A series of articles on leaders and leadership in church life
This is the index to a series of articles on leaders and leadership in church life. The first part is an overview and explains how the idea for the series came about. The second and third posts examine a verse in Hebrews, often quoted to support hierarchical, structural, appointed leaders. The other articles look at other aspects of leaders and leadership and some other relevant New Testament verses.
It felt as though Jesus was dancing with his bride (the church); he was the only leader we needed.
I posted this article in February 2013 and repeat it here, slightly updated. Things have moved on since I wrote this; we’ve moved to a different part of the country and the details of our church life have changed – but the principles remain the same. I’ll post the other parts of the series as time allows.
How should we manage and govern our meetings? How is church to be led? Everything changed in the 1960s and 70s as the Holy Spirit swept into the denominational church. Existing churches were impacted, the house church movement began, and new streams of church sprang up.
My wife and I have a long-standing difference of opinion about church leadership. Let me explain.
The bursting out of the new wine of the Holy Spirit wasn’t easily retained by the old wineskins of denominational church. What was known as the British house church movement began at that time.
New Frontiers and the other streams of the time were based on the view that new organisations were needed. Of course, some Anglican, Catholic and non-conformist churches did embrace the fresh outpouring of spiritual gifts. The pentecostal denominations were already active in that way. But there were many ‘refugees’ from old fashioned denominationalism and also many new believers who had never tasted a particular form of church. The new streams aimed to cater for both groups.
Staying small and open – But there were many others (of whom I am one) who felt that the new streams of church life took on far too much from the old ways. Having a leadership structure and meeting in a large building were the most obvious of these old ways (though there are many others). Used as Judy* and I were to meeting at home without leaders, sharing meals together, and giving the Spirit complete freedom to lead us in praise and worship, we were quite unable to feel comfortable with any kind of organisation. It felt as though Jesus was dancing with his bride (the church); he was the only leader we needed.
And that’s the basis on which Donna and I have different views. She is very much at home in an organisation with a structure, a building, and management. I am at home as part of an organism with very little structure, no building, and managed and directed by the Spirit of Christ alone.
Another kind of small group – We do overlap in one important way. Donna is one of three leaders of an Open Door Small Group that meets every Tuesday evening, and I am glad to be part of that group. The meetings are in some ways rather like organic church. We meet in homes, we usually start with a shared meal, there is plenty of opportunity to chip in with a thought, a prophecy, a tongue, a vision or a prayer.
On the other hand the meetings are structured around three main elements and are managed hierarchically. Meetings normally begin with a meal, then worship led by a member of the group, next questions and a discussion based on the previous Sunday’s ‘preach’, and finally a time of prayer on topics raised by those present. The Small Group leaders report to neighbourhood leaders who in turn are responsible to the elders of Open Door and in particular to the lead elder.
Donna is comfortable with these arrangements, I am less so. But we both enjoy the meetings and are grateful to be able to share in them regularly together.
The role of the Spirit – But it’s not just a matter of how meetings are organised. There is also plenty of evidence that the Holy Spirit fills every available gap that we concede to him. I have a great deal of experience of this going back many years and also in recent times. Meetings that are completely open, not planned or governed by us in any way, are little pockets of time and space that he joyfully, even gleefully inhabits. Many times I have witnessed him working amongst us in amazing and unexpected ways, but always when he is given the freedom to do it.
It takes courage to attempt this. Things can go wrong. People can get in the way. We cannot come to this place without taking risks. But when we are prepared to step aside and let the Spirit of Christ move among us freely, he will fill the place. The more space and time we give him, the more present he becomes.
And I am convinced that out of such a place of blessing we are better equipped to go out and, in our going, to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20).
Profitless discussion – A couple of days ago Donna and I had a rather profitless discussion about church leadership. (I take full responsibility for my unhelpful attitude.) I’m going to outline it here because it pinpoints the issues, points to a way forward and may be helpful to others thinking these issues through. Here’s how it happened.
We were about to begin reading James together when Donna spotted Hebrews 13:17 on the opposite page. She asked me a direct question, ‘How do you explain this verse if you don’t think the church should have leaders?’
Indeed the church does have leaders. But they are understated and not people who rule or manage. They are recognised by those around them, not appointed by other leaders or by a committee.
But instead of saying this I responded to Donna’s question by digging into the Greek and pointing out that you must translate any passage in sympathy with the general thrust of the entire New Testament. What Jesus did and said and what we read in the other letters must inform and guide us. Translation is not an exact art. The flavour of the English words we select to represent the meaning of the Greek must depend partly on that wider context. So we talked about the text rather than the concept of leadership.
The discussion went pear-shaped and we never did make it as far as reading James that evening. Partly because of this I feel the time has come to study church leadership in more detail and to be clearer in my own mind about the biblical background and the practicalities.
There are other associated issues and I think I need to look at them as a whole, not piecemeal. So I plan to come back to this topic from time to time as I make progress with the study.
Meanwhile, I would be very grateful for any thoughts or feedback you might have on the different approaches to church leadership and church government. Please leave a comment.
*Judy was my first wife, she died in 1995.
Have you had similar or related experiences? Please consider sharing them in a comment.
What are your views on the Holy Spirit’s involvement in your meetings? Is he fully present? Is he fully visible and audible?
If you could change one thing about your meetings, what would it be?
Try this at home. Meet with some close friends with no agenda and no preparation of any kind. Share a meal gratefully remembering Jesus’ presence with you. After the meal sit in a comfortable place together and focus on Jesus. Don’t mind silences, but share together anything the Spirit shows you, including pictures, words, prophecy, Bible passages, persistent thoughts and more. What happened? Report back here with a comment.
Reading Romans 12:20, I was struck by the idea of ‘heaping burning coals’ on your enemies’ heads. On the face of it, this doesn’t sound very loving! But burning coals come from the altar in the Temple; they are pure, holy, cleansing, and consume the sacrifice placed on the altar. Food and drink for a hungry, thirsty enemy are like the fire from the altar. They are pure, holy, cleansing things.
Sin is covered by sacrifice. This is at the heart of what Yahshua did for us, he offered a sacrifice for sin – his own body – while we were still against him and the cause of his grief and suffering. By his love, he bought not only our lives but our love. And by love we must buy our enemy’s love in the same way. We don’t give our enemies the necessities of life in order to hurt them, but because of love and in order to provide an opportunity for them to change. That’s why Paul writes, ‘Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’.
If it’s wide and deep vision that you are looking for … then read this book
I don’t often write about books here on JHM. But I just have to tell you about 5Q.
If it’s wide and deep vision that you are looking for, a penetrating gaze into the truth written with passion and humility, then read this book; you will not be disappointed. It’s a book for everyone who is serious in following Jesus. 5Q will challenge you, encourage you, and maybe shock you, but it will also illuminate your thinking and understanding.
5Q is a book by one of my favourite authors, Alan Hirsch. In it, he examines church as commonly understood in the West, and challenges his readers to look at it with fresh and inquisitive eyes. For many years now, Alan has been accumulating knowledge and experience about the way we tend to do church, and sharing his thoughts on what fundamental changes are needed. He has delved deep into both theology and practice, he’s written and taught extensively about the understandings he has developed. And it’s not merely theoretical stuff, much of it is good, practical guidance and advice.
5Q is based on frameworks Alan has described before, namely his ideas around the APEST gifts to the church described by Paul in Ephesians 4. These are the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. But he has gone much further in the grand synthesis that is 5Q; his excitement and passion shine out on every page.
This time we’re going to take a look at the first verse of Ezekiel 37; the start of the section on the valley of dry bones. Let’s see what Father has for us in this verse.
‘Yahweh’s hand was on me and he brought me out by the Spirit of Yahweh and set me in the middle of a valley. It was full of bones.’ (Ezekiel 37:1)
We can’t tell whether Ezekiel visited a real valley or whether the entire section from verse one to verse fourteen is a vision. Perhaps it’s most likely to have been a vision. But it doesn’t really matter, it’s far from being the most important thing.
‘Yahweh’s hand was on me…’ – That’s what Ezekiel says. And this is always Papa’s heart toward us; unless his hand is on us we cannot move except by our own efforts. This is fundamental to everything the Almighty does. He speaks, he moves, he demonstrates, he heals, he forgives – and in all these ways he touches us.
Have you noticed how often Jesus touched people? He touched their eyes and mouths and ears when he healed. He touched what was ritually unclean – a leper, a dead girl. The most intimate thing we can do is to touch someone. Touch brings us closer than words ever can. What do we do when a child is afraid, or anxious, or hurt? We pick them up or hug them or kiss them better. We need to touch and be touched. So Yahweh’s hand was on Ezekiel.
And notice that this is the first thing that happens, before Ezekiel sees the bones or even goes to the valley, Yahweh’s hand is on him. This is the touch that says, ‘I am going to use you’. The Almighty lays hold of us because we are his instruments and he plans to use us in some way.
Have you felt his hand on you in your life? I hope so! But if not, pray that he will touch you and use you in whatever way he chooses. If he knows you are truly willing he will use you. That’s what he longs to do with all his people. He has chosen to use us to do his work in this world today. We are to go in his name (Matthew 28:18-20); we are his body; we are his hands, his feet, his eyes and ears and mouth (1 Corinthians 12). Isn’t that extraordinary?
‘…and he brought me out by the Spirit of Yahweh…’ – He brings us out and he does it by his own Spirit. Out from what? Out from the place where we currently are! See how he is one with himself in doing this? It’s explicit in the Hebrew, the name is used twice. Yahweh uses the Spirit of Yahweh. He chooses what he wants us to do, and then he uses his own Spirit (the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ) to guide us. If necessary he will nudge us.
Sometimes we get stuck in a place. I don’t mean physically, I mean a place in our lives from which we are unable or unwilling to move on. Sometimes we are simply waiting for direction. It might be something we’re doing or a thought pattern we return to or just that he has finished using us in one situation and now wants us in a different one. Whether we are stuck or not – he brings us out, he draws us on, he sends his own Spirit to lead us into the next thing, the next place. For an example read about Roy Godwin. If you want the full story you can buy his book.
And notice this, if Ezekiel had not moved he would not have come to the valley. We have a propensity to cling to what we know and to keep doing what is already familiar. But we need to be ready to allow the Spirit to move us at any time so that we can receive something new, Father’s next thing for you, for me.
‘…and set me in the middle of a valley.’ – And so Yahweh sets Ezekiel in the valley. Now a valley is a low point and must be surrounded by higher ground. Ezekiel is placed ‘in the middle’ of this valley, right at the lowest point. He is as far from the surrounding hills and mountains as it is possible to be.
We know this feeling don’t we? Life is hard and promising to get harder yet. There are low points in our lives and there are also low points in the life of the church. Such valleys are places of defeat where there seems no hope or joy or victory; these are assuredly not ‘mountain-top’ experiences. We’ve all been there. Ezekiel was aware of the state of Israel in captivity under Babylon, but Yahweh’s Spirit brought him here so there must surely be a reason for it. Does it sometimes seem as if church is in a valley? A slough of despond? At times like these we need to remember that Papa has something in mind to show us. Jesus didn’t just come to redeem people, he came to redeem situations too.
‘It was full of bones.’ – What do bones usually signify to you? Are they always just the dusty remnants following final and permanent defeat? Or might they suggest that what was once alive might yet be restored? More on this next time.
For much of my life Ezekiel’s words about the valley of dry bones have seemed highly significant. I now feel I should work through the passage in detail here. I’ll take it verse by verse and we’ll see what it has to say to us today.
First, a little background; Ezekiel saw the valley in a vision, as part of a series of visions. Right at the beginning of the first chapter he gives us the details.
In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.
On the fifth of the month — it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin — the word of Yahweh came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians.
There the hand of Yahweh was upon him. I looked, and I saw… (Ezekiel 1:1-4)
Living in exile – There are several things to notice right away. Ezekiel was an exile from the promised land and was among other exiles. In other words he was not alone, but along with others he was not where he truly belonged. Worldly powers had taken them far from the land of their inheritance. But Ezekiel was a Jew and of a priestly family, that personal inheritance could never be taken from him.
Is that true for us? Have we, the church (or at least the western church) been taken far from our true and full inheritance in Christ? I’m not talking about salvation here, nor do I mean our individual lives in Christ and he in us. Those cannot be taken; I mean the posture and behaviour of the church.
The Almighty has permitted the church to be captured by all kinds of worldly attraction and methodology. We have replaced falling on our faces in the presence of his glory and power with worship bands. We have replaced going in the name of Yahshua (Jesus) with outreach initiatives. We’ve replaced sitting at his feet, hearing him speak and watching him work with training sessions. We’ve replaced loving our neighbour with leaflets through doors.
Of course all these things have their place and all are useful – worship bands, outreach initiatives, training sessions and attractive leaflets are not bad in and of themselves. But they should not and cannot replace his glory and power, going in his name, listening and watching him or loving our neighbour. Peter’s intentions on the mountain were good, but he missed something significant. What you and I can do for Jesus is not the point, what he wants is that we listen to him (Matthew 17:1-5). And implicit in hearing the Master is obedience.
But all is not lost! – As an exile from the land of promise, Ezekiel was by the river when the heavens were opened and he saw visions of (or from) the Most High. Do you think that might be true for us too? Is it possible that in the middle of this foreign place the church has been taken to, the heavens might be opened and we might truly see the Most High? Notice what he says at the start of verse 4 – the hand of Yahweh was on me. I looked and I saw.
Is his hand not also on us? If we look, we too, will see. But we surely won’t see unless we look! King David wrote, ‘Taste and see that Yahweh is good’. (Psalm 34:8) We need to look, listen, and taste. What does this mean? Simply this – it’s time to check Papa out, it’s time to hear what he is saying, see what he is doing, and taste the flavour of his nature and love. We will not be disappointed! Others are asking the same sorts of questions. Alan Hirsch for example, in his book The Forgotten Ways, argues strongly that we need to think afresh and re-calibrate our behaviour. Ed Stetzer, in his foreword to Alan’s book writes:
‘The Forgotten Ways’ has become a foundational text for exploring the missional nature of the church, challenging … what it means for the church to reactivate anew its forgotten ways.
We haven’t even started on the dry bones passage yet, but we have set the scene. We know that even if we are in exile the Master can reach us with a new vision, that he can touch us, and that we are free to look and see. There is everything to play for. Are you up for this?
Next time we’ll look at those dry bones – I promise!