The Submissional Life // Matt Tebbe

living in submission, leading from below, loving as mission

“Leadership” in the Local Church: The Heart of Authority

Last month I wrote this piece for Out of Ur. It received some good conversation and wanted to post it up here in case you missed it. This metaphor – pastoral authority (i.e. “leadership) is that of a heart (not head, not mechanic) is key to this idea of a “submissional life”. Thinking about writing more thoughts on what mutual submission in pastoral relationships looks like, but for now here’s what I got.

Have you experienced this dynamic in leadership? What do you see – what am I missing? As always would love this to start the discussion –


Anthony, the junior high youth pastor who serves alongside me at River Valley Church, is an ace car mechanic. He’s my authority on all things pertaining to my 2001 Honda Civic. He can diagnose and fix my problem. He’s good, he’s knowledgeable, he’s cheap, and I know where he works and lives if something goes wrong. His authority rests in his expertise. His ability to diagnose, fix, and anticipate future problems flows from certification, skill, and know-how. I bow to his authority. I honor it. I rely on it.

But I’m a pastor, and the authority it takes to fix a broken head gasket doesn’t seem to work as well on a broken heart. Pastoral authority is more akin to the authority of a member of the body (Rom. 12:4ff). Let’s say for sake of illustration that the pastor’s authority in the church is analogous to that of the heart in the body. The heart has no authority on its own; its authority is derived and constituted only by relation (i.e. submission) to the head and the members. Electrical signals from the head tell the heart to pump blood. The heart receives oxygen molecules from the lungs and pumps enriched blood to the rest of the body . The heart’s authority isn’t based on skill, expertise, or ability to fix problems. Rather, it rests in its submission to the head and to its members.

Similarly, pastoral authority is inherently relational; it is exercised faithfully only in the context of relationships. In 1 Corinthians, Paul deals with the overarching question of authority, addressing “factions” and “divisions” over leaders in the church (1 Cor. 1-4). Paul suggests there are two relationships that determine pastoral authority: 1) to Christ (the Head) in the proclamation and power of the gospel (2:1-5; 4:1) and 2) to Christ’s church (the members) as a servant and father (3:5, 7; 4:14-17). As the heart only beats in submission to the head, so too pastoral authority is derived from, empowered, and enlivened by the Head. And, as the heart pumps healing nourishment that builds up the body and makes it grow , so too pastoral authority requires submission to the church in order to build and grow. Pastoral authority is primarily a relational capacity that flows out of submission to Christ (proclamation and power) and the local (service and sacrifice) and global (ordination and historic orthodoxy) church.

This explains why Paul undercuts any kind of authority that rests in expertise, argument, celebrity, eloquence, or powerful talk (1 Cor 1:17; 2:1, 4; 4:20; also 2 Cor 11ff). How easy it would have been for him to say, “I am an apostle writing you an authoritative letter, so listen up! Do you know how much I’ve studied? Have you seen my books? Downloaded my sermons? I could be the editor of Leadership Journal if I wanted!” But Paul knew that pastoral authority isn’t about the pastor; it isn’t an attribute or characteristic. Pastoral authority is entirely an extension of one’s relationship to the Head and to the members. Only as a pastor submits to both does he have any authority.

Notice Paul’s letter to Timothy: Timothy’s authority was recognized and submitted to by the local church (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6; Acts 6:5-6). Many Christian traditions call this practice of setting aside and laying on of hands ordination. In order for Timothy to stand up to the issues facing his church in Ephesus (false teaching among others), he had to submit to the church’s recognition and commissioning of his role as pastor. Additionally, Paul repeatedly instructs Timothy to submit to God–in training for godliness, in perseverance and faithfulness, in ministering faithfully to his flock, and in Paul’s example (1 Tim 4:8, 15, 16; 6:11-16; 2 Tim 1:13-14; 3:14-15). Paul could have written the church of Ephesus and commanded them to listen to Timothy. He could have told Timothy to set up highly publicized debates to prove his authority by the persuasiveness of his argument. But over and over Paul calls him to submit: to Christ, to what he’s learned, and to his church by faithfully fulfilling his vocation as pastor and avoiding debates and arguments that lead nowhere (i.e. 2 Tim 2.14, 23-26).

This line of thought has several implications for the local church:

1. Pastoral authority doesn’t make demands; it gives and receives. If the conversation on pastoral authority starts with the question “who has the power?” then we’ve failed to grasp how both authority and power are attested in the Scriptures. Authority is a Spirit-empowered posture of giving and sacrificing. Submission to authority is a Spirit empowered posture of receiving (Eph. 5:18-21). Power, then, comes from submission to authority not from exercising it.

2. Pastoral authority is forfeited when one persistently fails to submit to the Holy Spirit, whether this means having a recalcitrant spirit before God or before the church to whom ones been given as God’s gift (Eph. 4:11-13).

3. Pastors aren’t the only Spirit-empowered authorities in the church (see 1 Cor. 12:7ff; Eph 4:11ff). Among the priesthood of all believers there is plenty of authority to go around. If people submit to Christ and His church as they act in their Spirit-empowered giftedness, they act in Christ’s authority. My responsibility as pastor is to recognize, fund, and submit to this church-wide authority. This “building up the Body of Christ” requires me to submit to others in the Body. The heart gives and receives, nourishes and is nourished.

4. Submitting to pastoral authority differs from submitting to a mechanic’s authority. When I go to my mechanic, I simply do what he tells me to do. He’s the expert, so he has the answers (that’s what I pay him for). He says it, I believe it, that settles it. My submission to a mechanic’s authority makes me dependent on the mechanic. By contrast, submission to pastoral authority  empowers the one submitting. Instead of learning to trust and submit to a pastor’s voice (as though he were my mechanic), I learn to trust and submit to God’s voice as the pastor empowers and equips me to listen. Pastoral authority doesn’t answer all the questions and tell me what to do. It leads me deeper into and challenges me to listen and respond to what God is saying in my life.

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