In my vocational work on staff at three churches and in my nonvocational work for several companies, I have struggled to know when to submit myself to authority and when, well … not to do so. What I’ve learned is that I was confusing submission with compliance. At first, I didn’t realize there was a difference, until I heard a pastor friend of mine tell me a story that illustrated the profound difference.
A statement was made by a church leader about staff being expected to submit to the authority placed over them unless, and only unless, the request was “illegal, unethical or immoral.” I think we’d all agree that those are three clear qualifiers. My friend asked about an additional qualifier: “But what if it’s unhealthy?”
We can be asked or tasked with something that is completely God-honoring, but at a time or manner that is not healthy. As a former church technical director, I found myself in this place often, especially when it came to doing “just one more thing” (sound familiar?) for a ministry, pastor, or for the weekend service. This kept me out-of-balance in my relationships for a long time. My struggle was that I wanted to please my boss, and I was working in ministry, so why wouldn’t I just submit to everything asked of me? After all, it was for God, ultimately, and nothing being asked of me was “illegal, unethical or immoral,” but it was often very unhealthy for my life.
Part of the blame was on me: I didn’t talk with my boss about being overtasked very often in my first vocational job, and when I did, he played “the God card” and reminded me our work was for God. Properly chastised, I performed the tasks at the expense of my own emotional/spiritual health and family relationships. I wasn’t building a trusting relationship with my boss (nor was he doing the same for me), but kept the clearly defined lines of authority in my sights as I complied—and it was unhealthy.
My compliance broke when I’d had enough of being abused and used as a tool instead of as a person. However, a broken person responds in broken ways, and in the process of standing up for myself, I failed to honor the authority placed over me and instead took a defensive, fighting stance that ultimately cost me my job.
When the program, tasks or projects take precedence over relationships, we will operate out of compliance under the guise of submission.
Compliance says, “You have my behavior. You don’t have my heart.”
Submission says, “You have my heart. What kind of behavior can I offer?”
Compliance says, “Do what you’re told to avoid negative consequences.”
Submission says, “Do what is necessary to honor the authority.”
Compliance says, “If I find a loophole, I have a way out.”
Submission says, “I desire to exceed expectations for the benefit of others.”
Compliance says, “I better be rewarded for my extra effort.”
Submission says, “I am delighted to give of a little extra, and I know my authority will protect my time and my heart.”
Do you see the significant difference between the two? One is positional, the other is relational. If, like I was years ago, you find yourself in a work environment that is focused on compliance, start with building relationship by giving personal, not positional, honor; serving with a joyful heart while communicating safe boundaries; documenting and repeating back expectations and timelines so that both you and your boss are in alignment.
Your part is to serve well, not to be a doormat. We don’t honor people because they are honorable people; rather, we honor people because we are honorable people. It’s not difficult to honor people who deserve to be honored. But that’s not what the Bible says anyway; it speaks of honoring others who may be difficult to honor.
If we let the boss know that we love God and him and the church and love serving, but that, for example, “every Saturday morning there seems to be an emergency that takes me away from my family for four hours,” we can ask, relationally, about taking off one afternoon each week to compensate for the extra hours. If the boss is genuinely interested in our family and emotional well-being, this should not be a problem.
Give first. Honor first. Love first. And see what God shows you when you shift from compliance to submission. If you’re still being used and abused, share your heart earnestly and speak the truth in love. Often, it leads to repentance and restoration. Our actions and attitudes are revealed best in Romans 12:18:
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
And, if there’s no change after all that, ask God to intervene or to release you from your position. He can use you anywhere!
So, what say you? Are you submitted well or just complying? Comment below, anonymously if you like.