We live at the end of a century of social levelling. The shared veiwpoint, in which we see humanity as essentially flat in terms of hierarchy, clearly came into view in the 1960’s, although those with a longer perspective could see it coming as a reaction to coming out of serving in the forces in WWII, or (even longer) distrusting the leadership élites who led much of the world into, through and out of WWI, and the global chaos which followed. Class structures have crumbled over that century, and even though there are still the moneyed and empowered groups that always have existed, in the secular West they have somehow been robbed of their mystical, magical status. Instead, our default instinct is to distrust those in office.
That has spilt over into our thinking about church, too. Even quite rigid hierarchies, like Roman Catholicism, have seen their leaders humanised – sometimes for good reasons, mostly because of cultural trends, but occasionally because the abuse of church power has led our leaders into dark places, and we need reassurance that it cannot happen again.
Some have taken that even further. There’s been a consistent, small trend over the centuries for occasional Christian groups to emerge who desire no leaders, order, or structures, and want to depend on God’s direct governance to guide their way of life.
But before long it becomes clear that churches, like any human organisation, cannot operate long-term as shapeless, improvised groupings. And even though an occasional New Testament scholar will suggest that the first few decades of the church had an exciting, free-form style, which only much later hardened into a hierarchy, when we turn to the New Testament, we can see that the experience of the very first Christians was much more complex.
Take the letter to the Hebrews, written probably to Jewish Christians, maybe in Alexandria – at any rate, out of the normal circles of major New Testament writers like Paul, Peter, Luke or John. Even in this out-of-the-way church, the issue emerges, and it has a three-step solution:
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat… Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you… Greet all your leaders and all the Lord’s people (Heb. 13:7-8, 17, 24)
1.Churches need leaders. Remember your leaders… Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority… Greet all your leaders. There is no hint of resentment or awkwardness, is there? Nothing that might suggest that if the church were more Spirit-led it would have less need to be human-led. The Greek word here is hēgeomai, and is a standard, secular term for becoming a political leader. Other New Testament words either have similar roots (episkopos, ‘a supervisor’; poimainō, ‘to shepherd’), or maybe a background in a well-run synagogue (presbyteros, ‘to be an elder’).
2. Leaders teach. Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you… Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. Here is a curious idea, quite unlike what our politicians or CEOs might expect – our leaders are those who help us understand the gospel, the bible, better.
We are perhaps more familiar with that idea from the image of a ‘shepherd’. Shepherds feed the flock of sheep, and so we expect our ‘pastoral’ workers to do the same – feed us. But forget the image of pretty, fluffy lambs in a sunny green field – those shepherds were tough men who fought off lions and bears (remember the young David?), and the image gives the idea of guarding God’s people with vigilance. Taking responsibility for them. Leading them There’s a reason the kings in the Old Testament were described as ‘shepherds’ (Ezek. 34). Feeding, leading, guarding, all fit together
This will take some untangling. It’s an important corrective for activist pastors, who see the word ‘leader’ and immediately grab wisdom from the latest business guru. Such pastors need to gaze deeply at the phrase spoke the word of God. But it’s also a corrective for academic pastors, who see the word ‘teach’, and immediately turn their churches into lecture rooms and seminars. They need to stare hard at the word, leader.
I know churches which have ‘teaching’ pastors, and ‘executive’, or ‘leading’ pastors – is that healthy?
I know churches where all the pastor does is preach and lead bible studies – is that healthier?
Is it healthier to say the church needs to be well fed and well led? If so, are the two tasks the same? And if they are different, how are they related?
3. Leaders are accountable, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. Here is the critical answer to the abuses of power – our leaders are accountable to another, greater leader. He is the Shepherd who lay down his life for the sheep, who modelled being a Servant as a leader, and who will himself insect and judge our human leadership.
And notice that this cuts off more than one abuse of power. The most obvious is that leaders dominate or bully, and they will give an account. But there’s also an abuse of power which is shown by being lazy about speaking the words of God, and ignoring the danger of strange teachings.
Pastors, do you put things in, or leave things out, of your sermons because of the people in your congregation? Or your own biases and preferences? How does that sit with knowing that one day you will give an account of your ministry?
- How do you think ‘leading’ and ‘feeding’ are related?
- In your church, which is the greatest challenge: the need to be led, the need to be fed, or the accountability of your leaders?
- Pastors, do you put things in, or leave things out, of your sermons because of the people in your congregation? Or your own biases and preferences? How does that sit with knowing that one day you will give an account of your ministry?
I’ve written much more about how churches and their pastors in The Church (Bible Speaks Today)
You can order it (discount) from 10ofthose here,
Aussie? Koorong has it here.