Do you remember discussions about free will and predestination? About total depravity or limited atonement? Should women hold church office? Should the church bless faithful, covenanted same-sex marriages?
I’ve been involved in discussions on all these topics, and although they’re important, as I get older, I think that there is a doctrine that should take pre-eminence. It’s the doctrine without a name: the doctrine of leadership. By leadership, I’m referring to the model, role and direction of the leadership of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels and described in the rest of the New Testament. Jesus calls himself a servant, not a master. He calls his disciples his friends, not his lackeys or employees. Most Christians know this, but our track record suggests that the church still has work to do to “live that doctrine.” Let me give a few examples.
I have known many servant leaders. One principal regularly asked his staff questions before making decisions. Another invited a quiet staff member to contribute “after the break,” thus giving her time to prepare. A third leader once told me: “I know you aren’t very involved in sports but I would like you to consider using your writing abilities to produce a newsletter.” Still another: “We know you can teach; just tell me what you need in order to flourish, things you need to do your job, and I’ll find a way to get it for you.”
There are the other examples, though, too numerous and depressing to list. The two leaders of Christian organisations who sexually abused those under their care. The leaders who speak to church or school boards about “getting rid of” an employee. The bishop who forbade a local congregation to hold its own Zoom meetings during the pandemic this summer. The leader who, asked about a possible conflict of interest in one of his decisions, replied, “Who are you to question me?”
How can we move forward to address this topic? Sometimes it’s helpful to look at other traditions. “The Catholic leader,” says one Roman Catholic bishop, “will always be on the look-out for others who have a calling to leadership and will call these gifts forth. Hence, leadership cannot be concentrated in one person ‘at the top’. Instead, it will be collaborative, collegial, and will permeate all aspects of the life and activity of the school or parish or wherever it is being exercised.” Archbishop Eamon Martin of Ireland adds that “We all know our leadership ability grows through mistakes, gentle constructive criticism and reflective conversations where we are not ‘put down’ or ridiculed for failure, but encouraged to try again doing things slightly differently.” This echoes some of the high public actions of Pope Francis.
We need more discussion about leadership in the church. When lip-service to servant leadership is accompanied by narcissism, harassment, abuse and power-mongering, authority “as such” is weakened – a sure recipe for harm and the disintegration of true community.
There is not much doubt in my mind that movements from Idle No More to #MeToo to Black Lives Matter could have a certain redemptive significance if leaders were brave enough to ask for criticism. What would happen if all the Christ-confessors (including political leaders who self-identify as Christian) were held to account to see if their actions could be described as protecting and providing for those under their authority “all things necessary for soul and body: and by grave, wise, holy and exemplary carriage, to procure glory to God, honour to themselves, and so to preserve that authority which God hath put upon them” (Westminster Longer Catechism)? What would happen if each of us individually asked for spiritual insight into our own motives and actions?
Why is it that Christians can argue all sorts of doctrines but so seldom seem to address Christ-like leadership? Is it a doctrine more evident in the breach than in the observance?
“You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God” (Matt. 23:8-9, MSG).
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