Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Labels Can Be Liabilities

Labels matter. Nomenclature is not insignificant. I was reminded of that during my Bible time this morning in 1 Cor. 3. Today, our whole attitude toward Christian leaders seems to be guided far more by secular ideas of leadership than Christian ideas of leadership. Our ideas are more man-centered than God-centered. The whole of the Christian life should be shaped by the cross. 

This shouldn't surprise us. Jesus said, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." So perhaps it's worth pointing out that when the New Testament talks about Christian leaders it never elevates one over another. 

In essence, leaders are servants. Who is Apollos? And who is Paul? Only servants through whom you came to believe. The term for "servants" that Paul uses here in 1 Cor. 3 was employed of those who served meals in a household. That's the category that Paul puts Christian leaders in -- that of a manual laborer, a household servant. Paul and Apollos, he says, are mutual servants of God, and their gifts are harnessed to the cross. Their effectiveness is not due to their own innate abilities. God is the one who is providing all the growth.

One of the most common and hidden sins of Christian leadership is tribalism. See verse 9. We do not see ourselves as a team, as God's co-workers. And we do not see our church as God's garden, not ours, or as God's building, not ours (so the emphasis in the Greek). Paul's view of a Christian leader is one who is self-forgetful, who is so filled up with Christ that he's fine with not being front and center. He's okay with not getting the credit, with not having a special parking spot, without possessing a special title. He knows who deserves all the glory and all the honor and all the praise. Like the apostle Peter (1 Pet. 3:1-5), he happily retreats into the group and refers to himself simply as a "fellow elder (co-pastor)," leaving the title senior/lead pastor (1 Pet. 5:4) to the one he loves so much and serves so diligently. He recognizes and acknowledges the real benefits of non-hierarchical eldership. When he goes to a new church and is offered the title of lead pastor, he expresses his appreciation but adds, "I know you mean well, and I am truly grateful for your thoughtfulness, but that title is reserved for someone else. Let's give him his rightful place, shall we? Meanwhile, I will be more than happy to be known as your co-pastor." 

Do those in Christian leadership today see themselves as servants? Do I? I have never asked my students, or anyone for that matter, to call me "Dr. Black." The use of honorific titles is in fact explicitly forbidden by our Lord in Matt. 23. Do we need to be reminded that Jesus stepped down from the right hand of the Father to become a servant? Do we need to say with Peter, "I am a fellow elder, a mere co-pastor of our church. And Jesus? He and he alone is our senior pastor."

Let me close by saying I personally know a good many lead/senior pastors. I love and respect every one of them. None of them is a prideful man. Not one. I honestly believe that most of them have never thought through this issue very deeply. Perhaps I could humbly ask them to rethink their use of such titles. Alexander Strauch's book Biblical Eldership would be as fine a place to start as any. I have tried to summarize his views in a powerpoint. There is a great deal at stake here, not least the sole supremacy of Christ, the one we seek to honor in all we do in the church.