Leadership, Authority & Submission?

Written and contributed by Mary Friday




When Jesus spoke about “leaders” he said they should be servants, not acting as gentiles who “lord it over” people. 


Mat 20:25 - 27  But Jesus called the disciples and said, "You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them and their superiors act like tyrants over them.  That's not the way it should be among you. Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave.  That's the way it is with the Son of Man. He did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many people."


Authority in the church is very different to worldly authority.  Leaders within the church must, first of all, be servants.


His reference to Gentile rulers is about the Roman army and the system of regional government which occupied Israel at the time and had an elaborate command structure with multiple levels of authority. He wanted to discourage his followers from developing authority structures, where one believer would be subordinate to another.  (Mike Gascoigne).


Matthew Henry says in commentary of this verse, “Nothing makes more mischief among brethren, than desire of greatness….


Observe, [1.] What is the way of the princes of the Gentiles; to exercise dominion and authority over their subjects, and (if they can but win the upper hand with a strong hand) over one another too. That which bears them up in it is, that they are great, and great men think they may do any thing. Dominion and authority are the great things which the princes of the Gentiles pursue, and pride themselves in…


First, It shall not be so among you. The constitution of the spiritual kingdom is quite different from this. You are to teach the subjects of this kingdom, to instruct and beseech them, to counsel and comfort them, to take pains with them, and suffer with them, not to exercise dominion or authority over them; you are not to lord it over God's heritage (1Pe_5:3), but to labour in it.” This forbids not only tyranny, and abuse of power, but the claim or use of any such secular authority as the princes of the Gentiles lawfully exercise. So hard is it for vain men, even good men, to have such authority, and not to be puffed up with it, and do more hurt than good with it, that our Lord Jesus saw fit wholly to banish it out of his church. Paul himself disowns dominion over the faith of any, 2Co_1:24


It is interesting that in the early church it was not elders or pastors that made the final decision on matters, contrary to many church movements today, but the body after prayer.


Acts 15:22  Then the apostles, the elders, and the whole church decided to choose some of their men to send with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch, Acts 13: 1-3,

1Co 1:10  Now I beseech you, brethren, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment. 


The same mind and judgment or the same understanding and opinion.  Judging questions from the same Christian point of view and formulating their judgement accordingly.


Matthew 18:15-20 is a well-known passage on dealing with offence.  It is the duty of believers to approach sinners in an attempt to reconcile.  If reconciliation and repentance is not achieved, what are we to do?  Go to the elders?  Not necessarily, according to the Word we bring in a third and even a fourth party.  If there is still no reconciliation do we then go to the elders?  No.  We go to the church.  If the elders were the primary decision makers and those responsible for the flock, surely Jesus would have taught that we should go to them for arbitration.  This seems to indicate that oversight and eldership is a function, not a position carrying authority over the church.  Leaders lead by a servant-hearted example and mutual submission.  This is not to say that we are not to respect leaders and elders.  We are to love one another.


Followers of Jesus, whose kingdom is not of this world, but spiritual, are to imitate Christ, not the Gentiles who act according to worldly forms of authority. 


1Co 11:3  Now I want you to realize that Christ is the head of every man.


He also refers also to the example of the Pharisees:


Mat 23:8  "But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one teacher, and all of you are brothers.  And don't call anyone on earth 'Father,' for you have only one Father, the one in heaven.  Nor are you to be called 'Teachers,' for you have only one teacher, the Christ!  The person who is greatest among you must be your servant.  Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.  


“The Jewish rabbis were also called father and master, by their several disciples, whom they required to believe implicitly what they affirmed, without asking any farther reason; to obey implicitly what they enjoined, without seeking farther authority. Our Lord, therefore, by forbidding us either to give or receive the title of rabbi, master, or father, forbids us either to receive any such reverence, or to pay any such to any but God.” Wesley


Thus we see that servant-hood is the greater honour amongst Christians.  We are not permitted to call earthly leaders, “Father”.  We are to reject those who would set themselves up over us in authoritative powers in terms of our faith, as we submit only to Christ.


Eph 5:23  Christ is the head of the church


As an aside, the term used in this verse for Father, Abba, was not usually used when addressing a person living, but reserved for addressing great Rabbis and great men who had already died.  Jesus says, “Abba, Father” in the garden.   This was not the word used for our earthly fathers.


We are not to view others in the church, however honourable, as fathers or superiors in any way.


As far as I have been able to see, the bible does not speak of eldership having authority over the church, or believers having authority over one another.  In fact there numerous warnings that we should test men’s teachings, weigh up prophecies, quite the opposite of being “under authority”.  Submitting to human authority can be an instrument for placing oneself under control, albeit unknowingly.  We are not simply encouraged to read the bible, but commanded to seek the truth ourselves, test all teachings, prophecies, words, etc.  The only sure way to do that is against the Word of God.


1 John 4:1 "... believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world."


Why test every spirit?  Because there are many false prophets!  We do not want to be deceived.  The Bible expressly warns us that many will be deceived, even the elect.  The best way to ensure that we are not mislead is by testing all things personally.  We cannot afford to rely on a human authority figure to protect us or give us their “covering”.  (Which is also not biblical.  The word "covering" only appears once in the New Testament in 1 Cor. 11:15, and it is in connection with a woman’s head covering.  In the old Testament it is not used in a spiritual sense and never in connection with authority of one over another.)


If we are likely to be deceived, it would stand to reason that we would welcome the deception.  We would not easily be deceived if deception was blatantly obvious or something we did not want to hear. 

Jer 5:31  the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so  2Ti 4:3 & 4  “For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables.” 


 If something sounds good, it may not necessarily be. 


Luke 6:26Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for in the same manner did their fathers to the false prophets.”


This is what Albert Barnes’ said in commentary of this verse; “When all men shall speak well of you - When they shall praise or applaud you. The people of the world will not praise or applaud “my” doctrine; they are “opposed” to it, and therefore, if they speak well of “you” and of “your teachings,” it is proof that you do not teach the true doctrine. If you do “not” do this, then there will be woe upon you. If men teach false doctrines for true; if they declare that God has spoken that which he has not spoken, and if they oppose what he “has” delivered, then heavy punishments will await them.


A few more verses in this vein:


Rom 16:18  For they that are such serve not our Lord Christ, but their own belly; and by their smooth and fair speech they beguile the hearts of the innocent.


2Th 2:7 - 12 “For the mystery of lawlessness doth already work: only there is one that restraineth now, until he be taken out of the way.  And then shall be revealed the lawless one, whom the Lord Jesus shall slay with the breath of his mouth, and bring to nought by the manifestation of his coming;  even he, whose coming is according to the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceit of unrighteousness for them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.  And for this cause God sendeth them a working of error, that they should believe a lie:  that they all might be judged who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.”


Pe 2:1 - 3 “But there were false prophets among the people, as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly put forward wrong teachings for your destruction, even turning away from the Lord who gave himself for them; whose destruction will come quickly, and they themselves will be the cause of it.  And a great number will go with them in their evil ways, through whom the true way will have a bad name.  And in their desire for profit they will come to you with words of deceit, like traders doing business in souls: whose punishment has been ready for a long time and their destruction is watching for them.”


Thus we see that we cannot afford to put ourselves under the unbiblical “covering” of human authority.  One will more often than not find, that in churches where leadership authority is taught, this idea of covering is also taught.  Although many of these denominations deny having an hierarchical authority structure, they admit to eldership or pastors “covering” the flock, and that they, themselves are under the “covering” of some or another man or ministry.


We are responsible for our own Christian walk and under the headship of none other than Christ.  If a leader speaks error, it is our duty to reason with him, correcting his doctrine.  If we are in error, the same applies.  Our only authority is Christ and His Word.



The bible does speak of certain positions in the church.  We know that it is wrong to have people on an hierarchical position of leadership, as it is wrong to assume that any person may have a greater anointing or authority than another.  Briefly, some of the positions were, elders, deacons, pastors, teachers.


Acts 6: 1-6        Administrators.  These men looked after the widows.

Deacon.            The word diakonos means servant/minister.

Pastors.            Were to watch over the people ensuring that they are following Christ. 

We are not to follow the pastors! 

Teachers.          We are to test every thing.


1 Peter 5:2-5 shows that elders are to preach, be earnest, watchful, attentive, willingly attend to the flock as faithful examples.  Their authority, therefore, is simply in the teaching of the Word, instructing and serving believers so that they might grow.  They have no authority over a believer.


As far as submission is concerned, many of those in the “shepherding” movement today require absolute submission to the authority of the elders and apostles. 

People are not to contradict elders or speak out against sin or false doctrine.  Often the church is cautioned not to “touch God’s anointed” and told to be careful to stay in submission, as the elders are the covering of the church. 

When Paul had to correct people in the church, he used only the Word of God as authority, never his position.  We see in Corinthians, a church which had its share of problems, that Paul never used human wisdom to solve difficulties, even opposing that right.  He went to the Word of God, the highest authority.  

2 Pe 1:3  His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the full knowledge of the one who called us by his own glory and excellence.

Let us briefly examine “touching God’s anointed”.  This phrase is used in the Old Testament in reference to the kings and prophets of Israel, as well as the nation of Israel.  It forbade anyone from doing them physical harm, but one cannot interpret this as forbidding speaking out against sin. 


David refused to kill Saul, saying he was anointed of the Lord, however, he spoke out publicly against him.  In the account of this in Samuel no verse supports the idea that David should not speak out against Saul, neither that Saul should not be held accountable for his actions. 


In the new Testament we discover who God’s anointed are: 

1Jo 2:20 “And ye have an anointing from the Holy One, and ye know all the things …” 1Jo 2:27 “The anointing you received from him abides in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. Instead, because his anointing teaches you about everything and is true and not a lie, abide in him, as he taught you to do.” 

All believers are anointed of God. 

Did Paul rebuke the Bereans for checking out his message scripturally?  Did Paul touch God’s anointed when rebuking Peter? (Gal 2: 12-14).  The scriptures are full of examples of Godly men standing up for truth and rebuking error.  To misuse this phrase to keep the sheep under submission is shameful. 

Erroneous teachings

We are to only accept teaching from those who follow the Word.  Consequently, we are not to obey or accept any teaching that is contrary to the Word of God.  We have a duty to test every teaching and explain truth to those who teach error.  Jesus, in Acts 19:8 reasoned and taught.  We are to discuss and work out teaching.  If people call themselves pastors or teachers and are not in submission to the Word of God, we are instructed to expose their error.

1 John 4:1 "... believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world."

Eph 5:11 “And have no company with the works of the dark, which give no fruit, but make their true quality clear.” 

Rom 16:17-19 Now, it is my desire, brothers, that you will take note of those who are causing division and trouble among you, quite against the teaching which was given to you: and keep away from them.  For such people are not servants of the Lord Christ, but of their stomachs; and by their smooth and well-said words the hearts of those who have no knowledge of evil are tricked.  For all have knowledge of how you do what you are ordered. For this reason I have joy in you, but it is my desire that you may be wise in what is good, and without knowledge of evil.


The Bereans checked teaching against the scriptures to make sure it was sound.


Act 17:11  Now these were more noble than the Jews of Thessalonica, for they gave serious attention to the word, searching in the holy Writings every day, to see if these things were so.

Commonly quoted by shepherding churches to substantiate absolute obedience to “authority” is the following verse. 

Hebrews 13:17Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.”

Let us examine this in more detail, as it would seem to contradict what Jesus taught. 


Obey – is translated from the Greek word peitho which means to be convinced or persuaded. 


to be persuaded and hence to obey (Mike Gascoigne)


"obey": by constantly tending upon the word preached by them, and hearkening to it; by receiving it with faith and love, as it appears agreeable to the Scriptures  (John Gill)


Submit – is translated from the Greek word hupeiko


This word occurs only once in the Bible, and it is here.


Since it is already qualified by the requirement to be persuaded before you submit, this verse cannot be used to advocate the kind of slavish obedience that is required by leaders of the Shepherding Movement. (Mike Gascoigne)


We are required to submit to those things that we can be persuaded are true according to the Word of God, and that we agree with.  There is a dangerous false teaching, that even if we do not agree with eldership, we are to submit anyway as obedience carries a blessing.


The obedience and submission required in this verse is in terms of teaching.  It is an attitude of the heart, which should be one of humble servant-hood.  The submission and obedience required here is in relation to teaching of the word and the guidance of the leader in truth and holiness.


Matthew Henry, puts it well, 

The duty – to obey them, and submit themselves to them

It is not an implicit obedience, or absolute submission, that is here required, but only so far as is agreeable to the mind and will of God revealed in his word; and yet it is truly obedience and submission, and that not only to God, but to the authority of the ministerial office, which is of God as certainly, in all things belonging to that office, as the authority of parents or of civil magistrates in the things within their sphere. Christians must submit to be instructed by their ministers, and not think themselves too wise, too good, or too great, to learn from them; and, when they find that ministerial instructions are agreeable to the written word, they must obey them.


[Speaking of elders]They have no authority to lord it over the people, but to lead them in the ways of God, by informing and instructing them, explaining the word of God to them, and applying it to their several cases. They are not to make laws of their own, but to interpret the laws of God; nor is their interpretation to be immediately received without examination, but the people must search the scriptures, and so far as the instructions of their minister are according to that rule they ought to receive them, not as the word of men, but, as they are indeed, the word of God, that works effectually in those that believe.


And submit yourselves - Give up (not your conscience or judgment, but) your own will, in all things purely indifferent.  John Wesley


Another verse used often to substantiate control & submission is:


1Pe 5:5  Likewise, ye younger, be subject unto the elder. Yea, all of you gird yourselves with humility, to serve one another: for God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.


1Pe 5:5 - be subject--omitted in the oldest manuscripts and versions, but TISCHENDORF quotes the Vatican manuscript for it.  (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown)


The word subject comes from the Greek word hupotasso.  It is not the same word for submit used earlier in Heb 13:17.  It is with the respect due to their age, and to the offices, which they sustain. There is here, probably, a particular reference to those who sustained the office of elders or teachers, as the same word is used here which occurs 1 Peter 5:1.  It is likely that the word was used in reference to age as well as office.  However, the general implication here, as throughout the scriptures, is that suitable respect should be shown to those older and wiser.


"The duty of submissiveness and humility is the thought of the passage.   The literal rendering is "Wrap yourselves up in humility one to another." Mutual deference must be shown, as well as mutual service.”  (Albert Barnes)


So we see that submission is to teaching, as far as we agree with such teaching according to our testing thereof against the Word.  If we receive sound teaching we can happily submit to it wholeheartedly. 


The problem in shepherding churches is that they teach absolute submission to the man (elder, pastor and/or apostle) as well as the Word, (if that were possible).  Who then is their watchdog?  How do we know that they are not leading the church into error if they cannot be challenged?


If we are into shepherding or submitted body ministry, we have a real problem if the leaders go astray. If we are going to have a spiritual police, who is going to police the police? The answer is in 1 John 2:26-27, which tells us that we are given the Holy Spirit so that we don't need any police.

These things have I written unto you concerning them that seduce you. But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.

The Apostle's words were prophetic. Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire and subverted for its own use. Then there was the Vatican and the Dark Ages. Let us not go on that road again!  (Mike Gascoigne)


We are also warned against division by the same people who advocate submission to leaders.  "Unity affects authority. Elders in a united church in the city have spiritual authority. It affects the whole city when they pray. They sit at the gates of the city. Divided elders have diminished authority, or none at all. Disunity prevents effective corporate prayer.”  says Ron Wood, in "The Church in the City".  Is it not almost superstitious to suggest that our prayers and the authority we have when praying them get results and not the God who receives these prayers?  Even one prayer is heard.  A thousand people praying in unity may never receive the desired result when they are out of the will of God!   Consider Elijah, he was alone, yet highly effectively used by God.

Division does not affect spiritual authority, simply because all authority belongs to God, not us. 

Mat 28:18 “And coming up Jesus talked with them, saying, All authority in Heaven and on earth was given to Me.” 

In withdrawing from error, thereby causing “division” we are actually becoming more unified in truth, as there is less compromise.  True followers of Christ cannot be a part of these new citywide and worldwide ecumenical groups whose members do not all hold true to the Word of God, as we cannot really be one in truth.  Unity of the faith refers to the teachings of Scripture, not the joining together of all who profess a faith in Christ.  Remember that even the demons believe in Jesus!  Ecumenism is a serious thing.  Could the fear of causing “disunity” because one points out error or even questions teaching be another way of controlling members of the church into submitting to whatever “new thing” the leaders are promoting?

The onus is on us to responsibly seek out the truth and uncompromisingly follow God’s commandments.  Jesus says, “If you love me, obey my commandments”.  One cannot go along with unscriptural practices of submission to human authority as they defy the Word of God.  We need to choose to follow either the Word of God, or the word of man.  Where there is error, reason with one another, but let the Bible be the basis for our beliefs.  To paraphrase Jacob Prasch, where there is error in a church we can either stand up and speak out or stand up and leave, but we cannot simply sit

In the light of the end times falling away from the truth, it is imperative that we hold true only to what is taught in the Word.  Consider for a moment submission to the authority of fallen man in the light of the antichrist and what we know of the end times, people being led astray, even the elect being deceived.   

Human leadership in the biblical sense is acceptable.  Hierarchical and authoritative leadership is not.  Submission is Godly when we are persuaded.  Jesus came to earth, not as a king, but as a servant and we are called to imitate Him.

And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled; and whosoever shall humble himself shall be exalted.

Mat 23:12


Yea, all of you gird yourselves with humility, to serve one another: for God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.

1Pe 5:5


Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth.

Num 12:3


But we were gentle in the midst of you, as when a nurse cherisheth her own children:

1Th 2:7 


Who is wise and knowing among you? Let him show his works by his good behavior, in meekness of wisdom.

But the wisdom from above is firstly truly pure, then peaceable, forbearing, yielding, full of mercy and of good fruits, not partial and not pretended. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for the ones making peace.

James 3:13, 17, 18




The Bible, KJV, ASV, ISV

Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible

Albert Barnes’ notes on the Bible

John Wesley’s explanatory notes

John Gill’s exposition of the entire Bible

Mike Gascoigne - What does the Bible teach about superiors and subordinates within the church? (http://www.write-on.co.uk/bible.htm)

Ron Wood from “the Church in the city  (http://www.touchedbygrace.org/teaching_articles/church_in_the_city.html)


Written and contributed by Mary Friday. She may be contacted by email at: mary@dynamit.co.za and she kindly requests that people contact her before copying any portion of it unless it is to be printed out for their own personal use.  This is purely to safeguard against any distortion of what she has written.