Congregational Subordination

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By Raymond Harris

Regarding Scripture: Ephesians 5.21, John 21.15-17; I Corinthians 16.15-18

During the last four articles we have been examining the idea of subordination. Examining the nature of hierarchical structures within spirituality, the domestic unit, society as a whole, and the vocational institution specifically. Today, we will be examining the hierarchy within a congregation of the Lord’s people.

While it is true that disciples are called out of the world to devote themselves to God, through Christ, His Son, the reality is that we have a difficult time shedding the influence of society. As we have seen in the previous articles, we live in a fractured society; as such, our society challenges all authoritative structures. Because of this, it is unfortunate but we find congregational units having similar difficulty operating within the hierarchical structure of the house of God (the local assembly of the Lord’s people – I Timothy 3.15). Is it any wonder that aside from the domestic unit, the congregational unit probably manifests the greatest example of the stressful situation that exists between respectful subordination and disrespectful insubordination?

Knowing that a lesson of this nature can possibly reflect on the congregation we attend, the question becomes: how can I effectively engage in what can be a difficult discussion and still be sensitive to everyone? The answer: I will do my best.

What makes this discussion especially challenging is that almost every person in a congregation can identify something either in the assembly or in the leadership that they would like to see changed. So in addressing this topic, I will forego offering possible solutions for resolving congregational stress. Instead, this lesson’s objective is to identify what the ideals should be for the congregation both in the leadership and the assembly in general.

The Leadership
Many times when discussing a congregation’s leadership I Timothy 3.1-7 and Titus 1.5-9 are referenced. While these passages have merit (because they speak to the characteristics of the leaders), these passages seem to be outside the scope of this lesson.

Let us begin by examining John 21.15-17. In these closing verses of John, Jesus has been resurrected and has appeared to His disciples by the sea. It is unfortunate that the English language permits such a casual reading of this moment, because in these three brief verses, John records for us a very solemn moment between Jesus and Peter. These verses do not record just an intensely concerned Jesus they also reveal several key items for a shepherd to understand.

The first thing we should notice is the type of love that Jesus asks Peter if he possesses. The English does not reveal the two different Greek words used in this passage. In John 21.15-16 Jesus asks Peter if he has the love that means, as one commentator stated, “selfless, self-giving love, the kind of love God has for his human creations” (p.213 JNTC) but Peter does not answer using the same Greek word for love. Peter responds using the Greek word that Thayer defines as, “to treat affectionately or kindly” or as the previous commentator stated, “the love friends or brothers have for each other.” (p.213 JNTC) It would seem that the kind of love that God and Jesus expect a shepherd to possess is not just brotherly kindness, but a selfless, self-giving love that demonstrates God’s love for humanity.

The second thing we should notice is the maturity level of the sheep. In John 21.15, the sheep are lambs; these are young and require tender care and protection because they are not yet mature. But the shepherd for Jesus’ flock will not just help the young but also the mature as seen in verse 16 and 17.

This leads us to the last thing we should notice. Jesus informs Peter to do two tasks in the shepherding of the sheep. Both John 21.15 and 17 contain the Greek word that conveys the idea of grazing, so the shepherds are to allow both the lambs and sheep to graze spiritual food. Yet, verse 16 contains a different Greek word for feed. This particular Greek word indicates that the shepherds are not just to provide a grazing pasture for the lambs and sheep, but shepherds are to tend and keep the flock. Perhaps, this type of nurturing is best seen in Psalm 23.

The epistles of I Peter and Ephesians provide more details than a brief article allows, but a few things should be identified. I Peter 5.1-4 encourages men to shepherd willingly, to be examples to everyone and not to act in a controlling manner over the people. In Ephesians 4.11-12, 16, Paul states that God has given some to be shepherds (while most English translations use the word pastor, the Greek is best translated shepherd), but Paul continues by saying that these men edify (build up) the body of Christ, which is the assembly of people.

While God’s Word contains many more ideas for shepherding, the shepherds who shepherd well do so because they, as implied by I Peter 5.1-4, are first submissive to Jesus as the Chief Shepherd. I choose to close by quoting from a commentator, “Some elders take too little responsibility, so that their congregations remain weak and undisciplined. If it is true that [Jesus] wants followers to follow, all the more does he want leaders who will lead – but not as… ‘big shot[s]’… .” (p.756 JNTC)

The Assembly
As we look at the assembly, we will look at primarily two passages. Let us begin with I Corinthians 16.16, which must be taken in the context of I Corinthians 16.15-18. In this passage, Paul encourages the Corinthians to be obedient, submissive to, and under Stephanas, mentioned in verse 15. The Corinthians are not to be subordinate to him only, but also to other Christians who are like him, those who are addicted to or devoted to serving other Christians. In this passage, we can understand that Paul is stating that Stephanas and others like him have demonstrated no ulterior motive, they were genuine and willingly supplied things that the brethren lacked and refreshed Paul and other Christians.

Our next passage will be I Peter 5.5. Following Peter’s admonition to the elders, he adds that the younger should place themselves in a subordinate position to the elders. While it might seem that Peter is speaking about younger in age submitting to those older in age, the concept of youth takes a secondary role. In keeping with the descriptions of leaders found in I Timothy 3.6, the young are those who are new to or young in the faith, as a translation states, “Likewise, you who are less experienced, submit to leaders.”

Sometimes it is difficult to submit to those in the leadership because they seem to make decisions that we find hard to understand. However, God does expect us to be respectfully subordinate toward the leadership.

As we close this lesson, let us remember that God is the originator of the hierarchical structure for the church. While at times it may be difficult, the structure is intended to aid the assembly in growing in faith, knowledge, unity, and love, according to Ephesians 4.1-16.

Perhaps, four thoughts should serve as reminders for us regarding the temperament each of us should have, no matter what role we may fulfill, whether the role be as a Shepherding elder, a deacon, an evangelist, a teacher, or a member in particular.

The Four Thoughts
1. Others are More Important
Philippians 2.3 (NASB) – Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves

2. Be Subordinate to Others
Ephesians 5.21 (NKJV) – submitting to one another in the fear of God

3. Be a Servant of Others
Matthew 20.26b-27 (KJV) – but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant

4. The Servant is the Superior
Matthew 23.11 (KJV) – he that is greatest among you shall be your servant

JNTC – Jewish New Testament Commentary, David H. Stern, ISBN 965-359-008-1