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Authority and Submission

Summary: The issue of authority is always with us because sin is always with us. Nonetheless, we live in an ordered universe where there is authority and submission to authority. Lorne Sanny taught a foundational series on this topic, during the 1970s. This article attempts to summarize much of his content, so that it is again accessible. A large portion of this article comprises verbatim writing by Lorne Sanny.


Introduction: Lorne Sanny’s Biblical Rearch
Limits of and Disobedience to Authority
Submission to Authority
The Legitimacy of Authority
Accountability and Responsibility
Excercising Leadership
Making Decisions
Impact of Lorne’s Series

. . . each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
Romans 14:12

Introduction: Lorne Sanny’s Biblical Research

As we wrestled with global planning in the early 1970s, various issues and tensions related to who had what authority and how it should be exercised came to the surface.

In this evolving climate, Lorne had been working on a seminal and ongoing study on authority and submission. During our August 1974 corporate planning conference, he laid out his preliminary conclusions in a body of material1 that ended with some overall conclusions:

  • Both submission to authority and exercise of authority are required by God and He holds us responsible for both and therefore accountable.
  • There is an intermediate accountability to those to whom and for whom we are responsible. Ultimate responsibility is to God Himself.
  • It is this ultimate accountability to God “Who will render to every man according to his works” that makes both submission to authority and exercise of authority take on a totally new perspective.

He concluded with a warning from Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

Power is a poison well known for thousands of years. If only no one were ever to acquire material power over others! But to the human who has faith in some force that holds dominion over all of us, and who is therefore conscious of his own limitations, power is not necessarily fatal. For those, however, who are unaware of any higher sphere, it is a deadly poison. For them, there is no antidote (The Gulag Archipelago, p. 147).

During the following month, in writing to our staff, we find Lorne wrestling with the impact of our global strategy. He asks:

What principles should apply in deciding who makes what decisions? What does the Bible teach about the decision-making process? How should our worldwide resources of men and money be distributed? On a divisional basis? National? Or international? And who decides how the resources from someone’s own region are used? Where does the International Headquarters fit in?

In the process of clarifying who makes what decisions—and it is important to know this—we must be careful not to be overly preoccupied with who has the right to decide. In Luke 12:13 and following, we read that a man said to Jesus, “Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus said, “Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?” and went on to teach him by means of a parable.

Jesus declined the role of a judge or decision maker and instead assumed the role of a teacher. Teaching is more important than decision making, although decision making is easier than teaching. . . . The Navigators should be a movement of doer-teachers.2

The following month, in soliciting prayer for our international strategy conference at the end of October, Lorne reviewed the trajectory of planning during the previous two years and made the significant comment that, during 1973, “We discovered the staff worldwide was not comfortable with this overall plan. There was uneasiness about meeting goals which they had not set themselves. At our December 1973 meeting, we decided to set [the strategy] aside and rebuild a complete world strategy by asking each country to come up with its own plan.”3

Realizing that planning by the center for the whole Navigator world was no longer an acceptable or viable process, we were veering toward the opposite extreme of merely adding up all the country plans and labeling the result as our global plan. Instead, we would need to find an equilibrium position in which there would be ongoing dialogue between the center and the countries, thus ensuring strategic coherence yet creating space for countries to apply contextual solutions. A global plan, in other words, should not be obtained merely by stitching together all the national plans.

The October 1974 international strategy conference considered some relevant extracts4 from a business handbook on authority and autonomy in a multinational corporation. They were summarized by a perspective that reflected the organizational stage that we had reached: “The spirit of multinational corporate planning is one of diligent cooperation, coordination . . . and continuous communication. . . . Plans are never made for a division, and often not even a country, but by them. The divisions and countries are restricted, though, to making plans within and in accordance with the broad corporate objectives and general corporate policy.”

As his research matured, Lorne taught at Glen Eyrie during 1975 and 1976 a series5 of messages in which he identified seven authority and submission relationships.

  1. God and mankind (Matthew 6:10)
  2. Mankind and nature (Genesis 1:26)
  3. Husband and wife (Genesis 3:16)
  4. Parents and children (Ephesians 6:1)
  5. Governors and governed (Romans 13:1, 1 Peter 2:13-14)
  6. Employer and employee (Ephesians 6:5-9, 1 Peter 2:18ff)
  7. Spiritual leaders and spiritually led (1 Peter 5:1, 1 Peter 5:5-6, Hebrews 13:17, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)

Lorne began by pointing out that Jesus lived in submission to his father. “I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30). He also said to his disciples, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am” (John 13:13). He both submitted to authority and exercised authority.

Every person has more than one authority-submission relationship. For example, one can be responsible to parents, the government, and an employer at the same time. In such conflicts, we must decide which authority to obey. Such decisions should be made on the basis of scripture, the circumstances and the inner prompting of the Holy Spirit.

What follows, written by Lorne Sanny, is a condensation of this series. 

Limits of and Disobedience to Authority

Ultimately, “. . . each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (Romans 14:12) for how he or she submitted to authority and exercised authority.

When God gave Adam and Eve authority over the realm of nature, He set limits for them. They could freely eat of every tree of the garden—except one. In fact, all authorities which God has delegated have their limits. The apostle Paul promised the Corinthians that he would “keep to the limits God has apportioned us” (2 Corinthians 10:13).

Even God’s authority is limited. Can he do anything? The answer would have to be no. His freedom to act is circumscribed by his character, which is expressed in the moral law, the Ten Commandments.

God also limits himself by respecting the authority he has delegated. He gave great authority to Satan and allowed him to use it. But when Satan sought authority beyond his limits, putting himself at the center of power, sin entered the universe. Adam and Eve fell prey to the temptation to exceed their limits and put themselves at the center. Thus, sin entered the human race.

Sin has infected all relationships, with self-centeredness and self-assertiveness continually cropping up to destroy harmony and reverse God’s order. Everyone has turned to his own way (Isaiah 53:6), going beyond the legitimate bounds God has set, expressing the very essence of sin by exalting self.

Submission to Authority

It is here that God graciously meets us with the Gospel, reconciling us to himself through Jesus Christ and to one another in all of our relationships. Victory comes through surrender. For if self-centeredness is the great problem, self-surrender is the great solution. “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16).

We must pursue the self-surrendered life. “Submit yourselves therefore to God” (James 4:7). “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God” (Ephesians 5:21).

Thus, before we can learn how to exercise authority, we must first learn how to submit. One is a child before he is a parent; he must be a follower before he can lead.

What does it mean to submit to authority, to be subject, to obey? Submitting simply means yielding, giving way, deferring to the will of another.

The first thing we need to do is submit ourselves to God. That’s where it begins. For when we are truly yielded to the will of God, we find that all other relationships fall into place with less friction or strain. No other relationship can be truly right without first submitting ourselves to God.

Our surrender to God is not giving Him what we have, but giving Him ourselves. When a husband and wife take their marriage vows, he does not say to her, “I give you my bank account.” Nor does she say, “I give you my cooking ability.” Each says to the other, “I give you myself.” And that is what we are to say to God: “I give you myself.”

Our submission to authority is to be made gladly, even if that authority is overbearing. “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to the kind and gentle but also to the overbearing.” Both the kind and gentle and the overbearing are to be respected. Furthermore, we must submit in a redemptive, reconciling, restorative spirit. A redemptive spirit is one that restores relationships.

Our ultimate freedom, then, when we are placed in a position where we can’t choose our circumstances, is the freedom to choose our attitude. And the winning attitude is a redemptive spirit that seeks to bring the humility of the Savior, the love of God, and a forgiving spirit into a situation in such a way as to restore the relationship. And this may mean a cross. Jesus came into a hostile world, became a servant, and was obedient to death in order to reconcile men to God and to one another.

We usually associate power with authority. But the Bible teaches us that there is power in submission. A redemptively submissive spirit is disarming, Christlike, and powerful. Peter says that our subjection to civil authorities is disarming, for “by doing right you . . . put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Peter 2:15). He goes on to say: “If when you do right and suffer for it, you take it patiently, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:20-21).

Here is our opportunity to follow Christ as a disciple, by displaying a Christ-like spirit when we suffer wrongfully. We don’t like this; it goes against our natural inclinations and gets too close to where we live. But God says that, since sin came in, we must be in the business of reconciling and restoring relationships. This is what Jesus did and he left us an example to follow. “He committed no sin, no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to Him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:22-24). That’s the heart of the Gospel.

However, not all authority is legitimate. The Bible tells us what to do about that. James exhorts us to resist the devil. Peter writes, “Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:9). Jude adds that we should do so respectfully and without presumption. Illegitimate authority should be respectfully resisted.

How can we know when an authority is illegitimate and should therefore be resisted? I can think of two circumstances: where there is a violation of a clear command of God, or where an authority extrudes beyond its limits. Acts gives us a good example of the first situation: Peter and the other apostles were commanded by the religious authorities not to speak in the name of Jesus. The three Hebrew youths in Nebuchadnezzar’s court illustrate the second kind of illegitimate authority, that which oversteps its bounds. All authorities are limited.

The Legitimacy of Authority

Ultimately, we all answer to God for our stewardship of the relationships he has given us.

Learning to exercise authority, like learning to submit to authority, requires humility. So, we need to remember that it is dangerous to be preoccupied with our authority. We can nurture our humility by recalling that, through his grace alone, God has written our names in heaven.

Authority is not a bad word. It is legitimate to be given authority and to exercise it honorably. What did Jesus say to the Twelve at the Last Supper? They had been arguing among themselves about who was the greatest. He explained that, in the kingdom of heaven, it wasn’t that way, but that the truly great were those who chose to serve others. He said, “You are those who have continued with me in my trials; as my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:28-30). Once he had dealt with their selfish ambition, he let them know that he was giving them great authority and that they would exercise that authority at his side. In effect, he told them that authority was legitimate and that it was to be given as a reward. The same concept occurs in the parable of the pounds (Luke 19:11-27). Faithful exercise of authority results in more authority.

Why does God work in this way? I believe it’s because he is interested in developing our character. Character is determined by the choices we make. Exercising authority gives us the right and opportunity to choose. If we make right choices, God rewards us with more authority so that the building of one’s character can continue.

Accountability and Responsibility

Another implication is that those who exercise authority must accept responsibility. One who has been given authority must function responsibly.

One who exercises authority must not only accept the responsibility but also the accompanying accountability. He is accountable to the source of his authority. All authority ultimately comes from God; therefore, we must ultimately give account to Him.

Since authority is delegated from one’s supervisor; that is, from the top down, there is accountability there also. The real depth of our spiritual life shows in the spirit with which we submit to the kind of employer we don’t like or to leaders with whom we don’t agree.

However, authority also comes from the bottom up. An employee consents to work for a supervisor and thereby gives the supervisor a degree of authority over him. The supervisor is therefore accountable not only to those over him but to those under him.

This accountability “down” as well as “up” is illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the four servants which he concluded by saying, “Everyone to whom much is given, of him will much be required, and of him to whom men commit much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48).

This concept of authority, responsibility, and accountability makes one a servant both ways. We are the servants of those over us and those under us. Remember Matthew 20:26-27, which says, “But whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.”

Furthermore, the exercise of authority and responsibility is not lonely. I am surrounded by those to whom I must give account and who will support me as long as I am faithful and a wise steward of this responsibility. Such responsibility must be discharged with proper attitudes and action.

Currently, my position is that of president of The Navigators, but my job is to serve. When the day comes that I no longer have the position, I will still have the job. As the Bible says, “ . . . he that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God” (2 Samuel 23:3).


Perhaps the simplest definition of leadership is influence: influencing the attitudes and actions of others. Spiritual leadership, then, is influencing the attitudes and actions of others toward God, toward things of the Spirit—faith, hope, and love.

How can we identify a spiritual leader? Paul describes some of them in Corinth. “You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. I urge you, brothers, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work and labors at it.”

The writer to the Hebrews put it this way. “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. . . . Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:7, 17).

A spiritual leader is recognized by his character; that is the main qualification, for instance, for the office of elder in the church. He is also known by his fidelity to the Scriptures as, for example, were the Bereans.

Every Christian is both a spiritual follower and a spiritual leader. We need to ask ourselves: is my influence on others good or bad? Does it help others or hinder them?

A spiritual leader is under authority. He is first under the authority of Christ. Secondly, he is under the authority of the Scriptures. Thirdly, the Christian leader is under the authority of the Holy Spirit.

Spiritual leadership is exercised through function6 and not through position. But we seem to feel innately that we cannot function unless we have a certain position. Your function is more important than your title. The title is simply the shorthand to identify you. The function of hearing is more important to the physical body than that the ear have the title “ear.”

What we can do, we should do well, for God has given us each our own function for a special purpose—to serve the Body of Christ in specific ways (1 Peter 4:10-11).

Paul summarized our position: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).

Exercising Leadership

How then does a spiritual leader lead? What gives spiritual power to his leadership? I believe there are certain energizing forces which are available to every Christian. First, there is prayer. Secondly, there is example: Paul warned Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). The Lord Jesus put priority on example in his Sermon on the Mount: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

It goes without saying that love is the most powerful influence in the world. We can influence by love. But love is costly. I think of it in three words: service, sacrifice, and suffering. There’s a cross at the heart of the universe, the cross where our Lord supremely demonstrated his love for us. And there’s a cross at the heart of spiritual leadership: “To this you were called because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).

We should also influence by teaching. When a man asked Jesus to order his brother to divide an inheritance with him, Jesus declined the role of judge or decision-maker and assumed the role of teacher. It can be subtly flattering for us when we are asked to make decisions or find the will of God for others. We would rather tell them what we think they should do than expend the time and patience to teach. Teaching is more difficult.

We also can influence by the authority of the Scriptures. I think of this as confronting the conscience with the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the prime exercise of spiritual leadership.

What about force or coercion? There is a legitimate use of force in biblical authority relationships. For example, Jesus forcibly drove the money changers from the temple. But what about us? The biblical way to influence by discipline is to deprive one of fellowship. This is a powerful influence, one to use only as a last resort. See Matthew 20:25-28 and 2 Corinthians 4:2 and 6:1 and 5:11.

Making Decisions

Since authority has been defined as the right to decide and take action, decision-making becomes an important topic. Authority, responsibility, and accountability are triplets: they go together. From my point of view as chief executive officer of The Navigators, we make four types of decisions, as illustrated in the Book of Acts. They might be called personal decisions, organizing decisions, policy decisions, and operating decisions.

We see personal decisions to commit to Christ among the three thousand persons who were added to the church on the Day of Pentecost, each individually accepting the message (Acts 2:41). The decisions that determine the success of the Navigator ministry are made by those outside the Navigator staff. We can only seek to influence men and women to make such personal decisions presented to them by the Holy Spirit as we teach them to obey everything Christ has commanded.

In Acts 6 we see an organizing decision as to who would provide food for the widows in the early church and who would focus on prayer and the ministry of the Word. It is interesting to note that such organizing decisions were arrived at from the top down and from the bottom up. In Deuteronomy 1:12-13, we see an illustration of the same thing. There was the need for organizing, so Moses told the people to choose their leaders and he would appoint them. If a decision comes from the top down only it tends toward tyranny. If from the bottom up only, it smacks of anarchy. But, if from both ways, it promotes stability.

A good example of a policy decision is in Acts 15. The church had sent Paul and Barnabas and others as their representatives to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles and elders. Various presentations were made—only Peter’s is recorded—then James summarized and made a proposal. The apostles and elders agreed on this and sent representatives to take their decision in writing to all the churches saying, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28). These guidelines became the international policy of the church.

In The Navigators, such things as our aim, our basic beliefs, our attitudes toward Jesus Christ and toward the Scriptures are important enough that our entire staff should be involved in the evolution of policies which affect them. Because we are scattered throughout more than thirty countries, we send our representatives to communicate our views on such matters. We need the combined brains, hearts, experience, and gifts of all the staff to complete our mission.

Lastly, we find operating decisions in the Book of Acts. In chapter 13, the church released Paul and Barnabas for the ministry to which the Holy Spirit had called them. They did not tell the men where to go or what to do. Again, the Spirit sent Philip to Gaza (chapter 8) and Peter to the house of Cornelius (chapter 10), giving them detailed instructions. It is important not to confuse policy decisions with operating decisions. We must assume that, if a thing should be done, it can be done. Decisions on the what and why of our ministry should be made separately from decisions on how we will accomplish it.

I believe that the process of making decisions is every bit as important as the decision itself. Dawson Trotman often said that the decision is 5 percent and carrying out the decision is 95 percent.

If in any group activity, we want to see a decision executed enthusiastically, we should as far as possible involve at the start those who will be responsible to see it through. They will be following through on their own decision, not one made for them and imposed upon them. It may take longer to make the decision, but it will take less time to carry it out. The extent of the process is determined by the extent of the decision. It should “involve the involved.” This isn’t always easy to do, but it produces a better result.

When it comes to a group decision, peace is what we look for. A constant key verse for us in group decisions in The Navigators is Colossians 3:15, which says, “Let the peace of Christ rest in your hearts since, as members of one body, you were called to peace. And be thankful.”

Impact of Lorne’s Series

Lorne Sanny’s teaching series came at just the right time. In the broadest sense, as Skip Gray commented, Lorne was “a bridge between a strong autocratic leader and the delegated ministry. He transferred from the strengths that Trotman had to the strengths that a band of men had. . . . His legacy was a deep abiding commitment to the authority of the Bible.”7

Jerry White observed that Lorne’s series was very good because authority was a big issue. “We were in danger of becoming cultish.”8

Mike Treneer spoke in his interview about how our practice of leadership evolved. “When I first came around, I would use descriptive words such as directive, military style, arbitrary, personality driven. . . . I saw a change in the 1970s from this style of leadership to more of a business model, influenced by Management by Objectives, which I think brought some very important rationalizing correctives and a limited authority. It was no longer personal. Authority was vested, if you like, in our agreements around our objectives.”

Treneer continued. “For me, as I think about our movement . . . Lorne’s studies on authority . . . [were] seminal . . . very important to us. . . . I feel there was something quite sect-like about our trajectory in the late 1960s and early 1970s. When Lorne did that work on authority and submission, it took us out of what was a very dangerous place, probably not immediately.”9

It is gratifying to see how Sanny’s series continues to be consulted, more than forty years after he presented his study.

See also articles on:
Global Planning: 1966 – 1975
Management by Objectives: 1968 – 1974
Structures in the 1970s

By Donald McGilchrist
4765 words


  1. See p. 2-7 of the conference notes.
  2. “Dear Staff,” September 23, 1974.
  3. “Dear Staff,” October 11, 1974.
  4. Source:  Multinational Corporate Planning by Steiner and Cannon, Macmillan Company.
  5. This series on authority and submission was first given at the middle leadership seminar in England in April 1975 before the appearance of the first of seven NavLog articles on the topic in September 1975.  Lorne continued to refine his material through “Steering Straight” (his NavLog articles), his teaching notes of March 10, 1980, and four articles published in Discipleship Journal (Issue 8, 1982).
  6. “I want to try to clarify . . . the matter of stepping ‘up’ or ‘down’ or ‘aside’ on the organizational chart. When a man is asked to take what looks like a lesser responsibility, he may feel he has failed—or his wife may fall prey to resentment, an attitude which can damage both the man and his ministry. But the fact that the size of our organization means that some must share the load of supervision does not in any way create differences in rank or status. The differences are in function, as in members of a body.” Sanny’s “Dear Gang” letter, July 14, 1967.
  7. Interview with Skip Gray, October 17, 2012.
  8. Interview with Jerry White, March 6 and 13, 2012. Jerry instanced a leader whom he had removed from staff because of misusing authority. His team put their paychecks into the same common pot.
  9. Interview with Mike Treneer, September 13, 2011.
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