Summary: Getting the church leadership thing backward may be leading to more division and abuse in the church today than any other mistake. And it’s happening in churches everywhere you turn. There’s only one thing that produces the type of leader Jesus was and is. If people don’t go through this process, churches are just asking for trouble.
What I’m about to talk about in this article and in the rest of this series may be the single biggest mistake churches make today (outside of blatant unrepentant sin). If there’s a bigger mistake, I can’t think of it right now. I could certainly be wrong, but my sense and what seems to be the testimony of others who have much more experience than me is this has led to more division and abuse in the church today than any other mistake.
Regardless of where it ranks, it’s certainly up there. So I’d like to encourage us to go upstream together to find the source from which this mistake originates and see if we can find insights into how to deal with it. If we do so, we might just be able to keep this frustrating mistake from repeating.
Body/Family life comes first
There are a couple of main images put forth by the New Testament writers that have mistakenly become thought to be metaphors for the church – a body and a family. But these are not metaphors. They are spiritual realities.
Ephesians 1:22-23 says…
And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
The writer does not say the church is like his body. It IS his body. Jesus left His one-member body and entered into His many-membered body.
Then, later in Ephesians (2:19) it says…
…you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household…
The writer does not say you are like a member of His household. It says you ARE a member. Elsewhere throughout the NT, it’s also pointed out that we are not like brothers and sisters in Christ, we ARE brothers and sisters in Christ.
These spiritual realities are woven throughout the entire Bible from the beginning to the end; and a healthy church is one that expresses those realities practically to each other, the world around them, and even to the spiritual realm. (Eph. 3:10)
But, these go beyond just being spiritual realities. They are God’s ageless purpose for creating.
With that in view, for a church to be truly healthy, it first has to learn what it means to be Christ’s Body and Family.
But not just learn what it means – also execute what it means. This is the foundation and habitat from which Christ works through His people and develops them into mature Christians who can display Kingdom servant church leadership.
Talking about or establishing church leaders before you do this REALLY WELL is just asking for trouble. And it’s happening in churches everywhere you turn.
What produces Jesus-type church leadership
This is exactly where the vast majority of churches get the church leadership thing all backwards. Because they’ve never gotten the basics of what it means to be the Body and Family of Christ down REALLY WELL, the people that end up getting recognized or labeled “leaders” actually have little experience with or propensity for Kingdom leadership.
Sure, they might throw around a term like “servant leadership” when talking about it. But there’s little demonstration of what that actually means. Instead, they associate worldly leadership concepts with their role in the church, and it equates to relationships built on status and control (while still in the name of servant leadership of course).
New Testament Body/Family Life experienced over time is the only thing that produces the type of leader that Jesus was and is…and one that’s worthy of being recognized by a church.
The foundation of mutual submission
Let’s think about what the Body of Christ is. Just like the human body, there is a Head (Christ) and body parts (humans). The head of the body is the source from which life and direction flows. The head gives life and direction and the body parts coordinate together to carry out the expression of that life and direction to the world.
Although the body parts are different in their gifting and functions, they mutually submit to one another to accomplish what they’re being directed to accomplish (Eph. 5:21). If they didn’t mutually submit to one another, they’d be going in all different directions and the body would be perpetually injured.
It’s the same when you look at it through the lens of God’s family. The parents (God) are the source of life and direction for the family. The children (humans) coordinate together to carry out the expression of that life and the will of the parents for the good of the family. Although each child is different in its contributions and maturity, they mutually submit to one another. If they don’t, the family easily falls into dysfunction and abuse.
God’s act of creating this One New Man and One New Family is what the apostle Paul called “the mystery of the ages,” (Eph. 3:9, Col. 1:26) and he was given a special ability by God to show people what it meant to live out that mystery together.
Again, it’s from the foundation of this Body/Family life that people grow and mature. It cannot happen the other way around. So if you come across a church that lacks this type of mutual submission in its life together, that should be a good indicator of the type of church leadership it has produced and will continue to produce.
How you enter the danger zone
I’ll talk about this more in upcoming articles in this series, but kingdom leadership is being a servant and a slave. (Luke 22:24-27) That’s why the name of this whole series of articles is Servants and Slaves. If someone is labeled or recognized or given a title/position as any kind of “leader” without first demonstrating over a long period of time their ability to be a servant and slave, you’ve entered a danger zone.
Why? Because humans just can’t seem to handle this without falling into the worldly tendencies to use that label or position to take control of the body/family.
They fall into worldly leadership traps like thinking more highly of themselves than they ought. Or they start making decisions for the body/family because they think their “maturity” gives them the right to do so (thereby revealing their immaturity and misunderstanding of Kingdom leadership and church decision-making).
Ultimately, they end up hindering the body/family life that is supposed to be the foundation of the church’s life together.
The tragic mistake that’s made
So therein lies the problem – the establishment or recognizing of leaders prematurely.
How and why does this typically happen? Let me give you one reason that’s all too familiar to most people that have spent any time in the average church.
That reason is people will study their Bibles on their own, at seminary or wherever, and they’ll come away with patterns and models for church life in the New Testament. They’ll look at examples like the church in Antioch (which ended up developing into a very mature church) and they’ll see what it became and pull that out as a model for their church or church network to be like.
They’ll look at that model with all its parts and pieces and have the desire for their church to be like that. They might have a vision for something like a bunch of house churches that network together and have apostles and prophets moving about and strengthening them. This is a noble and biblical vision for sure, and something to lay a foundation for happening in time.
But then they make a tragic mistake. They make that model into a blueprint they build mechanically rather than an organism that develops over time from Body/Family Life.
Instead of healthy Body/Family life being the foundation from which everything else emerges, people are mechanically assigned labels and functions in service of building the blueprint. They might be assigned them for a myriad of reasons – from completing some kind of schooling or training program to being gifted at a certain skill like preaching or music to even being the relative of someone that gives them an “in.”
However it happens, the mindset is that if you build the blueprint, then the church will be the model that God wants it to be and you will get the best results.
The reason this is backwards is that when the model is done being mechanically built and doesn’t emerge from the Life inside the relationships, it’s made up of weak, cheap “materials.” It’s really a house of cards held together not by loving, mutually submissive relationships, but by a model, plan, and strategy that people become parts and pieces of.
Those that buy-in more to the model, plan and strategy achieve and experience higher levels of belonging and status in the church. Those that don’t buy-in as much end up feeling like they’re just part of the church’s machinery, or just a piece that exists to serve the model, plan and strategy.
It’s about cooperating, not collaborating (like healthy bodies and families do).
The starting point of church leadership
Check out what Jon Zens, author of 58:0 – How Christ Leads Through The One Anothers says about a lopsided, backwards focus on church leadership…
The key point is this: in the NT, the organic way for everything to develop is through the functioning of all the living stones together. The starting point of assembly-life is the priesthood of all believers as a living reality. To focus on, or be concerned about “leadership” without a lovingly functioning body is just a disaster hiding in the bushes. It’s to put the proverbial cart before the horse—with dire consequences.
In almost every case where a group outside the institutional church formally recognized elders, the expression of Christ of the whole body went downhill quickly.
Ouch. So how does a church avoid this? The solution is found in God’s design for church life in the New Testament. It’s to have somebody that’s been given a special ability by God to lay the foundation of Body/Family life. They train a church in how to live with mutual oversight and submission between all the members and they learn and practice for a good amount of time. Once a church has this down, they can start to gain insight into what true Christ-like servanthood is.
This is exactly what you see the first apostles do in the New Testament. When they planted a church, they taught it this Body/Family life and they left it…with no leaders. It wasn’t until later that they came back to analyze what went on and possibly recognize those that had demonstrated Kingdom servant leadership and who the whole church believed would not be corrupted by gaining recognition.
This organic pattern is God’s design. It’s from the foundation of Body/Family Life that Kingdom leaders can eventually emerge as disciples who won’t be tempted or swayed by recognition or labels to be anything other than servants and slaves to the Body of Christ.
The rest of the posts in the Servants and Slaves series are here.