a glorious crown that will never fade.
(1 Peter 5:1-4 FBV)
The priests at the temple, the confluence of God and man, had no coercive power. All who submitted themselves to the priests did so voluntarily. Jesus Himself never used His position to push everybody around and choosing the hard way, inspired obedience by the revelation of His character. When faced with his disciples’ sinful lust for power, He told them:
When the other ten disciples heard what they had asked, they were annoyed with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and told them, “You know that foreign rulers lord it over their people, and powerful leaders oppress them. It shall not be like that for you. Whoever among you wants to be the most important will be your servant. Whoever among you wants to be first will be like a slave. In the same way the Son of man didn’t come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
(Matthew 20:24-28 FBV)
At the same time they also got into a quarrel about which of them was the most important. Jesus told them, “Foreign kings lord it over their subjects, and those having power even want people to call them ‘benefactors. “But it should not be so with you! Whoever is highest among you should be like the lowest, and the leader should be like a servant. Who is greater-the one who sits at the table, or the one who serves? Isn’t it the one who sits at the table? But I’m among you as the one who serves. You have stayed with me throughout my trials. And I grant to you authority to rule, just as my Father granted it to me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
(Luke 22:24-30 FBV)
The kingdom of Jesus is a kingdom in which the leader serves the followers. This is not an arbitrary prescription but a description of reality. Being made in God’s image means we are creatures that are meant to obey willingly. Coercion and manipulation may work for a while but in the end, they create rebels:
A sullen submission to the will of the Father will develop the character of a rebel. By such a one service is looked upon as drudgery. It is not rendered cheerfully, and in the love of God. It is a mere mechanical performance. If he dared, such a one would disobey. His rebellion is smothered, ready to break out at any time in bitter murmurings and complaints. Such service brings no peace or quietude to the soul.
(Ellen G White, Signs of The Times, 22 July 1897, “Take My Yoke Upon You.”)