Saturday, February 9, 2013

What does it look like to submit to the Church?

When I get in conversations with people at work about church, I am effusive in my praise.  It shows how much I do love and have learned from this body I've been a part of for six years, but it's a odd thing because at the same time I've walked out of church three times in the last year when I was disagreeing with the sermon and staying and getting angrier wouldn't benefit anyone. I don't say that proudly, but it's true.

I'm an S on the DISC scale, very accommodating. I like everyone to be happy and if other people are upset I'll play the middle ground until it all works out. But, while I'm not dominant, I am independent. Fiercely. I come by it honestly, it's in my blood. My siblings are the same way, and my mom, and my grandpa is a cliche of the fiercely independent American man.

 I'd rather do my own work, take care of my own space, work my own budget, take care of my own schedule, make my own plans, and have my own opinions. Isaac and I have worked out much of our marriage that way - separating space, creating our own budgets within the shared budget, etc. I don't generally care about persuading other people, but it takes quite a bit to persuade me, because, well, I do it my way.

So American. So symptomatic of my generation.

I've realized this increasingly, that independence and the inability to submit is a characteristic of both my nation and my generation within my nation, and my family, evangelicalism, and me..... so the deck is stacked.

When I was in college a Prof of presented a list of spiritual disciplines, and one of them was submission. I was intrigued. I'd never heard the word used outside of the debate about submission in marriage, and the idea that we needed to at times choose the discipline of submission (to a boss, in a relationship, to a church, ...?) was all new. It absolutely went against my nature to think of choosing to submit when I didn't have to by moral obligation.

In more recent times, Isaac and I read some of the Apostolic Fathers over our holiday road trips. Ignatius was a hard one for me. A student of John, he's a bit of a slap in the face to low-church folks who don't really care about being a part of a formal religious body. He's one of the earliest writers of the church and it sings out clear as day in his writings to five different churches that he wants them to be gathered in orderly bodies with unity and structure. He wants a leadership council that the church members submit to, and the council to be submitted to the bishop over the area. He says it clearly in EVERY letter, there's no missing it.

"It is proper for you to run together in harmony with the mind of the bishop, as you are in fact doing. For your council of presbyters, which is worthy of its name and worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop as strings to a lyre. Therefore in your unanimity and harmonious love Jesus Christ is sung. You must join this chorus, every one of you.... For if I in a short time experienced such fellowship with your bishop, which was not merely human but spiritual, how much more do I congratulate you who are united with him, as the church is with Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ is with the Father."

This one is a very hard one for young evangelicals:

"Therefore whoever does not meet with the congregation thereby demonstrates his arrogance and has separated himself, for it is written: "God opposes the arrogant." Let us, therefore, be careful not to oppose the bishop, in order that we may be obedient to God.... For everyone whom the Master of the house sends to manage his own house we must welcome as we would the one who sent him. It is obvious, therefore, that we must regard the bishop as the Lord himself."

"It is right, therefore, that we not just be called Christians, but that we actually be Christians, unlike some who call a man bishop but do everything without regard for him. Such people do not appear to me to act in good conscience, inasmuch as they do not validly meet together in accordance with the commandment."

What. the. crap. I actually nearly went back and deleted a couple sentences because I thought, "that's a little much." It's so absolutely opposed to our thinking these days. I may have, in the last six years, come to believe so much more in the beauty and importance of the local organized body of Christ in churches with elders and leaders. But still, I feel like respect doesn't generally characterize us, whether us in the blog world, or our generation, or .... me. Questioning everyone, all levels of authority, is considered a healthy thing. We say "unity in diversity", mostly meaning that we all get to be ourselves and that's about the only thing that makes us the same.

"Be subject to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ in the flesh was to the Father, and as the apostles were to Christ and to the Father, that there may be unity, both physical and spiritual."

It appears I haven't yet sorted out what it means to submit to the church. I commit to membership, to participating in the body, because that is a team and I get team. But what about when I disagree? Then everything in this "inalienable right" philosophy that's ingrained in us Americans tells me that I must stand in my disagreement. From Luther on down, "Here I stand, I can do no other."

I fight those words from Ignatius. His words are not scripture. Surely they are for a different time. A time when most people in the church could not read or write or study for themselves. They were uneducated and so that's why this structured hierarchy was important, so that those who were well trained and discipled could closely guard this young tender church from all of the potential insanity that people naturally spiral off to when we create our own belief system.

And also, those words were written in a time with most cities had just one church, and so he could write (like Paul) a "Letter to the Ephesians", and have it mean the church in Ephesus, rather than the 200 churches in various corners of our cities today. They didn't have options. Now, for better or for worse, we do, and so when I moved to town I had to pick one church among many that seems healthy and committed to truth. What does submission look like in an era of choice?

And what about when I disagree with church leaders? I can read scripture for myself, I can study theology, I have a Bible degree, and when it comes to something in which I passionately disagree with a leader, I do not disagree alone. I can tell you the other churches, teachers, and pastors that would agree with me. We are all connected in a world of diversity, always able to find fuel for our particular fire from some woodpile out there.

And yet I do believe that submission is important, that allowing ourselves to be led by others is good, and that the insistence on personal control is unhealthy. I know I have a heart prone to insubmission and discontent.

So what does submission mean now? I know it doesn't mean that I sit under people that I absolutely disagree with. I know it doesn't mean controlling minds and shaming parishioners.  And it's true that when everyone is asked to unquestioningly fall in line there is abuse of power, spiritual abuse, and unhealthy control.

I don't know.

 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 13:17 ESV)


Matt Shedd said...

This. Is. Brilliant.

While I would disagree with the call for higher church hierarchy, the Bible clearly calls us to be submissive to the leaders God has placed in the church. I find this extremely difficult because I, like you, am often much more biblically educated than some of our leaders. I can read Greek and am working toward Hebrew as well. I know when and why some of our theologies developed and why they weren't really rooted in Scripture to begin with. What does submission look like when you feel like you are smarter than those you need to submit to (this sounds arrogant, and probably is, but I'm being honest).

I hope you can continue to wrestle with this, and provide some wisdom for the rest of us as well!

Catholic Mutt said...

Love reading some of your thoughts on this. So different from my background and perspective, so I love getting a different take on this subject.

Kacie said...

Matt, my husband echoes your feelings. He is more highly educated than most people in leadership at our church.

and Catholic Mutt, I recognize that to a Catholic, reading Ignatius is like, "Duh, one Holy Catholic Church!" :)

Amy B said...

Been meaning to comment and tell you what a GREAT post this is. As a former Catholic, I have of course pondered and fretted over this A WHOLE WHOLE LOT. And I don't have answers.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I discussed this a lot when I moved to Detroit. He has gone to an African-American church for the last decade where all decisions are made by the pastors. I come from a white church background where we're all about committees and discussions and democracy. I've seen that work well, sometimes, but I've also seen it go nowhere except in circles. I had to learn to see church leadership in a different light when moving to Detroit - if we believe that God has placed the pastor in his position of leadership and that he is following God's guidance, then we have to believe that God is speaking through him and making appropriate decisions for his flock. I'm still not sure where I stand, but my involvement there definitely challenged my own issues with submission.

Anonymous said...

Well, Ignatius was ultimately one of the reasons I finally concluded that I didn't have a choice about formal conversion to Orthodoxy. I had a peculiar path in that I came to Christianity from essentially nothing, so I wasn't preoccupied with rationalizing an "intra Christian conversion". But that aside, it seems very difficult to me to accept that his is in fact that Apostolic teaching and not conclude that one has to be in the "Catholic Church" - that One Body that lives in actual, "hands on" succession to the Apostles, maintaining their faith, teaching and practice.

The more I think about it, the more I think that the problem is a lot deeper than authority and submission: the root problem lies in the missing understanding (and commitment - in the modern, fragmented world, this is hard) to the reality that "they be One" as Christ and the Father are One. There is no way to do this on our own terms, but obviously that is what we want to do most naturally - not submit.