An NT Perspective on Christian Leadership

Many Christians have complained about the attitudes and behaviour of Christian leaders today. We complain that our “pastors” are taking too much money, abusing their powers and falling to seemingly every sin under the sun that even the ordinary Christian in the church is able to guard against. Today it is very difficult for us to find role model christian leaders in the nation called Ghana, and the few that people try to point out to me are in my opinion no where near the examplary leadership that was exhibited by the New Testament church and its leaders. Today, Christian leaders are breaking our ears with conferences, seminars and talks about leadership, but they themselves do not see the principles that underpin Christian leadership. I believe that people are looking in the wrong direction for solutions to the problems of failed Christian leadership, and I’ll explain my reasons below.

The problems of failed christian leadership stem from a severe misunderstanding of what kind of people we are as Christians. You see, the church is the earthly manifestation of Christ. Christ is the head, and we the church are his body. Therefore we exist to display who Christ is. Without Christ, the church is not complete. Without, the church, Christ cannot be displayed to the world, simply because a head cannot exist without a body. Therefore, most of us who think that the church is “a voluntary association for the saved” are seriously mistaken. According to Ephesians, the church displays the manifold wisdom of God (Eph 3:10). Therefore, if the world cannot see Christ displayed through his church, they are somewhat justified in not accepting to believe in Christ (despite all our mega evangelism efforts). Secondly, the church is an organism, not an institution. That is why Christ calls his church “a body”, not a machine. It is not a business organisation run by the principles of profit and loss and maximising returns with minimal loss to the enterprise. Au contraire, it is anything but. It is a body made up of different parts, with each one is no more important than the other. It behoves us then to come at the problem from a different perspective.

In recent times one of the things we have had opportunity to discuss in our free and open participatory meetings was Matt 20:20-28. It tells a story of the two sons of Zebedee (i.e. James & John) and their mother coming to Jesus and the mother pleading that her sons be set on both sides of Jesus Christ in his kingdom. I can imagine an old woman making a passionate appeal to Jesus Christ, doing what every mother will do – seeking the best interests of her children. I do not know if they put the idea in her head to plead on their behalf, or if she saw into the future of Jesus and wanted to secure good positions for her children. Suffice it to say that Jesus was not moved by this attempt at arm-twisting, and tells them that it is not up to him to decide who sits besides him in the kingdom, but the Father. It is important to note that Jesus does not preclude the possibility of anyone sitting on his left and right, he only says that the decision is not up to him, but to his Father. This presupposes that the positions will one day in the future be filled.

As you would expect, the other disciples became angry when they heard that the two had tried to acquire for themselves these positions using their mother. This is because these were positions of authority, where the two of them will be elevated over the rest. It is in this light that Christ makes the cardinal statement that will drive this whole discourse.

Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercised authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt 20:25-28).

Christ in this statement established one of the cardinal differences between Christianity, Judaism, Greco-Roman paganism and a host of other religions – the principle that we are a priesthood of all believers, not a priesthood of some. Therefore no one of us has the right to lord it over the other one. However, to most human institutions (or churches run on human institutions), this notion is very difficult to swallow, and any group of people who have attempted to uphold this principle have been met with very severe opposition (including the shedding of blood) from those who do not understand that the church is an organism, not an organisation. In this direction, I’ll doff my hat to the Anabaptsts, who for this stance suffered a great deal of persecution from the institutional church surrounding them. This however does not mean that there is a total lack of leadership, but that leadership springs from the community of people gathered together as a church. Let me use the NT to explain.

When the church started off, the apostles took up all the responsibility of work in the church. From receiving donations, to distributing the food and other collections that were put together, to ministry of the word to prayer to everything else in between. However, when they realized that some people among them, specifically the widows of the Grecian Jews were being discriminated against, they saw a need to appoint a certain group of people who would take some of the responsibility from them (Ac 6). To solve the problem, they took the first step that began to establish the principles of Christian leadership.

Leadership Must Come from Amongst and Be Selected/Acknowledged by the Led

Instead of they choosing for them who will take up these responsibilities of leadership amongst them, the apostles told them to choose from amongst themselves men who matched the criteria they gave, and they will lay hands on them and hand over the responsibility of “waiting on tables” to them. This is starkly different from today’s way of selecting leaders in the church. The church has no say in determining who leads them. In fact, in one Pentecostal church that I used to attend, the church only receives a circular from the headquarters detailing who has been appointed to preside over what assembly. And this person most of the time is a member of that congregation at all, meaning few if any of the members actually know them. This is in spite of the fact that when working with human beings, it is not rocket science that people work more effectively with those whom they are familiar with and have come to know personally than some shining star pastor from somewhere. In fact, by allowing the people to choose whom they want, they put the power in the hands of the people and it gives them people the power to complain and withdraw this person at any point that he fails to meet these qualifications. However, if the person is appointed by “the apostles”, then the members feel their hands are tied. It is even more instructive to note that all the people chosen were Grecian Jews. They were even closer to the problem and therefore will do the work better than any outsiders. To draw a parallel with Ghana’s political system, it is not surprising that Ghanaians are asking that the political District and Municipal Chief Executives are elected and not appointed, but contemporary Christianity has yet to learn from this.

This is the same principle that Barnabas, after 13 years of having worked in the Jerusalem church (right from the start) and learning these principles and 5 years in the Antioch church, alongside Paul who also did about 3 years in Jerusalem and 5 years with Barnabas in the Antioch church, did the same things when they went about planting churches. After being commissioned in Ac 13, they travel to the Galatian towns of Iconium, Lystra and Derbe spending according to bible scholars and church historians 3-5 months in each town, as depicted in Ac 14. I will point out at this stage that they moved away from each church without appointing elders and to the next one to continue the work, leaving each previous one to grow up together in fellowship, and for the natural leaders amongst them to emerge. This also gives the members a chance to get to know each other better, and to make it easier for them to see which of them is naturally suited to leadership amongst them. They then came back and seeing these leaders from amongst them, appointed these as elders (v 23). Their work of choosing leaders and laying hands on them was in accordance with what they had already experienced in Jerusalem. These are what Paul refers to as holding onto their traditions, which as we can see from here have sound biblical, human relations and community building backgrounds. Appointing leaders this way creates more confidence in the leaders, and gives power to the members to check the leadership.

In my opinion, what should not be compromised in this exercises is the criteria for leadership. In fact, Paul expanded it further in the letters to junior apostles Timothy and Titus in what is popularly called the Pastoral Letters (see 1 Th 1:1,6 – the two were not pastors but apostles. The term is an 18th century creation which needs reformation).

There Must be Multiple Leadership with Equal Status

It is very evident throughout the New Testament that there was multiplicity of leadership. Nowhere in the NT is there a reference to elder on it’s own, but rather a reference to “elders” of a church. The only such reference was when Paul, Peter and John were addressing their audience in their letters, and even then we already knew that they were among the elders in the Antioch (Ac 13) and Jerusalem churches respectively (Ac 15). Nowhere in the NT is there a reference to one elder who is appointed above other elders. Protestant Christianity has the position of “Head Pastor” or “Presiding Elder”, who is head over a group of elders. There is absolutely no evidence for this in the NT. The reason is simple; otherwise the devil only needs to deceive the “Head Pastor”, and being vested with authority over the others, he will have his way with the rest of the church (which is exactly what happened when Emperor Constantine deceived the “Bishop” of Rome to force the other churches to be subservient to the Roman church). Most people claim that these “Head Pastors” are only ceremonial, and that in every institution we need a leader. You see, maybe the current “Head Pastor” will be a good one and not get it into his head that he’s the boss of all he surveys. But the next one may, and it is better to avoid that situation than to create the room for it. In addition to this, I don’t know how many of those who make such an argument have done an indepth analysis of 1 Sa 8, when Israel asked for a King. God was Israel’s king, and has never been willing to give away that kingship. We can all obviously see what happened to the Israel nation when the decided to be like every nation surrounding them, with a king to lead them. David was probably alright, but what about those that came after him? Today, Christ is the head of his church, and he will forever be that head. He will not give that authority to anyone, whether it be ceremonial or actual.

Oh, and the word Pastor is no different from Elder, as is the classical argument. The word Pastor comes from the Greek word “peomen” which means “shepherd” and interestingly occurs only once in all of NT. Isn’t it interesting how much weight we give to that function with such little occurence in the NT. Now look at what Paul said to the Ephesian elders, and you’ll see what I mean.

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Ac 20:28).

In fact Pastor, Elder, Overseer and Bishop refer to the same function – guiding the church (note that I use the word “guiding”. I’ll explain why in the next section).

To prevent people from exercising arbitrary power, the apostles always appointed more than one elder in a church, and asked them to work together with each other and to check each other. No one had more authority over the other, but unfortunately there was an attempt to change this even before the last apostle, John the Elder of Revelations fame died. This attempt was personified in Diotrephes showing signs of wanting to be head over everyone.

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us.” (3 John 9)

Well, the rest as they say, is history. The rise of the Roman Catholic church and its abusive power did not only succeed because of monetary and worldly persuasions offered by Emperor Constantine and subsequent ones, but began with the decision to go against the safeguards established by the apostles in ensuring multiplicity of leadership. I guess people are always struggling to sit on the left or right of Jesus Christ before the Father decides.

Leadership Is Meant to Guide, Not Rule and Dominate

Because Christianity is a community of people who are a royal priesthood, it is of the utmost importance that each individual member be allowed and actively encouraged to be a priest to one another. Unlike the Levitical priesthood where we had a separation between those who were priests and those who were not, in Christ we are all priests to one another. Our rewards that Christ will give will be based on our contribution to building each other up, whether spiritually or physically. Our membership is defined by function, not by authority. Therefore leaders in Christianity should see themselves as guiding the process that allows everyone to be active, not taking over all the activity. If you are a teacher, it is your function, not your title. As my brother Kwame Pipim pointed out the other day, never in the NT do we see “Apostle Paul”, but rather “Paul the apostle”. The respect that the church has for Paul’s opinion is in the fact that his work is evident to them, not in the fact that he carries a title. Therefore leadership is to see itself as playing a role that allows the body to naturally grow itself. The hand does not take up the work of the legs, neither does the kidney take up the work of the lungs. Every part of the body has work to do, and no matter how little it is, it must NEVER be trivialized. Therefore if you feel that you are the leg and without you the body cannot move, then the lowly members who are just small intestines in the body can also give up their work, and you can imagine what will happen. Christian leadership should be redefined in the context of a body, not an institution. This is why some of us cannot feel comfortable again in a church in which we daily go to sit in a pew and listen to the pastor preach without the opportunity to ask a question, share an insight on that topic, disagree with him totally or share something different. Let me use Paul’s work as an example to explain what I mean by function not title.

An apostle is a person who founds churches, or strengthens existing ones. They do not stay in one church and run it, but rather focus on building the foundation blocks that will enable the church to float on it’s own. Once the foundation is established, their work is sealed by appointing elders amongst the congregation. They then move on to look for other places where they may found a new church, or go back to some of the previously existing ones (founded by them or not) to strengthen them and share some insight in what God is doing in the places that they have been. To all intents and purposes, their work is the most difficult in advancing the kingdom of God, due to the travelling nature of it. This therefore requires men who have really been groomed within the context of existing churches and most probably have also learnt from a previous apostle (this is what Timothy, Titus, Epaphras etc were doing around Paul).

The elders then take over the day to day running of the church, making sure that they “shepherd” the church in the right direction so that every person is growing in their individual and collective knowledge of Christ, and that the church is looking more and more like Christ each day. Whenever something is going wrong in the church which they feel they need external help, they may call on the help of the founding apostle or any other apostle who is available, simply because of their depth of experience. All the letters that Paul wrote to the Churches (except Ephesians) were based on reports that members or messengers from these churches had made to him. Paul wrote Galatians from Thessalonica, between 1 to 2 years after founding the Galatian churches and leaving them alone. 1 & 2 Thessalonians was written from Corinth, whiles he was there working. Corinthians was written from Ephesus and so on.

The churches however, have the right to refuse the guidance of the apostle, and this was exactly the fear of Paul when he wrote 1 Cor. In 2 Cor he stated that he was afraid they might not heed his advice to them in 1 Cor, and he might then have lost his apostolic guidance over them. But thank God they did listen to him. Again, if you look at all the Epistles, there is very little use of commanding language. Mostly Paul “appeals”, “pleads”, “beseeches”, “prays” and “encourages”. Look at the language and attitude of the founder of these churches.

Compare this to today. A person founds a church, and forever he is the “General Overseer” of it. They dominate the church for life, and nobody else has the right to ever bring in an opinion which is different from theirs. Other churches founded directly or indirectly by (or even associating with) this person become a franchise, making sure that some percentage of monies collected are paid to the “parent” church. The “parent” church decides who becomes a leader in the nucleus churches, and the cycle of enforcing “authority” and lording it over them only continues. What is the difference then between this system and the system of a king ruling over their kingdom, as the “Gentiles have it”? Or a corporate organisation like Microsoft, IBM and GMC? Wasn’t this form of “lording it over” recently exemplified by a church splinter recently when a Ghanaian “subsidiary” refused to obey the orders of a Nigerian one.

Leadership Is a Calling to Suffer for The Flock

I cannot conclude without talking about the most popular cause of failure in Christian leadership – a refusal of leadership to lay down its life for the flock, but rather to milk the flock. It is the failure for which we are must un-Christlike to the world, but we Christians seem to be either oblivious to this or do not see the solution to it. Today anybody who attempts to found a church is automatically labeled by the world as attempting to secure their source of daily bread, and Christians seem hopeless to change this perception.

It is well and truly established by church historians that the leadership of primitive Christianity was not dependent on the flock for its needs. In fact Paul the apostle, who was entitled to help from the church by virtue of the fact that he moves from location to location and therefore will find it difficult to hold down a job to sustain himself, refused to take donations from the church. He was rather a tentmaker, alongside Priscilla and Acquilla, and worked for his own upkeep. In fact, he worked to sustain himself as well as the people on which he went on his journeys with. And he encouraged the Thessalonian church that every one in the church is to do the same, that no one, not even he an apostle, would be a burden to the church unless absolutely necessary.

We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, labouring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have a right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow.” (2 Thess 3:8-9)

If there is one thing that Christ thought, it is that we must be willing to lose our lives to gain it. We must be willing to be servants to be crowned kings in his kingdom. A shepherd not only takes care of the sheep, but makes sure they have food to eat. By Christ’s own admission, a good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. But today’s leader is not interested in laying down their lives for their sheep. They will hurriedly quote to you 1 Tim 5:17

The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour” (1 Tim 5:17)

They claim that the use of the word honour denotes some form of payment for their services.

But the same NT says

Be devoted to one another. Honour one another above each other” (Ro 12:10).

So, going by that analogy, we are all supposed to pay each other for the services we render to each other, aren’t we? The question I ask myself is that if we are all priests, and we put resources together, why don’t we share it amongst ourselves, instead of giving it to some of us only? That’s not fair, is it? Isn’t this passage rather referring to respecting those who guide us well? Why is Paul’s example not good enough for us today? Or do we have different motives than Paul had? Do we have different motives than Christ had?

The principle of NT leadership is a leadership of sacrifice. Christ fed his sheep, and not the other way round. If we were more interested in putting our monies together to benefit the poor in our churches, we will see truer leadership in our churches than we do today. And the world will see Christ more in his church than they do today. They will see the church as a brotherhood of people who care for each other and are willing to financially support the poor amongst them. And this was possible in the NT church because they were not under any obligation to put their monies together to be given to a so called “headquarters”, simply because they did not have an earthly one. Each church was independent and took decisions on their own about what they wanted to do with their resources. If they felt a sister church was in need, they could also put some money together for them, and only did it because of brotherly love between churches, not because somebody commanded them to.

Conclusion

From the aforegoing, any wonder our leaders feel like “lording it over us” like the Gentiles do? When we ignore the safeguards that have been put in place by the apostles based on the guidance of the Holy Spirit and on the principles of Christ’s unique relationship with his church and we create our own empires, we cannot expect the same results. Freshwater fish will not survive in saltwater.

There are so many other areas which I could point to why Christian leadership since the departure of the apostles has fallen short of standard. But the abiding principle is that the church is a different ball game altogether. It cannot be run on the principles of corporate business management, of one man shows and megalomania. The worldly measures of ABCs i.e. Attendance, Buildings and Cash do not work here. The only thing the Christ promised to build was his church, and his church is not a building, neither is it a machine or a business conglomerate. It is an organism, a body, made up of different parts with different responsibilities but equal rights and importance. It is a community of people who are living the life of Christ, who are depicting who Christ is. If leadership is not committed to building that kind of body, perhaps they were better not building it at all.

As I said to my friend Alfred the other day, it is better to come to Christ with a small piece of gold which will be put in the fire and not burn, than to bring a pile of wood 20 stories high, which when tested in the fire will result in the obvious.

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