We live in a culture where “authority” is something of a dirty word, and we feel no obligation to submit to authorities we don’t agree with. In fact, doing so often results in social ridicule, whether online or in person.
Living in an internet age marked by both the democratization of information and hyper-targeted marketing, cynicism about anyone with authority has skyrocketed, whether that authority figure is a political leader or party, the consensus of medical experts, or plain facts as presented by journalists.
Distrust abounds. And the sad truth is that when trust is low, conflict is commonplace. This is exactly what we’re experiencing on a national scale. Fueled by suspicion, half-truths, and disinformation, we are a nation of people at each other’s throats.
But this isn’t just a problem for our local and national politics. It’s also wreaking havoc in our churches. When church leaders apparently can’t be trusted to lead, the mission of the church is seriously hampered.
As someone who has served in churches with some form of congregational polity or another, I’ve seen how cynicism against leaders can create warring factions, each vying for control of the church and refusing to submit to the leadership of anyone from “the other side.” In the end, the church gets nowhere, it reaches less people, and it’s typically left with self inflicted battle scars.
We need virtuous, godly authority figures, and people who are willing to submit to that authority. But who makes the first move toward virtue, the people or the authority figures? I’m not sure.
But what I do know is this: whether you’re an authority figure or someone coming under the authority of another, it can start with you.
Faulty Leaders and Cynical People in the Book of Judges
During the biblical period of the Judges, Israel languished under a lack of virtuous leadership. Even as the author of Judges chronicles the exploits of the judges who provided temporary leadership in Israel, their flaws are on full display. And each new leader is even more flawed than the previous one.
The author sums up the situation with this refrain:
“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6; cf. Judges 21:25)
It’s completely understandable. Israel’s leaders were so devoid of virtue that cynicism rose to a level that created existential uncertainty.
But the narrative serves to illustrate that when no one submits to authority, the results are disastrous. When everybody’s locus of authority is themselves, we descend into chaos. Yet this is exactly what postmodernity has wrought: everyone does what is right in their own eyes.
Perhaps the main difference between us and the Israelites during the period of the Judges is that we’re doing it on a higher plane of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For the ancient Israelites, they were fighting for their literal survival. The surrounding nations were threatening them. And when that wasn’t the case, they were concerned with whether their crops were going to be enough to sustain them.
For the most part, we’re less worried about our lives and livelihoods than the Israelites were. Instead, we’re deeply concerned with whether we feel seen, heard, and represented. Even still, the result is the same. When our security is threatened, we reject leaders that don’t bow to our wishes, retreat into tribalism, and create chaos.
Authority in a Post-Truth Era
By and large, we are a people who have thrown off authority, not only from those who could protect us from external threats, but from anyone who would serve as anything approaching an arbiter of truth.
As a society, we reject the voices of experts who affirm the efficacy of vaccines in favor of doing our own research. We reject the biological realities of gender and sex, in favor of being true to ourselves. We adjudicate morality by way of online mob justice rather than due process, and we stand confused on even the most fundamental and provable realities that we once submitted to without much argument.
What’s more is that we don’t even submit to the spiritual authority of our local church pastors, whom God has put in place to equip us for the mission of Jesus (Ephesians 4:12). Instead, we stand in judgment over them. If they’re too woke on one side, or not inclusive enough on the other, we’ll leave. Or we’ll just stop giving or serving. It never even occurs to us to submit to their God-given authority when we disagree with them.
Let us not be like the Israelites who failed to live up to their full potential in the promised land. Here are 3 reasons why submitting to authorities we don’t agree with is actually good for us.
1. Submitting to authorities we don’t agree with keeps us from descending into destructive tribalism.
Unity under a flawed leader will always be better than disunity and a lack of clear leadership. Submitting to authorities we don’t agree with keeps us from destabilizing the entire group.
We live in uncertain times, but we have made them that much more uncertain by refusing to submit to anyone who doesn’t isn’t a part of our tribe. Instead we recall them (as we recently tried to do in California), call our election integrity into question, or spend four years chanting “not my president.”
When it comes to our churches, we create divisions that destabilize the entire congregation, keeping it from living into its express purpose and creating incredible uncertainty.
Not to mention the fact that the New Testament expressly commands the Church to not be divisive among itself. Like a lot. (Here are just a few verses: Romans 16:17-18, Titus 3:9-11, Ephesians 4:3-6, 1 Corinthians 1:10, 1 John 2:9.)
Tribalism is always destructive. Though our cynicism toward certain leaders and authorities may be warranted, we can’t let that be the reason for our collective demise. If we let it, our own distrust will eat us alive.
For the good of the whole, we need to seek to actually be a whole––even if that means losing certain battles in the name of submitting to authority.Tribalism is always destructive. Click To Tweet
2. Submitting to authorities we don’t agree with cultivates mutual respect.
It’s often said that respect is earned. And that’s true. The way we feel about leaders is often a direct result of the respectable (or not respectable) actions they take. Or at least our perception of those actions––which, in a world of cable news, may or may not be fairly assessed.
But you don’t need warm sentimentality about the personality of the authority figure to show them deference. Honor should be given, not earned.
The crazy thing is that when you’re intentional about giving honor on the basis of a person’s given authority, genuine respect tends to follow. And that’s because in order to honor them, you have to force yourself to stop perceiving their every word and action in the worst possible light. You force yourself to deal with them more charitably: to give them the benefit of the doubt even when you don’t think they deserve it.
When you do that, you begin to realize that they actually might not be as nefarious as you once thought. They’re just a person who’s doing their best, just like you. And they need grace, just like you. And while you can still fundamentally disagree, that disagreement becomes civil and fruitful, rather than self-destructive.You don't need warming sentimentality about the personality of an authority future to show them deference. Honor should be given, not earned. Click To Tweet
3. Submitting to authorities we don’t agree with teaches us humility.
It’s a tough pill to swallow when you’re being asked to submit to someone that you don’t like, don’t respect, and whom you feel is taking your nation, organization, or church in the wrong direction. If you’re anything like me, you can just feel yourself dying inside at the mere thought.
But that’s a good thing. God has called us to die to the unredeemed parts of who we are. And as much as we want to believe that our rebellion against the authorities we disagree with is based purely on righteous indignation, our motives are mixed. If we’re being really honest, our pride is often a driving force.
Sometimes, we choose to die on certain hills not because God has called us to die on them, but because we’d rather go out in a blaze of glory than submit to those people. That’s pride. Whenever you submit yourself to an authority that you don’t agree with, you’re learning humility.
When I submit to someone else, I’m admitting that they might know more than me about a given situation or area of expertise. They have the right to make decisions that I don’t. They bear responsibility that I don’t. So I need to humbly submit.
And as hard as it can be, we need to get the better of our pride before it gets the better of us and causes destruction not only in our own lives but in the lives of others.Sometimes, we choose to die on certain hills not because God has called us to die on them, but because we'd rather go out in a blaze of glory than submit to 'those people.' Click To Tweet
Leadership is hard. Let’s not make it any harder for our leaders.
I’m often struck by the fact that the people most vocal against leaders are often those who have not ever effectively served in high levels of leadership themselves. If they had, they’d understand how difficult it is.
That’s why the author of Hebrews encourages us not to make it any harder than it already is.
“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 13:7)
Even if you don’t always (or often) agree with them, resolve to submit yourself to those placed in authority over your life. Keep your disrespectful comments to yourself. Tamp down on your defiance. Pray for them. Ask God to open their eyes and give them clarity. Ask him to do the same for you.