I read this funny one liner this week: “Many people want to serve God, but usually only in an advisory capacity.” Most of us would say we want to serve God, but when we look around the church, sometimes it looks less like service. It looks like the politicians who say they’re pleased to serve their constituents, but do little to actually serve them.
This morning, I’m going to use a dirty word- politics. Politics is a loaded word, which conjures up all sorts of reactions- few of them positive. It’s usually associated with partisan mud slinging, and $90,000 of tax payers money going to pay a guy who already owns multiple homes.
Someone put in a request for a sermon on the topic of politics in the church, and what risks exist when church politics turn ugly, but why it is that we need “political” stuff. It’s telling that we use the phrase Church politics, because of course we “know” that the Church shouldn’t be run the way we see politicians doing things on the news. But we apply this word with negative connotations to the way the church gets organized.
Now, because politics is a dirty word, with a lot of baggage attached, which we would prefer not applied to church, I won’t use that word anymore. I want to differentiate what we mean and separate out the negative connotations (because politics is perceived as a bad), so we’ll use a less muddied term- “Leadership Structures”. We’re going to talk about leadership and leadership structures in the Church; where they come from, how to ensure they work well, and we’ll also hit on some of the potential risks which stem from the leadership structures of the Church.
We’re going to be working from Acts 6 which is very important to our understanding of Leadership structures in the Church, because it’s the first time we read about the Church, after Pentecost coming together to make a decision about how they will be organized/structured. Prior to this, it was just the Apostles, the people Jesus selected and appointed as his leaders who were doing the bulk of the leadership tasks.
But then a problem pops up. I know, a problem in the church? It’s shocking, but it does happen. One of the ministries- in this case, food distribution to widows- isn’t functioning properly and some people are being left out, and there is an unjust distribution. The Hebraic (Palestinian) Jewish widows are getting help, but the Greek (diaspora, Hellenistic influenced) folks are being ignored or denied help. You see, the Jews at this point are scattered all over the Mediterranean, with large Jewish communities in places like Antioch, Alexandria, Sidon, Ephesus, and even Rome. And these folks, some returning to Judea with heavy Greco-Roman influence were somewhat frowned on, and were treated differently.
And so it turns out the Apostles are baptists; their solution is to form a committee. But what’s important is what does this formation of this group of seven tell us about leadership and leadership structures?
1. Leadership is a function, not an office or title.
The Greek word diakonia (service/ministry in verse 1) and the verb form diakoneo (to serve, in verse 2) used in this passage refer to the work being done, not the people doing it (see Larkin, ACTS IVPNTC, 100). This word is the root for the noun diakonos (from which we get the loan word deacon) is used elsewhere, but not as a status title, but a marker of the role. Calling yourself a deacon in the first century was not a way of flattering yourself. It means servant. It means you serve someone else. The same term (diakonia) also applies to the ministry the apostles are doing- the ministry or service by teaching and prayer. Hence, there is no better or higher level. The teaching and prayers of the Apostles and the oversight of food distribution are described by the same term.
Leadership structures exist to accomplish something specific. Pastor is first and foremost a function, not a status. It’s something I do. It’s a task I have been asked to perform to serve the community. I do my best to be obedient to that task I’ve been entrusted with, and I do it as an act of service to the Church. My function is to provide preaching and teaching (up here on Sunday, as well as bible studies and one on one times), to pray for and with people, to encourage and disciple. That’s my ministry or service to you. I’m not up front for my own good or because I think I deserve to be heard. Any pastor who gets up on Sunday for that reason needs to resign.
The function of all leadership is to serve the community of faith. Leadership in the context of church is about serving. Jesus models this type of leadership- “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give himself as a ransom for many”. Leadership is not about being important or powerful or the centre of attention. Leading is about serving and empowering others. Leadership structures don’t drag people along with them, but get behind and nudge and strengthen and empower others. If you want to be a leader in the church you must first and foremost be a servant of the Church and its head, Jesus Christ.
All authority in the Church is rooted not in position or qualifications but in Christ. When Paul seeks to correct the Corinthian church, he relies not on his title as apostle, but instead, he defends his apostleship by boasting in his weakness. He doesn’t say, hey, I’m an apostle so listen to me (well he does say that but qualifies it with something beyond the title). He doesn’t say I’m more educated than you, so listen to me. He says, on my own I cannot do a lick of good. He says my life demonstrates that I have nothing of my own to boast about. My authority to speak resides in the fact that I depend entirely on the grace of God through Jesus Christ. He says I am constantly near death, thrown in prison, beaten, chased out of town. If I boast, I boast in that. In fact, even calling oneself an Apostle is not really wielding authority or status. Apostle is a title of boasting in weakness. Apostle means one sent- one who takes his marching orders from someone else, and who is sent to proclaim someone else’s message.
You see true leadership does not come from expertise, but from Christ and Christ alone. If I rely on my education and rhetorical skill, I fail. The only way I can possibly provide any leadership to you which is of any worth is if allow myself to be crucified (luckily for me, this will likely only be metaphorical, but for the Apostles it was a very real and literal thing) and abide in the crucified and resurrected Messiah. As John the Baptist stated, “I must decrease, so that Christ may increase.” My role as a leader has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with everyone else involved. That’s the whole point not just of leadership but the Christian life in general. We put the selfish old way to death and put on Christ. We set aside selfish ambition, and follow Christ.
Leadership structures become problematic when people seek to lead with poor motives. When people want to lead because they like the attention or the influence or the recognition and titles, leadership can’t happen. If I start flaunting a title, I fail as a leader. If I demand or coerce obedience because of my function, I fail as a leader. If I use my role or invoke a title to get my own way, I fail as a leader. A true leader in the way Jesus set out says how can I help you get where you’re going in your pursuit of Christ. I (or any other leader) can’t develop the church into a unified body loving and serving and worshipping Christ by barking out orders, or trying to boost my ego. “True community begins when I stop obsessing about myself long enough to help you walk the road before you” (J.R. Daniel Kirk, Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?). Leadership focuses on responding to the others around us. If you are focused on yourself, you aren’t a leader in biblical sense. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
A leader of the church will mimick Jesus- give of self to serve the rest. Leadership is an act of self-sacrifice for the sake of others. When this gets lost, we start looking like politicians scrambling for a higher position or more power and prestige. That type of leadership has no place in the church.
Augustine of Hippo wrote, “The way to Christ is first through humility, second through humility, third through humility. If humility does not precede and accompany and follow every good work we do, if it is not before us to focus on, if it is not beside us to lean up, if it is not behind us to fence us in, pride will wrench from our hand any good deed we do at the very moment we do it.” (Borrowed from Geoff Holsclaw’s blog: http://geoffreyholsclaw.net/blog/2013/05/30/the-way-to-christ-is-first-through-humility/)
2. Leadership structures are a response to the needs.
Division and tension between Grecian Jewish believers and Hebraic believers was clearly based on unjust distribution of resources. Someone (or a group of someones) needed to be put in place to resolve the issue and administrate the work. A leadership structure was designed to respond to a need. Our structures should actually be defined in large part by the needs we are responding to. Leadership is not one size fits all. There is no one system which will work in all contexts.
Flexibility and adaptability is necessary. Just because some leadership thing is there now, doesn’t mean it always will be. “Because that’s how we’ve always done it” is an invalid reason to keep some structure or function in place. Is it still needed? Is it doing what it’s supposed to do?
A leadership structure existing for the sake of itself is not leadership. If there is a structure or committee there “just because” it’s not leadership. The fact of the matter is that the needs change and so too must the way we order our life as a church. Change is hard, but inevitable. Our challenge is to identify what is the need. What isn’t happening that needs to happen and how do we address that? Our forms must meet the function. The way we arrange our leadership and structure our work must line up with the task in front of us. How we do things is shaped by the things we are trying to accomplish.
Isn’t that the whole point of the Gospel- God has responded to our need? God in Christ has seen our need, and shown mercy by serving us, and coming to us, to lead us, teach us, die for us, and be raised for us. Jesus intervened in history to give us what we could not do alone. He is not the saviour we expect and sometimes not even the saviour we want. He is the saviour we need. Our leadership structures must imitate this- a giving of ourselves to respond to something which is broken.
So, back to Acts 6. The problem was that the Apostles were already busy. They needed some other folks to oversee the distribution of food so that it was done equitably So the seven are chosen to see to this task, because it needs to be done. But also notice something about the make up of this group: “This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen,a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.” Five of these guys are mentioned nowhere else in Scripture. Stephen dies in the next chapter. Philip shows up in chapter 8, then he’s gone. Says something about the type of humble leadership they provide. But also note, these are all Greek names. Presumably six of these fellas are Hellenistic Jews (ethnic Jews who were culturally Greek), and even one guy who was ethnically Greek. They wanted to make sure the Hellenistic/Greek Jews were being treated equally, let’s let the Greek folks, who are respected by Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews take care of the distribution. Not just the function of this group, but the make up of the group serves a need.
Do our structures here serve and facilitate what we’re trying to accomplish? If not, they’re unhealthy, and need help. When leadership structures become cliques where a group of like-minded folks gather and exalt themselves, there is no real leadership. Leadership structures in the church should not outlive their reason for being, unlike some government structures.
3. Leadership is consented to by all, but is limited to a few.
The church appoints leaders from within, and entrust them to them the authority to do the work and lead. This does not give the congregation the right to criticize, but there is accountability. The selection of leaders is based on the exemplary life they live. They must has a demonstrably godly, grace-filled life, but also a certain skill set appropriate for the task; “full of the spirit and wisdom.” (v. 3).
Not everyone is supposed to perform a leadership function or be part of a leadership structure. Doesn’t mean we don’t participate in ministries of the Church. Every part is valuable and essential, and everyone has a role and function. All functions are equally important, but not all us do the same thing. Unity and diversity, remember? We are unified people, with a diversity of roles and gifts. Paul talks about this in 1 Cor. 12. We are not all eyes. We aren’t all ears. We have diverse roles and abilities, but each is needed and valuable. Without eyes, the rest of the body will struggle. Without feet the rest of the body will struggle.
Leadership is a function of some, but not all. All are called to serve, but not all in this way. The whole of the community affirms those who have been gifted and called into this, and we trust and encourage and serve them as they serve us. Our leaders are those who we see as mature, wise, and godly.
And this is the biggest struggle of leadership structures in many protestant churches. Our structures are set up in a such a way as to block leaders ability to lead. They are often based on an inherent lack of trust. That may sound odd, but we (when I say we, I mean most congregational protestant churches) have built mechanisms into our structures based on mistrust. We have the underlying assumption that if we give someone authority they will abuse it, so we have to put in place checks on all authority. I’m not saying accountability is bad. But, we have to ask, if we don’t trust someone enough to do it unmonitored, why are we asking them to do it at all. We should trust our people, get behind them, support them, and not put a harness on them. If they are going to serve us, they need our consent to lead. Give that consent, and follow their example.
So, do we need “church politics”? Depends what you mean by the politics. Do we need backroom deals and favours and partisanship? Not at all. We must reject that kind of rubbish. Do we need structures in place to allow us to be effective in bringing ministries of preaching and teaching and alleviating suffering? Absolutely. Being organized is a good thing. But the way we organize matters. We should organize our stuff to accomplish the goals we’ve set out. We should organize based on what the need is. And we should be unified in discovering, mentoring and encouraging those whom God has gifted with the Holy Spirit and wisdom to empower them to lead by serving the rest of us. We as a community have a responsibility to get behind those whom God has called and help them lead, and get rid of this nonsense where we criticize and cut down people for trying to do something. That’s what politicians do. But we serve a different Kingdom.