We need better questions for the church
Common questions related to authority, leadership, and power miss the mark. Here's what we should focus on instead.
The church is always on my mind. It’s, without a doubt, my deepest passion and also a regular source of my grumpiness when it doesn’t live up to its calling. I don’t think I’m alone in that either. Just scrolling through social media recently, I see the same questions being posed in various ways:
Can women be leaders?
What do we do when abuse happens?
How do we stop toxicity in churches?
Why do some churches use NDAs?
Is tithing required?
How central is the sermon?
Who is able to lead worship?
And these don’t even get to some of the more theologially-driven questions. But they are important questions to ask about how we do church, and given the way churches (Western ones for sure) are generally structured, I get why they are asked as much as they are. But these questions, and others like them, all have to do with power, leadership, or authority. These are critical concepts to consider (and I plan to explore them on here a bit more in the near future), but I think mainly because we have valued and idolized them with fervent devotion throughout human history. Jesus teaches a different way, though.
“It is not this way among you…”
Jesus talks about how, among his followers, this different way is a direct contradiction to the way of this world. The request of James and John in Mark 10:37 is bold, to say the very least, requesting of Jesus to “sit in places of honor” alongside him in his glory. Whether they want to rule or have authority, they certainly ask for something that is not theirs, but something belonging to Jesus. And they don’t seem to fully grasp the upside-downness of the kingdom of God:
42 Calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles domineer over them; and their people in high position exercise authority over them. 43 But it is not this way among you; rather, whoever wants to become prominent among you shall be your servant; 44 and whoever wants to be first among you shall be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45 NASB throughout).
There’s a way leaders of this world assert themselves, but that way is counter-gospel. Service is the defining attribute of Christ’s followers. R.T. France says that the “incremental repetition [in verses 43 and 44]…renders this the most powerful statement yet of the alternative value scale of the kingdom of God.”But, over time, I think we have tended to replace our language of “authority” with that of “service,” but have kept all the power dynamics the same as the structures around us (i.e., “servant leadership” is actually just saying “I’m in charge but in a nice way”). Except, this authority is sanctioned by God as good and necessary, and not to be questioned. So, our leaders are called “servants,” but can still tell others what to do, still make unilateral decisions, and still lack interdependence and reviewability. They are called “first among equals,” which still means they are first—more valuable and more important. But this is not the way of the family of Christ.
A different framework: family
The early church viewed family as their dominant relational identifier, and family is how Jesus refers to his disciples—not just the twelve, but all of them (and us). The New Testament writers pick up on this metaphor and adopt it in their own teachings: “No image for the church occurs more often in the New Testament than the metaphor of family.”Family is primary, but in that family, we are all equal brothers and sisters. After being confronted by the Pharisees, Jesus contrasts their honor system with that of his followers, saying:
6 “And they love the place of honor at banquets, and the seats of honor in the synagogues, 7 and personal greetings in the marketplaces, and being called Rabbi by the people. 8 But as for you, do not be called Rabbi; for only One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. 9 And do not call anyone on earth your father; for only One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 And do not be called leaders; for only One is your Leader, that is, Christ. 11 But the greatest of you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matt. 23:6-12).
The family of Jesus is one in which we are all sisters and brothers, siblings to one another. In fact, it is on this basis of being siblings that honorific titles (and the power and authority that invariably come from them) are to be foreign in the family of God. Jesus says, “and you are all brothers” (verse 8) as a reason to shirk the common designation of rabbi, or teacher. Jesus is our teacher, and we are all brothers and sisters.
I would add at least “senior pastor” to that list of titles Jesus gives his followers to avoid. I might even add “pastor,” given the significance it often carries in churches today, especially when that pastor is a sole pastor. The words we call one another matter, and Jesus speaks clearly to this reality. One reason is because those titles often unsettle the equality among siblings, elevating one over the other. Further, we already have a Father, a Teacher, and a Leader, a Good Shepherd, and a pastor.
Now, you may ask, “But, isn’t pastor a biblical term?” Or, “Didn’t Paul appoint leaders?” These are fair questions (and, “yes,” to both, by the way), but whatever answers we come up with must prioritize family the way Jesus and the Apostles did. Pastors and leaders exist within the framework of a family in which we are all siblings. And our answers need to also take into account that pastors and leaders are gifts and functions that fit within the body of Christ, not over it or separate from it.
A dignified body
If Jesus’ words on authority and his prioritization of family were not enough, perhaps the New Testament’s insistence on the body of Christ might compel us to think in a different way about how church should function. Paul speaks of the body of Christ in Romans 12 and Ephesians 4, but the most thorough treatment of the implication of the body metaphor appears in 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul explains how members function, each in unison with the others by operating in their gift. I want to focus on a particular part of that passage that emphasizes the dignity of each member. Paul says:
21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again, the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, it is much truer that the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; 23 and those parts of the body which we consider less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor, and our less presentable parts become much more presentable, 24 whereas our more presentable parts have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that part which lacked, 25 so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same care for one another. 26 And if one part of the body suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if a part is honored, all the parts rejoice with it. 27 Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it (1 Cor. 12:21-27).
Having discussed the array of Spirit-giftings belonging to each member of the body of Christ, Paul expresses the beautiful diversity that is on display when the body functions as it should. In those moments, the church as the body flourishes. Each member operates in their giftings, not separately from, but interdependent on every other member. And if any of us were to think that in a body certain parts are more significant or imporant, Paul squashes those notions in the passage above. Not only are all parts necessary, but any part that may have lacked significance receives honor in abundance. There is dignity for each member of the body.
Unfortunately, we very rarely, if ever, see this sort of functioning of the church today. One of the reasons, I think, is because our structures often inhibit the family of Christ from actually being the body. Many churches have less than a few (and often primarily just one) pastors doing most of the ministry. They’re seminary-trained, and have felt “called” to ministry for some time. We put them in paid positions, and entrust the majority of church ministry to them. They often preach sermons, cast broader vision, make hospital visits, organize events, field angry emails, officiate weddings and funerals, facilitate pre-marital and post-marital counseling, run small groups, equip ministry teams, serve in the local community, visit people in prison, and a million other things. It’s no wonder they burn out so frequently. And that sort of structure isn’t fair to pastors, by the way.
But this way of doing things takes ministry (and dignity) out of the hands of the saints, the church. It isn’t meant to be this way. We’re meant to share ministry as a collective of priests. And pastors who don’t facilitate structures that equip and unleash the Spirit-enabled body are complicit in this system that keeps the members from thriving. More than that, their flaws and shortcomings are amplified, along with their strengths. A charismatic pastor who is a great speaker might make sermons at the church more engaging. But if they are dysfunctional or insecure, these flaws are magnified and impact the entire body.
We need to start asking better questions. So, here’s a few we can try.
Better questions to ask
How do we measure success?
Success typically means butts in seats, and bucks in plates. If people are attending and tithing, then churches are considered a success. But church membership is declining in many Western denominations. So, are they failing? What if success was measured by how much more we look like Jesus year over year? Or, by how many people know their giftings? Or, by how we have equipped the body? Or how the surrounding community is being served by the local church?
Are our processes transparent?
Does the broader church know how decisions get made and who is involved? Who gets to be a part of these processes, and are there clear opportunities to provide feedback throughout? Do you know who makes decisions, and would they listen to you if you spoke up? What is the process of feeding back to the larger community what decisions have been made and how decisions are being implemented?
Do we honor the “less honorable?”
You can usually tell what a church community values by who stands on the stage or speaks into the microphone. Do you hear multiple voices during your gatherings? Is prayer as important as preaching? Helping out as much as leading? Do women have a voice? Is your leadership culturally representative of your broader community? Is everyone seen?
Do people know how to study the Bible?
Or are they dependent on an expert? If we actually focused on equipping the saints, we would encourage and train people how to study for themselves, not simply take a teacher’s word on everything. If the church in Berea in Acts 17 is a model, we would welcome questions and teach people how to find their own answers and how to find them in community. If teachers and pastors are good at walking in their gifts, then we wouldn’t need them to do everything we expect them to now. Good teaching over time would mean a more mature body, and our structures would require change as a result.
Are we relating as a family?
I grew up in a church where the term “brother” (and occasionally “sister”) was used a lot (like Mr.). But it wasn’t because we were family. Do we bear with one another when there is conflict? Do we practice patience when we don’t like how things are going, or do we just go to a new church? We are covenant communities, and we owe one another our support even when things get messy.
Do our decisions dignify the saints?
When decisions get made, do we ask how they impact each group? Is the effect of a decision felt more by one group over another, and are we ok with this? Have we talked to the groups that are more affected? Have we waited for consensus? Has leadership changed their mind because the Spirit spoke through the body?
Do we emphasize maturity?
A primary distinction Paul makes in his epistles is maturity vs. immaturity. And while a lot of people are talented, or great speakers, are they mature in their faith? What sorts of processes do we have in place to grow people into maturity, and do we emphasize character and humility? And every single member is called to grow more into Christlikeness, into maturity. Side note: the qualifications for elders and leaders in 1 Timothy 3? There’s absolutely no reason we all couldn’t aspire to live like that, even if some of us never “lead.”
Can I live as though these things are real even if, in my church, we’ve got some work to do?
It can be hard to hang around in a church that doesn’t live up to who God is calling us to be. The truth is, every church has space to grow. But, how are we loving pastors as brothers and sisters in Christ? Do we assume the best, or do we jump to conclusions? Do we pursue the hard conversations, or do we just back off because we think our voices don’t matter? I wonder what would happen if there was a critical mass of people in church communities who started dignifying one another like family and Spirit-gifted saints. Maybe, just maybe, it would change our churches and our communities.
While I believe each of these terms is distinct in meaning, they generally are not clarified in most contexts, the church included. When each term comes up, they all genenerally mean something, and they are weighty. I’ll talk more about these in the future, and try there to distinguish and define them in a helpful way. But for now, I am mainly focused on the fact that they are significant and prevalent.
R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark in The New International Greek Testament Commentary. 2002. 419.
Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community. 2009. 35.
I'm no theologian, but wanted to say thank you for the reminder that Jesus's way "is a direct contradiction to the way of this world." Trying to live that contradictory life is hard - even (especially) in a church with other spirit lead people. The world's "rational" point of view overtakes our thoughts so easily and influences how we act and advise others to act. So, thank you again for the reminder!
Interesting thanks Matt. Some years ago, we made a conscious decision not to use the title "senior pastor." We chose "pastoral leader" instead. I recently heard Scot McKnight encouraging churches not to use the title "leader". What do you think?