The Mission of the Church: Leadership

Eucharist-Mission1Thompson has a fascinating chapter on church leadership. We don’t normally think of leadership as a missional topic, but Thompson makes the point that how we’re led is governed by the church’s mission. If we don’t get the connection, we miss some important understandings of congregational leadership.

Thompson first notes that Paul asserts a very high level of authority arising from his own apostleship —

As an apostle, [Paul] equates himself with the prophets. His claim that he has the authority to build and not to tear down (cf. 2 Cor. 10: 8) is reminiscent of Jeremiah’s appointment “to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer. 1: 10) and God’s promise to “build them up, and not tear them down” (Jer. 24: 6). Thus Paul commands the church to expel a member who undermines its moral cohesiveness (1 Cor. 5: 2– 5) and has the apostolic authority to punish a disobedient church (1 Cor. 4: 14– 21; 2 Cor. 13: 1– 10). He speaks for God, and reconciliation to him is reconciliation with God (2 Cor. 6: 1– 2). Because instructions are nothing less than the will of God (1 Thess. 4: 3), to reject Paul’s commands is to reject God (1 Thess. 4: 8).

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 224). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Obviously, Paul has no trouble with a follower of Jesus having positional authority over others within the church. Nonetheless, he takes pains to describe himself as a servant —

Paul regularly reinforces this view of Christian leadership, describing himself with other images that indicate that, while he is an apostle, he is also a servant. He does not preach from his own will, but he has been entrusted with a commission (1 Cor. 9: 17) to preach among the nations (Gal. 2: 7; 1 Thess. 2: 4). As his confrontation with Peter indicates (Gal. 2: 11– 14), those who are entrusted with the gospel must conduct themselves in accordance with the truth of the gospel. Thus he writes to local churches with delegated authority to continue the pastoral activity that began with the community’s response to his original preaching (cf. 1 Thess. 1: 5– 2: 12).

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 225). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Paul often pictures himself as a father, in a familial relationship with the church.

Paul’s paternal role includes not only stern discipline but also the tenderness and devotion normally expected of parents. In the infancy of the church, he was like a nursing mother taking care of her own children (1 Thess. 2: 7). To the Corinthians’ dismay, he refuses to accept payment for his work because “children ought not to lay up for their parents, but parents for their children” (2 Cor. 12: 14). His constant “anxiety for the churches” (2 Cor. 11: 28) is the parent’s concern for the welfare of the children. The apostolic claim and the parental relationship converge in his appeal to his own life as a model for others to emulate. His autobiographical references suggest that he chooses not to use his authority but is a model of self-sacrifice (cf. 1 Cor. 9: 19– 23; 1 Thess. 2: 7) for others to imitate. As an apostle, he could make demands (en barei einai) on his congregation (1 Thess. 2: 7), 21 but he refuses to do so. While he has the rights to request payment and to have a wife (1 Cor. 9: 3– 18), he declines to use those rights. Thus while Paul has undisputed authority as apostle and father, he lives for the sake of others, and his authority is inseparable from his acts of service. 

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 228). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The undisputed letters of Paul give little indication of the emergence of the ecclesiastical offices that are evident in the Pastoral Epistles and the literature of the next generation. They speak instead of the task of pastoral care of the membership and the various forms of instruction — teaching (Rom. 12: 7), exhortation (Rom. 12: 8; 1 Cor. 14: 3, 31), comfort (1 Thess. 4: 18), edification (1 Thess. 5: 11), and admonition (1 Thess. 5: 14).

Notice that “admonition” includes confrontation and rebuke. There is nothing here that frees us from accountability to our brothers and sisters.

These roles continue Paul’s work of transforming communities. With his repeated call for the whole church to be involved in deeds of service and exhortation to one another, Paul reserves no ministry for those who hold an official position. Because the church is under construction until the end, all members are engaged in building up the body of Christ as they interact with those who have special gifts to complete the building. Nevertheless, Paul anticipates the development of offices in his congregations, for he assumes that not all members have the same maturity.

It’s only natural — and ultimately essential — that some members be given specific leadership responsibility. But we err when we assume that this relieves the other members from similar responsibility. Indeed, as much as we like to complain about elders’ taking on too much authority, that often results from the members failing to carry their part of the load.

If members are acting irresponsibly, the elders aren’t the only ones authorized to admonish the irresponsible. If my friend is cheating on his wife, why don’t I confront and admonish him? Why do I assume that this is the elders’ problem — shirking my responsibility to my friend? Who says that elders must be the only one’s pastoring their brothers and sisters?

A church that truly loves each other sacrificially will need leaders, but it won’t need leaders to love, serve, teach, and admonish each other. And yet we insist that the elders do this for us and then complain that the elders have hogged all the authority.

And, far worse, is the tendency so many to have to measure their value to the church by how many ministers and elders visited their hospital room or mother’s funeral — rather than focusing on how many of my brothers and sisters I can encourage by visiting them. The elders are not providers of spiritual goods and services, and our attendance and contribution does not buy goods and services. We are added by God to his church to serve others — not to be served.

Of course, if we all were busy serving, we’d all be well served. But that’s not the point. The point is to empty yourself in service.

Consequently, he challenges some to care for those who have special needs, and he instructs the community to recognize their roles. Thus the teachers, exhorters, leaders (Rom. 12: 7), and those who “have charge” (1 Thess. 5: 12) of the community anticipate those who hold the offices of bishop (1 Tim. 3: 1) or elder (1 Tim. 5: 17; Titus 1: 5) in continuity with the same roles. Paul assumes that others will continue to build onto the foundation that he had laid (1 Cor. 3: 10– 12). His consistent use of participles to describe the leaders (Rom. 12: 8, literally “the one who exhorts, the one who gives, the one who leads”; 1 Thess. 5: 12, literally “those laboring among you, standing over you and admonishing you”) indicates that functions precede titles. Those who perform these tasks on a regular basis are acknowledged with the titles of “bishop” and “elder.” The Pastoral Epistles, as I demonstrated in chapter 8, reflect this natural development when these titles portray those who have emerged as the community’s teachers and overseers. This development continues into the second century. …

That is, the church has need of these functions whether or not we have men qualified to be elders under 1 Tim 3. And no church will be truly missional and cross-shaped without such people. This is the travesty of the men’s business meeting — where petty people get to lord it over the rest. The key to leadership — whether formally named or not — is self-emptying for the sake of the church.

Thompson notes how common it is for secular leadership models to take over a congregation’s thinking. On the other hand, the modern world imposes some of this on us — as does our chosen ways of doing what we do. We have to obey the Wages and Hours laws. We have to withhold and remit taxes. We have to deposit contributions in the bank and balance the checkbook. There are some elements of being like a business that cannot be avoided — but these functions can be given to a committee or volunteers who are neither elders nor staff. But the elders really do have to see to it that these things happen.

Paul’s vision of ministerial leadership shaped by the church’s distinctive identity has rarely been put into practice. Just as believers have superimposed their own experiences of community onto the church, they have looked to secular models to define Christian leadership. The dialectical leadership that involves the participation of all members in every aspect of community formation while they also recognize leaders who “have charge of” and “admonish” them (1 Thess. 5: 12) is rare if not nonexistent.

Just so, in a church of any size, we seem destined to have professional ministers — who must be hired, supervised, and managed. I know a few churches that have hired professional HR people to supervise the staff — but few churches are big enough to afford this blessing, and many ministers resent being held to the same level of accountability as workers in the business world. (Many ministers have no idea what true accountability feels like — and that’s a very unfortunate thing for the church.)

As a result, elders can find their time overwhelmed with personnel issues — compounded by the (often correct) perception that the elders don’t spend enough time on pastoral concerns — but often because of the time they lose dealing with ministers who can’t bear accountability and members who’d rather complain than actually carry their share of the pastoral role. It can be a truly vicious cycle.

With few exceptions, two unintended consequences have resulted from the professionalization of ministry: (a) the failure to recognize that “member” is an image that suggests the indispensable participation in the body of Christ by each person; and (b) the loss of the focus on the cruciform nature of leadership. While seminaries provide the necessary skills for leadership roles, the standard academic curriculum is largely incapable of inculcating the self-denial that is inseparable from the Pauline understanding of leadership. The Pauline understanding is thus a continuing challenge for the contemporary church.

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 241-2). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This last comment, coming from one of my denomination’s premier seminaries, is more than a little painful. I see some of our seminaries addressing this issue, but I’m not sure the churches are ready to accept a minister who sees things this way. That is, how would we react if the preacher announced he will exercise servant-leadership while insisting that the church follow his example? If all members were challenged to a life of self-emptying service? If the members were told that hospital visitation is no longer a service provided by the ministers and elders but by the members — and the leaders will work to be sure everyone does his fair share?

See, it’s fun to talk about the accountability of ministers. But we get mad when we’re made accountable! But we’re all called to self-emptying ministry — and everyone is subject to being admonished if he doesn’t do it.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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2 Responses to The Mission of the Church: Leadership

  1. A friend relayed a story of a seminary where all ministry students were regularly assigned the duty of pulling weeds next to the buildings in the afternoons in the Texas summer. The lesson was the “self emptying” mentioned several times in the post. If you weren’t willing to deny self and pull weeds, well, troubles loomed in ministry.

  2. John F. says:

    “Preaching is easy; ministry is hard.” And servant leadership is only possible in an understanding of the life of Christ.

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