by Tim Woodroof
In my previous blog post, I suggested it is helpful to believe spiritual leaders are “called” by God rather than “selected” by members, that church leadership relies on God’s election rather than ours. And I asked “What practical difference might this make for the leadership ‘culture’ of our churches?” I point out a few of those differences below.
But before I draw out these “practical differences,” I beg you not to hear what follows as an advocacy of insensitive leadership, unaccountable and irresponsible leadership, authoritarian and self-willed leadership. I am not suggesting that “blind followship” should be the norm for God’s people. I am not proposing that dissent is sinful or debate is unnecessary or submission must be absolute. I make no defense of leaders (and we have seen many of them) who disguise a thirst for power and control with a façade of “calling.” Every godly concept (from “calling” to “grace” to “submission” to “leadership” itself) can be perverted by unprincipled or clueless people for their own ends. Such perversion does not make those concepts illegitimate … and it should never dissuade godly people from pursuing godly concepts for godly purposes.
So, with that caveat, let me describe what a healthy injection of a ‘theology of calling’ into the lives of churches might look like. It might mean members would:
- Change their understanding of the leadership “role” in churches. Spiritual leadership is not a privilege conveyed by popular acclaim. It is not a position or power bestowed (temporarily and revocably) by the will of the governed. It is, rather, a responsibility (indeed, a “burden”) assigned by God, often given to individuals who never asked for or wanted it. Think of Moses: “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done that you put the burden of all these people on me?” (Nu 11:11). I have known many church leaders, most of whom would happily decline the honor of leadership except for a pervasive sense of calling and a stubborn commitment to be faithful. Honestly, spiritual leaders deserve our pity as much as our respect.
- Change their understanding of what church leaders do. Leaders’ primary work is not to sit in meetings and make decisions. They aren’t pursuing personal agendas and crafting strategies and blithely undermining traditions. Nor (contrary to the suspicions of some) are they nefariously plotting to frustrate as many members as possible at any given time. Church leaders are trying to listen to God, understand his will, and submit themselves to his leading. They are trying to lead God’s people in godly directions. They are trying to help their churches keep first-things-first and accomplish the mission God has given them. Think of Peter: “When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.’ Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story … ‘So if God gave them the same gift he gave us … who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?’” (Ac 11:2-4, 17). Even the best leaders don’t always act wisely. They do not always discern the truest path. But wisdom and true paths are what godly, called leaders are consistently trying to follow.
- Cultivate a posture of respect for church leaders. I am not suggesting that church members don’t respect their leaders; simply that this respect is too often a fragile thing. It is conditioned on recent decisions and our agreement with them. It is often measured by relationship—how much personal contact we’ve had with leaders, how much warmth was displayed. It is extended only so far as we feel fully informed and consulted. The trust and respect that grow from an understanding of “calling,” however, is of a hardier breed. If members adopt the notion that God has “called” individuals to leadership roles, commissioned and equipped them, and required them to function faithfully and effectively, members’ respect for leaders is—in the end—a sign of respect for God. Respect is not limited by agreement or the popularity of the most recent decision or the length of time since the last home-visit. Respect is the “default” posture of people who acknowledge that church leaders (in fact, all leaders) are “established by God” (Ro 13:1). Think of Paul’s frustration with the lack of respect shown him by the Corinthians: “I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you …” (2Co 12:11).
- Recognize who actually holds leaders accountable. Moses died on a lonely mountain-top, accountable to God for failings in his leadership. David was punished by God for poor leadership decisions. Eli was made to answer for his wayward sons, a symbol of his poor leadership. Paul was tormented by a “thorn in my flesh” to keep him from becoming conceited as a leader (2Co 12:7). Those whom God has called to leadership, he holds accountable. Is there a more fearsome judge, a more implacable “hound of heaven,” than the One who calls and calls to account? Yet many church members feel it is their job to hold leaders accountable, to communicate their displeasure, to punish leaders who dare make decisions with which they disagree! They grumble and critique and make their unhappiness clear. In so doing, do they ever hear echoes of Israel in the wilderness … of Absalom at the city gates … of Corinthian Christians chaffing over Paul? Do they understand that they may be usurping God’s role as judge? To labor under the call of God is a terrifying thing. To realize God will judge leaders by a different standard (“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly”—Jas 3:1) leads always to humility and caution. Members who understand ‘calling’ are more content to leave the judgment of leaders to God and invest their time, rather, in holding up leaders’ hands and offering encouraging words.
- Be more willing to learn from leaders and allow them to function as true shepherds. In the minds of many church members, elders and ministers (like children) should be instructed rather than heard. Church leaders (it seems) need our guidance, correction, and discipline. Their predilections for folly require a strong hand and firm tone. But what if the opposite is true? What if leaders are meant to be listened to rather than talked at? What if it’s the sheep who need guidance, correction, and discipline? What if we are the ones with predilections towards foolishness, we whom God wants to bless with caring shepherds and prophetic voices leading to good pastures? In Scripture, it is the shepherds who speak (the sheep “listen to his voice”—Jn 10:3), who direct the flock (1Pe 5:2—not the other way around). It is the elders who are consulted rather than corrected (Ac 15:2), managing the affairs of the church rather than doing as they are told (1Ti 5:17). It is the evangelist who equips the people of God and matures them for ministry, correcting and rebuking and encouraging as required (2Ti 4:1-2).
What would happen in our churches if leaders were actually allowed to lead? If their calling was recognized and respected? If their words and mission-sensibilities were met with encouragement rather than resistance and critique? If we gave them permission to guide/admonish/rebuke us rather than resenting every intrusion into our private lives and personal preferences?
How does God work best? Through leaders who try (though often failing) to follow God’s call? Or through members who require that leaders follow them?