A leader who doesn’t view himself as being inside an accountability structure effectively becomes a law unto himself. He teaches everyone under him to fear him, when it’s only God whom we should fear. Loyalty to a leader is indeed a good thing, but good loyalty is loyalty to his leadership under God and anyone else under whom God has placed him, like fellow elders or a congregation. Good loyalty says, “I’m committed to you and your success as a leader, and that means I cannot follow you into folly or unrighteousness, because it’s bad for both you and us.”
Good Authority Is Not Unaccountable but Submits to a Higher Authority
Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”—John 1:49
The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.—John 5:19
I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. —John 8:28
Jesus is king. Jesus obeys. How do we hold those two truths together? And what does it teach us about any authority we’ve been personally given?
Passages like these three in John’s Gospel offer us far more than “principles of good leadership.” We should be careful about merely trying to draw moral principles from passages that focus on the identity of the incarnate Christ and his relationship with the heavenly Father. Still, these passages do offer us such principles. For instance: good authority is never unaccountable, but always submits to a higher authority.
Jesus, the God-man, came to be declared king. Yet throughout his ministry on earth, he submitted himself perfectly to his Father in heaven. He spoke only what his heavenly Father taught him to speak, and did only what his heavenly Father taught him to do. Or as the apostle Paul put it, “the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3).
Does Jesus Christ’s submission demean him? Only if righteousness and rule are demeaning.
Authority and submission are two sides of one coin. To be in authority you must be under it, and to be under it is to be in it. Furthermore, we exercise authority in order to uphold something that is righteous or true, and when we submit we render the judgment that that something is righteous or true.
Jesus’s submission to the heavenly Father was the declaration that God is righteous and true. For Jesus to rule, furthermore, he had to conform himself perfectly to the rule of the heavenly Father. He could rule like Adam was supposed to rule by submitting in a way Adam and Israel never submitted. By submitting, then, he ruled together with the heavenly Father in perfect righteousness.
Another Illustration: A Symphony Orchestra
Let me offer a less exalted illustration of how good authority always submits to a higher authority. My friend Susan offered me this one. Susan has played viola in a number of orchestras over the years. Generally speaking, a standard symphony orchestra has ten first violins, ten second violins, ten violas, eight cellos, and six double basses. Typically, the most skilled player plays the “first chair” of each section, also called the “principal,” and everyone in the section follows that principal. All the viola players follow the principal viola player, all the cellos the principal cellist, and so on. The principal of each section, in turn, follows the first chair of the first violins, called the “concertmaster,” who follows the orchestra conductor. The concertmaster tunes the entire orchestra before a concert, and then leads every string section when it comes to matters like timing, bowing, and so forth.
String players can adjust their bowing in a multitude of ways, each of which gives a piece of music a different interpretation. When do you bow up? When down? What style? How hard onto the strings? How lightly off? A piece written by Bach might call for one kind of bowing, Beethoven another, Debussy still another. But the point is, all the strings must bow together. And it’s up to the concertmaster to make this judgment, based on his or her understanding of the conductor’s direction. The principals of each section follow the concertmaster, and the players in every section follow their principals.
Everything in an orchestra, in fact, works according to such a hierarchy. People sitting in the even-numbered chairs (2, 4, and 6) turn the pages for people sitting in the odd chairs (1, 3, and 5), who rank slightly higher. If someone in a lower ranking chair has a question, she doesn’t raise her hand and ask the conductor. She asks the person in the chair in front of her.
If that person can’t answer, the question is passed forward person by person until it reaches the principal of that section. From there, a question would go to the concertmaster, and if the concertmaster cannot answer it, only then does it go to the conductor. If an orchestra tried to operate like a democracy, with all the members having their own say and choosing their own tuning, timing, and bowing, the music would sound terrible. Only by working within a strict hierarchy does an orchestra sound unified and glorious.