Misconceived Leadership

Target Audience: Evangelical Christians, Conservative Christians

It has been my observation over a number of years that, in a number of churches and denominations, that strong leadership is characterized by the ability of people to control other people and outcomes. That statement is about as judgmental and general as it can get. It isn’t a judgment against any one person or group of people. Perhaps the concept of leadership in churches has always been characterized by strong, dominant, assertive or aggressive individuals who pilot agendas from beginning to end. I offer no evidence to support this claim or to contradict it. I have also never been to the Global Leadership Summit, or Leadercast, as it once was called, albeit a number of leaders in various churches have attempted to coax me into going. 

The fundamental misconception of leadership is that it has to be “strong”, or “assertive”, or “aggressive” and that its ultimate objective, in an ecclesiastical environment, is to “pilot” an agenda from beginning to end. I believe this concept of leadership is completely foreign to the New Testament concept of leaders being equippers of God’s people. 

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The Apostle Paul writes:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for the works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-13 NIV

The one thing God asks of the offices listed above is that they equip his people for the works of service. Please note that he didn’t say the well-educated people, or the rich people, or the good looking people, or the successful people, or the experienced people. He just said that those in leadership in churches should equip God’s people for the works of service. I like the fact that “works” is plural and not singular. I have heard it so often used in the singular inferring that there is but one work in the ministry, but there are so many. 

While church leaders today would be loathe to admit it, I believe there is a separation of “sheep and goats” when it comes to selecting leaders in churches. In my own church I have experienced this discrimination. I have been told that I am not “ready to lead”. I find that to be a most curious statement. What does it mean to be “ready to lead”? Does it mean that I still think too independently for the tastes or the comfort of the appointed church leadership? Do they think that I am not mature enough in my faith (after 45 years as a Christian)? Perhaps I am not. Merely being a Christian for decades does not necessarily mean one is mature in the faith. Who, then, is qualified to lead? How do they determine who is qualified and who is not qualified to lead? When I read passages like the one I quoted above, I am led to believe that God feels that all of His people are qualified to lead, otherwise He would not have given those in leadership the perpetual task of equipping His people for the works of ministry. I tend to think that the very word “leadership” or “leader” is so polluted by ungodly imagery that it may no longer be useful within churches.

Those in leadership may assert that I am sucking on sour grapes because I was not “chosen” or “selected” for a leadership position in my church. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I abhor the notion that leadership itself is something to be obtained or a goal, or that if you are in leadership, you have “arrived” at some lofty plateau of Christian excellence. In many, many cases people celebrate their ascension to leadership rather than approach it with a sober humility. In a recent chat with a leader at my church, I asked him why he picked the study questions for our Bible study each week. [Now I want to couch his response with all due respect and humility because he may have fired off a hurried response without taking time to think about it. I have been there many times and have always lived to regret it.] He responded that he selects the questions that he feels are most important and because of time constraints not everyone will be able to discuss questions that are relevant to them. Sadly, his response is very consistent with many other leaders in churches today. 

Picking the study questions in a youth Bible study or a study for young children is entirely appropriate as they may have not yet gained the intuitive abilities necessary to choose their own questions in a group. This leader, though, is leading a Bible study of well-educated and mature Christian adults. The notion that they are not capable of rationally choosing their own questions for discussion is offensive on the surface and leads to yet another question about liberty and legalism.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1 NIV

The Greek word for freedom in this passage is eleutheria (ἐλευθερίᾳ) which can be translated freedom or liberty, in particular, liberty from slavery. That first sentence could accurately be translated, It is for liberty that Christ has set us free. Google defines “liberty” as: the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views, or: the power or scope to act as one pleases. Even within the restrictive context of the Bible, God creates a balance between liberty (the ability to choose) and order (see 1 Corinthians 14). Unfettered liberty is in itself a form of slavery as we become slaves to our own desires that will ultimately lead to fractured communities. Liberty within the context of a structured environment, though, produces freedom when people are offered the ability to make choices that result in growth and greater intimacy with God.

Leaders that seek to manipulate or control people and outcomes deny the liberty that is rightfully given to people by Christ. They are leading, but if their ultimate goal isn’t to equip all of God’s people for works of service, then what is the object of their leadership? If they are not leading in a manner that results in people being equipped to do their jobs, essentially putting them out of work, then how are they truly equipping God’s people? If leaders are selected by criteria that is a clever blend of worldly imagery and Biblical principles, how does that serve to bring people on the margins (and every church has them) into the full fellowship of the church? 

I believe the answers to these problems lie not in the blogosphere but in open and honest discussion within churches, including people who feel as if they are on the margins, those who may not be “ready to lead” or those who others may not see as leaders. I don’t think there is a simple answer because the world we live isn’t a simple place. Blogs such as this one and others can contribute ideas and thoughts to a discussion that needs to be ongoing in progressive churches that have an interest in growing, both numerically and in the sense of intimacy with Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hatred Wrapped as Love

Target Audience: Conservatives, Evangelical Christians, Fundamentalist Christians

God is Love (1John 4:8)

What happens when we blend the definition of love with our political ideologies? An ideology is a set of beliefs commonly held by people within a certain group. For example, conservatives have beliefs that are distinctive to them. The same is true for liberals and other political ideologies. Everyone has an ideology of some kind. All of us align ourselves with one community or another, often several different communities intersect our lives. So our worldview is often a blend of various different ideologies and systems of belief. 

Those of us who identify as followers of Jesus, though, have agreed to align our worldview with a much higher standard — the principles of the kingdom of God, which Jesus Himself ushered in when He was on earth. As such, we commit to a new way of seeing other people. 

Recently, I had a conversation with a young Christian. He told me that while he doesn’t offer much original content on his Facebook page, his friends have no doubt about where he stands on God and issues such as LGBTQ. When I dug a bit deeper I discovered that his idea of “standing for God” was to tell people within the LGBTQ community that they are living in sin and their lifestyle would ultimately destroy them. In his opinion, this was the best way to communicate and show them the love of God. He went on to tell me that he did not have “time for theological discussions”. Sadly, he is symbolic of many right-wing, conservative Christians who tend to highlight the wrath, the judgment, the anger of God as opposed to His love, forgiveness, and His mercy. I was not privy to his conversations with the LGBTQ people to which he referred, but I doubt any of them asked if they could go to church with him to hear more about his vengeful God. 

Like so many [conservative] Christians these days, he focused on a person’s issues — note I did not use the word sin — instead of doing what Jesus really asked us to do, point them to Himself that they may know His love. Sin robs all humanity of the moral high ground. None of us have the right to think of ourselves as better than anyone else or to sit in judgment of another person. That alone is Christ’s role. 

When we wrap prejudice, hatred, and bigotry up and call it love we betray God and the essence of the gospel by which we were saved. I have often felt that the people who feel they have the moral high ground and look down on others tend to feel that it didn’t take quite as much of Jesus’ blood to cleanse them as it does the real perverts, like people in the LGBTQ community. 

That brings me to The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. While I can agree on a few points in this document, most of the points, specifically referring to race, sexual orientation, and women are abhorrent to the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This statement places men above women, and in fact subjugates women to men in a marriage relationship rather than making them equal partners with their husbands. A proscription found in the Pauline epistles prohibiting women from teaching in church or even speaking in church has been elevated to transcendent doctrine instead of being identified as a cultural practice. In Paul’s time men were usually educated and women were taught by men. Hence, women were not equipped to teach or speak in churches in that day. That doesn’t make them unequal with men. That is merely a cultural norm that does not need to be carried over into the 21st century. 

Women were not their only targets. People within the LGBTQ community also felt their hatred and scorn. Instead of welcoming people from that community into churches as full members of the body, worshipping alongside all others, The Statement declares them to be sinful merely because of their identity and their lifestyle. Far too many Christians have misread and misunderstood the New Testament with respect to homosexuality. Even worse, they have demonized homosexual men and women, making it a far greater issue than it ever was in the Bible. I have long believed this hatred and bigotry is borne of insecurity among heterosexual leaders in churches that they have successfully inculcated in their flocks over generations. It is now accepted as transcendent doctrine on the level of the deity of Christ, blood redemption, or the virgin birth, when in fact it is error that went to seed.

Jesus said: A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another. (John 13:34-35). The authors of the Statement got it wrong. It is the exclusive work of the Holy Spirit to convict the world of sin. In their smugness, highlighting the errors of other sinners for which Christ died, they inadvertently violated another instruction that Christ gave: take the plank out of your own eye before you worry about the speck in another person’s eye. The hatred and bigotry that shone through so brightly, not the love of God for all creation, is nothing more than a blight against evangelical Christianity. Instead of drawing people to Christ, many, I am sure, will flee as fast as possible. Who wants to be around a vengeful, hateful god like that?

A much more positive and progressive read is this one: Statement on God’s Justice

Unpacking Legalism

Target Audience: Religious Christians, Conservative Evangelical Christians, Christians

NOTE: I have used certain points in this blog post that appeared in the sermon notes for Frosh Part 4:  Bewitched, from The Meeting House, October 1, 2017. As this document is “released into the common” I will not attribute the specific parts that I quote or use in this blog post.

LegalismIn one of my first political science classes at York University in Toronto, the professor entered the room and asked, “What is the definition of democracy?”. After taking  definitions from a few students, he told us that there are probably as many definitions of democracy as there were students in the room. The same might be said about legalism. 

Among the study questions in this past week’s sermon notes was this one, “Are there forms of this bewitching (from the Greek word ‘ebaskanen’ meaning wicked magical spell, witchcraft, evil eye, a powerful curse) in the church today we should be wary of?” Last Sunday, the message was from Galatians 3:1-18. It occurred to me that before we could answer that question, we had to unpack the concept of legalism. A simple definition might be helpful, but we need to understand it from a conceptual perspective to see how it impacts the life of a church or a follower of Jesus. 

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn one thing from you. Did you receive the Spirit be the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? (Galatians 3:1,2 NIV).

One of the more influential films I watched while in university was Lord of the Flies. It is about a group of children who are stranded and isolated. At first, they are a democratic group, but slowly they move toward a more authoritarian style of social organization. It is relevant here because most Christians favor a democratic style of organization for churches, but at the same time, they also crave rules, regulations, laws, and moral codes to limit choices and thinking. I function best in an environment with high structure and boundaries. An environment that is entirely spontaneous could trigger an anxiety attack in me, quite literally. I draw an enormous amount of security from structure. Maybe I rely upon structure and routine a bit too much, but most of us like the idea of routine, having a schedule, and the idea of rules, laws, and boundaries. For the most part, they keep us safe.

When does structure become legalistic? I believe that otherwise good structure and boundaries become legalistic when they oppress or suppress appropriate freedom of expression. Boundaries and structures, along with rules and laws, are useful for maintaining order and achieving commonly agreed upon objectives. In a church service, for instance, there needs to be an order of service to facilitate coherence in music and teaching. If anyone and everyone was permitted to “do their own thing” whenever they felt like it, there would be very little edification or education achieved. It would descend from order to anarchy to chaos. Structure allows leaders to achieve their goals of teaching and edification of the church. 

The Jews in the Old Testament definitely had structure. In fact they were awash in structure. There are 613 written laws in the Old Testament. Over a number of centuries the Jewish leadership added many rules, customs, traditions, and supplementary laws to the original 613. There were three “markers” that divided the Jewish people from every other culture and race. They were: circumcision, sabbath, and diet. These three things separated the Jews from all other races. In and of themselves, they were merely cultural choices. They became legalistic when they not only separated people God created, but were used to exclude people who did not conform to those three markers.

Let’s expand the concepts of circumcision, sabbath, and diet to unpack the concepts of legalism in our society. 

For the sake of this article, let’s make circumcision a paradigm to represent our physical bodies that can include personal appearance, grooming, clothing styles, ethnicity, skin color, weight, and race. Because I am not using circumcision in a literal, physical sense here, I will include women in this paradigm as well in each of the above mentioned categories. Depending upon your personal opinion about physical circumcision, it may or may not be something you consider to be healthy or necessary. When we use the conceptual markers I listed above to exclude or define people, we have become legalistic. For most Christians these days, things like race or color are barriers that have long been shattered in many evangelical churches. What about personal appearance or clothing styles, though? If someone wanted to teach in a Sunday morning service in blue jeans and a t-shirt, would that be okay where you worship? The markers or categories listed above are only a partial list of things that tend to separate people with respect to our bodies. In some cases people who are overweight might not be considered appropriate leadership models as it reflects a lack of personal discipline. Legalism with respect to our paradigm of circumcision can be a barrier that would prohibit or obstruct a person based upon physical characteristics from serving God in our churches.

I will also make the sabbath into a paradigm as well to represent ethnic culture. Everyone who reads this blog article has a particular culture. For the purposes of this blog article, culture refers to any set of customs, traditions, practices, or rituals that make your culture distinct, different or separate from another culture. That doesn’t mean your culture cannot share values or things with other cultures, but the total of your customs, etc., make your culture distinct from other cultures. Some of the markers that tend to divide or exclude people in culture today are: money, social status, employment, heritage, nationality, political ideology, religion, material possessions including money, moral values, education, sexual orientation, and mental illness. These markers can be very deceptive. Of course we shouldn’t exclude someone on the basis of money or material possessions. That seems fairly obvious, but is it? Are people who are highly successful in business more likely to be given leadership positions in your church than someone who does not appear to have the “qualifications” to lead? Are leadership positions available to people who are not highly educated? Can someone lead in your church if they hold political beliefs or religious beliefs that are not entirely in line with what the church or denomination believes? I believe that the deeper we dig, the more likely we will find legalistic policies and practices in most churches that are there specifically to exclude certain people from service within that church. The policies may have been there for decades, virtually unknown to most people in the church because the current leadership does not revisit the constitution or governing principles of the church regularly. If someone attended your church from another culture or faith how well-equipped is your church to deal with the disparity of culture that might come into play? I believe that sabbath legalism is the most treacherous and insidious form of legalism. We can so easily move from inclusive to exclusive and not even be aware of the movement. There are so many good reasons to exclude people. We can usually find Bible verses to support our views, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we are right. 

As with circumcision and sabbath, I will make diet a paradigm as well. What we eat is largely a matter of personal choice, so this paradigm will deal with personal choices. In the New Testament our first century brothers and sisters in Christ were concerned about things like eating meat sacrificed to idols, whether or not eating pork was allowed, or whether drinking alcoholic beverages is appropriate. Some churches still have strict morals or codes of ethics around consumption of alcohol. Beyond food choices there are numerous other choices that tend to divide people today. One of the choices that I have experienced relates to entertainment. Is it right for followers of Jesus to watch movies that are violent, or have sexual content, or use profanity? Is it appropriate for Christians to listen to music that has violent or profane content? In some cases, the debate over choices can be downright silly, such as what kind of salad dressing one should put on a salad. What version of the Bible is the best? I’ve witnessed many contentious debates about Bible versions. I am not going to spend too much time trying to unpack this paradigm because it is an easy one for anyone who reads this blog to do themselves. I would, though, challenge everyone who reads this blog to unpack it for their own information and education. I have friends who are vegans or vegetarians and they are not always gracious in accepting my choices in food. I have a feeling many may be able to relate to that point. 

I believe that legalism appeals to most of us because it creates a safe place where we do not have to wrestle with difficult or unpleasant moral or ethical choices. When the Apostle Paul extolled the virtues of liberty a little later in the book of Galatians, he exhorted them to guard their liberty, protect it, and don’t let anyone steal it from them. There will always be a tension between guarding our liberty and being legalistic. Many people around the world, particularly in more progressive nations with respect to race, cannot understand the rationale behind the white supremacist movement in the United States. It isn’t that the US has cornered the market on racism or bigotry. I believe the appeal of white supremacy is that it is a very safe place for people who feel threatened by other races and cultures. In the same way, legalism provides this same safe place for Christians who fear living in liberty where other people can make choices and be different without being sinful. While that may be true, God has given us liberty, choice, the ability to be different without it being sinful. I believe we need to not only embrace that, but celebrate it, and praise God for it. 

As always, comments are welcome.