The role of women in church leadership is a hot potato among Christians. So, can we be sensible for a moment here?
- I’m not going to resolve, single-handedly, an issue this big; no one believer or denomination has the authority to.
- We’ve all read the Bible. I’m not going to stray into “The Bible teaches x…” as though I alone had read it or were competent and authorised to interpret it. The Bible is not my property, and it’s not yours either, whoever you are.
- While we’re on the subject, there are any number of thick books out there offering an exhaustive treatment of the subject (and coming to various different conclusions as well). That’s fine, but I have no plans to add another one.
Aside: a quick note to the new Christian
If you’re not familiar with the background, the best thing you can do to get familiar with it is to read through the New Testament. You’re probably doing that already, but I mention it just in case. It’s not all that long.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
So: no book, no definitive pronouncement and no apostolic judgement. But I do hope to contribute to the discussion, if only by provoking some thoughts. Let me phrase this particular hot potato as a series of questions, then. I’m going to look at leading, teaching, and authority.
1) Can a woman lead?
Don’t know – I need more information.
1.1) Which woman?
Do you mean that woman [points to imaginary woman - and so on throughout this post…], who has no leadership gift and can’t control even a small meeting to save her life? No, she can’t. She needs to find something else to do, for her good and everyone else’s, just like all the men with no leadership gift.
Or this woman, who is good at leading but is selfish, ambitious and egotistical, sacrificing the little people for her agenda (when in Jesus’ church, the people – especially the little ones – are the agenda)? No, she must be kept out of leadership, along with the men like her. And by the way, it can be hard to keep those people from leadership. They’ll fight you over it and possibly even divide the church to get a following for themselves.
Or this woman, who is of proven Christ-like character and is clearly gifted at leading? To my mind, yes, she probably can. But let’s keep asking.
1.2) Lead what?
There are many different kinds of leadership, and many different settings in which leadership is needed. A person with a strong personality who is calm under pressure, commands attention and inspires confidence would be perfect for leading an emergency evacuation; or a short-term project whose goals are defined and need pursuing single-mindedly.
Often, however, church activities need consensus, and reaching consensus takes as long as it takes. Many leaders simply can’t cope with the waiting. It takes a particular kind of leadership to be able to steer a group of people towards a level of agreement in which nobody is intimidated into silence. One might even say that this is the highest form of church leadership, since the church is composed entirely of kings and priests, all of whom are indwelt by the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead! But it’s tragically rare these days, probably because of the kind of celebrity “pastors” (for which read, congregational CEO’s) who have developed reputations as strong leaders. Some of them are incapable of leading to consensus, choosing instead to impose their ambitions on whole congregations and destroy anybody who resists them. In the secular world, they might be strong leaders. In the church, they are weak leaders – too weak, in fact, to be allowed to lead. (And it so happens that they are usually men, even if only because women are rarely allowed into that kind of role.)
1.3) Lead whom?
The role of leadership in the church exists to serve those who are led. For one thing, that means putting their interests first.
Paul famously said that “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man” (link here). For a moment, I’ll leave aside the fact that the Greek verbs (teach, assume authority over) refer to continuous or repeated actions, not single instances. And that the words for “man” and “woman” could equally mean “husband” and “wife”, and that “man” and “woman” are both singular (i.e. it doesn’t say, I don’t permit a woman to teach men). All of this is potentially interesting, but I want to consider something else. What do men need?
To have needs is not to be a dependent baby. Adult men and women can’t live on breast-milk. In the same way, men and women need support, affirmation, significance – and as adults, we can no longer derive these things from hugs, cuddles and mummy love. That’s why we find patronising condescension so unpleasant, and why it is such a low blow in a debate. Of course women find it insulting when male church leaders declare them, en masse, to be too fragile and unstable to carry responsibility, and that they should be grateful for the privilege of full-time parenthood (how dare I call something a “privilege” for you, when I consider it beneath me?). By the same token, though, men need the company of men, the mentoring of men, and the leadership of men. We need father figures who, nevertheless, treat us as peers. (I have read John Eldredge’s book, yes, but the ideas are thousands of years older then him.)
I never like to use the word never. As a rule of thumb, then, a male leader is more likely to be able to meet the psychological needs of a man, or group of men, than a female leader. By the same rule of thumb, I would question the wisdom of having a man mentored by a woman in church, or of having the church men’s group run in the long term by a woman. The converse applies: i.e., the women’s group generally shouldn’t be run by a man. In other words, when you have one leader leading one gender, it should usually be the same gender.
Two more quick points under this question.
Firstly, this debate stirs up strong emotions, and wherever there are strong emotions there will inevitably be kneejerk reactions. In the last paragraph, I treated men and women the same. Regardless, I’ve lived long enough to know there are some people who will choose to interpret what I’ve said as being a sexist comment that demeans women (but not men). Just know this. I am entirely satisfied that that is a false accusation; I don’t like being falsely accused, any more than anyone else, but like many other people I won’t be scared into silence by it.
And secondly, in the local church at large, of course, the congregation will be mixed gender and the bible very clearly teaches plural leadership. I’ll come back to that point at the end of this post.
1.4) Lead why?
Go back to the last question for a moment – I talked about the needs of men generally. Sadly, there will be people who would read that and think, who cares about what men “need”? That just proves that their silly little egos need teaching a lesson. And they are precisely the kind of people that must be excluded from leadership in the church because their attitude is loveless and ungodly. If anyone, man or woman, covets a position of responsibility so that they can make a point, or put one over on anybody else, they are disqualified from it. In leading, the Christian should always ask: am I the right person to be leading these people? Would somebody else meet their needs better?
While we’re on the subject, love hopes and believes all things. It respects, in other words. The man who thinks he should lead because the people can’t cope without him (and on balance, it’s more likely to be “him”) should learn to deal with his pride before he leads within the church.
And one more question – the one I said I’d come back to at the end.
Can a woman be the senior elder of a church?
No: absolutely not, never, ever, ever.
Neither can a man.
There is no such role.
Nobody in the church is to exercise hierarchical authority – Jesus explicitly banned it. If the older, more experienced Christians in a local congregation cannot demonstrate by example what it means to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit together, to give preference to one another in honour, and to discuss until they can say with one voice, it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us, then they are not qualified as godly leaders. If Jesus really did rise from the dead, and the Holy Spirit really has been given and lives in ever believer, then his Body really should be different from other groups of people.
There is good scientific evidence that men and women are anatomically different. There is also good scientific evidence that men and women are neurologically different. In other words, joking aside, it’s possible to tell a male brain from a female brain. Thus it’s not surprising that there is also good scientific evidence for general behavioural differences between men and women. That being the case, since there are many gifts given by the same Holy Spirit, then men and women will tend to bring different gifts to leadership. So it stands to reason that the (plural) leadership of a mixed-gender group of believers like the local church should itself ideally be mixed.
This post is already long, so I’ll stop for now. Question 2 (can a woman teach?) follows in a couple of days.
Pausing the “series” on middle-class church for a moment, I thought it might be an idea if I actually published something on the blog. I’ve been thinking lately about how abstract many of our cherished credal statements are.
We believe in…
We all know the biblical instruction to “be doers of the word, not hearers only, deceiving yourselves”; and many others like it. But usually, our core doctrines are statements of fact, not commands or statements of intent.
I observed on our doctrinal standpoint that most church organisations with a written doctrinal basis believe that God is triune; that is, he is one God in three Persons (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). But few church organisations state that he is trustworthy in everyday matters. He created all things, but can he create jobs? Again, most doctrinal bases talk about what God did 2000 years ago, and what he will do one day. But few talk about what he is doing today.
I think that’s a big omission. But as Lesley and I have been praying over how to go about helping the unemployed in our region, we’ve realised our own creed needs developing. We all believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. But didn’t Jesus say that, if we’d understood these things, we’ll be blessed if we do them? How do we “do” the bodily resurrection of Jesus? Or the virgin birth? (Of course you could brainstorm some general ideas on that, but they’d all be vague extrapolations along the lines of, “live a faithful Christian life”. I bet none of them would involve reproducing a virgin birth.)
My point is that credal statements like the Nicene Creed aren’t enough on their own. If we’re going to do anything significant in the name of a King nobody can physically see, we must know what it’s like to relate to that King. It’s all very well letting your theology motivate you to do something that you would not otherwise do. But what if your standing with God led you to do something you could not otherwise do? Heal the sick? Raise the dead? Create jobs when you yourself have ADHD, and a long history of unemployment?
The “mission statement of faith and doctrine”
It’s true that church organisations often have mission statements. They generally refer to what that church organisation is doing. But again, they rarely talk about what God is doing and what it is actually like to do it alongside him. So here’s a few that are specific to us:
We believe God does not just care about the poor and downtrodden sentimentally, but through his earthly body (the church in which he lives) he wants to engage with them directly.
We believe God does not just want to offer them sympathy and sandwiches, but an inheritance, respect and significance. To the jobless, for instance, he wants to give jobs.
We believe God does not just give Christians a “calling” and then leave us to it. He walks alongside us and sees to it that we have all the spiritual authority (to make things happen that, on the face of it, we don’t control) and practical tools (the simplest example I can think of is the money to pay our bills and feed our children) we need.
We are outworking this by galvanising a job-seeking community so that the unemployed have a voice. We intend to create jobs in Jesus’ name, to champion the reputation and good name of job-seekers in Jesus’ name, and to politely inform fellow-Christians who tell us we shouldn’t be doing these things that we will happily take responsibility for this when we finally give an account to the Master.
Furthermore, we believe that the people we should look to work alongside first are fellow-believers. But if they won’t (and they often don’t), we believe it is entirely appropriate to draw encouragement from Kingdom-minded non-Christians (and they certainly exist).
Finally for now, we believe that Jesus did many other wonderful things in the presence of his disciples that are not recorded in the Bible; and he has not changed.
“Is church middle-class?” … Part 1
Firstly, a moment of reflection on the title of this series: it’s a question.
I can find no evidence in the Bible to suggest that God doesn’t love middle-class people. When the church embraces middle-class people, that in itself is a good thing, though no-one’s pretending that’s enough on its own.
Many observers, certainly here in the UK, have called the church “middle-class”. But let’s remember: terms like “middle-class” and “working-class” are just averages in this context. Not all men, women, middle-class people or working-class people are the same. I think what those observers are seeing is not necessarily churches full of middle-class people, but churches that have evolved to meet average middle-class needs. But there’s more to it than that; and that’s what this series is about.
Part 1 of this series addresses the limitations of churches comprised mainly of people who have few practical needs.
So: Is church middle-class?
NOT NECESSARILY: But most needs are not met in church meetings
I’ll begin Part 1 with a wee snippet from John 4.
Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something”. But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about”. Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”
“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.”
There’s an important truth in there that’s easy to miss. Completed work is food for the soul. The sense of accomplishment that comes from simply earning one’s living is a vital source of emotional and psychological – and even spiritual – wellbeing. And not just work, either. Earning an honest wage, being a loving parent/spouse/friend/neighbour, and many other things besides, are all essential parts of doing God’s will. And therefore they are food to the mind, the soul and the spirit. People trapped in unemployment or broken domestic relationships don’t have to be drug addicts or alcoholics to be struggling emotionally and psychologically – they are simply underfed.
Middle-class church members will, almost by definition, have a stable employment history and will usually inherit a stable home background (though I realise there are tragic exceptions to this, because an abusive spouse or parent can hide behind a respectable facade). At work and at home, therefore, the vast majority of their needs will have been met. And I repeat, that includes their spiritual needs, because it is doing the word more than hearing it that feeds us. Significantly, those needs will have been met in ways and settings that have no religious trappings – no prayer, preaching, worship, praise or Bible-study. God has met their needs without their really being aware of it. I can certainly tell you from first-hand experience that, when you’ve struggled with unemployment, most church-going Christians do not understand why you don’t “just go and get a job”. It’s never been hard for them to do – they’ve never tried to get decent work whilst unemployed – so they don’t get why it’s hard for anyone else. (This is a long story, and will merit a separate post – coming soon.)
So they gather together on Sunday morning (usually) with most of their needs met, and most of their hunger sated. So the gatherings of the church don’t really have to do much beyond provide a religious experience.
Filling up the corners of our appetites
In other words, we come together to enjoy a worship experience. Perhaps some nice emotional arousal in the singing; perhaps some interesting reflections on the symbolic meaning of a passage of scripture. Please don’t misunderstand: we are, in the UK church, very often good at being hospitable; and we’re often good at supporting one another in times of particular need. But it’s rare, in my experience, for us to come together to engage our faith collectively against obstacles or to overcome significant long-term difficulties.
In conclusion: I submit that churches full of satisfied people will find it hard to offer real hope to people for whom life is simply not working.
Church for people who believe only Sundays are spiritual
I’m all too well aware that I haven’t posted anything for several weeks now. It’s about time I did, and I’m going to start a topic I’ve been pondering for months.
I heard recently of a survey of non-churchgoers taken here in the UK in which respondents were asked their reasons for not attending church. The number one reason?
Church is middle-class.
You often hear this, actually. And you often hear a rebuttal: no, we’re not – all are welcome to join us. I think that’s often honestly meant, too. So why does church in the UK retain this “middle-class” image? I think I can tell you.
It’s not about the church’s population; it’s about the church’s purpose. A middle-class church is not a congregation of which most members happen to be middle-class. Instead, it’s a local church group which has evolved over the years so that it mainly meets middle-class needs. So it’s inevitable, really, that most of its members are middle-class; everyone else goes away hungry, and has to find mental and spiritual food elsewhere.
Introducing a series: “Middle-class church”
Over the next few posts, I will air my observations on the topic in some more detail. I’ll look at how the current tradition of “local church” inevitably produces single-culture church groups that can only reach a limited fraction of the local population. But I also want to write something that is encouraging for my fellow-Nones: followers of Jesus who cannot settle for a Church divided into isolated denominational splinter-groups that do little or nothing together. God is in control, you see. Jesus has always been building his church and he always will. He cannot be overcome by the enemy, nor by our efforts to build our own churches.
I’ll look at exactly what middle-class needs the typical local church is built around, and what we can do to rectify this. And I’ll start, in the next post – coming up this week – with my first topic: a typical middle-class church is for satisfied people. People, in other words, whose basic needs God has already met outside of their church experience.
Here’s one: a good example of being “one in Christ”.
A few years ago, Lesley and I hosted an informal “home-group” within the congregation we were part of; I call it that because it was a group that met in our home. We weren’t all from the same congregation, as I recall.
One evening, one of our regulars (we’ll call her Sally) phoned just before the meeting began to apologise for not coming. Her husband had just been taken seriously ill, not for the first time, and – in a nutshell – she just didn’t feel up to coming and Doing Church at the same time as dealing with the circumstances that had just blown up in her face. So we agreed we’d pray for her.
In my younger days, as a new Christian, I would undoubtedly have given Sally a [probably patronising] lecture on how she needed to come to church regardless of her circumstances and that worshipping in church was, in any case, important for her. In general, that’s true: worshipping God in the midst of sorrow is an important discipline, and for many reasons. Not least of which is that it helps us remain self-controlled, and not at the emotional mercy of our circumstances. But that evening, I learned something new.
You see, Romans 12 instructs us to “mourn with those who mourn”. As distinct from, say, “teach”, “pray with” or “exhort” those who mourn. None of those things is wrong, but there’s a time and a place for them. On this occasion, the Holy Spirit told me the thing to do was worship, but on Sally’s behalf. We did; there’s no way of proving exactly what that accomplished, of course, but certainly Sally was in vastly better spirits a few days later. In fact, her husband never recovered, and sadly died a few weeks later. But Sally was able both to cope and, in due course, to move on; she is still doing well as I write this.
If indeed we are all one in Christ, and not a collection of individuals, that makes sense. When one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it. “Bearing one another’s burdens” means something that actually works in everyday life.
Sometimes, the burden of suffering we experience is too much for us to carry, at least temporarily. (Jesus knows this: he was unable to carry his own cross, so Simon from Cyrene was ordered to carry it for him.) We don’t have the strength to do what, on paper, we know we should. But a vital function of the church is that others can do it for us. This doesn’t just apply to physical activities like shopping, driving or minding our children if we’re ill or injured. It also applies to spiritual disciplines such as prayer, praise, worship, and holding fast to God’s promises in the face of evidence trying to tell us that God will not help us.
I maintain, as an affirmed None, that regardless of whether or not you submit to man-made denominational divisions, you cannot be a follower of Jesus in isolation from all other believers. Since in practice you can’t be in close fellowship with all other believers, you have to work on relationships with some of them. Often, you have to be a bit creative in how you’re willing to allow God to introduce them to you. That’s a topic of ongoing research for many of us, though.
Do you ever read, or reflect on, the content of the bible and suddenly spot something that is so obvious you’ve never noticed it before? (As far as I know, everybody does.)
My idea of what makes a real Christian has changed somewhat over the years. When I first became one at 18 (back in 1986), I discovered the cool idea that the Bible was God’s word. As is quite common in such contexts, I camped around the belief that a true Christian is someone who believes a certain list of doctrines. There are many groups – congregations, “churches”, denominations, theological training institutes of whatever description, you name it – within Christianity who think that. It hasn’t escaped the attention of humanity at large that those groups can’t agree on exactly what that list of doctrines is, and in fact some of them are at each other’s throats over it.
Let’s at this point head over to the bible-content I hinted at a minute ago. It’s from John 13:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
The thing is that “you” and “disciples” are plural. And it strikes me that the phrase “a true Christian [singular]” just might have absolutely no meaning. True followers of Jesus can only be known in groups. And even then, they are not known by their doctrines but by their love. It seems to me that the phrase “a true local church” might have no meaning for exactly the same reason. A local congregation of believers, regardless of their collective history or purpose, can only be recognised as Christian by the fact that they love other local groups of believers with different histories or purpose. I suppose this is an extension of the belief I’ve held for a while that most “local churches” are collective “lone-ranger Christians” who have abandoned assembling together.
Consider it this way, if you will. Some setting with about 30 people in it – say, a workplace – has two or three Christians. But they don’t have much to do with one another and if anything there are tensions between them. That workplace does not have an effective Christian witness. Now scale it up: a town of about 3000 people has two or three churches, that have little to do with one another, maintain their separate identities and if anything are openly in competition with one another. I submit the following: that town does not have an effective Christian witness.
I don’t want to run too far, too soon with this idea. But I may post another instalment once I’ve got some practical examples and evidence.
And Now… part 2 of 2, somewhat belatedly – I posted Part 1 ages ago! This is longer than the last one, but bear with me.
How does “church discipline” work among “nones”?
I am starting to see in practice how this can, and will, work. It all comes down to the following radical and (it sometimes seems) controversial statement:
God not only exists, but can be relied upon to do stuff
There are plenty of things Jesus commanded us to do: the Christian life is not a passive one. However, Jesus declared his intent early on regarding the church: He would build it. And he also said that every branch that bears fruit, his Father would prune so that it produced more. We’ve recently seen an example of that kind of pruning happening here, on a small scale. Please note that whilst no individuals are named below, all the events I’m describing are as accurate as I can concisely make them, and all the people involved are real.
Earlier this year, I found it necessary to address a particular behavioural issue with someone – I’ll call her X – whom Lesley and I had been meeting regularly with for a while. X had appeared initially to be like-minded and actively seeking the company of fellow-believers. But there was always something that wasn’t quite right. I won’t go into details here, but matters eventually came to a head and I was forced to tell X clearly that her behaviour and speech towards us, and her attitude to our marriage, were not acceptable and would have to change if she wished to continue spending time with us. She declined, and things became difficult. Again, I won’t go into details here; they would distract from the main point. (Moreover, however fair and unbiased I tried to be, I could still only describe events from my perspective and that isn’t good enough. One reason a matter must be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses is that no one person is likely to know the whole story.)
So we found ourselves having to apply something vaguely resembling “church discipline”. On the other hand, we’re nones; we’re not part of any separate organised structure because we don’t believe in them. Besides, even though we would willingly honour the collective decision of any representative group of local believers, X openly refused to acknowledge anyone’s authority in any circumstances. So: what to do?
The way forward
Let me first state categorically that there is rarely any such thing as “the [singular] Biblical pattern”. I’m not about to describe a formula for everybody else. But it is consistent with the Bible, with our own conscience and with the leading of the Holy Spirit as the episode unfolded.
Firstly, I hope you’ll forgive my stating the obvious, but it’s too important to leave out: We didn’t rush into a decision based on doctrine, but waited on the Holy Spirit in the knowledge that he would give us wisdom as he has promised. We must never overlook or proceed without the Holy Spirit; he is by far the most important resource Jesus has given his Church. (And yes, he is more important than the Bible. The Bible is from God – the Holy Spirit is God. End of.)
I’ll mention two things the Holy Spirit said to me during this process. Firstly, that as the marriage partners and parents within the household, it is our place to set boundaries: thus we should not ignore what we felt to be wrong behaviour, but should deal with it one way or another. And secondly, once we had decided that we could no longer welcome X into our lives, he instructed me: “Send her away free”. In other words, we should not attempt to extend our authority beyond our own household, nor presume to impose bounds or instructions on her. We understood the importance of this, since that’s what someone else tried to do to us some years ago. (Another story.)
Thus I told X, in writing, the following:
- I understood that she found our standards unacceptable, in which case she was free in principle to build relationships with other believers whose outlook suited her better, with no obligation towards us.
- At the same time, it wasn’t her place to set aside or over-rule the standards on which we have built our marriage, nor did she have the right to help herself to our time and attention.
- Because of these and other specified concerns (again, I’m not going into them on this post), we needed to see evidence of a change of character in her before we could have any further fellowship with her.
And that was that; we’ve had no reply nor any further contact at the time of writing.
We have since found out that X tried to latch on to two other people in the area, both members of different church congregations. Independently of us and of one another, both of them came to the same conclusion as we did and have broken off contact with X. This is in large part because of her increasingly demanding and even aggressive behaviour towards them. We’ve also found out that there were two regular prayer meetings that disintegrated following X’s joining them, because people didn’t want to be around her nor attend the meetings at which she had monopolised attention. Unfortunately, for one reason or another they didn’t like to say anything and so they just stayed away. But X has now left those settings, as well as ours, because her real nature has been evidenced there as well. As a result, both meetings resumed.
In general, the body of Christ hereabouts has evidently come to a decision: that X calls herself a Christian and exhibits certain of the trappings of religious behaviour, but does not live like one and doesn’t produce the fruit of one. Instead, she persistently causes division and discord. As a result, not only has she alienated many people (but who don’t like to say anything), but three separate households have effectively excluded her from fellowship and told her clearly why.
What interests me about this is that
- Nobody has assumed significant authority – no “shunning orders” or widespread sanctions have been imposed.
- No central organisation or hierarchy has been involved: just three separate households linked only by the Holy Spirit.
- The issue was relational divisiveness – the act of driving wedges between friends and, if possible, a husband and wife – not mere “missional” unity.
It seems to me that, led by the Holy Spirit, the Body of Christ locally has acted to protect itself from a dangerous person using only as much influence as necessary. This is, surely, just a small taste of what God is capable of among us if we step outside the assumption that he can only work within the status quo.
Cause for hope, I think.
Most churchgoers have heard about Sodom, the town that God destroyed in an apocalypse of volcanic fire because of homosexuality.
Or did he?
I’m sure you’re all familiar with Ezekiel chapter 16, but permit me to quote a wee snippet:
Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it.
To paraphrase Bono: There’s been a lot of talk about this topic. Maybe too much talk.
In fact, there is much more talk about leadership in the Church today than there is in the New Testament and, as far as we can tell, than there was in the Church at large during New Testament times.
The concept of leading – being prominent, revered and powerful – is not high in the list of NT priorities. Indeed, Jesus laid great emphasis on servanthood. The servant is the one who waits on those who are eating. Whoever wants to become great among you, said the Master of all, must be your servant. Not My servant – your servant. True “leaders” express their service to God by waiting on God’s people: they lead by serving. But we’ve turned the concept on its head.
The phrase “servant leader” does not, in so many words, occur in the NT. It does describe a biblical concept, but only if we use it with great care. A Christian leader is someone who leads by serving, not someone who “serves” by leading. But in church nowadays, vision-casters, executives and managers, prominent and influential people with a staff of administrative helpers and PA’s, are labelled as “servant leaders”. At least, we call them that; but their day-to-day work is not materially distinguishable from that of a senior manager, CEO or entrepreneur/founder in the secular economy. And not many people call them “servant leaders”. Merely taking the secular concepts of corporate authority, management and executive oversight, giving them to a few in the church, and labelling those few as “servant leaders” does not make “godly leadership”.
The first thing about church leadership
The first thing Jesus said, as far as the New Testament records, on the subject of leadership was a description of secular rule followed by the command: Not so with you. The “you” in question were the Twelve – some of whom went on to write part of what we now call scripture and who could collectively claim, if anybody could, to be the governing executive of the church. In fact, in Luke’s account of this conversation, Jesus explicitly debunks the idea of “servant lordship” - The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. And this is not an isolated teaching given to an abnormal sub-group to correct a freak error. It is a pattern constantly practiced by the Master himself.
The confusion of job-titles
I don’t want this post to be too long, so I won’t provide a study on all the NT Greek words that can refer to leadership. Suffice to say that the idea of leadership – as in, taking a lead such that others follow you and work under your direction towards a bigger local goal - can be found in the New Testament. But the fact that Jesus said, in that context, “that’s not how it is to be among you”, should make us think long and hard before deciding we can Christian-ise secular management roles.
- “Elder” does not mean “leader”
- “Deacon” does not mean “leader”
- “Servant” does not mean “leader”
- None of “Apostle”, “Prophet”, “Evangelist”, “Shepherd” (or “Pastor”, if you must) and “Teacher” mean “leader”
- “Lead elder” is not a biblical phrase, nor is it a biblical idea
One famous mega-church pastor wrote in 2008 that churches (he believes, evidently, that there are many autonomous and independent bodies of Christ) should be “led by godly pastors”. Why not pastored by godly pastors? Or led by godly leaders? The individual in question is not unique among celebrity churchmen in requiring those under him to lay aside their aspirations and agendas in order to follow his. And he epitomises the dissolution of biblical roles and their replacement by re-branded secular ones.
Elders are instructed in the New Testament to lead, not by diktat, but by example in word and deed. Since we begin our Christian lives as new, and immature, believers, there is every reason to have role-models to look up to. But there’s something unique about Jesus’ Kingdom – a kingdom which, remember, is not of this world – because Jesus is unique.
The little matter of the Resurrection
Prominent men and women in history – leaders, writers, artists, musicians, and more besides – are often said to “live on” through their legacies and the fact that we still think they matter. But we only mean that metaphorically. The people themselves are dead and buried, and are not choosing in real time how to influence us. Jesus died and was buried. But there the analogy collapses, because he is no longer dead and buried. He rose from the dead, he lives for ever and ever, and would do so even if there were no human left alive to believe in him.
Moreover, his spirit – the Holy Spirit, called on one occasion the spirit of Jesus – was poured out on the church and he lives in us. Actually lives in us, not figuratively “lives” through our attempts to follow his teachings. Because Jesus is unique among leaders, his church is unique among groups of people. It is a living body, with every member connected to the Head in a way that is impossible in any other context.
An ordinary, natural (as distinct from supernatural) organisation must have hierarchy and leaders because its founder has not risen from the dead, is not omnipresent, and cannot spare the time or energy to relate to every individual member of the organisation, calling each by name. It’s a tragedy when groups calling themselves a part of the Church settle for being mere natural human organisations with Christian ethics. Personally, I’d love to see one or two leaders who like to emphasise their “God-given vision”, and the importance of being “on mission”, and “in step”, step out of the way. They might find that God’s vision is bigger, not smaller, than theirs.
A very quick note on authority and submission. Specifically, in the context of who holds authority and who should show submission among gatherings of Christian believers.
Firstly, there is a very important distinction to be drawn between two subtly different kinds of authority. (I am indebted to Vince Coakley and Steve Crosby on the former’s “SGM Detox” series for pointing this out.) There’s spiritual authority, which comes from a person’s standing with God; and there’s corporate authority, which comes from a person’s position in an organisation. For brevity’s sake I’ll simply say that, as I understand matters, the extent of a person’s spiritual authority is shown by how much they build up those around them. When you hang out with someone, do you usually find yourself living out a greater degree of love, joy, peace, kindness, patience, et cetera (from Galatians 5, of course)? Then the chances are that person has significant spiritual authority.
- A person with great corporate authority may have little real spiritual authority
- A person may have only junior roles in any organisation of which they are part, but have great spiritual authority
- Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive, but we do know that God chooses the weak and foolish to shame the strong and wise
Moses, it would appear, had both. From time to time, his authority as a leader was very directly challenged. He had an interesting habitual response to this – he would fall on his face. Not exactly your typical boardroom alpha male. If I understand aright what he was doing, he was determined always to rely on his spiritual authority. If God backed him up (which He invariably did) then nobody could stand in his way; and if not, then Moses was ready and willing to stand aside. To put it another way, he had nothing to prove.
From time to time, you find that a preacher has cultivated his corporate authority at the expense of his spiritual authority. When preachers emphasise the submission people owe them, or root out “dissenters” from “their” churches, you know that they are protecting their corporate authority. Usually, this will be because they are not confident about their spiritual authority.
So here’s a thought on how to tell one from the other.
You can tell what a Christian teacher really believes about authority and submission by observing whom he himself will submit to. If he will only submit to the famous and the influential – to those, in other words, who are hierarchically above him in some way and to whom he can submit without losing face – he does not believe in spiritual authority.