I was recently having a conversation with someone who has become a little disillusioned about the state of the particular church he attends. He told me that he was composing a letter to them in his head which would outline his concerns. Having been down that road ourselves, I cautioned him about the likely outcome of writing to them. He insisted that he has a ‘good‘ relationship with the leadership and that they would take his concerns seriously. I warned him that it is likely to end in two ways – either they will tell him that they understand his concerns and ask him to ‘work with them‘ on resolving his concerns, or they would ignore his concerns altogther and gradually ostracise him until he becomes so uncomfortable that he leaves. In the first scenario, what usually happens is that the leadership will pacify the person who has issues with the way things are done. They might offer the carrot of some pseudo-leadership role in order to draw the person in, and if, after a few months, the issues aren’t forgotten about or resolved, they will tell the person that they have an issue with authority, usually quoting Hebrews 13:17 in the process (By the way, in the Greek, the word for authority doesn’t appear in Hebrews 13:17). In both scenarios, the person with the problem leaves. I know this to be the case because we have been on the wrong end of both scenarios, and have also witnessed each in action several other times with people we know.
Whilst I was praying about the situation and thinking about why things are like this, I came to the conclusion that the problem didn’t rest with my friend. And it doesn’t rest with the issues which he has with the way in which they do certain things – the things he takes issue with are merely symptoms of the real problem. They are like the runny nose or dry tickly throat which are just the outward signs of a serious illness. The real problem is leadership. Not the leadership, but one of leadership.
This subject has been on my mind for a while now. It seems, to people like us, who are outside of the structured church, that what is happening within the church is the responsibility of the leaders. Of course, that is because the churches are, on the whole, being run like large global franchises. A business model has been applied to running churches and therefore we judge their performance from a business point of view.
I read a great little book recently called Custom and Command. It addresses the issues at the heart of believers who choose not to be a part of the structured church, but opt instead for a less formal approach. Like us. In the course of the booklet (you can find it on our Reading List page) there was one chapter which, in particular, stood out to me. Sometimes, you know there’s something you are not quite grasping but you simply can’t figure out what you’re missing. Well, before I read Custom and Command, that’s where I was on the subject of church leadership. I’m not going to quote directly from the booklet – I think you should read all of it, whether you are a fan of structured church or not, but I am going to pick up a thread of what the author Stan Firth had to say.
I have always had a sense that the church had got the idea of leadership wrong. When you consider Y’shua (that’s Jesus’ Hebrew name) and how He dealt with His disciples, there appears to be a vast discrepancy with His model of how to lead when you compare it with the church’s current practices. There’s a reason for that – the church, for a long time, has had hold of the wrong end of the stick.
Our default teaching should always be Y’shua. What we find in the pages of the gospels should be enough, especially when we lead the life which Y’shua showed us we should – one led by the Spirit of God, Himself. But, often, I find that we fail to see or understand what Y’shua says because of what you might call conventional or common wisdom. Let’s be clear; there is no wisdom above that which God gives to us. Just because we have a model that appears to work in a church setting doesn’t mean that the wisdom behind its establishment is from God. On the subject of leaders and leadership amongst believers, Y’shua has a great deal to say, but we seem to ignore it in favour of the Status Quo. And when you look at it like that, the matter becomes a serious one. If we ignore what God has already said in favour of what man is currently saying, then we run a very great risk.
There is a passage that appears in the three synoptic gospels which Stan Firth highlights in Custom and Command. It is the account of the mother of two of the disciples, James and John, coming to Y’shua to ask Him to seat her sons on His left and His right in His Kingdom. This leads to some squabbling between the other ten disciples about who is the greatest or most important. Hardly surprising really. We it pick up when Y’shua draws the disciples together in order to teach them something:
“But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them.” ” [Matthew 20:25 NKJV]
This is what He said to them in response to their argument over who amongst them was the greatest or most important. All He does is to point out how the world works – those who lead consider it their place to control others below them. They already knew how the world works – they were surrounded by it, but Y’shua points this obvious fact to them in order to gain their attention. He has led them for three years by this time, and they still haven’t grasped that what He is teaching them isn’t a worldly wisdom. Then, once He has their attention and the squabbling stops, He says this:
“Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…” [Matthew 20:26-28a]
By now, the disciples would have been used to His turn of phrase – He speaks to us all in a way that should cause us to turn His words over in our minds. He promotes meditation upon what He says. And the apparent dichotomy in what He said to them then must have had a profound effect upon them all. In response to them arguing about who is the greatest, He says not to be like the Gentiles who abuse authority, but instead to follow His example and become the servant to all. If you stop and consider such an example in the light of today’s self-appointed super-apostles and self-promoting franchise church leaders, you might be inclined to see the problem.
And here’s the dichotomy – if you desire to be the first amongst your equals; if you wish to be considered the greatest, then your thinking is already twisted. That’s how the Gentiles think. We’re not to be like that. Y’shua tells us that if there is someone amongst you who wishes those things for themselves, then teach them how to serve. Teach them by way of your own example. Once again, Y’shua provides the remedy right alongside the problem. It is not enough that if we wish to be leaders for us to choose to serve. We must have a genuine inward desire to do so. He tells us that serving others will teach us how to adopt a right approach. And, more importantly, Y’shua led by example. By choosing a life of servitude, the example we set to others to choose that also, is true leadership. To lead is to serve.
It is clear from what Y’shua said to His disciples back in the first century that they needed to be aware that the world can easily influence their thinking. And, it is equally as clear to see that what we have today in terms of church leadership is less of an example of what Y’shua taught we should be like, and more of a reflection of how the world works.
There could be several explanations of how we ended up as a reflection of the world. One possible explanation could be of semantics – our understanding of what was written down in the first century for guidance. We shall take a look at that shortly. We could also explain the state we’re in as it being a natural evolution – that what we have now is what God intended and because He hasn’t destroyed the church it must mean we’re doing the right thing. There’s an obvious hole in that particular bucket. But there is one explanation that does hold water and goes some way to explaining the digression which the church has followed in order to be in the place it is now.
As believers, we find it easy to look at Isra’el’s history and tut and roll our eyes at their mistakes; their unfaithfulness to God. We have no problem at looking at the period between Adam and Y’shua has being an example of how not to do things. But that’s where we tend to stop. Rarely will you ever hear a preacher talking about what went wrong between Y’shua and today. The reason why is because we have tried not to criticise the church as a whole in its progress through time, although we are more than happy to criticise individuals whom we disagree with on a matter of doctrine. And there is another issue too – one of arrogance. We have to assume that what we are doing right now is right before God, otherwise we have no right to tell others to follow our example. The problem with this approach, beside the arrogance itself, is that each pastor, each leader, inherits from their predecessor the mantle of leadership. And, because we measure church success in terms of bums on seats, rarely does an incoming leader risk upsetting their flock by making all sorts of changes. This should be called apathetic leadership. It is exactly how the world works – slow, measured change. And yet, these same leaders will happily preach on a Sunday morning about just how radical Y’shua is.
Now, you might well ask yourselves when this all started. You will have to examine church history to fully grasp it. To be honest, the where and when of this isn’t the real issue, but I will give you some pointers for the purpose of seeing just how long the rot has been set in. No, the real issue is what we do about it now. How do we change?
The rot set in, by my reckoning, around AD 300, with the rise of Constantine and what is known as the Edict of Tolerance. Before that event, we know that the church had thrived for two hundred years despite the most awful persecutions at the hands of around ten Roman leaders. Before that, things were more in line with what Y’shua taught by His example. We will get back to that further on. The Edict of Tolerance was Constantine’s career saver. Christianity was spreading like wildfire, in spite of the persecutions. Constantine, a tactician of great renown, saw that the only way he could survive a potential overthrow was to embrace Christianity. Having read a fair amount of history, I am inclined to believe that his conversion to Christianity was little more than a political stunt. Until that point, it was illegal to be a Christian. The Edict of Tolerance made it acceptable. Then, in a truly great political move, Constantine merged Roman Paganism with Christianity. Today, we call this Catholicism. He also merged the church with the state, so that elders and bishops were no longer appointed by the Holy Spirit, but were selected by the state for political stability.
Of course, if you read on in church history, we find certain events which have triggered distances being created between Constantine’s state run church and today’s churches, but, on each occasion some of the past is carried forward because of fear of losing people from the congregations. It doesn’t matter how many times a part of the established church breaks away with the intent of re-creating what the church looked like in the first century, the splinter, like a broken mirror, contains part of the original. Why? Because our understanding of leadership is flawed…completely.
I often describe the Kingdom of God as being completely the opposite to the world. Held up against the values of the world I describe it as being inside-out, upside-down, and completely back-to-front. That is the reality of the Kingdom. However, since the end of the second century, the church has gradually become more like the world because it has come less and less under the Kingship of Christ, who is the Head of the body, which is the church. Today’s church leaders may appear, at times, to be servant-like and tender, but there is still a fundamental misunderstanding of what leadership should look like.
With Christ as the main cornerstone – the ultimate example, He built upon Himself using the foundation stones of the apostles – the men God chose. Those apostles built upon themselves with the people whom God chose for them – the living stones. But, somewhere down the line, men decided that they should do the building with people whom they chose. The problem with the choices that men make about other men is that we can only see the outward. God alone sees the heart. So, when we take from God His right to choose whom He wants to build the house, then the house will not be made of the right stuff. See Psalm 127:1 for more details.
This means we have two main problems in the current building that must be corrected before building work can continue according to God’s plan:
1. Semantics – our understanding of the roles found in the early church from what we see written on the pages of the New Testament.
2. Guidance – our apparent inability today to be led by the Holy Spirit because of our lack of right understanding of the words written on the pages of the New Testament.
Let’s take a look at some of the words that are used in the New Testament with regard to leaders and leadership. Rather than this being a strict study of Greek words and their meaning, this exercise is designed to be thought provoking over academic. To set the scene correctly, we should first look at a couple of words from the passage above in which Y’shua tells His disciples not to mimic.
Rulers: The King James version renders this as princes. The Greek word used is archon [Strong’s G758], which is used to indicate someone who is first or highest in rank or power. This word is never used in the context of the church.
Authority: Used to denote the license or permission someone has to rule over others. The Greek word from which we render authority is exousia [G1849]; the literal translation of which is authority, jurisdiction or influence. In terms of the word being used in the context of the church, each time it is used it denotes either the authority of Christ Himself, or the authority that He has delegated.
Leaders: Never used in the New Testament in the context of the church.
Pastors: Used only once in Ephesians 4:11, where it is rendered from the Greek word, poimen [G4166], which actually means shepherd. The apparent use of the word pastor appears to have been developed much later than Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus. The context in which it is used in Ephesians clearly indicates that whether the role is to be called shepherd or pastor, it is one given by Christ alone, along with apostles, prophets, evangelists, and teachers. These are not appointments to be made by men, but by God.
Elders: Mainly used to describe members of the Sanhedrin (the ruling council of Isra’el) or the celestial council in heaven. The Greek word is usually presbyteros [G4245], which has its roots in the word presbys, meaning elderly. The apostle Peter uses the word sympresbyteros [G4850], which means co-elder, or also an elder, to describe himself in 1st Peter 5:1. It is clear that Paul considered that elders were to be appointed (See Titus) from amongst the congregation. It goes without saying, but I will say it nevertheless, that this would have been done prayerfully. The word, in the context of the church, is used to describe people who are mature in their faith and lead lives led by the Spirit of God.
Bishops: This is perhaps the most fascinating word in terms of how its meaning has changed since the first century. The Greek word from which we get bishop is episkope [G1984]. It means inspection, but in the context of the church, it means superintendant. The thing that makes this so fascinating is that in its original context, a bishop was there merely to oversee as a representative of the authority of Christ, and not the authority itself. Today, of course, the title of bishop denotes its own authority. You will notice in Titus 1:7 that the word is used as an adjective to describe the role an elder should play, rather than a job title in itself.
Pillars: This word only appears in Paul’s letter to the Galatians (2:9). The original Greek word is stylos which means post or support. Stan Firth in his book Custom and Command makes an important point about this verse. Paul had found cause to go up to Jerusalem to discuss with the church there, the matter of circumcision. It reads that he managed to identify James, Cephas (Peter), and John as those who ‘seemed‘ to be pillars. Some translations say ‘those who seemed to be leaders‘. The word rendered as seemed is better read as appeared. What Paul was trying to convey to us is that when he went up to Jerusalem, to the church there, it wasn’t at all obvious who, if any of them, were the leaders. I think that this offers us a great insight to how things should be – if we were to walk into a building where a church meets and not be able to identify readily those amongst the congregation who are leaders, then perhaps we would be closer to where Y’shua would have us. Sadly, today, it is all too clear who the leaders are when we go into buildings where the church meets.
One other point I would make about the word pillars is that Paul used it quite deliberately, because he wanted to convey that the role that James, Peter, and John held, wasn’t that of leaders, but of people who support the church, in the same way that pillars are used to support buildings all over the world. Paul chose his words carefully in all his letters. This example is no exception to that rule.
Deacon: The Greek word used in the New Testament is diakoneo [G1247], which means to be an attendant or to wait upon others. In other words, to be there to serve the other members of the church. There is no authority attached to the word deacon, only that a deacon is under the authority of the head of the household. In the context of the church, the deacon comes directly under the head of the household of God, who is the Christ.
Overseer: This is exactly the same word in the Greek as bishop. It is only used once in the KJV, at Acts 20:28. This is important because, here, we have the context in which overseers or bishops are appointed (by the Holy Spirit) and their role (to shepherd the flock).
There are probably one or two other words used in different translations but I think that covers the main areas of confusion. What is clear from that little study is that, in the context of the church, it is Christ who is in the clear possession of the authority. It is never to be in the hands of men. And, if we actually want a true model of how church should look, then those who would be leaders, should be those who are serving the church. Just as Y’shua said when He told us not to be like the Gentiles.
The trouble is, we appear to have got ourselves into a mess over this. Everything we understand about leadership in today’s church has been an evolution over centuries. The foundation should have been the example of Christ and His apostles, but instead we have build upon the sand, and not the rock.
Nowhere in the New Testament is anything that advocates a professional clergy. There is nothing to support that notion at all. Where the New Testament talks of the kind of roles people lay claim to today (Ephesians 4:11), it is clear that we lack understanding of what Paul was talking about. It is clear that those appointments are made by Christ through His Holy Spirit. It is clear that throughout the book of Acts, that people were appointed to the roles mentioned in Ephesians by the Holy Spirit after prayer and fasting. Today, franchise churches advertise for pastors in trendy Christian magazines. Is that what Christ wanted? True, it is the way the world does things. But what did Christ, who should be our only authority, say about the way the world does things? He said “But not so you.”
I will leave you with perhaps where we should start when it comes to thinking about who leads us. David saw how it should be when Isra’el was still gripped by ritual and religion. We can learn much from David’s example.
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” [Psalm 23]