Just imagine the havoc that Satan could wreak in church life if he could create a culture that doesn’t trust authority. Sadly, we don’t need to imagine because for many churches that is the reality. How has he done it, does it matter and how can we respond?
The spirit of the age says, ‘If it’s old and established it’s oppressive and needs tearing down.’ The book, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo implies that people of colour are to assume that oppression is happening as their default position. This principle is increasingly being applied across all situations where there is someone in a position of authority. If there’s a leader, especially a white male leader, then assume you’re being oppressed.
News stories stack up, validating the ‘leaders as oppressors’ narrative. Just think about the number of high profile cases highlighting abuse of authority in our most cherished institutions. The House of Commons, the armed forces, the police and the BBC. A dark cloud was cast over the royal family by Oprah’s ‘Harry and Meghan’ interview. Many of the accounts are very distressing and people have suffered a great deal of harm at the hands of abusive leaders. The church hasn’t been immune either.
Add to this the impact of the pandemic upon churches. Face-to-face communication has been difficult. Many church members have ‘joined’ other churches online and in some cases have found more appealing voices. Their view of local leaders has been diminished as they compare them with these more eloquent preachers. This wasn’t a new issue, the pandemic just accelerated it and behind it is consumerism. Whilst the church gives me what I want and the leaders do things how I want them to do them, then I will remain. What happened to members being in a covenant relationship in church life?
The pandemic accelerated something else too. Church life has become increasingly governed by legislation. In many ways that is necessary as we navigate 21st century life, but the concern is that it leads to a change in spirit and ethos.
A God of order
We’re in a period of change (aren’t we always) with many long-standing and highly respected pastors retiring. The new generation often struggles to gain respect. It’s good that they usually go by their first name rather than a more formal title, but they can be spoken of in ‘lesser’ terms. Our Christian circles tend to be relatively small so leaders are often in churches where there are people who knew them as children; the principle of ‘a prophet being without honour in their home town’ is still alive and kicking! The question, ‘How’s your new pastor getting on?’ can often be answered by statements such as, ‘He’s getting on OK, still got a lot to learn.’ We took in a rescue dog 2 years ago and that’s how we would talk about her!
Let’s summarise where we’ve got to: a culture that assumes leaders are in the wrong until they prove otherwise and demands that leaders are crowd pleasers to keep consumers happy (the same consumers who are paying the leader’s salary!), being navigated by a load of whippersnappers who will never be as good as the old guys!
Does it matter? I think it does. God is a God of order. He has laid out a structure for church life and part of this is gifting churches with leaders. Satan tries to sow disorder and one of the ways he does it is by undermining church leaders and he’s been fairly successful. What do we do about it?
The good thing is that none of this is new. Think about Moses. I always smile when I read what the people said to Joshua: ‘Just as we fully obeyed Moses, so we will obey you’ (Josh. 1 :17). Hmm! Paul’s leadership was called into question; people wanted Jesus to dance to a different tune; Timothy was being despised. So, if you’re a leader take heart, Jesus saw this coming, the Bible is sufficient.
I worked for an organisation that had four core values that many remembered using the acronym ‘ICE-T’. I always thought they were biblical, so I am going to use them here as four values for leading well if you are a leader.
The qualifications for church leaders are overwhelmingly to do with character. Unless you’ve pulled the wool over people’s eyes, you’re in the position because you have demonstrated godly character. Pray that you will act with integrity in everything even when others don’t.
This gets back to the idea of being in a covenant relationship. It’s likely that when you became a leader, you made certain promises to the church. They govern whose interests you are acting in. It’s good to re-read them and ask for divine help in keeping them. They’re also a big help when the pressure is so great that you are on the brink of quitting. God led you to the point of making these promises and until he releases you from them, he will enable you to fulfil them. One of the things you are committed to doing is praying earnestly for your people.
Strive to do all things well. We are to do everything as if we are doing it to the Lord.
Work together with others and value their input, from within the church and in other local churches. Work with your fellow elders.
Responding to church leaders
The same four ‘values’ can be applied to churches as they respond to their leaders. Are you acting with integrity towards your leaders or are you talking about them behind their backs? Is your relationship to the church (and therefore the leaders) one of commitment or is it a consumer relationship? It is likely that you have made promises to the church and to the leaders. How are you doing? Are you praying for your leaders and their families? What are you praying for them? There was a great phrase in our values booklet to do with excellence: ‘Take an enterprise point of view’. That means striving to ensure that your actions are for the good of the church as a whole and not just for your own ends. Teamwork recognises different roles and responsibilities in church life. Are you allowing your leaders to lead? Are you enabling them to thrive?
Let’s pray for leaders to be increasingly like Jesus, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Let’s pray that as churches we won’t reject the leaders Jesus has appointed, even when they don’t agree with us. It’s important to recognise the spirit of the age as we seek to resist it and follow the patterns the head of the church has set out for local church life.
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