When talking of church leadership, the discussion of “spiritual authority” usually comes to mind. It’s the question of what leadership roles does the church have and what authority do those roles have.
Despite the overemphasis on leadership in some Christian circles and the emerging pushback, there is validity to the discussion of spiritually authority and church leadership. We are told in Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them…” The text never specifies who these leaders are, just that the church must “obey” them and “submit” to them. This assumes a high degree of authority without saying a word about how the leaders exercise this authority. So how is such authority exercised by leaders of the church? Such a question is important but it gains even more importance whenever we think of stories where leaders have acted with unhealthy authority, causing great harm.
Jesus Shaped Leadership…
As one who believes that we must read all scripture in light of Jesus, the self-sacrificial servant lifestyle of Jesus is the first hint at how leaders must exercise authority. Jesus was bold and decisive, unwilling to compromise his convictions, but he was also a servant who never forced anyone to act against their own free will. In fact, he even washed the feet of the one who betrayed him and those who deserted him when he was arrested and crucified.
In Matthew 20:20-28 there’s a story about the mother of James and John asking Jesus if her sons could sit at his right hand. Apparently, these two courageous boys put their mommy up to this because Jesus responded to them, telling them that they were clueless about what they were asking and then asking them if they could drink the same cup as Jesus. But this upset the other ten disciples who became angry, so Jesus responds in vv. 25-28:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The key words in this text are “not so” and “just as,” which specifies how Jesus his disciples to exercise spiritual authority.* Instead of a top-down dictating authority, Jesus insists that spiritual authority must come from the act of becoming a servant.
The life of Jesus and his teaching about becoming a servant should then form the basis for how the leaders mentioned in Hebrews 13 are to exercise authority. That is because within the kingdom of God, all church leaders are followers of Jesus first. The authority of church leaders comes from service, not demand. Consequently, because of some top-down understandings of authority present in our own culture, I think we may be better off talking about spiritual responsibility instead of spiritual authority.
In this regards, the church has leaders with certain responsibility which the church must recognize. In exercising responsibility, the leaders are guiding the church towards greater participation in the mission of God. Yet because leadership responsibility is exercised from the role of a servant — as followers of Jesus — church leaders go first where they want to lead others. Put another way, such servant leaders will never ask others to do what they themselves are unwilling to do.
I might be wrong on some of what I’m saying or over-simplifying the issue a bit, as I’m more so just thinking out loud as I work through my own questions about church leadership. However, over my lifetime I have known of stories involving both elders and ministers who did much harm. Yet I’ve never heard of leaders doing harm among a church because they were trying to lead like Jesus, as self-sacrificial servants.
* This insight comes from, Randy Willingham, a church consultant and ministry professor at Harding University.