Hello again everyone,
Here are my thoughts about the next item from our whiteboard offered in the interests of keeping the church leadership conversation going: Overcoming our fear of failure.
In a shame-honour culture (which was the culture of both the Old and New Testament worlds) there tends to be an established and accepted order of social norms and roles woven into the fabric of a society that grows outward from its foundation of the immediate and extended family to the tribe to the nation (cf. the household codes of Ephesians 5:21-6:9 and Colossians 3:18-4:1 and Titus 2:1-15; and Romans 13:1-7 on civil government). Functional leadership and submission, mentoring and apprenticeship, multigenerational households and villages overseen by its elders (all of which might be summed up in the principle of the more mature leading the less mature)—these all operate naturally in this type of world. The focus is on community and one’s place in the group is determined largely by one’s responsibility towards maintaining the group’s wellbeing. It is an organic relationship where each part is integral to the whole (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-26). To bring dishonour to the group is a shameful thing because it undermines the reputation and welfare of the group (e.g. Paul’s policy of church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13). The biblical family image of the local church served by its own eldership and diaconate fits very comfortably there (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-15).
In contrast, our contemporary Western culture is a fragmented and fractured society with its individualism and competitiveness, its consumerism and pluralism. It is essentially a guilt-innocence culture which is currently obsessed with victimhood characterised by blaming (who can I sue?) and denial (who, me?…not me!) and scapegoating (it’s their fault). Rather than “us” where shared values and rules serving community interests transcend “me” or “mine”, the focus is on “me” (modernism’s self-centred ego) or “my” special interest subgroup (postmodernism’s collective ego). In this fake-news-world the irrational is easily rationalised in the name of freedom and individual rights and political correctness. Any system of government—whether of home, church or state—where my say might not carry equal weight with everyone else goes against the grain of our liberal democratic ideals. Our divided society no longer has enough in common to speak meaningfully of any common-sense understanding, much less of objective standards to which we are all accountable. Truth, after all, is subjective and therefore only relative, so your truth may not be my truth…I could go on, but you get the idea. Collectivism versus individualism: the social outcomes are very different.
So, what does all this have to do with local church leadership and fear of failure?1
We are unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with “followership.” We are suspicious of “leadership” as opposed to “consensus-ship” (which often becomes a ship without a rudder). The misconception that equality necessarily means sameness permeates our society. It is seen in radical feminism where gender, it is claimed, is only a social construct. It was championed by those who lobbied in favour of same-sex marriage. It is evident in the infamous tall poppy syndrome where everyone is constrained and trimmed to maintain the same one size fits all. It is there in the democratic congregational business meeting where a babe in Christ has equal say with the most mature of Christians. From a collectivist perspective, those who are outstanding bring honour to the community and inspire others to emulate them. But from an individualist perspective, those who are outstanding threaten other individuals by making them look small, so the over-achiever needs to be cut down to size. The former encourages and rewards excellence. The latter discourages and even punishes excellence.
Just think how our politicians are typically viewed and treated in Australia. We can and should thank God that we live in one of the most blessed nations in the world, but I think we should give our civil leaders—who serve as God’s agents (Romans 13:1-7)—some credit for our prosperity and safety too. It seems to me a curious thing that we Australians (including believers) who enjoy the fruits of comparatively good and stable government remain so cynical, and often disrespectful, towards our leaders. I suspect this same attitude manifests in our local churches. In this social climate, churches are conditioned to be fearful (and cynical and even disrespectful) of authentic biblical leadership; and authentic biblical leaders are tempted to shy away from their Holy Spirit2 given responsibility for fear of being on the receiving end of the church’s cynicism and criticism and worse.3
How can we as disciples of Christ become better and more willing followers of Christ in The Way? How can we shepherds (and deacons and evangelists) become better and more willing leaders of God’s flock? How can we rise above our contemporary Western culture that conspires against the sort of humility and courage necessary to develop and reclaim biblical leadership and followership?
Faith—we need to trust more in God and in his revealed will. Trust is scary as it leads us into unfamiliar territory and leaves us feeling vulnerable. But that is the way God’s faithful Messiah travelled, and that is where he calls us to follow: “Not my will, but my Father’s will be done.”
Hope—we need to remember that our hope is in God, not in our own strength or our own really-good-and-well-intended ideas (which may be more about serving our ego than serving God).
Love—yes, most important of all is love (agape). Unconditionally willing and doing what is right and in the best interests of the other—whether the other is God or our neighbour (Matthew 22:36-40). Knowing the right stuff is ineffectual unless it is practised and with the right motivation. The truth actioned in love (1 John 3:18). Wherever there is authentic agape among God’s people; followers will follow, and leaders will lead as each member of the body of Christ exercises faithful stewardship of God’s gifts by doing their part in service to the whole (Ephesians 4:1-16; cf. Romans 12:1-13).
I imagine that Jesus would gently say to us, as he so often assured his disciples, “Be not afraid.”
What do you think? Looking forward to seeing you all in Melbourne at the APEDS2020 Conference!
Grace and peace,
I am mindful that I am writing from an Australian (i.e. Western) perspective. Our Asian brethren may have different experiences and insights in this regard. If that is the case, please consider sharing them through this medium…I (we) would love to hear from you! ↩
The Holy Spirit gives the gifts related to leadership (e.g. Romans 12:3-8) and the criteria for biblical church leadership (e.g. 1 Timothy 3:1-13). The Holy Spirit grows the fruit of spiritual maturity and virtue in those equipped for biblical church leadership (e.g. Galatians 5:22-26). No wonder the apostle Paul could say to the elders at Ephesus that it was the Holy Spirit who made them shepherds of God’s flock! (Acts 20:28). ↩
Leaving a vacuum that alternative (and often unbiblical) types of leader and government will inevitably fill. Once in place, they will protect their interests and biblical leadership becomes even more difficult to establish. ↩