January 22, 2021

Postcards To A Young Theologian 4

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4. Determine to be part of a community where the concept of leadership is fully New Testament in its understanding of the relation of clergy and laity, and is free from the exaggerated and harmful adoration/veneration of personalities so common in unhealthy groups.

How do you know that a community of Christians has the right attitude toward leadership? Here’s an example. Mars Hill Church pastor Mark Driscoll recently posted this at his blog:

A godly friend once asked me an important question: “What do you want to be known for?” I responded that solid theology and effective church planting were the things that I cared most about and wanted to be known for. He kindly said that my reputation was growing as a guy with good theology, a bad temper, and a foul mouth. This is not what I want to be known for. And after listening to the concerns of the board members of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network that I lead, and of some of the elders and deacons at Mars Hill Church that I pastor, I have come to see that my comments were sinful and in poor taste. Therefore, I am publicly asking for forgiveness from both Brian and Doug because I was wrong for attacking them personally and I was wrong for the way in which I confronted positions with which I still disagree. I also ask forgiveness from those who were justifiably offended at the way I chose to address the disagreement. I pray that you will accept this posting as a genuine act of repentance for my sin.

What do you see in this description? You see a pastor subject to his elders. You see a pastor whose faults are able to be discussed and brought to the agenda of an elders meeting without “mutiny” being declared. You see a concern for the pastor’s spiritual life in terms of his own sinfulness, which is accepted and understood. You see the ability to be vulnerable, and the ability to be wrong, all without a threat to “pastoral authority.”

This is a healthy kind of leadership, and it ought to be noted and imitated whenever possible. One of the marks of an unhealthy group loyalty is an unhealthy attitude toward leaders. Too many churches, schools and ministries operate on a veneration and unquestioned submission to leaders who are far from the New Testament model of servant, Christ-like, leadership.

It often seems that the primary characteristic of an unhealthy group is a reluctance to admit the flaws and errors of leadership. Despite the New Testament’s affirmation of leadership that stands with, not above, laity, many Christians find themselves in groups that treat leaders as a separate class. Nothing has been more detrimental to the overall health of the average church than over-reliance on leadership as God’s primary means of working in the church. While Paul spoke of the church as a body, with the ministry as “equippers” of the laity for the work of ministry, many churches seem to give so much attention and adulation to ministers that they become celebrities who can’t be categorized as “just like the rest of us.”

Here are some important questions concerning leadership in Christian communities.

1) In what way is the authority of the leader justified? Is this authority associated with God in ways that are unreasonable and unbiblical?
2) Are the leader’s views on scripture authoritative in ways that are similar to scripture itself? Is the leader cited as a “discussion-ending” source simply by quoting his latest book or sermon?
3) Does the leader have a history of being “less than perfect” that is openly acknowledged? Is the leader’s academic and professional background openly and honestly acknowledged?
4) Can the leader be questioned? Are there channels and opportunities for questions and conversation easily accessible?
5) Does the leader exempt himself from from ordinary ministry?
6) Does the leader express his relationship with God in reasonable and Biblical ways? Does he say “God spoke to me” in a way that is incredible?
7) Does the leader name his own successors and associates, or is there a congregation-including process for transitions in leadership?
8) Is the leader venerated? Is the leader frequently compared to historical figures such as Luther?
9) Is the leader self-deprecating? Does he appreciate humor at this own expense?
10) Is criticism of the leader described as some form of spiritual rebellion or sin? For instance, is disagreeing with a position in a sermon described as “mockery” or “heaping judgement on yourself?”

These are simple questions that are not a matter of having an “ax to grind.” Almost anyone advising young theologians on the kinds of communities they want to identify with could make up such a list, regardless of tradition or denomination.

Every time I teach the Gospel of Mark, I am struck with the fact that this Gospel portrays the disciples as not simply less than perfect, but downright disappointing, cowardly and “slow.” Scholars debate the purpose of such a uniformly negative portrayal of the future leaders of the church, but it is not a mystery: The Holy Spirit wanted it to be clear that the leadership of the church is made up of common, ordinary sinners, not supernatural saints.

Christian history knows no more bloody, humiliating trail than the trail of following exalted, anointed, venerated, authoritative leaders into error, sin, violence and apostasy. Would Jesus recognize the men and women worshipped at the Dove Awards? At pastors’, evangelism, and church growth conferences? At the publishing conventions? Are they the leaders Jesus had in mind when he spent time with sinners, washed feet and told Peter to feed his sheep?

Christians are always looking for “God on earth.” They are looking for “living proof” that the Gospel is true. Unethical, overly exalted leaders fulfill this role throughout Christian history. They bring Christians into an unhealthy dependence on human beings taking the place of God’s mind, voice and presence.

It is distressing how young theologians are drawn onto the “teams” of various leaders, citing and promoting those leaders as if they were the apostles themselves. Beware of this team sport, and be aware that it will occur when you identify with almost any group. Paul’s warning to the Corinthians that their personality cults were infantile seems lost on even the most intelligent among us.

Never feel guilty when you have concluded that a community is too dependent on, too exalting of, and too enamored with a leader. Such a community is forgetting that Christ alone is the head of the church, and leaders are “unworthy servants.”


  1. dpaultaylor57 says

    “Paul’s warning to the Corinthians that their personality cults were infantile seems lost on even the most intelligent among us.”

    Exactly. You encounter it every day when you enter the blogosphere. So let Paul speak to them: “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!” (1 Cor. 4:10). And one other thing: Whose example would you prefer to follow?

  2. As a new believer I got caught up in a Christian group that characterized all of the above. In fact we were so exclusive we prided ourselves as following the New Testament pattern, while being convinced that most of the mainstream evangelicals were not. I devoted 21+ years to the group.

    When I left as a “find out”, as opposed to a “washed out”, or a “burned out” or a “kicked out” (see http://nextreformation.com/html/articles/recover.htm) the only thing the group admitted to was their exclusivity, while ignoring all the other abuses practiced liberally in the name of “spiritual” zeal. To date, most of the leaders have not apologized, and especially not on blogospere nor via email nor via letter.

    Yes, it is refreshing that Mark Driscoll has the guts to admit his error and repent publicly. Having experienced “spiritual abuse”, I say a hearty “Amen” to your post. I now fellowship at a Baptist church where the congregation is made up of individuals from a variety of backgrounds (CRC, Lutheran, Brethren, etc..), the pastors are accountable to the elders, and, that which most take for granted, I appreciate that much more because of my history.

    There is a warning for each of us to not be like the “foolish Galatians” who gave up their liberty in Christ to “follow another gospel”.


  3. P.S.

    an interesting article “How a religious CULTure is Created” see: http://www.batteredsheep.com/pdf/think04.pdf


  4. Histrion (Jay H) says

    Michael: two questions for you.

    1. Do you think that attitudes of “veneration and unquestioned submission to leaders” are related to the use of the Bible as a, to use your term, “magic book?”

    2. If the disciples (including the apostles-to-be) are so clearly portrayed in Mark’s Gospel as (heh) disappointing, why do so many people interpret them as being perfect leaders and conduits of God’s Spirit after Jesus’s resurrection (or after Pentecost, alternatively)?

  5. Jay,
    The answer to your second question seems to me to follow a simple chain of logic (or “presuppositions” if you prefer).
    1) God is perfect
    this means that
    2) God only does things perfectly
    We know that
    3) God used these men as leaders.
    These men were perfect leaders

    This line of reasoning also seems to drive the argument for Biblical inerrancy. We grow very uncomfortable with God using an apparently fallible means.

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