What Does it Mean to Submit to the Church?

Jonathan Leeman, Author

What Does it Mean to Submit to the Church?

[Editor's note: This excerpt is adapted from chapter seven of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline, ©Jonathan Leeman, published by Crossway Books.] 


"If you love someone, set them free." (Sting)

Main Question: What does it mean to submit to a local church? Are their limits to the church's authority over the individual?  

Main Answer: Submitting to the church means submitting our whole selves to the church for its good and for Christ's glory, just as Christ surrendered himself for our good and the Father's glory. 

I talk throughout my book about church membership as a kind of submission and the fact that Christianity is congregationally shaped, but what does that look like? Are we really called to surrender our freedom? That's a tough pill to swallow. Didn't Jesus come to set us free, and isn't this what love always does—set the beloved free? It seems that freedom is a prerequisite to love. One person cannot be forced to love another. As the divine Father figure, Papa, in William Young's pop-spirituality novel The Shack, says, "It is not the nature of love to force a relationship but it is the nature of love to open the way."[1] How then can Christians be bound by or under the authority of a local church as part of defining love? Surely, we need to talk about the limits of the church's authority.

We have two tough questions to answer in this chapter: what does Christianity that's lived in submission to the local church look like for Christians, and how do we put limits on the church's authority so that we don't end up with plain old authoritarianism or legalistic fundamentalism? We will consider the second question first, which will require us to do just a little more theologizing. But then we will move quickly toward a concrete picture of what the congregationally shaped life looks like.  

Step 1: Christian freedom is not freedom from restraint, but the Spirit-given freedom to want what God wants and conform one's life to his.  

Negative Freedom versus Positive Freedom  

It was the fall of 1995 when I first read political philosopher Isaiah Berlin's landmark essay, "Two Concepts of Liberty." I don't think I was a Christian then, and I didn't know any theology other than the basic ideas a person acquires growing up in church. I did, however, have a basic familiarity with the Bible, thanks to two dutiful Christian parents and verses memorized in church programs. Yet, as I sat in the British Library of Political and Economic Science in London, England, hunched over a library desk, I distinctly remember being struck by the obvious theological implications of Berlin's essay for Christianity as he compared two concepts of liberty (or freedom). How disturbing these implications were!  

Two Conceptions of Freedom  

In the essay Berlin distinguishes negative liberty from positive liberty.[2] He defines negative liberty as the freedom we have when our ability to make decisions is unobstructed by others: "I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity."[3] It's a freedom from—from chains, law, coercion, obstacles, and anything that might prevent us from choosing whatever we want to chose.


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