Some Thoughts about Leadership in the Church

I’ve studied the subject of leadership for decades. It’s a fascinating study. There are many people, many studies, that can tell you what makes someone a good leader instead of a poor one, and why these leadership techniques work better than those techniques.
One of the more interesting subjects is the study of what makes a person a natural leader. Some say that it requires an outgoing personality, except that there are people who are not the least bit outgoing who are incredible leaders, and there are outgoing individuals - some of whom aspire to leadership - who are really poor leaders (many of these live in Hollywood or Washington DC).
Some say that the defining hallmark of a natural leader is the willingness to give useful directions to others. Well, in some people, that is a sign of a leader, but in others, it’s a sign of an insecure control freak whom nobody willingly follows. They have no followers.
Followers: that’s the only real sign of a leader that scholars have settled on: a leader is someone whom people follow. They may be charismatic or withdrawn, they may be good communicators or not, they may be organized or overwhelmed by the details of their life. They may or may not have education or position of power, but they have influence. There are some people whom folks follow naturally, and there are others that have to work to be effective at leading, but true leaders have people following them.
John MacArthur says that if you think you’re leading, but nobody is following, then you’re really only out taking a walk.
In the book of Romans, Paul describes a gift of leadership. I have noticed that some senior pastors have that gift of leadership and others do not. Some pastors have people crowding around them, trying to find helpful ways to follow them, while others find recruiting volunteers is like pulling teeth: people are not following them, no matter whether they hold a leadership position or not.
A brief digression in the interest of a balanced story: if God has withheld the leadership gift, then He has given others: teaching or pastoring are often given in its place. And it seems apparent that there are some senior pastors who are not actually called by God to that position, and therefore may not be gifted to do the work that He has not assigned.
I’ve known men and women who seem to be called to leadership in the church, but who struggle in that responsibility. Have you ever gone for a walk with a cat: they’re like that cat: always watching you to see which way you’re going to go, and then scurrying to get in front of you, no matter which way you go. These “leaders” always watching the church to see where they’re going, then they declare, “We’re going to go this way,” as they see the church already going this way. They don’t have a real voice, only an echo.
The challenge comes in that some of these folks have a large gathering of followers. The sad part is not that they have followers, but that they don't know where to lead those followers.
By contrast, others seem to have no difficulty staying out in front. They seem to know what’s coming around the corner before others, and are preparing those who follow them for God’s next move.
I’ve been reflecting on that question: what makes leadership work in the Church for these people. Is there something about those who seem to know the path instinctively that’s markedly different than those who struggle to find their direction?
I think there is: those who lead naturally and comfortably usually have developed the lifestyle of feeding themselves spiritually, and those who seem to be called to leadership but have difficulty leading pretty consistently depend on others to feed their spirits.
Since this vocabulary is not real common to the church today, let me illustrate it. In 1 Corinthians 3:2, Paul says, “I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it.” Paul had to feed the believers in Corinth; more than that, he had to feed them baby food. They needed Paul to feed them because they could not feed themselves.
What did he feed them? I’m glad you asked that.
A few chapters later, Paul declares: “I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you…” Paul was able to draw nourishment directly from God – whether from the Word or from his prayer, or from experiences like the one where he “was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” In one way or another, Paul was able to draw revelation from the heart of God, to digest it, and to nourish not only his own spirit, but to nourish the many churches that he fathered. Heck, half of the books in the New Testament came from Paul drawing nourishment from the presence of God!
From the nourishment we draw from Father, we can feed those whom we lead. We will have the wisdom and strength to shepherd the flock of God; we’ll know the direction that God is heading so we will have both opportunity and resources to equip the flock to go there with Him; we’ll have confidence we’re living and moving in His will because we’ll know it from Him. We’ll be strong and fresh and confident in proportion to our ability to nourish ourselves directly from Him. This is the nourishment we draw from Him.
There is certainly nothing wrong with benefiting from the revelation of others. We are even instructed to “encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” We must both encourage and be encouraged by, instruct and be instructed by others in the Body.
But if we aspire to be effective leaders in among the Body of Christ, then we must draw near the Head of the Body. Unless we are able to feed ourselves, we will never be able to feed those whom we are leading, pastoring and teaching. Unless we are well connected to the Head, we will not be able to lead the Body.


Mercy out of Control

Today we’re talking about a politically incorrect subject: mercy out of control.

It will be easy to miscommunicate on this subject, so let me state my premise, and then we’ll go to work on the subject: It’s my observation that most of the gifts of mercy that operate in our culture – both secular and spiritual – are messed up – out of control – and as a result, our mercy often does more harm than good. There are people who have what the Bible describes as a gift of mercy, and they’re real gifts. But too often, the gift is used inappropriately.

Let’s contrast this a couple of ways: First, there are others, who don’t have that gift, for whom it is less instinctive to respond with mercy; we’re not going to discuss these people today. Second, it’s possible to use this gift out of impure or inadequate motivation as it is for any other gift, and here is where there are some interesting lessons.

Jim Jones had a real gift (though it was clearly not a gift of mercy!). His gift was drawing people together and leading them toward a common goal, and he did that well, but he did not use it for God’s glory: rather it ended up with a bowl of strange Kool-Aid and an entire community dead because of his abused gift. Jim Bakker had a real gift as he started Heritage USA; he drew a lot of people and a lot of investment, and then things went haywire and his wife Tammy Faye divorced him when Heritage USA fell down around his ears. We see pastoral gifts, evangelistic gifts, perhaps even apostolic gifts used without the direction of the Holy Spirit, used for self-serving motivation (the media loves to report those errors!); why then do we assume that the gift of mercy is immune from such error?

The other day I saw a mother and child in a grocery store; you’ve seen them too. The child is acting out in selfishness or in rebellion, and instead of disciplining the child, mom capitulates and the child gets her candy and is appeased for the moment. (We see the opposite often enough as well: a parent in the grocery store who disciplines the child to the point of abuse, but that’s not the point of this article.)

A friend of mine (we’ll call him “Bob”) has several teenage kids. One of his daughters (“Suzy”) had moved out of his home and in with her boyfriend the drug dealer. She became addicted to a variety of drugs, and predictably fell on hard times, and wanted to come home. Both mom and dad are mercy-driven people and invited Suzy to come back home, but she came back with the drug habit and with the boyfriend. Over the next several months, some of the other kids also began experimenting with drugs.

Bob’s mercy was out of control.

The goal here is not to accuse or judge the addicted daughter, though doubtless she made her share of mistakes. The bigger error here may have been mom and dad not tempering their mercy with wisdom. Their choice was not between mercy and judgment (that one’s over: the Book is clear that “mercy triumphs over judgment”), but rather between the mercy of emotions and the mercy that is built on wisdom.

Yes, Bob felt bad for his daughter, and because of his daughter, and he wanted to rescue her. Maybe he saw some street people, and imagined Suzy begging for handouts on the street and sleeping under a bridge. He saw the options of judgment (“You made your choice, now live with it!”) and mercy (“You poor thing! Here, let me fix it for you!”) and chose the latter. That was a mistake that we make all too often in the church: we exercise mercy from our flesh.

I understand Bob feeling bad for his daughter! But his mercy – being untempered by wisdom – endangered his other kids and left Suzy’s sin free to control her. His error was in the analysis: the choice was not between judgment and mercy; it was between foolish mercy and wise mercy.

I tell these stories to illustrate my premise: most of the mercy gifts in the church today are out of control. First, we make the same mistake that Bob did: we mistakenly think that we can only choose between judgment and mercy. Since we begin with a lie, we can’t expect to discover the truth easily.

The second mistake we make is that we let the world tell us how we should express mercy, rather than letting God instruct us, and the world is not well informed in the wisdom of God. So the world says, “Do something, for pity’s sake!” and that may be part of the problem: pity is not the answer.

We see people making poor choices, and we want to make those choices for them. We see people hurting, and we want to ease the pain. But in reality, if we make their choices, then they never learn wisdom; if we ease their pain, then they never learn the lessons that discomfort can bring.

Just like Jim Jones’s gift of leadership desperately needed God’s wisdom, so Bob’s gift of mercy needed God’s wisdom. In fact, I’m not convinced that any of God’s gifts are going to function properly without God’s wisdom, but we tend to overlook the need for wisdom with mercy.

So rather than just jumping in to “rescue” and “fix it” and “save them”, I am proposing that we the church actually look to our Head for wisdom: “How would You like to meet this need, Lord?” Because none of us can claim to be more merciful than God, and certainly none of us can claim more wisdom than He. And because we’re damaging people by rescuing them unwisely.

So when we see people hurting, let’s stop and pray. Let's respond with the wisdom of God, not react out of our flesh.


It’s the Voice

I’m finding myself more and more convinced I’ve spent most of my Christian life backwards.

I grew up in a mainline denominational church, where they taught me Bible stories both as a child and as an adult. Next to the stories, the priority was on knowing the traditions of the church. I was taught to interpret the Word of God through the filter of my denomination’s doctrine: the doctrine was right, and what I read in the Word was right if it agreed with the doctrine.

Then I spent a couple of decades in the evangelical church, where I learned to study the Word: learn the principles that the Word teaches, and sit under those principles. My doctrine is to come from the Word, and my life is to be conformed to the principles that the Word teaches me and I judge the events around me by those principles.

The first can be described as deductive learning (I relate to the Word as it supports my previously deduced beliefs) and the second as inductive (I sit under the Word, and it instructs me both in doctrine and in behavior).

I’ve come to the conclusion that both of those methods have some value, but are ultimately woefully inadequate. Their value comes with the fact that there’s something outside of myself that’s an ultimate standard, rather than my experience being the standard by which everything is judged (which is the value structure taught in public schools and popular culture today: truth is personal: what’s true for you may not be true for anybody else). Knowing doctrine or knowing the Word, and treating either as a standard, has value.

On the other hand, both are fundamentally knowledge, and there’s trouble with that. “Knowledge puffs up” teaches the New Testament (1 Corinthians 8:1). It doesn’t say “knowledge of non-spiritual things puffs up,” or “knowledge of things not true puffs up.” It says, “knowledge puffs up,” and my inductive study shows me that the Greek vocabulary use here (fusio/w: fusioi) means “to make arrogant or haughty.” So knowledge of doctrine and knowledge of the Word of God work towards making me arrogant or haughty. How many times have we run into websites from people who have their doctrine down, but who are characterized by arrogance? The Word itself teaches that this is the inevitable result of growing in knowledge of the Word.

The other issue is that building my life on principles has serious limitations. Principles, like laws, are fairly immutable standards to which we must conform human lives. Interestingly, disparate principles can be drawn from the Word (and we already know how much variety there is in Christian doctrine).

When I watch some of my favorite heroes of the Bible, particularly in the maturity they develop in their later years, I observe them in a completely different model. In Acts 27, I see Paul talking to the ship’s crew based on what an angel has said to him. In the gospel of John, I hear Jesus declaring repeatedly that He’s doing and saying what God says and does. In fact, while the gospels do announce His fulfillment of prophecy I’m not aware of a single place where the Son of God describes the scriptures as the standard by which He determines either His actions or His teaching. Yes, He obeys them (very well!), but He doesn’t present them as His standard to obey.

Now lest some think that I disparage the Bible, let me hasten to say: the Word is supremely precious, and it is the standard by which all else is measured. Jesus never acted or taught anything contrary to the Word (though He re-interpreted it often enough), and I aspire to the same: that everything I teach is grounded in the Word. I note that when He was tested in the wilderness, Jesus wielded the word against the enemy with great effectiveness! I love that model!

But ultimately, I don’t want to be led by my doctrine. And I’m ready to be done with being led by principles, as valuable as they are. I want to be led by the voice of God; I want my life to be built on relationship with my Daddy more than on the book He left behind.

Certainly – since He is immutable – anything I hear Him saying now must be judged by what He has already said: if I hear something that contradicts the Word, I’ve heard wrong, and I need to hear again. On the other hand, if I hear something that contradicts popular interpretation or application of the Word, then I may have heard correctly: I’ll certainly want to be careful.

It’s been said that following the Book without following the voice of His Spirit qualifies me to be a Pharisee, and following His voice without the Book is flakiness. There are a thousand caveats, disclaimers and principles I can add here which would doubtless be of some benefit, if only to calm the fears of those who have built their lives on knowledge, or those whom they have taught. But I really only want to communicate a single point today: following the voice of God is more valuable than even following the Book of God.