Church Leadership: Could Jesus be right?


What is leadership in the kingdom of God?

The question of leadership in church life is a hot one. The Roman Catholic view, which consists of a single hierarchy of authority governing all aspects of church life, culminating in a single figure in the Pope, is profoundly different from the cell-church/home-church model consisting of as few as half a dozen members in one authority “cell”.

It matters

The question is important. After all, unless we agree on what leadership is, we can’t determine what leaders should do. For example, if a church group teaches that believers should only marry believers, and one of their members starts a relationship with a non-believer, what should the leadership do? Should they get involved? If so, how, and to what extent? Is ‘disciplinary action’ part of the conversation?

Is “bigger” necessarily “better”?

I’ve never had to take responsibility for a large church group, and there’s probably good reason for that. If anyone wanted to give me responsibility for a large group (say, more than 50), my first instinct would be to raise up sufficient leaders to split the large group into a number of smaller groups (each being, say, about 30 people), so I then wouldn’t have responsibility for a large group anyway!

I have a number of reasons for this. It goes way beyond the observation that there were no large church congregations in the New Testament. I mean, that’s hardly a reason not to have them now. No, it’s far more practical than that.

Who’s the Boss

In my experience, Christ is head of His Church. That’s where I begin my consideration. Notice that it’s not “in my Bible, Christ is the head of His Church”, that I’m worried about here. I mean, that is what the Bible says, but it is my experience of this fact that guides my approach. After all, such a statement could mean simply that Jesus started the church, and it now grows from him over time. To argue with that view through the Scriptures is boring and abstract, but I have seen what Jesus’ headship means, and what I have seen informs my interpretation of what the Bible says.

I have seen that, when asked to, and then allowed to, The Lord Himself will conduct a meeting of the faithful, speaking to them, ministering among them, and teaching them. Often what He is saying will come from the overflow of their hearts, and be spoken among the group. Sometimes it is non-verbal but palpable, just the same. I’ve seen grown men cry like babies in such settings. That’s headship. That’s authority.

So why split into smaller groups? I mean, why not get more people in the room? Is it better with less?

Well, it’s probably better with less, but sometimes it’s great with a large crowd too. The reason is not directly related to the number of people in the room, it’s related to the number of people in the community. When you have more than a few dozen people in the community there is a marked dropping away of intimacy. It becomes possible simply not to socialise with some of the members, and to form cliques.

But an even more important reason is that Christ desires to bless His church with pastors, prophets, evangelists, teachers, and so forth. How can He do that if 98% of the church is “the audience”? In smaller groups, the Lord Himself searches the hearts of the members and anoints those whom He is giving to the church as gifts (Eph 4:7-13). How much better then, to have, say 5 groups of 30 instead of one group of 150? In the 5 groups you can have 15 strongly developing leaders, whereas in the 150 you can only have maybe 3.

But I digress…

What does that leadership look like?

Jesus compared leadership in the wider world with leadership in the kingdom of God this way:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. – Matt 20:25-28

Now, the first thing someone in paid ministry will tell you is that this doesn’t literally mean “must be your slave”, but they’re wrong.

Leader = Servant

This passage deliberately sets Jesus’ example as the normative picture of kingdom leadership. Not only did he humble himself in washing the disciples’ feet and tell his followers to imitate him (John 13), but further, humbled himself to death on the cross. That kind of self-giving is held out as something to be emulated by believers:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. – Phil 2:5-11

Come on. You didn’t even read it, did you… 😉

Never mind. Here’s what it says: It says that it was Jesus’ humility in sacrifice which precipitated his exaltation. It says that in the ultimate humility, Jesus unlocked the ultimate authority to rule. It says that we should treat our relationships with one another in the same way.

Authority in Relationship

In short, this means that, unless I have become somebody’s slave, I have no authority in their life. I can teach them, I can offer them advice and counsel, but if they don’t want it, I can’t impose it on them. When I humble myself and serve a person, then I am exalted to a position of authority.

“Ok”, you may ask, “How much servanthood do I have to do before I can boss people around?”

Here’s the thing. As someone’s servant, although I am given authority (by them) to speak into their life, my perspective remains that of a servant. I can’t boss them around because I’m looking at their life from the angle a servant does. What is left to me is to encourage, exhort, advise, even beg them to consider my words… but I cannot command them. As soon as I do that, I am no longer in humility, and I lose my authority to speak.

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. – 2 Cor 4:5

Jesus so wanted us to understand this that he told a story. Here’s the punch line:

… take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. – Luke 14:10-11

This is my experience. People whom I have been serving for a while start to exalt me to a position of advisor and guide. They start ascribing titles of honour and respect to me. If I had tried to put myself there, they would (quite rightly) reject me. Just because we think we have something to say in someone’s life does not give us authority to say it.

Authority belongs to God

God has authority to speak into people’s lives, and he desires to. He has given us the miraculous key to the door of people’s hearts so that we can be God’s voice in that place. All we have to do is let go of all pretension of “leadership”, and serve the person. Then God will speak.

But Paul’s leadership was pretty bossy, wasn’t it…?

No, it wasn’t.

He is often assumed to be bossy because he gives so many instructions in his pastoral letters. A closer look, however, reveals that his instructions are responses to questions he has been asked. The times he gets testy are when false teachers are swanning in and questioning Paul’s teachings and apostolic credentials, and leading his flock astray. But Paul says of his own ministry:

We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young children among you.

Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. – 1 Thess 2:6-8

People like to think of Paul as a screaming, Bible-thumping preacher. He wasn’t.

I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged. – 2 Cor 12:21


This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down. – 2 Cor 13:10

Like Jesus, Paul wasn’t afraid of confrontation, but that confrontation was reserved for the false teachers and the religious hypocrites. For his flock, Paul, like Jesus, had tenderness, compassion, understanding, and an overwhelming sense that it was he who was serving them.

Leaders like the term “servant leadership” well enough, but that’s often just code for “this is for your own good”, and “I work longer hours than you, so do as I say”. No, “servanthood” is what the Bible talks about. It talks about becoming someone’s slave.

… and finally, back to those smaller groups.

It’s hard enough serving 30 people sufficiently so that they start naturally to respond by granting you authority in their life, to the extent that you can speak the Gospel into it. Try that with 150, or 400, or 1000 people? No thanks. We come up with other leadership models because we want larger congregations to work, but why not just get rid of larger congregations, because then the “servant leader” model works just fine.

For Jesus, 12 was enough. He taught them to teach others to teach others. And that teaching comes wrapped in servanthood. And that is the kingdom of God.

Does it work? I’m discovering that it does. Check these posts about “Marketplace Evangelism”:

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