SUBMISSION TO ELDERS
T. PIERCE BROWN
As on almost every subject of in the Bible, there are disagreements concerning what is involved in submitting to elders in accordance with the directions in God’s word. The opinions swing from the position that the elders have no authority, but are merely to lead by example, to the idea that the elders are almost, if not altogether, equal in authority to the apostles, and their decision on any issue is not even to be questioned. As usual, both extremes are wrong. The elders are supposed to lead by example, but that does not preclude their right to make authoritative decisions in some areas. However, the Apostles of Christ were inspired, and when they spoke they spoke the words of the Holy Spirit. The elders do not always do that.
We shall try to make a distinction that is often overlooked, even by sound and scholarly brethren, which may help to clarify a few points to those who have not studied the problem as deeply as they may desire. Many years ago I knew of a congregation where the preacher had been requested to come for the primary purpose of doing personal evangelism and training teachers. He was conducting a class on personal evangelism which none of the elders, and only one of the deacons attended. He was personally conducting several Bible studies each week, and baptizing persons at all hours of the day or night, two or three times a week. The number of new converts who were not familiar with the functioning of the church and the social structures, as well as the form of worship and activity, became so great that the elders had trouble keeping up with their training. This caused the elders to decide that the preacher was causing enough problems that he should leave.
Many of the older members, and most of the new ones were startled, amazed, chagrined and disappointed that the elders had made that decision. They asked the preacher what they should do. He told them that the elders had the responsibility and authority to select the preacher, and the responsibility and authority to get rid of him as they thought best. He made this distinction: A loyal member of a congregation does not have to agree with every decision the elders make, and has a right to express to them his disagreement, but he does not have a right to rebel against it in such a fashion as to create dissention and division. Submission is not necessarily agreement. In fact, the very word “submit” suggests that one had a different position, but he allowed another person’s attitude or decision to override his normal inclination.
That preacher urged the disgruntled members not only to submit to the decision of the elders to fire him, which they had a right to make, but that they should not press their views in such a way that it would show the outside world dissension and strife instead of love and unity. One has a right to disagree with any such decision of the elders. They even have a right to leave that congregation and go to another without being accused of being rebellious and divisive. They do not have a right to publicly proclaim their disagreement in any manner that would fail to glorify God (1 Corinthians10:31) or to bring dishonor on the church of our Lord.