Authority and the Church
by Kit Eglinton
If it works don’t fix it – but…
Much of what follows is likely to be controversial but before rejecting these ideas please consider, not whether any of it is true but whether it might be true because, if so, then it deserves discussion. If church as you know it works well enough then praise God, if it works there’s no need to question anything. I have to honestly say this is not my experience and these are simply my thoughts concerning just one, but an important aspect of church as she has become; the subject of authority and how our concept of leadership constantly pushes us towards a clergy – laity divide which ironically militates against the very thing we are trying to achieve.
Worldly institutions revolve around leaders, dynamic or otherwise. We know the church should revolve around Jesus, administered by Holy Spirit but sadly it often revolves around leaders, dynamic or otherwise and administered by people. I don’t believe the fault lies particularly with our leaders but with the system we have called “church” and the expectations it imposes on both leaders and those not so designated. For a detailed examination of how the “ekklesia” founded by God became the “church” founded by man, I highly recommend Mere Churchianity by John Hampton.
Many years ago during an otherwise pleasant lunch with the co-leaders of our fellowship, I was asked by one from ‘head office’ “do you support Bill’s vision?” Bill (not his real name) described himself as the “first among equals” in our leadership team and therefore seemed to carry the burden of defining our collective vision. The concept, which is common to almost all the fellowships I’ve experienced bar one, is that God gives a ‘vision’ to the leadership and they inspire the laity carry it out. At that table I had the thought that there is only one vision, the commission Jesus gave so why another one? Sadly I was not brave enough nor were my thoughts sufficiently collected, to voice it. I wonder if the need for a distinctive ‘vision’ has much to do with trying to motivate the troops and hence is a concept borrowed from the business world. Or is it something which helps to differentiate us from the church down the road?
I emphatically assert that the Church needs God appointed leaders and that mutual submission is essential, in fact submission can be an effective antidote to rebellion. The problem has come from the lens through which we view the function of leadership and how we define authority. Most of us appreciate that the Kingdom of God is topsy-turvy when compared to the kingdoms of this world in almost every way except in the cases of authority and leadership where we often utilise an adapted worldly style with which we are most familiar. We may pay lip service to “servant leadership” but the leadership styles I have most often seen imposed on the church include hierarchical power and control mechanisms, sometimes with devastating results and never as yet with the world changing expansion experienced by the early church. At the same time I hear of the amazing growth of the church in Iran and elsewhere, inspired directly by Holy Spirit and untainted by our perspectives of what church should look like.
The world sees authority as a hierarchy with authority bestowed from people above; Jesus expects greatness to be displayed by the least, the last, the child-like and the servant. Discussing the Jesus style of leadership recorded in Mark 10:42-45, John Hampton suggests:
” he is also taking the conventional idea of what constitutes authority and standing it on its head, denouncing the world’s model of top-down leadership and introducing a kingdom model of bottom-up servant hood“.[i]
The world sees authority as primarily executive in nature, those above organise those below. In the same passage Jesus calls leaders not to emulate this style of “exercising authority”. The world expects leaders to make the big decisions for them; the early church took responsibility for decisions as a body (e.g. Acts 15:22). I wonder how an executive style of leadership has impacted growth, confidence and empowerment within the church.
The world expects leaders to be chosen by those above. It seems to me that the early church collectively selected individuals for leadership, those noticed for their qualities were then recognised and endorsed by other elders or elder. For example the early church selected several men including Stephen as recorded Acts 6:3-6. Interestingly in Acts 14:23 where elders are appointed, the Greek uses the word cheirotoneō which means “to raise the hand” i.e. vote. Of course it is possible to see these ordinations as bestowed by the hierarchy if we are already convinced that scripture is describing and endorsing our traditions and practices.
The world sees discipline to be the realm of leadership; Jesus sees it as the responsibility of the whole church (e.g. “take it to the church” Mat 18:17) Paul likewise makes the whole church not just the leaders take action on a serious matter (e.g. 1Corinthians 5:4-5).
The world expects accountability to be to those above; in the church believers are first called to submit to each other (e.g. Eph 5:21) which obviously includes but is not limited to leaders. To quote Graham Cooke:
“There are many perceptions of accountability in the wider Body of Christ. Most of these seem to encompass the notion that people need to be governed in the process of developing righteousness. The idea that we need to be in a partnership where one individual (or group) have the power to call the shots over another does not originate in heaven. It’s largely a worldly construct with some bible verses tacked on“[ii]
The world relies on experts to teach those who know less. The church has only one teacher:
“Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ.” Mat 23:10
Of course Father has anointed millions of gifted teachers to help us know Him and His Word better but they were never intended to become an intermediary. My all-time favourite Bible teacher was Derek Prince who, quoting an ancient proverb, said
“Give a man a fish he will eat for a day, teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime”.
Most teachers I know do not want to be spoon feeders but it seems to be a systemic problem within the church, we have become consumers and I believe to some degree it is a result of the system we invented which we now call church with its structures and expectations.
I wonder how the Galatian or Roman churches would have appreciated our teaching methods:
“We have a letter here from Paul and I will read out the parts which seem important to me and explain to you what they mean and how we should apply them.”
If our only source of the truth of scripture is via a teacher then we can become very vulnerable to distortion and error. Historical heresies are usually attributed to a person, usually a dynamic one, who, having his own idea or interpretation, attracts a following. And it’s not just heresy; there are a plethora of slightly odd doctrines arising from personal ‘revelations’ which were not challenged by others who knew the Word for themselves. I’ve heard it said that it’s hard to come up with the doctrine of supersessionism (that the church has replaced Israel) by simply reading the bible (especially Romans) – it has to be ‘taught’.
A fascinating example came many years ago while at a John Wimber conference where the speaker referenced the army of Joel 2, suggesting it predicted an end time victorious church. My wife, herself a Bible teacher, leant over and said “that is entirely out of context – that was an enemy invasion”. When I looked it up for myself I found she was exactly right, the scripture had been shoe-horned to mean something the speaker wanted it to mean – but how many others around him had the knowledge or courage to challenge his “authority” as Paul had challenged Peter (Gal 2:11). If authority in the church cannot be lovingly challenged it has morphed into something which has no place in the body of Christ.
My belief is that the goal of a good Bible teacher should be to empower others to engage personally with scripture, with understanding, but in a way which enables each of us to believe (and trust) and not simply to ascent to various ideas and doctrines. I am moved by the following quote by Corrie ten Boom:
“In China, the Christians were told, “Don’t worry, before the tribulation comes you will be translated – raptured.” Then came a terrible persecution. Millions of Christians were tortured to death. Later I heard a Bishop from China say, sadly,
‘We have failed.
We should have made the people strong for persecution, rather than telling them Jesus would come first.
Tell the people how to be strong in times of persecution, how to stand when the tribulation comes – to stand and not faint.’” [iii]
Clearly the missionary teachers Corrie refers to succeeded in imparting their doctrine.
During lockdown some friends began a Bible reading group, meeting via Zoom 4 mornings a week. It was not intended to be a teaching by anyone but collective reading (1Tim 4:13 ?) with the inevitable ‘chewing’. The group usually consists of around 20 from a few local fellowships representing a wide range of Biblical knowledge. It has proved an amazing success as it has stirred a hunger to dig into the word collectively. As Holy Spirit is our guide and teacher I shouldn’t be surprised that sometimes I learn more through a brand new believer than through our recognised teachers.
In no way am I denigrating the need for anointed teachers, just that in teaching, as in any form of leadership we need to always help others to rely on Jesus and not us, however strong the unrelenting pressure to create an intermediary, priestly class. As a counsellor I have often been an “attachment figure” for clients but the goal is always to help them grow to where they no longer need me. Good parents help children to grow and fly the nest, not remain and stagnate.
My conclusion so far…
Without the Jesus lens it is easy to impose a world style hierarchical leadership structure on the church which inevitably leads to a morphing of Biblical leadership to that resembling the world, with all of the resultant problems we observe. As a police officer I wholeheartedly endorsed the hierarchical model. Within boundaries individual police officers have considerable autonomy but a police service could not run efficiently without a clear line of command. The church however has only one head and to be effective all parts of the body need to be directly connected to it. Leadership should facilitate this process but sadly many leaders are either positioned higher up a pyramid or like the hub of a wheel expected to vet or even instigate all activities thus unwittingly re-inventing the priestly caste of the Old Testament.
For a few years I had the privilege of working with Open Doors in the Middle East, ministering to believers in the midst of persecution and oppression. It dramatically changed my perspectives and, on returning to the UK, I found it hard to see how our style of church was preparing anyone for tougher times; many of the thoughts above have been brewing for over 30 yrs!
Recently the Foundations community was invited to take part in 3 sessions led by Mike Dwight entitled “Becoming an Overcomer (audios can be accessed here https://saltshakers.com/main/content/becoming-overcomer). Listening to Mike reaffirmed my belief that the structures and leadership styles with which I am familiar in the UK do little to prepare us for any pressures ahead.
A few things seem to be common in ‘overcoming’ communities:
- A deep personal trust in Jesus relying on Him to supply the resilience to stand alone if needed.
- A deep personal knowledge of His word, not someone else’s view of what the Word says.
- A deep commitment to one another outworked through a network of very small communities, the opposite in fact of mega church.
Could these possibly be good discipleship goals for us? If so then a leadership approach characterised by empowering and releasing would seem appropriate, the very style described by Jesus and exemplified by the apostles.
So what is Biblical leadership?
Michelangelo is quoted as saying
“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material“
Maybe this is a helpful picture, removing that which isn’t valid might leave us that which is beneficial. This seems a safer route despite our Hellenistic tendency to order, classify and define what ‘is’ – maybe we should start with identifying what ‘isn’t’. Perhaps if we obey Jesus and follow scripture without appealing to worldly models and definitions, we will be sufficiently free to be led by the Spirit. Yes it sounds out of our control but that is exactly my point. How much do we trust Jesus to complete His promise to build His Ekklasia?
As a leader my primary task is to serve and to build up:
“the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down” 2Cor 13:10).
Jesus is the head and he desires full connection with all parts of His body. Anything I do which hinders that connection, anything which causes others to rely on me more than Holy Spirit is detrimental to healthy growth and wholeness. My job must be primarily to aid that connection, to facilitate others to know God better than I do, to hear Him better and obey Him more consistently than I do. I am to lead by example and always point others to Jesus.
The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; 1Pe 5:1-3
Interestingly for those still not convinced that there should be no hierarchy in the church, this passage is written by an apostle who refers to himself as an elder asking his fellow elders to shepherd the flock by serving as overseers (bishops).
Of course there will be occasions when leaders will have to speak with authority but this is not their primary role.
Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ Philemon 1:8-9
A leaders role in building up the flock includes helping others to develop their God given talents, using them where and when Holy Spirit directs for the glory of God and not to advance their own vision. As a leader I don’t need to have a vision for others, Jesus has already given us all His vision – we just need to find where we all fit into the story He is unfolding.
Of course many, many Godly leaders do all of this and more simply because of the people they are. However I believe they do this despite the system not because of it. The system as we know it whether in denominational settings or otherwise tends to move us towards a destructive clergy-laity paradigm which, I propose, was never the intention.
[i] Mere Churchianity John Hampton
[ii] Graham Cooke Prophetic Wisdom 2010