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Ducking Spears, Dancing Madly
A Biblical Model of Church Leadership
By Lewis A. Parks, Bruce C. Birch
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2004 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Drinking Water From Our Own Wells
What Language Shall We Borrow?
There are persons in their thirties, forties, or even fifties who seem to be stuck in an identity crisis that won't go away. They keep asking, who am I? They keep wondering what they will do when they grow up. They are good workers but carry around an orphan's hunger for some clue from the past to make sense of the present and release them for an expectant future. They spend a lot of time fantasizing a career change. How much happier they would be teaching history, programming computers, or even driving a truck! And the name of these persons is ministers.
They have colleagues who are not quite that restless but still suffer episodes of vocational doubt. Who can blame them? If there is any truth to the scenario that society is becoming ever more secular and the church is losing its status it surely follows that ministers are losing their status, too. In the public mind they are no longer automatically grouped with the professionals of medicine and law. In their congregations they must defend their status to outspoken critics and explain their purpose to new members who come from unchurched backgrounds.
It is a time of ferment for those called to lead the church, a time of agitation that could be the yeast of new life at work or the symptom of an irreversible decline. Ministers would like to be freed up to "just do it," but find themselves delayed by fundamental questions of self-worth and social recognition. Is this work meaningful? Will it make a difference? Why do I give myself to it?
From its beginning the church has had more than one term to identify its leaders and describe their work. The New Testament witness to the earliest church's ministry comes across more like an artist's iterations than an architect's polished blueprint.
Paul's Letters, written to the earliest churches in urban centers, give us terms like apostles, prophets, benefactors, overseers (bishops), deacons (delegated messengers), and the spiritual gift of administration. At this early stage these terms are clearly more a description of a function than of an office. Matthew's Gospel, which comes from a time when the line between church and synagogue is becoming more pronounced, offers the twelve, disciples, shepherds, prophets, and scribes. The Gospel and Letters of John, where the church struggles to define itself against "the world" (the synagogue, false Christians, Roman society), throw into the mix terms that combine family intimacy and official status, terms like beloved disciple and the elder.
Luke and Acts, written to a church living into a mission to carry the gospel from Jerusalem "to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8), generates terms like apostles, elders as guardians of the gospel who shepherd the church, and deacons as charitable administrators. The Pastoral Letters paint a third generation of Christian leaders as those who exercise apostolic authority guarding faith and practice. They thrive in a creative historical moment when practices of ministry are just beginning to crystallize into the offices of the early Catholic Church: bishops, a subset of elders; elders who supervise, oversee, preach, and teach; and deacons who teach and administer charitable work.
Two things are clear from this cornucopia of options for describing the work of ministry and the office of the minister in the New Testament. First, each generation will reinterpret church leadership for itself by accepting, adapting, or adding to the previous generation's language. The churches of the New Testament model this discipline of "being there" for the present historical moment by sustaining an active rather than passive posture in relation to the received traditions of church leadership. Even when they use the same words as their predecessors, words like apostles, elders, and deacons, they give them fresh nuances of meaning to meet the needs of the situation.
There may be more settled seasons in the church's life when the functions and titles of church leadership and the church polities which support them are everyday assumptions, but that is not where we are today. We are in a season of question and quest. Can ancient functions like ordained to sacrament be reframed in a way that rescues them from associations with political elitism? Are ancient terms like shepherd irrelevant because they are so out of step with fastpaced contemporary culture? Do twentieth-century substitute terms like pastoral director or servant leader faithfully capture ancient functions? Can radically new ways of talking about church leadership avoid the deficiencies of traditional terms while plugging into the energy of the contemporary moment? Are we better served by immediate sounding titles like wounded healer, political mystic, enslaved liberator, or practical theologian? Following the discipline modeled in the New Testament we look both to that which was handed down and to our changing circumstances of ministry as we search for a more appropriate language.
The second thing that is clear from the New Testament's diverse witness to ministry is how much of it resonates with our contemporary preoccupation with the particular ministry function of leadership. There are technical words that unfold definite leadership practices, words like proistamenous and its variants meaning to lead, conduct, direct, or preside (Rom. 12:8; 1 Thess. 5:12; Matt. 7:29; Acts 6:3; 1 Tim. 3:4). When Paul lists "leading" as a spiritual gift for building up the Body of Christ he specifies that it is to be used "in diligence" (Rom. 12:8).
There is the word kybernesis that is translated as "administration" (Acts 27:11; Rev. 18:17; 1 Cor. 12:28). In contrast to our usual hohum associations with the word administration the Greek word points to the crucial and dramatic work of the helmsman steering a ship, a job that is all the more important when the seas are stormy. When the early church viewed itself as a ship it often scripted Christ on the deck and at the helm.
And there is of course the word episkopoi and its variants as overseers, watchers, supervisors, or bishops (1 Pet. 2:25; Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:1). It is a term applied to God in the Greek translation of the Old Testament as one who watches over and directs all things. When applied to church leaders in the New Testament it lifts up the work of careful attention to the well-being of the church as a whole as well as its individual members.
Along with the specific vocabulary there are glimpses of Greek and Roman models of group leadership that speak to the young church. Sometimes the models have a favorable ring as with those benefactors of synagogues that show up in the Gospels (e.g., Mark 5:22-38). And sometimes (e.g., in civic assemblies, voluntary associations, households) the models serve as foils for the young church struggling to take its cues not from the world but from the eruption of God's reign in Jesus.
Finally, there are case studies in leadership sprinkled throughout the New Testament. We can watch a leader striving for recognition while raising ticklish questions about the difference between power and authority (Gal. 2). We can study a church leader challenging a household leader and the established codes of relationship (Philemon). We can ponder a leader who has the audacity to offer himself as a model (1 Cor. 1:1–4:13). The texts that are the foundation of these case studies can and often are studied without direct regard for their application to the practice of ministry, but the opportunity for connection is available.
There are those who argue that the contemporary church's preoccupation with the subject of leadership stems from a selling out to the culture of the marketplace. They take offense at open discussions of leadership strategy and leadership power. They find conspiracy in the church's attention to its declining numbers and morale. They romanticize the church as a community that thrives without any one person overseeing its diverse energies. "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" And what have "purpose driven," "corporate culture," and "information management" to do with the bride of Christ redeemed by his own blood? According to the biblical witness, much!
It is true that the church is like no other institution. It has its origin in an ancient project of God to raise up a people who will be a blessing to the nations. It is uniquely anchored in the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. It is redeemed by Jesus' death on the cross and saved from historical oblivion by his resurrection. It is ignited by the Spirit's visit at Pentecost to animate and to equip persons to share good news to the ends of the earth. By God's provident interventions it journeys onward through the ages as sign and witness to God's final reign.
But the church is still an institution. It acts and feels and behaves like an institution. It has a life apart from the contributions and detractions of its individual members. It has collective memory and an evolving collective narrative. Like a family system it is a force field of scripts, codes, synergistic love, and scapegoating. Like a corporate culture it has rites of initiation, undeniable artifacts, and chains of accountability and attention. And, like virtually every human institution known to us (the exceptions are too limited to mount a counterargument), it recognizes its leaders, identifies with them emotionally, and incessantly points to them in deference, praise, or blame.
Church leadership, as a subject that provokes our critical questions and endless fascination, is here to stay. The crisis or perceived crisis of declining numbers and influence in mainline Protestant churches may be the urgent occasion for a new wave of attention to church leadership. The ever more pervasive market economy may tempt the church as never before to surrender its theological integrity for mere techniques. But neither development adequately explains why the church is and will remain absorbed by the subject of leadership. The church's hunger for a language of church leadership is ancient, recurring, and certain.
Water from Our Own Wells
Across the continent and throughout the world, week after week, tens of thousands of church leaders (ordained and lay) approach the Bible as a significant partner in the conversation of their sermon or lesson preparation. They start from and return to the immediate ministry settings in which they are immersed, but in between they open new vistas of insight through a critical reading of the scripture text as unfolded by commentaries, translations, and other tools. When the quality of that conversation is sound, the harvest is prolific. "The word of God for the people of God."
What would happen if those same church leaders engaged in a similar conversation on the subject of leadership in the church? What if they began to drink deeply from the wells of the church's scripture and theology, not exclusively, not uncritically, but as lively sources for some new thinking on the subject of leadership in the church today? And what if they had the confidence and curiosity to test the fruits of that labor against the best in contemporary secular thinking on leadership?
This book presents an alternative, biblical model for church leadership to distinguish it from two other approaches to the subject of leadership in the church. Against those approaches that uncritically apply the varieties of no-nonsense contemporary business or management solutions to leadership issues in the church, it offers the church's book and its theological reflection on that book as serious resources for approaching those same leadership issues. And against those approaches that call themselves "biblical" but only use scripture to illustrate or sanction an agenda obviously imported from other more or less constructive sources, it offers the Bible as an active rather than passive partner in the church's reflection on leadership. As we will soon see with the books of Samuel, active partners have a way of keeping us honest and taking the dialogue to unforeseen places.
Three disciplines create and sustain the model of church leadership presented in this book. They are presented in a certain logical order, but that is not how they are experienced in everyday life. An issue of church leadership can arise in any of the fields of experience and knowledge represented in the three disciplines. For example, an article on marketing in the Wall Street Journal might raise questions about a congregation's hospitality, which inspire a Bible study on Matthew 25, which leads to the discovery of some helpful church history on monastic traditions. A Lenten sermon series on the relational language of Jesus in the Gospel of John might incur a wade into the deep waters of the church's theology of the Trinity, which in turn inspires new ideas for collegial leadership in the congregation. It is helpful to think in terms of a hermeneutical circle where "the partially predetermined yet open and revisable nature of human understanding" regarding church leadership is played out. New energy for that circle can come from any direction.
First, the study of church leadership should exercise respect for the church's sacred scriptures. This discipline connects us with one of the Reformation's greatest gifts to the church universal: the recovery of scripture properly preached and taught as a mark of the true church. The drama of an encounter is explicit. The word of the Lord comes to us extra nos—from outside our prejudgments, our preferences, or the absorbing restraints of our environments. It introduces a new word from God into the situation. The word of the Lord comes to us as our adversary (adversarius noster). "It does not simply confirm or strengthen us in what we think we are and what we wish to be taken for. It negates our nature, which has fallen prey to illusion," because that is the only way God can shape us into the image of Christ.
Most church leaders have been formally equipped for this encounter. Seminary is a community for formation that places a high value on the study of many texts of the tradition because of the value that it places on the reading of a central text. In seminary future church leaders learn deference to scripture through work in original languages and the various schools of biblical criticism. They learn to seek the world behind the text—its sources, forms, editing, and contribution to traditions. They become immersed in the world of the text by analyzing its literary, structural, narrative, rhetorical, and canonical elements. And they struggle with the world in front of the text through disciplines of self- awareness: reader-response criticism, liberationist criticism, feminist and womanist criticism, postcolonial criticism, and postmodern criticism.
The courteous respect for scripture acquired or sharpened in seminary becomes a lifelong discipline that informs the church leader's preaching, teaching, and ministry practice, including the practice of leadership. The church leader with limited time to work directly in the original languages and schools of biblical criticism can harvest the fruits of such disciplines with the help of commentaries like the one engaged in this book, and other tools.
Second, the study of church leadership should take into account the church's theology in general and its theology of the church (ecclesiology) in particular. The church is an organism with a memory, a family system with a history, a corporate culture with a narrative. The church comes with nearly two millennia of experience in self-awareness and self-description. It has argued for its fidelity to its Founder's intentions and confessed its deviations. It has struggled to name the "marks of the true church" and confessed its failure to live up to them. It has invited the Spirit even into its institutional life and confessed the tentativeness of its polity. It has announced its universal mission and confessed the corrupt expressions of that mission. The church has both defended the uniqueness of its clergy and argued for the priesthood of all believers. It has weighed the several scenarios for relating Christ and culture. It has pondered the reformation of its established forms.
Excerpted from Ducking Spears, Dancing Madly by Lewis A. Parks, Bruce C. Birch. Copyright © 2004 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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