One of the things that fascinates me most is our tendency to disregard the things the Gospels and the Epistles teach in order to embrace or accommodate doing things just like the dominant culture around us.
I think the root of this is not biblical illiteracy but rather a conviction (conscious or unconscious) that the Bible, for all that it is, is not practical.
Back in my Bible College days, right after John finished writing Revelation, a good friend of mine was interning for the summer at a Colorado church. In his first staff meeting the senior pastor asked if my friend could recommend any good books on leadership. My friend suggested a book we had just read for a class the semester before, A Theology of Church Leadership, by LarryRichards. The senior pastor replied, “No, I mean something practical.”
A little part of me died when I first heard that story.
One thing that seems clear to me is that kingdom leadership has only one Lord and we’re not to have any “lording” going on in the kingdom.
First, there’s this troubling passage in red, Matthew 20:25-28 “But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (NLT)
And then Peter seems to be drawing on that when he writes to church leaders and says, “Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example.” (1 Peter 5:2-3 NLT)
Jesus demonstrates his approach to leadership in the Upper Room by washing his disciples feet and punctuates the experience with these not so cryptic words, “I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.” (John 13:15 NLT)
I’ve been with church leaders who, with a very straight face, have told me, “The way I wash people’s feet is by telling them what to do. I serve the church by exercising my gift of leadership and giving them direction.”
In heaven, Jesus does a face palm every time someone says something like this.
The primary problem with this is: “The way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that comes.”
If we lead like bosses, we’re bringing a bossy kingdom but not a foot washing kingdom. If we, as leaders, lord our position over people rather than becoming their slaves, we’re bringing a lordly kingdom but we’re not bringing a servant of all kingdom. Our tendency is to be like Peter and tell Jesus he has more important things to do than wash our feet but Jesus still reminds us that if we don’t let him serve us, we’re not going to make it into the kingdom. And we can “release” other people to do the foot washing, but if we’re not humbling ourselves and cleaning toilets, stacking chairs and giving someone a lift, we’re building a kingdom but we’re not bringing the same kingdom that our foot washing king calls us to bring.
But this isn’t practical. And it’s messy. And people might not know you’re the boss when you lead like Jesus.
In North America, it seems to me that we are challenged to strive to arrive at a level where you’ll never be mistaken for a slave again. The level where people ask for your endorsement, where they bring you water bottles in the green room and they stop asking you to pick up after yourself. It seems to me that we’ve inverted Jesus’ plan for kingdom leadership in favor of creating a celebrity class and a boss class where your behavior can no longer be questioned and your success is not measured by feet washed but by finances and followers.
“We’re too big to fail.” Isn’t just said about financial institutions and big business. It’s also said about some churches and some Christian celebrities and this is not and has never been the way of the foot-washer King.
Recovery, I think, starts with rejecting celebrity culture, particularly within the church.
Second, while I believe Christian leadership is a form of martyrdom, we must not turn a blind eye to the bad behavior of our brothers and sisters, particularly in leadership roles. We're all human, we all mess up, we all need to be called on our stuff. We all need a Nathan to step up - which starts with leaders who welcome "Nathans" and the confrontation they bring.
Third, we need to filter our practices through this lens, “The way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that comes.”
And finally, we need, like Israel, to stop insisting on human kings so we can be cool like the other nations and just let Jesus be Lord.
I’m not arguing for anarchy, necessarily, but I am very sure that we have by and large adopted pragmatism as our ethic – if it works it must be God – when Jesus called us to entirely different kind of kingdom where leaders are recognized by their service and not by their status.