I follow a discussion group of pastors and retired pastors where the thread turned this week to rifts between pastors and their churches. Some heart-breaking experiences have been shared, accompanied by questions like, “Why didn’t someone intervene?” “Who’s going to straighten that church out?” and, “Who will help that pastor find a new church?”

Reading these posts, I’ve pondered the fact that many church conflicts arise from our unwillingness to practice mutual submission. Laypeople are unwilling to submit to the spiritual authority of their pastors; pastors unwilling to be accountable to their elders and church judicatories; regional and national church leaders unwilling to be subject to anyone’s authority (dare I say it? even to God‘s).

Yet healthy churches are characterized by mutual submission, just as healthy marriages are.

My wife and I lived in Goshen, Indiana, for several years and rubbed elbows with a lot of good Anabaptist folk — Amish, Mennonite, and Brethren folk. I heard them use the term amenability to describe relationships of authority within the church. It even appeared in the formal job descriptions of their pastors, bishops, and national church leaders.

Instead of saying that lay leaders and church staff are subject to their pastor, Anabaptists say they are “amenable” to the pastor. They don’t say that a pastor is under the authority or jurisdiction of a bishop, but “amenable” to the bishop. The bishop does not report to the national church leader (usually called the “moderator” instead of the “general secretary” or “general director” — an important distinction in itself); Anabaptists say their bishop is “amenable” to the moderator.

I’m not suggesting that Anabaptist congregations and denominations are free from strife. (Remember, I lived and worked there for years. I know better.) But they have the terminology right, and that serves as a constant reminder of how their relationships could be right.

Merriam-Webster defines amenable as “capable of submission” or “readily brought to yield, submit, or cooperate.” An amenable relationship is not one in which we always agree, but we are willing to yield to one another.

The epistle of James says, “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (Jas. 3:16-17). The principle is clear: Many of our church troubles could be avoided–or healed–if we were “willing to yield” to one another, regardless of who holds the superior office or  is the most persuasive.