Have you ever been in a situation where someone had a leadership position over you, but you felt like you actually influenced them with guidance and instruction to a greater measure than they influenced you?
Have you ever been in that same situation and felt like your influence was simply and consistently rejected?
Have you ever been in a leadership position over someone else and observed that the other person was hesitant to contribute their influence to you?
Have you been in that same situation and felt like the expectation from others was that you’d handle things and make decisions when you really desired it to be a collaborative effort?
If you’ve been in any of these situations, didn’t it feel awkward, unnatural and frustrating?
That’s because you weren’t designed for it. These feelings were the result of the tiered relationship structure you were a part of. In that structure, control is locked into a person based on the relative tier they’ve been given or they take.
Unfortunately, most church organizational structures are based on this.
In other relationships, control may be given or taken for other reasons, like – I’m a male and you’re a female, I’m smarter and you’re dumber, I’m talented and you’re not as talented, I have these credentials and you don’t, I’m more mature and you’re less mature, I’m richer and you’re poorer, I’m this race and you’re that race, etc. etc. etc.
It’s all about partnership
The story the Bible tells from the very beginning communicates that humans weren’t designed for that. They were designed to be partners with God and other humans to accomplish His purpose.
The idea of partnership is a key thread that’s woven throughout the entire Bible story and is foundational to a healthy of understanding of church administration.
Relationships, families, communities, nations and the world get unhealthy when this idea of partnership isn’t held front and center. The result is organizational models that enable unhealthy, selfish and destructive behavior.
From Genesis 1, the Bible’s consistent revelation through its authors to us is that humans were designed to be a diverse collection of partners acting like One Person – being a physical representation that displays God’s character and rules His good world by His sustaining Life. The Bible starts and ends that way.
As the story unfolds, we learn along the way that what we’re accustomed to in the tiered relationship structures we’re a part of in our world (government, business, education, etc.) finds its roots in breaking partnership. Those structures are built upon different reasons for some to have more or all control, and others to have less or none.
The model is a Body
But there’s another relationship structure based on God’s design for partnership that opens up the vision and hope in the Bible story of oneness with and in Christ. The book of Ephesians describes it like the parts of the human body working together…
From Him the whole Body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (4:16)
Here, I’m going to explain church leadership structure as taught by biblical authors using a visual representation of God’s design for partnership.
As we look at this together, remember that the word leadership is typically incorrectly associated with tiered relationships. If you think about it this way, you will struggle.
A better way to think about leadership is simply as influence. Without a structure that locks control into relationship tiers, that’s all the concept of leadership really is.
How influence is supposed to flow through the Body
We start with Christ as the Center and Source of all human relationships. He is represented by a center circle.
The outer circles represent people. The size and thickness of the circles represents their stature in Christ, which is according to the collective perspective of the others, not themselves.
The light blue lines connecting the outer circles to the Inner Circle represent the influence Christ is having in each person’s life. Their thickness represents the measure of His influence.
The green arrows pointing from one circle to another represent the influence Christ is having through each person to the other. Their thickness also represents the measure of that influence.
If the people “hold the circle,” meaning they resist the temptation to establish a tiered relationship structure that breaks partnership, they will allow Christ to lead them collectively through all the members together.
As Ephesians 4 puts it (paraphrased)…
There is one Spirit that we should all draw from together in unity as He works Christ’s Mind and Love through each person uniquely for the building up of everyone together in Him.
This is the influence (i.e. “leadership”) of Christ through His whole Body in self-sacrificial Love and mutual submission…the exact nature Christ influenced with when He was in His first body (Phil 2:5-7).
This relationship structure is foundational to the Life of a healthy church. In fact, if Christ is the foundation of the church (practically, not just in words), it’s the only relationship structure it will take on.
But there’s also another type of influence INSIDE OF (not “over”) His whole Body. In fact, this type of influence is subject to the Body while at the same time being an equal part of it. (Note: Any Bible translation that uses the words “over” or “rule” to refer to this type of leadership will not be helpful to your understanding it.)
This is equipping leadership and is represented by the green inner circle. Those that display this 2nd type of influence have grown in stature to where they display Christ’s wisdom and character consistently throughout all the circumstances life presents. They have shown themselves to be seasoned examples of servants and slaves of Christ the Head and Body.
They are connected to the green inner circle by dark green lines in the image above, but they never leave the outer circle. They function as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.
One more reminder…just because it’s so important to keep front and center in your mind to understand the biblical message…God’s design for relationships is all about partnership. This design applies to the interaction between body influence and equipping influence as well. It’s a partnership, and they have different roles.
Submit to one another
Just like equippers voluntarily submit to the Body, the Body voluntarily submits to the equippers. A mutually submissive partnership, just like the design for a Christ-centered marriage (Ephesians 5). Different, but equal. Diversity in unity.
In fact, Paul says this right before talking about how relationships were designed to work in Ephesians 5:21…
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
That statement is not dependent on any role, influence or function a particular person has in the Body.
Every instance of the equipping influence of Christ within the Body is described with words that mean to GUIDE, TEACH and CARE. The equipper’s role in the co-equal partnership within the Body is to reveal more of Christ as they display Him in loving proclamation, teaching and counseling through their particular abilities.
DISCERN, DECIDE and DO
The role of the Body (of which equippers are a co-equal partner) is to DISCERN, DECIDE, and DO. They are to DISCERN how Christ is leading them, DECIDE how to move forward together, and DO what is decided. This is shown in the very meaning of the word church (ekklesia in Greek) – “an assembly of the called-out ones.”
DISCERN, DECIDE, and DO is not the role of equippers alone, and you don’t see them taking control of this in the early churches. When it comes to DISCERN, DECIDE, and DO, they are a co-equal Body member that is influencing according to the stature of Christ they’ve attained with the whole Body together, just like every other body part.
Just like a healthy human body, a healthy Body of Christ coordinates itself in unity with every part to DISCERN, DECIDE and DO as the Head directs it. If this wasn’t the case, the body would be perpetually injured as different parts were constantly attempting to go different directions.
When partnership is broken
This is one of the more common ways partnership between the parts of the Body gets broken. Equippers are not to take control of DISCERN, DECIDE and DO. If and when they do, a tiered relationship structure has now been created. They are usually well-intentioned, but haven’t been very well-equipped themselves.
In churches that do this, I’ve noticed these kinds of results…
- Identity loss. Body members don’t understand who they really are as co-equal partners and fail to contribute equally. You’re left with the priesthood of some believers instead of the priesthood of ALL believers.
- Lack of buy-in. Body members aren’t motivated. People that don’t contribute to DISCERN and DECIDE typically don’t DO.
- Wisdom is limited. DISCERN and DECIDE contain more error, less creativity and less effectiveness.
- Equippers over-contribute. The Body doesn’t buy-in, so a few do more of the work…the exact opposite of what Ephesians 4 said should occur in the partnership.
- Equippers get puffed up. Because they’re doing most of the work, they think more highly of themselves than they ought, which is likely what led to breaking the partnership in the first place.
- Lack of unity. Unity isn’t about the outcome of DISCERN, DECIDE, and DO. It’s about the relational process.
To close this post (and the whole Servants and Slaves series), here are some insightful quotes about church leadership structure from Episodes 15 and 19 of the Insurgence podcast where Frank Viola (ReImagining Church) and John Nugent (Endangered Gospel) talk at length about this issue.
“In the Kingdom of God, you have different giftings and measures of spiritual growth. But in terms of function, ministry and equality, everyone is at the same level.” (Frank Viola)
“When all believers together influence (lead) one another in their different and unique ways and with their different and unique perspectives, the world sees that God is among them (I Cor. 14).” (Frank Viola)
“If the Whole Body isn’t leading together in their own gifting and in one accord, the equippers haven’t equipped properly.” (John Nugent)
“Having some in the church who are leaders (influencers) and some who are not is not of the Kingdom.” (John Nugent)
“The kind of leadership you have shapes a certain kind of Body. Power is going to function throughout the Body in a way that is consistent with the leadership structure.” (John Nugent)
“You can’t give leadership a worldly kind of power to make sure the church doesn’t exert a worldly kind of power in their life together.” (John Nugent)
The rest of the posts in the Servants and Slaves series are here.