Presbyters, To Whom Do You Submit?

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

My thoughts are prompted by Michael Kruger's piece on submission. When he was a far younger man, Mr. Kruger tolerated a weekend of close quarters pontification from me, so I'm not really expecting a chance to benefit him. Nor does he need such. It was a fine piece on the Gospel Coalition; moreover, it raises serious questions when marshaled on Semper Ref. . There it is adjacent to the present PCA squabble over effective influence, or tilting the arc of Presbyterianism.


Before anyone cries foul for plagiarism, duh-- there's a point. This essay, like the title, uses Kruger's essay as a template. It repeats much he already wrote-- word for word even, with the substitution of a few nouns and noun phrases-- and takes it where he did not go. This is fan-fiction. If he calls it poor satire, I'm even more on the happy side of copyright.


I agree with Kruger. I wonder if other Presbyterians do too.


Presbyterian.

Of all the words creatively drawn out from the Bible, this may be one of the most malleable. After all, our evangelical ethos is not one that values the legacy of previous generations. On the contrary, our church world insists we should resist anyone who might curtail or hinder our vision of ministry.

The classic and somber irreverence captures it well: “We’re on a mission from God.”

And if church authority is already an unpopular concept, it only grows more unpopular in verses like Hebrews 13:17: “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.” Indeed, this passage (and its counterpart in 1 Thessalonians 5:12) has been the bare bones Scriptural argument for church membership for some time in PCA churches, and not many other places in the broader evangelical culture.

But letting these verses take center stage can give the mistaken impression that the Bible teaches that only congregational members submit. In reality, Scripture has a more comprehensive view.

Everybody Submits to Somebody: To Whom do Elders Submit?

“The Bible is clear that everybody submits to somebody,” summarizes Kruger, and he then draws a full circle of prooftexts: citizens to the government, children to parents, servants to masters, “and on it goes.”

He does not in this quick sketch include the submission of presbyter to some whom or other. Perhaps he knows not a proof text for this. He will glance at it subsequently, but please notice: the submission of pastors and elders is not an advertised and selling feature of the starter pack. Does the Bible require it? To whom would the Bible direct a presbyter's submission?

Without citation-- but a doctoral degree in Historical Theology,-- I’ll simply opine that such an omission is a double ee-vangelical peculiarity. It does not arise from any of the self-consciously catholic communions (mutually condemning each other, as they were) that crossed the Atlantic. It did not come on an early boat to North America, because enlightenment rationalism would not much flourish on such an errand into the wilderness.

It is in keeping with Kruger’s alluring commendation of submission to recognize that this virtue of submission was part of what tempered and buoyed the early Puritan settlers (who had the hard providence of landing in New England just prior to their first winter, rather than in the Carolinas).

Not for a moment would Kruger exempt or deprive pastors and elders of this virtue-- even though in his article elder-submission pops up unannounced and with no prooftext to adorn its modesty. Without connecting the dots, Kruger clearly gives us reason to treasure submission in the undershepherds of Christ:

Of course, the ultimate demonstration that submission is a good and biblical virtue is that it was practiced by our Lord himself. Christ, in his earthly ministry, submitted himself to the Father (John 4:34; 5:3). His submission was so complete that he was “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).

Here’s the point: presbyters not only rule in each congregation but over the churches together. Presbyterianism is not just policy for particular churches; it is necessary for the well being of churches together (BCO 1-7). Presbyters submit to presbytery.

Perhaps, then, we need to recalibrate the way we think about—and talk about—submission in the church. Rather than repeatedly focusing on just members in particular congregations, we need to call officers and courts to submit to the authorities over them.

And if officers are to be the leaders in the church's mission and for the nurture of the households in the church—a point often made in discussions about church membership—then they ought to lead by example. PCA officers and sessions should be a model of submission to the authorities they are under-- the PCA constitution and the presbytery. (I’m eliding the General Assembly purely to curtail pondering to the scale of localities.)

Presbyters, Do You Submit?

Here are some diagnostic questions for presbyters:

  • Presbyters, do you show a submissive regard for the Westminster Standards? Do you commend them to people as a better resource than your own theologizing? Or do you largely ignore them in your basic instruction of believers to maturity? Or do you frequently use them as a foil, asserting insufficiency for contemporary issues? Do you ask your people to examine them in light of Scripture or present your own teaching as the light of Scripture?

  • Presbyters, do you endeavor to conform your congregation’s business and your session’s activity to the specifics and patterns of the Book of Church Order? Or do you allow and even nourish practices that are at odds with the details and patterns of the BCO?

  • Presbyters, as a TE or a member of a session, do you submit to your presbytery only as little as possible-- on a spectrum between unlikely censure and mild professional embarrassment? Are there practices or circumstances in your congregation that you know are not fully represented in your minutes, an administrative thinness for which you are thankful?

  • Presbyters, do you cultivate alternative ministerial structures other than your presbytery-- not simply additional or beyond your presbytery's capacity, but instead of greater investment and ambition in your own presbytery's mission?

One can imagine how disorienting (perhaps discouraging or distorting) it might be for church members who are repeatedly called to follow their elders and embrace the mission of the congregation-- for them to see these same officers dismissive and even oblivious of submission to the authorities over them. By contrast, how encouraging it is for our members to see that they are being asked to do something which their leaders willingly and cheerfully do first.

Presbyterianism Before a Watching World

But Christian submission is not just an issue in the church; it also affects the way we relate to the broader culture. Do we practice our polity before a watching world?

When church members are confronted with difficult issues of conscience and requirements by the civil magistrate, do the elders seek counsel and unity together by action of the presbytery? When the presbytery won’t take such questions seriously enough to seek and craft counsel, why would the world have any regard for the concerns of individual tax exempt congregations much less individual Christians?

When the question of sacrament, cyberspace and membership conflated into an unprecedented (in this case, true) set of questions, what did elders do? Did the TE’s with unique authority to serve the supper come together seeking a decision in keeping with their vows, unity and diverse knowledge? Or did TE’s and sessions assume the competence to act wisely on their own into the utterly unknown? Haven’t Presbyterians complained the loudest about how we are living in an anti-authority age? Haven’t Presbyterians lamented our ee-vangelical world's cafeteria approach to doctrine and practice?

And yet, it’s often those very same Presbyterians who seem unwilling to rely on the presbytery to answer common questions when they require difficult judgement calls, or to address questions rarely or even never considered by the individual ministers much less by our theological antecedents.

Now, to be clear, submission does not mean we blindly affirm the PCA constitution, or ignore conscience in submitting to the standards and oversight instantiated in presbytery. Submission does not require us to obey someone if they ask us to sin (in such cases we have an obligation not to submit) or obey laws that force us to dishonor God (Dan. 3:18). And submission does not mean we are unable to work for a change in the PCA constitution (e.g., we can submit to the denomination while seeking to change its obligations). Submission means we are forthright in disagreement and would rather depart with regretful reverence than enact or encourage insubordination.

Just as members are called to submit to imperfect sessions, officers and sessions are called to submit to an imperfect presbytery. And Teaching Elders should be leading the way in doing so.

Submission Will Change You

Kruger ends his piece with a reflection on how submission shapes a Christian. What shape do we want impressed upon Teaching Elders and sessions-- and the mission they pursue? I quote it a length, making only some slight edits with strikethrough and italics.

When men elders and sessions take the lead in practicing submission, here’s something we will discover: submission is hard. It’s a substantive and weighty act of self-denial. It can feel like death, even though we know it’s the path to life.
Firsthand knowledge of the difficulty of submission will, in turn, give us greater understanding and compassion for those under our leadership. We will not be able to talk of submission in a light and trivial manner, as if there’s no cost. We can be the gentle leader we are called to be, because we understand the weightiness of submission from practicing it ourselves.
Even more, learning the difficulty of submission will give all of us a renewed sense of gratitude for what Jesus suffered on our behalf. While in tears and agony, he asked his Father, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” And yet he uttered these stunning words of self-denial: “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:42).
So, when we as Christians—both male and female both special office and general office —deny ourselves and submit ourselves to those in authority over us, we are doing something distinctively Christlike. Whenever we say, “Not as I will, but as you will,” we are acting like Jesus.

Even more Kruger than Kruger

It is perhaps out of place to piggy back on Mr. Kruger’s essay in this fashion. I do it out of sincere agreement and out of satisfaction with the general reception of his original piece. As far as I can tell, only some reputed crazies in a corner did not nod sagely and share thoughtfully. The comment streams are long and the social media distribution is wide, as both should be. Obviously, I thought more needed to be said, particularly when I read this piece a second time on the Semper Ref site.

[I will give one bit of contrasting addition to Kruger's piece. Not correction, addition. He is addressing resistance to submission, so there is a dour and difficult note to his account. Submission is not always so. The choice in the Christian life is not between following the fragrant flower of your own heart and submission. Wholesome joy and salubrious accomplishment and the sense of free movement also come only from submission. I haven't room here to elaborate, and this is not in opposition to Kruger. It is to be dearly hoped that we are submitting even when we don't notice. Improvisational jazz is an exploration of submission.]

I served as a RUF campus minister. Five or six years after that service, a PCA pastor called to ask me about my former students in his church. Perhaps there was a dozen? He wanted to know how I inculcated in them such a high view of the church. I failed to communicate well at that time-- bit of an embarrassing memory. Part of the problem was reticence to tell him: your people most likely don’t see you in submission to the presbytery and to King Jesus through it. As an RUF campus minister, I knew that one great danger was winning young adults to Jesus and myself. It is easy to supplant our church, tradition and presbytery by pretending to be the measure of ministry. I made sure that students knew my boldness to speak and lead rested on the ordination, commission and oversight of my presbytery. I did not suggest my erudition was more valuable to them than the Confession and Catechisms. I was not that important as a fella, even a very educated one.

I have said this elsewhere: a major problem in the PCA is rouge ecclesiological actors, men acting like affable monarchical bishops by the craft of teflon demagogues. They appear to believe that the Reformation replaced the English Bishops with Spanish senior pastors rather than with Scots presbyteries. If the apparent ethnic slurs fail to assist you because they offend you (parables much?), one might begin to ponder the differences suggested by the cartoon.

The PCA has a peculiar polity, or lays claim to a peculiar polity. Parity of the eldership is one element-- the affectionately acknowledged as odd 2.5 office view. The second is a view of the general office. (I do fear that "general office" may not be a common locution among my desired audience.) There are key moments and places in BCO at which the faces of ordinary church members appear-- doing things, requiring things, changing or adding officers, and sundry things. 2.5 and grassroots-- those are two PCA polity distinctives.

Who has told those members that they occupy the general office of believer and that they have ecclesiastical responsibilities specified in the Book of Church order? Do TEs, REs and sessions address their members with a deference towards that grassroots authority? Do they make clear, act clear, the difference between joint and several powers in their congregation? Do they refer to the Westminster Standards as not only “my personal favorite of the great creeds”, but rather as what our church teaches as the content of Scripture? Do they explain their actions and policies, in general and at cruxes as submission to the BCO and the presbytery? Do they submit and call for submission, even if the grassroots of the congregation wants female deacons, or assistant pastors that haven’t passed the PCA ordination process or the cousin's juggling troop for part of the Advent service? Do the members see that submission is fundamental to the Christian life, and to the church's officers and to the mission of the church?

It is a discussion for another time, but submission gets us there. By and large the wholesome grassroots view of the church has been replaced by the lawn service view of the church.


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Benjamin T. Inman serves as a Teaching Elder at

Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA), in Fuquay-Varina, NC.