What C.J. Mahaney Teaches About Submission And Obedience Within The Church

December 17, 2007 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Reader and commenter username deleted posted a link to an interesting sermon by C.J. Mahaney.  Here was username deleted’s original comment:

I have remarked that CJ Mahaney manipulates people into a thinking a certain way about his leadership and his leadership team, effectively quenching any discussion of them or their involvement in people’s lives.

I encourage you to carefully listen to the following message, which was given as a trial run, before delivering the same message to his home church of CLC (during which I was present).


I am of the opinion that much of what he says is in addition to what is actually taught in scripture.

Btw, the content of this message is repeated at CLC as often as Mahaney repeats himself while he is sermonizing.

I listened to the message, and immediately, a number of things became clear to me.  For one, certain charges of “slander” that have been leveled at our discussion here suddenly made more sense.  For another, I realized anew why attitudes of total obedience and submission were so prevalent among the SG folks I knew.

I posted my reaction to this sermon in the “comments” section of the “What Would It Take?” entry, but since Mahaney’s teaching on submission to church authorities is a key part of the Sovereign Grace mentality, I think it deserves its own discussion.

Here is my analysis:

I’m 40 minutes into this sermon, and my stomach is churning. No wonder this little site has already played host to comments accusing me of “slander.” Mahaney takes Hebrews 13 and essentially sets up church leaders as people we are OBLIGATED to obey…because they (the leaders) “watch over our souls.”

As part of this submission and obedience, he says that the people have a DUTY to confront anything that seems to be “slander.” That’s the exact term he uses, several times. The people must “preserve the trust” by defending their leaders against “slander.”


He does say that if there is a legitimate concern, the people also have a duty to humbly bring the concern to the leaders, “not as an accusation, but as an observation.”

He does admit that this passage causes a great deal of discomfort among American Evangelicals.

Yet…in all the splintered and fractured glory of what is the Protestant church in America, and with the transient nature of our society, where people move all over the place, how are we to know for certain that a particular church leader meets these qualifications…how can we know that it’s OK to submit to them and invest that much trust in them?

Sadly, the Christian church in America is RIFE with abuse of this level of authority. We’re not living in the first century anymore, after all.

And, wouldn’t Mahaney himself be completely out of luck if he truly had practiced this passage of Scripture in his younger years? Wouldn’t it mean that he should have remained Catholic?

Better yet, would Mahaney say that the Reformers – Luther, Calvin, et al – were in sin for not submitting to THEIR authorities?

With ALL of Scripture to preach from, with such a vast array of topics from which to choose, and with how totally submitted most SGM folks seem to be already, why is THIS a message Mahaney focuses on?

I guess I’m a bit blown away to hear such concrete proof of exactly what I have sensed all along…

And how many times must he hammer away on the notion of our remaining indwelling sin?

To be fair, Mahaney is giving a fairly straightforward reading of this passage (Hebrews 13)…UNTIL he goes into more detail as to what “submission” actually looks like. Suddenly, Mahaney himself – this is NOT spelled out in the passage – defines submission as “joyfully accepting the doctrines the leaders teach, joyfully supporting the mee-Tings and all the programs of the church, and joyfully defending their leaders against slander.”

Ooooh, and in his conclusion, he says that the success of leadership is dependent upon the proper submission and obedience of the people to their leaders. If the people aren’t obeying and submitting, the leader’s ministry cannot be fruitful.

Wow. Check out THAT leap of logic!

In other words, if a leader has a problem, it is, in effect, the fault of unsubmissive, disobedient people.

Later, I added the following:

I certainly don’t take issue with the Hebrews 13 passage. It’s right there in the Bible, after all.

I guess this message blows me away because it raises far more questions than it answers.

For one thing, with all of Mahaney’s obsession over our “remaining indwelling sin,” I would expect him to first lay more of a foundation for why our modern-day leaders actually meet the qualifications that the Hebrews leaders would have met. Do our current pastors and elders automatically qualify as leaders in the same capacity as those of the early New Testament church? What safeguards are in place for the (as Mahaney would definitely say) inevitability of SIN in our leaders’ lives? What if we see a sinful need for control in our leaders? Or have some other such concern?

Are we obligated to obey and submit to anyone who slaps on the title of “Pastor” or “Elder”? How do we know that we are in a place where these commands for submission and obedience now apply to us?

(I’m not being snarky…I’d really dearly love to know this!)

Also, Mahaney himself acknowledges that this passage of Scripture makes most American Evangelicals highly uncomfortable. He goes on to say that sometimes, this is because a person has been hurt by a leader who abused his authority. But then, rather than explaining how we can discern between biblical leaders and abusive leaders, he simply offers up, “If that applies to you, I am sincerely sorry.” Then he moves on to say we still have an obligation to obey and submit.

In this message, he sets up a church culture where a loyal member’s first response to any whisper of negativity is supposed to be accusing that brother or sister of “slander.” Another question I have is, is there room anywhere in Scripture for honest dissension? Is dissension automatically “slander”? Would simply questioning leadership be viewed as “slander”?

I also would like to know where he gets his definitions for what “submission” and “obedience” look like. Since when does the Bible say that “submission” equals supporting all of a church’s mee-Tings?

(Or “gatherings.” I noticed that Mahaney also favors the word, “gathering.” He calls church services “mee-Tings” or “gatherings,” but NEVER “services.” I find this fascinating…I wonder why he so consciously avoids the terminology used by most of the rest of Evangelical Christianity?)

Finally, I believe he steps outside the bounds of Scripture when he says that unsubmissive, disobedient people are the root cause of unsuccessful leadership. Certainly he wouldn’t say that MOSES was unsuccessful or unfruitful. Yet Moses had to lead such an unsubmissive people that on at least one occasion, God declared He was just going to destroy them all and start over again.

Effectively, the bottom line of this message is, you must submit to and obey your church leaders…and if you have questions, you must approach them personally or else stifle your concerns, because to express any sort of discontent is the same as “slander.” You also have a duty to shut down anyone else who might be asking questions (he calls it “sowing doubt”) by accusing them of slander.

And if your pastor’s ministry is unsuccessful, it’s YOUR fault anyway, because YOU are asking questions and aren’t submissive or obedient enough.

Finally, the next morning I added this comment:

It’s a funny thing, but I had a hard time getting to sleep last night because of this message. As I lay in bed, my thoughts were spinning. I spent a lot of time asking the Lord, “Is this emphasis on submission right?”

I think it is, and it isn’t.

It’s right as far as it’s Scripturally balanced and based. Submission and obedience are mentioned many times throughout the Bible. I actually read through Hebrews 13 last night (just to be certain I’d understood the passage correctly). Then I went on to read through the entire books of James and I Peter. The command to submit to authority is repeated several times just in James and I Peter alone.

So obviously, the concept of submission is something that God wants from His people.

Where I take issue, though, is when submission and obedience are emphasized without also bringing up servant leadership and some realistic strategies for dealing with the false teachers that Jesus, Paul, and Peter tell us will inevitably come along and deceive people.

I mean, if submission is stressed above all else, then the people are primed and ready for deception, should it come along.

I won’t put words in Mahaney’s mouth, because he didn’t actually get around to saying this, but if I had to guess, I’d bet that his answer to my question (”How can you know if your leaders are trustworthy?”) would be if they’re teaching correct doctrines. He sort of alludes to this toward the beginning of the message.

And I’d say that he’s right, in a sense.

Yet…if you’ve been so trained, so brainwashed, to accept EVERYTHING that comes down the pike from your leaders, and to reject ANY questioning of your leaders with knee-jerk accusations of “slander,” then I believe your ability to discern when your leaders might veer into incorrect doctrine will be seriously diminished.

Cult leader Jim Jones started out as a preacher of the Gospel, after all. I’m sure his early followers weren’t all brainless, zoned-out groupies. Yet somewhere along the way, they lost their capacity to discern.

Another aspect of Mahaney’s emphasis on submission is that when leaders have been honored and revered the way that Mahaney and company currently are, how realistic is it to believe your average Joe will feel at all empowered to approach them to offer up correction?

If someone genuinely believed that a leader like Mahaney or Josh Harris were in error (and trust me, I’m NOT saying that either one of them is!), is it at all likely that they’d be open and approachable for a conversation? Isn’t it far more likely that they have surrounded themselves with other totally submitted leaders who have – because of this overemphasis on submission – become “yes men”?

As I said before, given Mahaney’s preoccupation with man’s indwelling sin, I’m surprised that he preaches such a strong message about the people’s need to submit to their leaders. After all, leaders (according to Mahaney) are just sinners like everybody else. Surely, cultivating such mindless submissiveness in their followers could be a dangerous and scary tool in the hands of a sinner?

Now, what do YOU think?

© 2007, Kris. All rights reserved.