Since there is no one set model for church leadership within Scripture, it is not possible to speak of the ‘right’ way of leadership or the ‘biblical’ way of leadership that churches today should adopt. We also need to remember that the early church grew in a culture and context very different from our own, and so we need to be very careful about unthinkingly transferring ideas and practices from the book of Acts into our modern day setting.
Looking at churches in the UK today, it is possible to wonder what drives and motivates some of those congregations. Do they want to know Jesus and know him intimately, or are they merely holy social clubs? What do they seek when they come together? Perhaps one of the most important issues is to ask what the members of Baptist churches expect of their leaders.
Often Baptist church members can have the idea that their church is run on the democratic lines of ‘one member one vote’ when, in fact, that is not the true Baptist model at all. Members can often expect that their leaders can do little more than blow their noses without authority from a church meeting, while others fear their church becoming a cult if too much power is given into the hands of leaders. The latter tends to be more true when the church is led by one man – and I do mean man.
Leadership within Baptist Churches can be a really thorny issue that raises emotions and voices on every side of the debate. This paper seeks to think and to raise issues in a calm and measure way that allows a thinking and gentle discussion. It is my belief that serious and lengthy discussion about leadership in Baptist churches is needed if we are to be churches that meaningfully represent Christ in the communities in which we live and move and have our being.
This form of church government is the one that Baptist churches have historically adopted although Beasley-Murray says that “no thinking Baptist would claim that the congregational model is exactly patterned on the New Testament church [since] it is clear that church structures varied from place to place”. Congregationalism is not democracy but theocracy – at least in theory. It is the model in which the congregation comes together to discern the heart, mind and will of God through the church meeting.
Historically, the newly emerging Baptist churches of the seventeenth century were opposed to the kind of top-down and authoritarian practice of leadership that they saw in other denominations where strong leaders became virtually cult leaders. While the Baptist churches were far less prone to falling under the powerful leadership of one man, it could nonetheless happen that one man could exert more influence than was perhaps sensible.
According to Wilkerson-Hayes, Baptists in those days were insistent on the need for “independent assembly, unencumbered by … the intervention of bishops and other authorities”. Fiddes said that the early Baptist vision of church was that “There is no chain of command, no pyramid of power. Christ alone rules, and the task of the local church gathered in covenant community together is to find the mind of Christ”.
In those early Baptist churches, the responsibility for church leadership lay with every believer to do their part to fulfil the vision of congregational government. Such Baptist church leadership would be free of external influence, it would not be subject to the whim of one man – whoever he may be – and it would unite the congregation in following the mind of Christ. While this sounds good practice, the realization of such a vision was to prove far easier to say than it would be to implement.
The early Baptists did believe that their churches should have leaders who would be the pastors, teachers, elders and deacons that would oversee each Baptist church. Yet, for some reason, apostles, prophets and the like seemed to have been dropped from the type of leadership that God provided.
Congregational church government in modern day Baptist churches is frequently a source of deep frustration to its appointed leaders who often feel that they have been elected to lead the church, but that they are not actually allowed to do so. Democracy stands in the way of leadership, and democracy demands to be heard. “We haven’t voted…” Thus, church leaders who have debated and prayed long over issues can find their plans rejected by a church membership that is not in possession of everything that the leaders knew in order to make their plans.
Is the ‘one member one vote’ system of Government naïve in treating every member as equal when, in fact, some will be more spiritually mature than others, some will be more informed than others, and some will be more experienced than others? Part of the criticism of congregational government is that nothing changes quickly in the church, and yet the churches are living in a time when the world around them is changing very quickly.
Baptist churches, along with many others, have had the historical experience of leadership within the churches being equated with status. Leadership was often about a person or persons being elected to a position of status, rather than to a place of servanthood. This caused leaders to lord it over the congregation instead of serving them for Christ, in direct violation of Christ’s own teaching.
When the apostle Paul referred to himself as an apostle and leader, he did not do so with the titles that indicated status and seniority, since those terms were allied to a kind of leadership that indicated superiority. Instead Paul used words and terms that indicated co-workers partners, and even went as far as describing himself as a slave.
When people within the churches that Paul oversaw adopted the cultural styles of leadership that Paul himself shunned, the apostle challenged them. The beginning of 1 Corinthians demonstrated that very well. Paul’s leadership was not about control, but was pastoral, brotherly, paternal and for the building up of the body of Christ.
It is unfortunately true the ‘one man’ model of church ministry makes it easy for that pastor to assume control of the church and lead it in an authoritarian way. Such a leader does not give equal weight to the voices and concerns of his fellow elders, but lords it over them by working to get his own way. Of course, church secretaries are not immune to the temptation of seizing control of a church.
When power, position and pet projects are more important than the people in a church, a cult is forming. Leaders are called by God because of his qualifications, not because of the leader’s qualifications. God calls those leaders to serve him within the context of a local church, not to serve themselves. Indeed, the leaders are not to serve people either, if that only means pandering to their wishes and trying to fulfil their expectations.
Paul also recognised leaders because of the way that they were already living and serving. For Paul, leadership simply recognised how a person was already functioning in a Christ-like manner. Leadership was never about calling an individual to a position of status and expecting them to fulfil that position by leading. Leadership was never about status that elevated one person above another. All leaders are role models, but what kind of role models they are is another question entirely.
While it is certainly true that the New Testament never elevates one person above another but regards all God’s people as priests and members of the king’s royal family, it is also true that the New Testament recognises that God calls leaders of various types because:
- The church needs to be led or else it will drift or stagnate.
- Some people have maturity and experience that needs to be used in service.
- Some people are young in the faith and need to be discipled accordingly.
- Every member of the church is not ready for leadership at the same time.
- Every member has different qualities and it is God alone who sees how best to use people.
The church meeting of many Baptist churches today is a travesty of how it was originally practised when it was a worship gathering in which the heart, mind and will of God were discerned in the context of communal worship. For many Baptist churches today, the church meeting is now little more than a democratic exercise in which leaders seek the agreement of the congregation in the context of discussion and – frequently – argument. Whether the leaders get that agreement is another question.
Personal preferences and prejudices must be laid aside for the church meeting, but, all too often, they are the weapons of choice at such a meeting. This causes the meeting to seek not so much the mind of Christ as to agree the will of those with the loudest voices and most persuasive arguments. Such meetings are most un-Christ-like and will, by definition, never discern the mind of Christ. The body is in great danger of having cancer.
Amongst Baptist churches, as in every area of life, there will be disagreements. On that we can all agree! Disagreement is not in itself a problem for Baptist Churches. The problem is in how disagreement is handled. Closely related to this, is learning how unhealthy disagreement can be avoided.
While leaders may not be able to tell a congregation everything that is going on in relation to a particular issue under discussion, the wise leadership will never spring important decisions on a membership unannounced. Consultation and discussion should precede the church meeting – certainly by weeks if not months. Disagreement arising at the consultation and discussion stage can be listened to, considered, and taken into account by the wise leadership. The congregation needs to own the decisions that they are making – not just tolerate them.
Christian leadership as modelled by the apostle Paul and others of his day was far removed from the leadership patterns of Greek and Roman culture that was prevalent around them. Servant leadership is not weak leadership, but servant leadership serves Christ for the good of the people.
Everyday life for many people today is filled with the Greek and Roman styles of leadership that is all about self-promotion at the expense of others. Little wonder, then, that there is a tendency to bring those styles of leadership into the church.
Perhaps many Baptists do not know what Godly leadership looks like, because they have never experienced it. Perhaps they do not realize that Christian leadership is not the exercise of power but the practice of servanthood. Perhaps too many people have only ever known the kind of leadership that lords it over others to the benefit of self.
Perhaps only the church can truly model the kind of servanthood leadership in which the leaders care first of all for the people and the people respect and trust their leaders enough to let them lead. This is altogether an important subject that needs much thought, discussion and implementation if church is truly to be the body of Christ.
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