Summary: The foundational expression of the Life of Christ in a church is submitting to one another. But most of the time when leader/non-leader distinctions are made, the leader group just can’t seem to keep their end of the mutual submission deal. The organic, biblical process of relationship development gets passed over. When this happens, you get all sorts of trouble because now some people are more important than others in a church.
Ephesians 5:21 very directly says…
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
As I’ve pointed out in previous posts in this series, Jesus and the apostles taught that greatness in the Kingdom of God was marked by striving for lower status in all relationships. It’s not about what gifts you have, how talented you are, how much of the Bible you know, how much you serve people or any other number of things people mistakenly equate with being a Kingdom servant leader.
The meaning of submitting to one another involves behaving the same way that Jesus did – not by human effort, but by the power of Divine Life in and through a human vessel. And Divine Life doesn’t take control of people. It washes their feet. That is what Love is.
A healthy church is one where a group of people is learning to live by the Life of Christ, and the foundational expression of that is mutual foot washing. Each member washes the other members’ feet (i.e. treats them as more important than themselves) as the Spirit of Christ manifests Himself through their unique gifts and abilities.
Then, as Ephesians 2 says…
The whole building (God’s house) is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.
and Ephesians 4 says…
From him (His Divine Life) the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
What many others have said and I have experienced in numerous situations is this mutual submission tends to come off the rails when distinctions between leaders and non-leaders are created.
It seems that without fail, as soon as this happens, the vision laid out in Ephesians above for what a church should be at its core and foundation disappears.
This is because those that make it into the leader group, however they do so, just can’t seem to keep their part of the mutual submission deal. Because they’re placed in a special, distinct group within a church, they give in to the temptation to exercise human power and control. If they didn’t, the leader/non-leader distinctions would be fine, healthy, encouraged and biblical.
But for the most part, people in leader groups just can’t help but take more control over the direction and decisions of the church than those in the non-leader group. And they cloak that seizing of control, most of the time unknowingly, in religious jargon like “servant leadership” and justifications like “I’m more mature than you.” But in reality, they just haven’t learned Kingdom servant leadership well enough to resist the temptation.
In the face of this massive and dangerous problem, many church movements, seminaries, books, etc. actually teach that this is how churches should start! They teach that “you can’t have a strong church unless you have strong leaders.” This thinking causes them to churn out people who slide right into leadership positions who have no experiential idea of what it means to be a part of the type of church the New Testament teaches us to be.
While it’s certainly true that a church with more mature people in it will be stronger, this kind of philosophy has them eating the meal before it’s made, so to speak. The organic, biblical process of Kingdom servant leader development gets passed over.
They make people a part of special leader groups because they finished seminary, or are more committed, talented or whatever. Immature believers even get labeled “apostles” (yes apostles, OMG!!) who have never even lived in healthy church life for any significant amount of time.
In these situations, a church gets off on the wrong foot with leader/non-leader distinctions right from the start with people that can’t handle it as Christ would.
The problem is systematic
This happens on a small scale in individual churches. But it also happens on a large scale throughout whole societies and civilizations. Unhealthy leadership structures then end up getting built in to how church is practiced.
The first and possibly most notable of all may have been way back in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. What happened back then set a new and different foundation for church leadership than what you find described in your Bible to build churches upon; the effects of which still hang like an albatross around the necks of most churches.
In his book 58 to 0: How Christ Leads Through The One Anothers, Jon Zens outlines some of the major events that happened in the first couple centuries that still hinder healthy church life on a large scale today…
- Around 150 AD, the theologian and philosopher Clement made a distinction between “priest” and “laity.” This set in motion the unbiblical divide of “clergy” and “laity,” and a new human-based type of church order and authority.
- Around 250 AD, the practice of “one-bishop rule” took root, and each bishop’s rule was defined territorially.
- Around 325 AD, the Emperor Constantine created a new religion mixed with paganism, called it “Christianity,” and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Zens goes on to point out…
Thus, what was birthed as Christ our Life, the Spirit-led wind of the ekklesias, morphed into a power-based, hierarchy-fed institution. The “institution” started taking shape from 150 AD onwards. As this institutional system unfolded, the Spirit of Christ became unnecessary. as the “institution” became more and more powerful, the Holy Spirit became less and less a part of the mix.
People get puffed up
Without getting really deep into it, all of these events basically led to the world’s system of hierarchical leadership being married to the Church on a large scale.
When this happens, then you get all sorts of trouble because now some people are more important than others in a church. The reasons for this come down to things that aren’t associated with Kingdom servant leader recognition in the New Testament. It’s those things I mention above – the gifts you have, the talent you have, how much knowledge you have, how much you do, etc.
But those people aren’t exceptionally good at washing feet as a servant and a slave like Christ. They don’t exude enough of the measure of the Life of Christ in and through them to warrant being recognized as anything other than a brother or a sister.
Those people tend to get “puffed up.”
Listen to what the apostle Paul says about having an attitude of superiority in I Corinthians 4…
What makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?
All of those things leadership tends to get incorrectly based on, people only have because the Lord gave them the ability to have them. Therefore, how can they see themself as more important than anyone else? They shouldn’t, and this should inform how they relate to others.
Just like Paul did, a Kingdom servant leader sees themselves as a slave of Christ and every member of His Body. Slaves aren’t more important. Slaves don’t get to take more control. They simply use their abilities to do the bidding of others.
Transformation moves like a glacier
But oh how hard and humbling and backward this feels to our natural selves; which is why it takes a great deal of time to practice it and make it naturally consistent. It takes some big-time transformation – and when it comes to transformation, listen to what Frank Viola said in a recent class I went through on this topic…
The #1 false assumption about transformation is that it’s rapid. This is a myth of the highest order. It doesn’t happen, period. Transformation is glacial. It moves like a glacier. We do change, but at the core of who we are is a slow, long, arduous process.
When a person gets saved, some things do go. There is a change. Some things may drop off instantaneously. But in terms of your temperament, personality and overall conduct, that doesn’t change right away. Your character and deep-rooted issues take a long time to transform.
The process typically gets sped up by things that are more intense in their pain that provide motivation to get help and work them out. With certain things that are so deep in our wiring that we’re blind to, God has to bring us through intense heat and fire for our eyes to open and for us to see what needs to be dealt with.
This is not a popular thing because most preach that transformation is rapid.
I’ve never met anyone in their 20s who had the measure of the character of Christ needed to be considered for leadership recognition. I’m fairly confident I never will. I don’t think I’ve known anyone that’s gotten there in their 30s either. (Yes, I know Timothy was young. But we’re not him people.)
I’m not saying those creatures don’t or can’t exist today, or it’s not possible to get there in the first half of the average lifespan. Age is certainly just a number…to a degree. It also can’t be pushed aside like it doesn’t matter at all. I can say with confidence that every person I’ve ever personally observed and felt like they could possibly be there wasn’t a young man or woman. If you think you are, let me live with you for a little while and we’ll see :).
And let me be clear – by writing this I’m in no way claiming I’m personally there.
It takes practice emptying ourselves
When people aren’t seasoned enough, we end up with trouble and we don’t seem to learn from it. Zens points out…
The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led.
One thing is clear to me: The temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is feared. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead.
Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.
And where do you learn how to give and receive love? Within the context of committed mutual foot washing relationships. In a place where you’re “fighting” each other for the bottom rung of the ladder. You’re practicing emptying yourselves of all pursuit of power, control and having a relative status of higher importance. You cook the meal before you eat it.
Submitting to one another is what develops healthy, intimate relationships – the foundation on which health church life can eventually over long periods of time transform people into healthy church leaders.
The rest of the posts in the Servants and Slaves series are here.