Nobody Likes the Idea of Submission
I am writing this blog from overseas where my family and I have spent the last 4 months submitting to an international adoption process that was supposed to take 6 weeks. I don’t understand why it’s taken so long. I don’t agree with parts of the process, and I don’t necessarily trust that everyone involved really has the best interest of my child in mind. But we are here with the whole family, and at least one of us will continue to be here with our daughter until we are able to bring her home. Submission is hard. It’s always hard. But when I look back over my life, I can’t help but realize that God has used the seasons of submission, more than any other times, to draw me closer to Himself.
The Year of Submission
Nine years ago was one of those seasons. I had just gotten married and felt called by God to plant a church. Everything seemed to be lining up perfectly. I had a job as an adjunct professor that would allow me to work nine hours a week and then spend the rest of my time working on the church plant. I had a college group of over 50 students who I believed would make an amazing core group. I had been reading all of the books I could find on church planting, and I thought I was ready to go.
The only problem was that some of the elders that God had put over me didn’t feel the same way. They didn’t think that I was quite ready, and they didn’t see a need for a church plant in the city that I felt called to. They suggested that I find another church to do a church planting residency at, and afterward look for a different city to plant the church.
I felt crushed. All my plans, the people I was hoping to plant with, the city I thought I would live in and love for the rest of my life – everything seemed to crumble, and I found myself faced with a choice.
Do I listen to the elders that God had put over me? Or do I listen to my heart? Do I do what makes sense to me, or do I submit to the counsel of my leaders? Was I really supposed to let go of the perfect job, a great core group, and the city I was passionate about just because a couple of elders didn’t think I was ready?
A Common Church Planting Dilemma
Of course, my situation wasn’t nearly as unique as I thought it was. I know that there are many young men out there even now who feel called to church planting and are chomping at the bit to begin immediately. Like me, you have a vision for a different kind of church, you have a city picked out, and you feel like you are ready to go. Maybe you have even figured out funding, or put together a core group, or found a building.
Yet, like me, there are people in your lives who don’t think you are quite ready. Maybe the elders of your church are asking you to slow down, maybe you have been through an assessment and they are suggesting you go through a residency, maybe it’s your wife or your kids who aren’t really on board yet.
Now you find yourself facing the same kind of dilemma that I faced. And you have to decide: will you submit to your elders, or follow your heart? Will you take the advice of your assessors seriously, or will you do what seems right in your own eyes? Will you listen to the cautions of your wife, or will you rush ahead in pursuit of your dreams?
Difficult Duty of Submission
Sometimes slowing down can seem like an impossible call. Inside we feel like the time is now, and we are afraid that if we don’t do something immediately we might lose the momentum that we have worked so hard for.
I am here to remind you that momentum doesn’t build churches. Jesus does. And it’s not just driven men that he is looking to use; it’s submissive men.
It’s men who are willing to let go of their own dreams in order to let their good Father conform them more and more into the image of his perfect Son. I have certainly found in my own life that one of the primary ways that God has chosen to conform me into the image of his Son is through seasons of submission.
Hebrews 13:17 makes clear the central role that God wants submission to play in all of our lives. The author writes, “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.”
Any time a verse about submission comes up, we always find a million reasons why that verse doesn’t apply to our situation. Of course, it is possible that you currently find yourself in a bad church with bad leadership, and that is why you are struggling so much with the idea of submitting.
But the answer to being in a bad church isn’t throwing out God’s call to submit, and it certainly isn’t going out and trying to plant a good church on your own. The answer to being in a bad church is to find a good one and place yourself under leaders you are willing to submit to. If God is truly calling you to church plant, then trust that a good church will affirm your calling and send you off when you are ready. Church planting ought to be more than a reaction against a bad church experience; it ought to be the overflow of a healthy church affirming our calling and sending us out with their blessing.
Whenever we talk about submission, it’s important to remember that we don’t submit because our leaders are always right; we submit because God is always right, and he has chosen to use submission to flawed leaders in order to make us more like Jesus. Remember that he submitted himself to death even though Pilate wasn’t right when he condemned him. The only times that Jesus refused to submit to authority is when submitting to them would have meant sinning against his Father.
The Motivation for Submission
The problem is that understanding God’s call to submit simply isn’t enough to motivate the kind of genuine, heartfelt submission that God requires.
No, only the Gospel is strong enough to do that. Through the Gospel our God has taken something that was once only bitter and has transformed it into something that is now absolutely beautiful.
Consider how he did that with the cross. In ancient Rome, the cross symbolized the most shameful and ugly execution that the human mind had been able to imagine. So terrible was the cross that no Roman citizen, regardless of the heinousness of their crime, was considered low enough to warrant it. Yet for the joy set before him, the Son of God himself took on flesh so that he could endure the cross for us – and by so doing, he transformed it from an ugly torture device into the very picture of love. What makes the cross beautiful to the Christian is that our savior hung there in our place. In the same way, what makes submission beautiful to the Christian is the way our savior embraced a life of submission for our sakes. You and I have been saved through the joyful submission of another, and Peter tells us that God has now called each of us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps (I Peter 2:21).
So please don’t despise submission. Don’t think yourself somehow above it. If the Son of God was willing to submit himself to the unjust verdict of the cross for you and me, how much more should you and I willingly submit to the people God has placed over us. No servant is greater than their master, and we are fools to think that we can be disciples of Jesus without following in his submissive footsteps.
The Fellowship of Submission
As hard as submission may be I want to encourage you with some good news. For all of you willing to follow Jesus down the difficult path of submission, you will find that you never walk it alone. In John 12:26 Jesus said, “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servants be also.”
What makes the bitter path of submission such a special place for the Christian is that you will find Jesus there.
I will never forget what it was like to let go of my dreams and submit myself to the counsel of my elders. I quit the job I enjoyed and said goodbye to the friends I loved and moved across the country to do a church planting residency. The transition left a lot of voids in my life, but I can honestly say that God was faithful to tenderly fill those holes with himself. He taught me that while my plans and ideas could fail, God – not my dreams – would always be the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Ps. 73:26). He showed me that the only reason he ever asks us to let go of the things that we love is so that we might cling more tightly to Jesus and experience more intimately the sweet fellowship of Christ in his suffering.
The hardest part about submission is that we never outgrow our need for it. I wish we did.
All day long, as I have been working on this blog post, my wife and I have been expecting to hear some good news back about our adoption case. We are hoping to be able to go home in the next week or two. And then the phone rang, and we were told that our case had been delayed. It seems likely that we will have to be here for a few more months. My wife’s crying; we don’t understand. Right now, all we taste is the bitterness of submission without being able to see the beauty of it. God has reminded me once again how hard submission is and how badly this letting go hurts.
But what I can’t escape is the way that God had me writing this blog and meditating on Psalm 73 when I got the call. So, for all of you who find yourself struggling right now to be patient and to submit to the people God has put over you, let me share with you the promises I have been clinging to.
As difficult as God’s call to submit is I want you to know for certain that…
- Your God is continually with you (Ps. 73:23). However painful your submission might be, you do not have to face it alone. Instead, your precious savior, who knows all there is to know about submission, has promised that he will never leave you or forsake you.
- He will hold you by the right hand (Ps. 73:23). Whatever it is that God asks you to let go of you can know that he intends to replace it with his strong and gentle hand.
- He will guide you with his counsel (Ps. 73:24). However dark the season, however confused you might feel, you can be certain that your God has already given you all of the light you need in his Word.
- Afterwards he will receive you to glory (Ps. 73:24). As long and as difficult as this journey might be, never forget that the end of your story is glory. The eternal Son of God submitted himself to your punishment on the cross so that he could offer you the eternal life you have always longed for. One day the waiting will be over and our Savior will usher us into his glory.
Church planters, this is a God that you can trust even when he calls you to submit to things you don’t understand. So be patient, seek counsel, realize that church planting is a marathon, and God often uses submission to refine us so that we can make it all the way to the end. Whatever you do, don’t miss out on an opportunity to fellowship with Jesus in his suffering because you are too busy clinging to your own dreams. Instead, let us respond like the Psalmist by saying, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Ps. 73:25).
Tim Cain is the pastor of Kaleo Church which he planted in El Cajon, California, in 2009 after completing a one-year church planting residency at Bethlehem Baptist Church. His first book, The God of Great Reversals: Finding the Gospel in the Book of Esther, was released in 2016. He will be leading “Grace in the Trenches of Church Planting” at the 2017 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors + Church Leaders (January 30-February 1, 2016).