I received a thoughtful note from a Church-Talk listener. He contended that the church has fallen under the spell of the culture’s understanding and practice of leadership. He went on the say that the church must follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit rather than fallen mortal man. I thought he was pretty perceptive in his observation – but that there’s more to the story. So here’s my response.

It is true that in the New Testament the word for “leader” or “leadership” occurs rarely – in fact, only eight times, and five of those times it has less to do with church leadership and more with leading households or leading in “good works.” On the other hand, the word “pastor” only occurs once – and that in the list of church “offices” in Eph 4:11 – though there are other words used to describe those in church “leadership” such as elders/presbyters/bishops.

And though the words “leader” and “pastor” are notably absent in the New Testament, the focus on “followership” is predominant. Jesus repeatedly called one person after another to follow him. Later, Paul took up that mantle and on repeated occasions (five quite blatantly) he says, “Follow me” – including once when he instructs, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”

However, that brings up an important distinction. By definition, a leader is someone who has followers, and although the New Testament focus is on “following,” followers by definition are following a leader (formally or informally).

Jesus was expressly clear that those who lead (in the church?) should not “lord it over one another as the Gentiles do” (Matt. 20:25-26). Leadership in the church, when it’s finely exegeted and understood in context, is a lot more about mentoring, modeling, and serving, and a lot less about barking orders. 

This is the paradigm we work from in Net Results, Church-Talk, and 21st Century Strategies: effective leaders lead as mentors and models of discipleship. Further, we firmly believe that poor leadership in mentoring and modeling are the primary reasons the church in North America is in serious decline. Far too many pastors and church leaders are involved in management and administration rather in disciple-making and conspicuously living the faith.

Once again, the New Testament, and especially the book of Acts, illustrates what the church could look like. The leaders were busy making disciples (both more and more effective) and the congregation, that is, everyone else, was active in doing direct, hands-on ministries (practicing personal worship, one-anothering, reaching out to the unchurched, and discipleship/holding accountable). And though the leadership of the Holy Spirit is a key feature in Acts, the leading of the Spirit was through the head, heart, and hands of those who served in leadership (particularly demonstrated and seen in the leadership of Peter, Paul, and Timothy).

The problem with the church is that it is, and always has been, made up of fallen people (as if it could be any other way). Whether these people serve as a leader or as a disciple (a fine biblical word that once again implies followership), each is called to hold one-another accountable in the practice of the faith (see Jesus’ model of accountability throughout Matthew’s gospel, e.g., Mat 5:22-23; 18:15-17). But ultimately, a local church without those serving in a leadership capacity (whether we call that office using the New Testament terms pastor, elder, presbyter, or bishop) is a church with a rudder, but one without anyone holding on to it.

Question: What is your view of leadership in the church? How might it differ from the view described above? Share your thoughts and ideas in the Comments section below.