“And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)
During our first term of service in Japan, in establishing a new congregation we sought to implement the principal of Christ’s Lordship. We trained new believers in leadership, including teaching and preaching as the ability developed. I did not do all the baptizing, marrying, burying, presiding, or preaching. I wanted to follow the New Testament pattern of a plural eldership in the church. But it was totally counter-cultural.
The first Japanese pastor to whom the work was entrusted, took as his first objective getting rid of those threatening non-professional church leaders. He himself had to be present for every meeting of members, even the women’s meetings. Each member must be tied to his authority and dependent on him for all vital spiritual services. He closed all the daughter churches, insisting that those in outlying districts fold their lives into the mother church. He could not control those four or five congregations at a distance. No matter that he lost most of those outlying members, he was a strong leader and the church thrived. Depending on the strength of the leader, that is what may well happen anywhere.
I learned my lesson. On the second term we started a church more in line with Japanese patterns of relating. Years later, I learned that the pastor of the first church also learned his lesson and grieved for what he had done to the flock. Surely there is a biblical way of leading that is both culturally appropriate and biblically sound.
In my experience, many leaders do not move up the escalator to usurpation of God’s prerogatives, but no leader and no church is immune. Why is that? Perhaps it has to do with the source of our fallenness. Immediately following Peter’s classic description of godly leadership (1 Peter 5:1-6) he gives a warning: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm…” (vs. 8).
Whether or not Isaiah quoted only the spirit of the king of Babylon when he referred to Lucifer or whether he had in mind the evil power behind that king, he certainly captured the spirit of Satan when he said: “I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God… I will be like the Most High” (Isaiah 14.13, 14).
Without doubt, Satan, like all the creatures of God, was created in the moral image of God. But he was not satisfied with that. He aspired to God’s divine authority, his incommunicable attributes – his sovereignty, his power, his knowledge, his glory. And thus he became God’s adversary.
Prowling like a lion, says the first senior pastor, Peter. I always considered the lion to be very bold and all-powerful, but on reflection he may be something of a coward. He does not often attack the strong, only the weak, the ill, the young, the small. So it is with Satan.
There are signs to recognize in a leader when the enemy is gaining ground in a church, devil-like characteristics that may begin small but gradually lead on to more and more usurpation of God’s role as ultimate lord of the church.
- If the pastor is not functionally accountable to anyone but himself in the day-to-day management of the “corporation,” have care. The enemy is on the prowl.
- An early indication is for the leader to become less and less approachable. The “little people,” do not find a warm welcome, especially when they don’t agree with what the leader has said or done.
- Then there is more and more isolation – isolation from criticism, isolation from a close personal relationship with ordinary members as the “yes men” are gathered round in protective formation.
- This leads soon to infallibility – the “pope” cannot be controverted. A tell-tale sign is when the pulpit often resounds with phrases such as, “God told me.” If God told him, there is nowhere to turn; that settles the matter. Infallible direction, vision and even building plans are all baptized under God’s name and beyond challenge.
- Finally such a leader reaches the pinnacle–immutability, incapable of change. He has taken on the prerogatives of Deity.
The stages of his ascent to the throne are, then, less and less accountable, then less and less accessible, then less and less pliable and finally less and less fallible.
In reality, of course, those heights are impossible to attain. When a leader tries to project an image of infallible wisdom, fully adequate strength, and unfailing success, it is actually a false image and no leader should feel embarrassed when the truth of his humanity becomes known. A Christ-dominated leader will be mature enough and transparent enough not to attempt to cover his own ignorance, weakness, and failure.
This fact of life needs balance, however. It doesn’t mean he should go with the contemporary in “honestly” making himself “vulnerable” by flaunting his “humanity,” or, as some seem to do, celebrating his sinfulness. If he is truly spiritual, the lordship of Christ in his life will be a constant reminder to the people that it is possible to maintain an attitude of irrevocable and unfailing commitment to Christ as Lord, never failing through consciously rejecting the known will of God. This is true servanthood, bowing to the Lord of life in every aspect of life. Thus there is an appropriate “open heart” of vulnerability and transparency of leaders while consistently modeling the life of spiritual maturity, a balance of grace with truth (1 Corinthians 6:11-13).
Man-dependency, if not man-worship, tends to develop. One final result of human lordship is the potential division or loss of membership when the pastor leaves or dies – the central authority figure is no longer there, but loyalty to him lingers on. Where are you on the leadership escalator? Are others afraid to address concerns with the leader? To whom do you teach others to submit? Why? Is this man worship or God worship?