Are we supposed to submit to harsh leaders?

Recently I received the following question on another blog post I wrote titled When Submission is Twisted. Because my answer got a bit long winded, I decided to write a new post on this subject. If you find it relevant, I’d love to hear your comments.

submission or passivity?

Question:
I was once under church leaders that were abusive to me. How do I know if I did the right thing by confronting? Or if God put me there to learn submission?

They would never support me in my musical talent. They were the music leaders and even though I was gifted they hindered my progress. I stood under them for years. Then I was abused by someone else who just tried to bully me and had that “rule over you with iron fist” so I winded up leaving but had a confrontation that the main leader twisted because she knew she was guilty of hindering me.

I know the word also says to obey the harsh and cruel.

How will I ever understand if I was right or wrong? The pastor took their side because they ran everything. I’d wanted a meeting to confront the treatment but never did get it, so it left me confused not knowing if I was wrong. All I know is they broke my spirit. The Pastor said what was he to do? He could not risk losing them over me. I just think it should have been handled differently but still unsure. I winded up leaving that church broken and lost my church family.

I was also bullied by someone they put in charge. They disrespected me. Not sure I handled it correctly but I never got any resolution and I always thought I was wrong for not submitting properly.

I also feel God led me to jobs where I was mistreated by my bosses. Can it be he uses those situations to refine us? I definitely feel he led me to those jobs where I was abused on jobs even by bosses. You can’t always leave and can’t always confront either because you can get fired.

Answer:

I don’t think God ever endorses abuse, but when we are in difficult situations He can use them to refine us. When similar situations seem to repeat themselves over and over in our lives, it’s wise to ask God what he’s trying to develop in us. I’m glad you’re doing that.

Take a moment to honestly consider:

Do others typically perceive you to be entitled, opinionated, demanding or rude? If so, perhaps God is trying to shape your character by allowing you to sit under authority.

Or do you think others perceive you to be overly compliant, accommodating or servile? Do you often feel like others walk all over you? Maybe you feel left out, rejected, inferior, intimidated or even victimized? When our character is marred by trauma and repeated abuse, it often pushes us into passivity and like a self-fulfilling prophecy, we’re drawn over and over again to relationships that are manipulative and controlling.

From what you mention, I suspect you might fall into the latter category.  

If that resonates with you, I don’t want you to feel hopeless. Your difficulties aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Struggles come to develop us. To refine our character, perseverance and hope (Romans 5:3-4). Our suffering and adversity is often an opportunity for personal growth.

If you think your circumstances are ordained by God, I’d ask you to consider: Is God using people of power to train you in confidence and assertiveness?

Being assertive is not the same as being aggressive. Assertiveness is birthed out of the confidence that Hebrews speaks of.  

Do not throw away your confidence for it will be richly rewarded (Hebrews 10:35).

You might also consider 2 Timothy 1:7. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

When we are continually drawn to relationships, work environments, and church cultures that are controlling it often reveals own need to develop assertiveness and confidence.

Authoritative, controlling, demanding or even abusive partners, leaders or employers need passive people in order to work out their agenda. However, it’s important to understand that passivity is different than submission.

Passivity is rooted in the fear of man.

Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ (Galatians 1:10).

On the other hand, submission is rooted in the fear of the Lord.

The fear of the Lord leads to life; then one rests content, untouched by trouble (Proverbs 19:23).

Passivity hinders and restricts our free will, but submission is a choice we make because we trust a higher authority.

Passivity is rooted in the fear of man, but submission is rooted in the fear of the Lord.

Should you confront your leaders?

That depends. Most of the time we think of confrontation as something we do verbally, however, confrontation with controlling partners, employers and leaders may look different when they have shown by their actions that they’re unapproachable or not willing to listen or consider your request.

In that situation confrontations are best done by a change in our own actions.

You mentioned that you know the Word says to obey masters who are harsh and cruel. I suspect you’re referring to 1 Peter 2:18. Let’s take a look at what it says.

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.

Examining scripture requires that we understand the context and the cultural background. Paul was speaking to slaves.

We have a different concept of slavery today because of our own cultural understanding, but slavery in the first century was quite different. Many slaves in Paul’s day served as  accountants and doctors and businessmen. This type of slavery most simulated what we refer to today as having a job.

You asked how you could know if you did the right thing by confronting, or if God put me there to learn submission.

I’ll answer your question with a question:  Does God always call us to submit to ungodliness?

I can think of a few women in the Bible that didn’t submit to authority and were actually considered righteous for their actions.

Consider Rahab. She hid the Israelite spies on her roof. Then she lied to the king of Jericho when he inquired about which way they went. Even though she lied and disobeyed authority, she is listed in the Hebrews Hall of Fame.

Consider Jochebed, Moses’ mother who disobeyed Pharaoh’s command to throw all male babies in the water.

Abigail didn’t honor her husband’s choice to ignore David’s request.

None of these women confronted the men who were in authority. Instead, they changed the way they responded. They answered to a higher authority when the demands of the authority in the land had evil or malicious intentions.  

From the examples of these women, we can see why verbal confrontations with controlling or abusive leaders or abusive partners isn’t always safe.

Proverbs 9:7 verifies this: Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults; whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse.

Someone who is controlling will often view an inquiry, a disagreement or a confrontation as a rebuke or a correction. A rebuke can even be something as minor as a difference of opinion if somebody is very narcissistic or controlling. In situations like that the best thing to do is to remove ourselves from the situation or scale down the level of contact.

Your thoughts? I’d love to hear them!

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6 Responses to Are we supposed to submit to harsh leaders?

  1. Marlene Evans June 23, 2022 at 1:08 pm #

    Hi, this is a good question. In submission to those that are in authority even if they are harsh or cruel. Thinking on this I reflected back to a boss that I once had actually 2 of them that were harsh and cruel in the way they interacted with me. One was cruel he always used my assistant teacher to do his office work while I remained in the classroom working with 17-20 preschool age children, when I confronted, I was transferred to another site. The second took extended lunches and made excuses to why, but that disabled me from being able to take a full lunch. At times she would bring back what she did not eat for lunch and say, “Hey I knew I was late, so I brought you lunch”. None of which I ate. When I confronted by filing a grievance, I was transferred to another site. I submitted myself to their authority as it related to doing the job of caring for the children and families that were enrolled in my classroom and not submitting to them being cruel and harsh. I got along with them as best as I could without allowing it to change my stance. Romans 12:18 “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Proverbs 17:14 says” The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out. And Ephesians 5:21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. The ultimate thing for me was to humble myself and ask what I learned from all of that. I learned that it is not just for those who know Christ to see Christ but also for those that do not know Christ to see Christ. For those of us that profess Christ to truly walk in what we profess. To do self-checks and be sure we are right. Faith is built from the things we go through; it is purposeful not personnel.

    • Christy Johnson June 23, 2022 at 1:39 pm #

      Wonderful perspective! You brought out a point I didn’t mention and I’m so thankful. The opportunity for us to be a witness when others watch how we respond is a a great testimony. I love the scriptures you mentioned too!

  2. CherylA June 23, 2022 at 4:05 pm #

    Very well – written with a lot of meat to it. I could relate to being passive pleaser and learning to confidently set boundaries—which he took as threats and ultimatums. I just repeated it’s my necessary boundary for my peace, comfort. You know where that got me….in my own place. I suspect there was some manipulation there.😆I’m weary of grieving loss and nursing some selfpity; feel I’ve turned a corner and planning alternatives to repeatedly revisiting the whys and wherefores. Just is…my journal tells the same scenario past year and half.🫢 Leaning into God and counting my blessings!

    • Christy Johnson June 24, 2022 at 8:57 am #

      There is always pushback when setting boundaries. People do think we are being punitive. That’s all part of the guilt trip to cause us to back down. But don’t. Consistency and time will eventually turn the tide. Even if others don’t learn to respect our boundaries, we gain our self-respect back!

  3. Shannon June 24, 2022 at 8:51 am #

    Christy I love your article! Very helpful. God bless you!

  4. Lynneve June 25, 2022 at 6:44 pm #

    Hey Christy,

    Thanks for addressing this issue with your usual grace. Once again, I find our foci aligned.

    Last year was tough for me. After 2 years of emotional abuse, flirting, flattery and gaslighting by a male leader in my church, I finally found the courage to call it out and address it with my pastor. To say I was disappointed in the pastor’s response would be a grave understatement.

    It’s a narcissistic strategy to silence and isolate someone. God doesn’t do that, but this pastor did. He removed me from all my leadership roles (I had been leading in churches for 35 years and had been a youth pastor for 18 years at my previous church), he no longer allowed me to serve and told me I was not to say anything to anyone (red flags right there)… so how do I seek counsel or prayer or support if I’m not allowed to talk about the thing that was hurting me the most? But God…

    It’s a narcissistic strategy to hold someone’s words and voice in contempt. God doesn’t do that, but this pastor did. Not only did he completely shut me down during the meeting in which I was trying to tell him about the male leader, but he refused to even read the letter I wrote, providing proof of interactions.

    It’s a narcissistic strategy to use derogatory language and pull people down. God doesn’t do that, but this pastor did.

    It’s a narcissistic strategy to invalidate someone’s truth and enable lies. God doesn’t do that but this pastor did.

    Time after time, this pastor showed by his words and actions that he was not worthy to steward or shepherd my heart… so I left that church. I refused to submit to a leader who constantly devalued and mistreated me.

    Meanwhile, the male leader in question was enabled to continue leading… and continue doing what he did to me… only to others.

    While I was trying to make this pastor aware of this male leader’s behaviour, for my own walk, I was also trying to do it to protect other women from experiencing such behaviour.

    Just recently, at a leadership conference, I saw this pastor for the first time,12 months after I had left the church. At first he was like “Hey Lynneve, you and I should do coffee. We should catch up!”

    I was like, “No, I’m good thanks”

    He continued, unfazed by my cool response. “I haven’t seen you around church for a while, how are you doing?”

    I mean… really? So I quietly replied, “That would be because I no longer attend your church. I left a year ago after you showed that you were no longer worthy to steward or shepherd my heart.”

    Ahh… that got his attention.

    We spoke for about 10 minutes during which time, he finally disclosed that I had been correct about the male leader and that a number of other women had also been hurt by his actions and as a result, he had now been removed from leadership. He said “I just thought you would like to know that. Because I know now that you were trying to protect others”.

    If I was hoping for an apology from the pastor, there was none forthcoming… not surprising. But for me, there was closure and growth.

    For me it was the fulfillment of two verses God had given over a year earlier, when I first started calling the male leader’s behaviour out…

    Romans 4:20-21

    Yet she did not waver through unbelief regarding the promises of God, but was strengthened in her faith and gave God the glory, being fully persuaded that God had the power to do what He had promised

    Psalms 91: 14-16

    “Because she loves me”, says the Lord, “I will protect her for she acknowledges my nane. She will call upon me, and I will answer her. I will be with her in trouble. I will deliver her and honour her.

    As you say, sometimes, we need to confront and sometimes we need scale back the level of contact. I did both, and am now in a much better place.

    Thanks for all you do to empower women everywhere. Love your heart.

    Blessings

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