Authority and Leadership

American Christians do not have a strong view of human beings in leadership positions and their roles in our spiritual development.  Nathan Hatch, in his book The Democratization of American Christianity, chronicles the American Revolution and how the leaders of that revolution wrapped themselves in Christianity to make their distinctively political points in the revolution.  At the same time the political revolution was taking place a revolution in the church was taking place against the established (and educated) leaders of the church who largely came from England.  This egalitarianism of religious leaders served to emphasize those who could draw a crowd and energize an audience rather than the traditional appointees from England who were educated, trained and accountable.  One wonders if the present-day hostility toward leadership in our country and the loss of ‘respect for the office’ is a natural upshot of this original trajectory. We don’t often acknowledge the critical part of leadership that ‘the consent of the governed’ involves.   Present day leadership convictions are that leaders need to earn the right to lead, and indeed they do.  But an equal or even greater part of leadership is the willingness of the led to be governed.  In America, we attack and throw off leadership rather easily.


To draw my ruminations on Bonheoffer to a close, I have been interested in a life that was lived in absolute conflict with the Third Reich and yet remained submitted to its leadership.  It seemed strange to read about this young German pastor who operated in some ways, submitted to the authority of the German church that had been taken over by the Nazis.  They made assignments and even told the pastor where he could go and serve.  He followed those directives.  It might be argued that to do so allowed him to function within the Third Reich and gain access to the target of their assassination plots.  However, to quickly run to that conclusion removes the tension of living in the paradox that was Dietrich Bonheoffer’s life and conviction.  His submission to the authority of humans and human institutions was, I think, part of his submission to God.


A friend recently shared an email conversation with another man who was chafing under the leadership (authority) of a person in his life.  He wanted to throw off what he considered inadequate leadership.  He wrote:

“In many of Oswald’s daily devotionals (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest) he uses the word “authority” (Jan 10th, July 18, July 19, July 26, October 14, November 2, November 4, December 14).  And that word causes men to chafe at the bit.  I had prided myself in never being under any man’s authority….  I was a part of the priesthood of the believers and had not need for a “middle man” to help me.  It was my firm belief that I reported directly to God and was submitted to His authority and His alone.  Yet, God revealed to me that it was not until I fully submitted to the authority of another man, whom God put in my life to mentor me, for a period of nearly two years, that I began to experience the passionate love for God that I now enjoy… NOT BEING WILLING TO SUBMIT TO ANOTHER BROTHER’S AUTHORITY when placed in my life by God to mentor me, was actually evidence that I HAD NOT SUBMITTED TO GOD’S AUTHORITY either….!

 The reason Oswald’s word as so hard to understand and apply is that we really do not want to submit to any authority.  When we do submit, it is usually only because the fear of getting caught and the severity of the consequences is greater than the pleasure obtained by the acts of disobedience.”

In a very candid moment he wrote that he believed his own unwillingness to submit was a form of arrogance in his life that did not trust God to be big enough to either do something positive through leadership this man did not want or was not big enough to remove destructive leadership if it was.  He concluded that he had been throwing off God’s leadership and ownership by throwing off authority that God had allowed to be placed over his life.


That was sobering to me.  I end up asking the question of how big and powerful I believe God is in my life.  Is my inability to accept the authority of a person God has allowed in my life (perhaps with a goal of some specific development in me into the image of Jesus) really a sign of my arrogance and unwillingness to accept God’s leadership?  Bonheoffer went to the gallows a very peaceful man.  People who were there commented that he seemed fully committed to serving God and believed God allowed/planned/permitted the events surrounding him to work toward His kingdom.   Certainly King David, even while King Saul pursued with intention of murdering David, chose to submit to the office of King while God permitted Saul to hold it.  Clearly Saul’s intention was evil.  Yet David, like Bonheoffer who followed hundreds of years later, believed that the God of all that is could deliver him when the work of God was done.  To submit to this circumstance and the person was a submission to God and it opens the heart to a dimension of God’s work in us that we may not have any other way!


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