Matthew 20:25-28 – But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
I received the following question from a listener, “Could you discuss more about organic leadership vs. institutional leadership .. And walk with Jesus vs. Give your agency to your pastor or prophet?”
In a nutshell, the New Testament does talk a lot about leadership… but its leadership, with a lower case “L”, not an upper case. The emphasis on how spiritual leadership works contrasts greatly with how typical hierarchical leadership works in militaries or companies. And, like many spiritual truths in the Bible, the emphasis on certain details makes all of the difference. I find it best to demonstrate this emphasis via a couple of illustrations.
In a military or company hierarchy, there are layers of leadership. Leadership titles are bestowed by the highest officers onto lower rank and file who demonstrate certain strengths. With a few exceptions, companies and armies expect the lower ranks to follow their leadership, even if it goes against their better judgment. In fact, front line soldiers receive little encouragement to think for themselves; they are expected to obey their leaders. Lower ranks can rarely, if ever, expect to talk with the top guy, as layers of leadership exist between the lowest rank and file and the top commander or president of the company. I call this approach, “Institutional Leadership.” In the passage quoted earlier, Matthew 20:25-28, this approach is reflected via “rulers of the Gentiles” who “lord it over them.”
Contrast this with a normal, healthy family type of leadership. In a typical family, one or both parents (or older relatives) tend to lead the others… not because of title, but through their love. For example, if a teenage daughter feels her father loves and understands her, she is much more likely to seek his advice to help her with a difficult problem. If her father’s negligence and abuse pushes her away, she will seek that leadership and direction from another relative. If she feels that she cannot find it there, she may look outside the family for guidance. The best way a parent or grandparent can obtain the respect and leadershiop of his/her family is to not only provide the example in day to day living, but provide an atmosphere of love, kindness and understanding that naturally attracts others to seek guidance and direction from them. This is the ‘organic’ or ‘servant’ based leadership seen in the second half of the earlier passage.
You see organic or servant type leadership painted in the Bible. A couple of other contrasts also come to mind. While organic leadership may involved titles, titles are not required for organic leadership to work, unlike institutional leadership. Organic leadership is flat. In a family, for example, we do not have to talk to Dad before we can talk to Uncle to get his permission to talk to Grandpa. Yet, most armies and companies enforce that sort of chain of command. However, the Bible teaches the ‘priesthood of all saints’ and that we all have direct connection with the most high, God.
Gotanswers.com says, “In summary, believers are called “kings and priests” and a “royal priesthood” as a reflection of their privileged status as heirs to the kingdom of the Almighty God and of the Lamb. Because of this privileged closeness with God, no other earthly mediator is necessary. Second, believers are called priests because salvation is not merely “fire insurance,” escape from hell. Rather, believers are called by God to serve Him by offering up spiritual sacrifices, i.e., being a people zealous for good works. As priests of the living God, we are all to give praise to the One who has given us the great gift of His Son’s sacrifice on our behalf, and in response, to share this wonderful grace with others.”
This ties in with the second part of your questions, about giving our agency to a pastor or prophet. New Testament, or servitude/organic leadership, not only changes how leadership works, but how we follow. First, consider the fact that the bible teaches that we will each be judged based on our own actions. “It is appointed onto man once to die, and then the judgment.” In Matthew 7, Jesus says, ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” He warns in that same chapter, ““Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” The Bible also warns, in 1 John 4 ” Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
Unlike institutional leadership, where we must follow with little questioning, the Bible directs us to test those who claim to teach or claim to prophesy on behalf of God. We will be held accountable for our actions, regardless of who we follow. People generally shun this type of responsibility. In the old Testament, God created a form of self-government for the people of Israel, through a system of judges. The people begged and pleaded for a hierarchical, monarchy, which would relieve many of the responsibility of leadership of their own. We were given the gospels and epistles, clearly teaching the priesthood of all saints. Yet, it only took a few hundred years before the majority of believers handed the faith over to a hierarchical set up with priests, bishops, cardinals and a pope at the top.
Generally speaking, we have two choices when someone claims leadership and teaches or directs us. We can either blindly accept everything they direct us to do, believing, ultimately, they speak for God. Or, we can do what the Bible teaches us, and test each direction in light of God’s Word, accepting that which lines up with it. At this point, we follow our own agency, or conscious. This is what I believe the Bible teaches, and that God will hold us accountable for our actions, regardless of whether or not we follow someone else claiming to be a leader. Allow me to give an illustration.
If a pastor comes to me and asks me to do something wrong, such as steal money to support the church, I have little doubt that God would not want me to do that. I also have little doubt, based on my study of scripture, that God would hold me accountable for such a shameful act, regardless of the fact that a leader ordered me to do it. I should turn down his request, explaining why. Now, conversely, imagine that my young daughter walked up to me one day, and told me that I hurt her feelings yesterday. You see, I lost my temper (I had a bad day) and yelled at her, in anger. She may even mention a Sunday school lesson about anger she recently learned. If I were to turn her away because she doesn’t have a leadership title over me, God would hold me responsible. After all, I ultimately did not turn my daughter’s correction away, but a reproof from Him. His Word should always direct my way, for He has true authority over me, even if that message comes through a humble medium.
These examples demonstrated that “Leadership” (with a capital “L”) does not apply or work in relation to spiritual matters. Furthermore, it shows that each of us will be held accountable to seek out God for ourselves. Now, does that eliminate the need for ALL leadership among the church, or believers? Absolutely not. The Bible says that he who seeks leadership seeks a high calling. However, we must understand that like a number of terms in the Bible, “leadership” means something different than what our culture teaches. We must learn to be humble servants who lead others through God’s love, grace and truth… and not through a fancy title created by men.