Look before you lead

A look at varying models of leadership - a function which can benefit the church but which can also be dangerous.
This article was previously published in "Insights" magazine.

"He that desires the office of a bishop desires a good thing", wrote Paul, and in so saying he provided an excuse for anyone with ambitions for a career in the church...
With prison and possibly execution in prospect there was less appeal to front line positions in Paul's day, but the establishment of Christianity as a major religion opened new and dangerous possibilities for the ambitious. Scope was found for political power in a movement which originally proclaimed a "kingdom … not of this world". Spiritual leadership is far too important a matter for ambition. Leaders have often been more the problem than the solution in the chequered history of the Christian church, and our assumptions and expectations about their role need careful re-evaluation. In a church which teaches that all are equal under God, the behaviour of leaders has often failed to represent the humble spirit of Christ. If we need leaders at all, we need them to serve his purposes, and to stop when their mission is completed.

"Leader" is a broad term which can be replaced by many contrasting words. Teacher tyrant, politician, counsellor, manager, father, president, chairman, king, despot, shepherd; each of these people could be described as leaders. But not all these forms of leadership are acceptable within the church, even though they have been present there at various times. Bad leadership may be as much the fault of the misled as the misleader, since, while many people expect always to have leaders, there will always be men ready to fill that vacuum (and it usually is men). Power-seekers tend to be volunteers. The greatest spiritual leaders tend to be conscripts, pushed into service by the compulsion of God's choosing. Their effectiveness depends on their responsiveness to the Spirit rather than their use of methods borrowed from business or political precedents.

Jesus said that the good shepherd knows his sheep and is known by them. He was talking about himself, but good under-shepherds will reflect his characteristics. Considering his emphasis on "knowing", I do not see the validity of appointing strangers to lead established church groups. In business a manager is quite likely to be appointed from outside the organisation, but the church is not a business and it demands quite different qualifications from its leaders. The church is made up of people who are in personal contact with God, whose Spirit leads them individually into all truth. In such a context strong, directive leadership should be unnecessary. The normal leadership model for the church is the elder.

Eldership, as a form of leadership, was familiar in ancient times and still survives in tribal communities. Village elders had the wisdom of experience enabling them to advise their more energetic juniors. But their position was relative and was not transferable. The elder in a group of people in their twenties is not likely to have the same authority in a group of forty year olds. He is authoritative only as long as he is wiser than the rest. Like parents who may one day be looked after by their adult offspring, wise elders see their function as transitional. Like wise parents they avoid over-protecting their charges, knowing that the hard knocks of life are part of the process of growing up. The most attractive saints in otherwise dull churches are usually those who suffer the most. Authority derives from life experience and maturity rather than from a conferred title.

The idea of transitional authority goes back a long way in biblical tradition. Early in Israel's history, leaders emerged at times of crisis, but returned to obscurity when their task was completed. Their calling conferred no lasting status and the few who tried to prolong their rule were frustrated in their effort. Their stories can be found in the book of Judges, and God's view on the system is revealed in the story of Samuel, the last of those leaders. When the Israelites asked for a king God told Samuel that they were rejecting his (God's) leadership. The appointment of men to the official authority of kingship laid the foundation for disastrous times ahead when kings would lead the nation into evil, idolatry and eventual captivity. Leaders who hold permanent offices are in danger of losing their humanity.

Ultimately the church has only one leader, and that is Christ. By his Spirit he appointed Ananias to pray for Paul then disappear from history. He also directed Philip to leave Samaria in the middle of a revival to speak to one man in the desert. These men followed the Spirit, rather than ambition and their actions helped to change history. By his Spirit, Jesus appoints people to pioneer and to lead, and their appointment is recognised by the people who are to follow, who sense in their hearts the Spirit's endorsement of the leader's calling. Most of the time, Spirit-filled people do not need human leadership - and when they do it is for a period, not forever. Even Christ will eventually hand the kingdom back to the Father; how loosely then should each of us hold our commission if at any time we are called to step out at the head of God's people.

James, in his letter, warned his readers not to be ambitious for leadership, knowing that they could expose themselves to severe condemnation. Look before you lead. Because all believers have access to the supreme leader they do not always need human leaders. What we really need is more relaxed mature people whose lives provide spontaneous and unintentional examples. Traditional leadership titles create a concept of office which the bearers try to 'live up to', and fail by trying too hard. If you are a more mature person, let that be enough. Give attention to living maturely and loving your Lord. If people seek the wisdom of your apparently mature life, then give it, and if the Spirit directs you to give advice or counselling then do it. But our prime purpose is to love Jesus. Let each of us walk with our God and keep our attention on him, then if anyone follows in our footsteps we too may unwittingly become leaders.

© Derrick Phillips - 1990