How we lead and how we follow reveals a lot about us. Let’s explore this.
Like a blazingly bright city on a hill, like a vibrant international tribe or like a fire lit by God Himself, the Church is the most exciting thing to be part of on earth, if we see it right. It’s God’s family and His chosen tool for changing the world with the love and power of Christ. Church is also, quite unfortunately, made up of you and I with all our wonderful and painful flaws.
So as God’s people we are wonderful because we are God’s, but flawed because we are people. Until God finishes His work in us this creates tension. How can we work together to best reflect what God is like without getting in the way? How should churches be led and run?
We read in scripture how a few thousand years ago God’s people, Israel, was in a real mess. Heroes were flawed and victories were short-lived. As the story of the struggle, the book of Judges, recounts:
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
They hardly had anyone to guide them.
And so God led His people, Israel, by appointing prophets and priests. These leaders were to be His voice and hands, with each group able to complement and critique the other. But the people weren’t satisfied with this arrangement. 1 Samuel 8 describes how they begged the prophet Samuel for a king. God wasn’t enthralled with the idea:
But when they said, ‘Give us a king to lead us,’ this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: ‘Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.
(1 Samuel 8:6-7)
They simply weren’t impressed enough with God. They wanted a charismatic human leader they could look to, to inspire confidence and to tell them what they must do to make their nation great. God knew they’d regret it. Kings would rule with an iron fist, they’d take the cream of the crop and make citizens into slaves again. As it has been said: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Nevertheless, because they insisted God gave them kings. Some were good but many abused their power exactly as God had predicted.
Even so, if we side with God He’ll always use our mistakes for some greater good somehow. In Jesus, God Himself stepped into this line of kings. But this God-king Jesus was a king unlike any earthly kings. Many in his day expected him to be a militaristic earthly ruler like the kings of old, but he came as a servant, not to be served. Here was a king who chose a donkey for his triumphal coronation procession, not a warhorse. Make no mistake, he is the mightily fearsome creator, ruler and judge of the universe, but he is also a humble servant.
Back to Church. Clearly there’s a right place for authority, for leadership, for rulership: Jesus was an immensely charismatic leader! Many Churches genuinely thrive on the gifting of a few individuals, with very centralised organisation and well controlled social and missionary work. This isn’t intended as a critique of the methods of any particular church, except perhaps our own. All genuine authority is founded in God, and when organisational authority is used well it can be an incredible power for good. However, in the kingdom of God rulership is radically different to the twisted way of this world.
Sometimes we can be tempted to beg for an earthly king, some kind of charismatic leader to inspire confidence and call us into their big vision. When God raises up charismatic leaders, all good. In some sense we all carry royalty, so good church leadership will have a noble, confident, royal edge to it. But often when we beg for a king, according to God it’s not current leadership we’re rejecting, but Him. We simply lose sight of God’s ultimate sufficiency as our Leader of leaders.
Genuinely godly leadership doesn’t take God’s place and it doesn’t create an unhealthy reliance on itself: it points people to the ultimate authority, God Himself. While good friends can carry us through doubts and fears neither Church nor church leadership should take the place of a personal relationship with God.
If leaders are like shepherds, a good shepherd doesn’t feed his sheep by stuffing grass into their mouths, but instead he walks ahead, shows them where they can find grass and then keeps watch. In the same way we must lead but not control, and we must each learn to drink from the river of life.