Power Neutral Systems, Part 2

[L]ast time I covered the body of Christ implications of power neutral systems. This time I’d like to spend a few words on the idea of mutual submission.

The idea of unity is a huge part of the vision for Christianity. Paul covers it at length in many of his writings. Heres a couple sections for you to process:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. – Ephesians 4:1-6, NIV

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. – Ephesians 5:21, NIV

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant… – Philippians 2:3-7, NIV

There are many other passages we could list, but these will suffice for our discussion. In the realm of current church leadership, the idea of mutual submission seems to be a foreign topic. More typically, we have churches that are ‘led’ by a single group of people. In my tribe, that group is usually the eldership. This is a trend that is recent in church history but has is roots in the Roman Catholic church (gasp!). More recently, the idea of the elders as the church board of directors is a product of the great depression and WWII. These were times of great transition in America. The Industrial Revolution was well underway, and the Commercialization of America was gaining traction. People left the farms and small towns to work in factories and to serve in the military. In these environments, it was the leaders at the top of the totem pole that led us through our time of uncertainty. As is more typical than we like to admit, the church adopted this pattern of hierarchy into the system of church leadership.

What’s wrong with this? In part it is because it violates the principle of mutual submission. It is difficult to practice mutual submission when there is a small group of people that are ‘calling the shots’. I put that in quotes intentionally. One of the traits that hierarchical leaderships tend to have is an attitude of infallibility. In churches with elderships that ‘call the shots’, there is no appeal process. For whatever reason, yesterday I was thinking of a minister I knew that was fired by his elders. There were 3 elders for the church of 125 people. They didn’t consult the congregation and without notice they met with the minister and dismissed him. Where is mutual submission in that environment? Not just the ability for the congregation to provide input into leadership decisions, but where is the mutual submission between the elders and minister? Are they not brothers in Christ? What has happened that we believe that being an elder is equal to being the boss of the church? Practicing the principle of mutual submission would go a long way to fixing this problem.

There are other issues involved in the mutual submission issue. An organization that doesn’t practice mutual submission usually has a system that doesn’t encourage ownership and power sharing. If all the power is kept at the top, there’s no power to distribute to other people. This will frequently result in exclusionary practices that discourage people from taking increased levels of responsibility. This type of congregation will also typically not have a process to develop leadership for the future. They usually wait until they need leaders, look for ‘qualified’ people, bring them in without training, and propagate the unhealthy system through modeling. In the end, lack of mutual submission has the same effect as other unhealthy practices… it creates small churches.

So, what about my claim that centralizing leadership within the eldership has its roots in the Catholic church? That, my friends, is material for the next post.

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