The Dark Side of Hierarchical Leadership

It seems to be a regular occurrence these days. Another evangelical pastor falls into moral failure. Carl Lentz is the latest causality. The celebrity pastor of Hillsong Church’s New York City branch is a further example of the dark side of hierarchical leadership where a pastor-centric ecclesiology places a charismatic person as the lead of the church.

Leadership might be considered one of the most critical areas facing the church today. With the precipitous decline of American Christianity, we are increasingly aware of the negative impact of ecclesial structures that tend to favor a Western pastor-centric ecclesiology. Five ideas regarding pastor-centric hierarchical leadership have misappropriated biblical understandings:

First, the biblical idea of submission does not communicate hierarchy. A study of the number of so-called “one-another” passages in the Pauline corpus clearly indicate the notion of mutual submission that honors people in their roles. In Western ecclesiology, submission has come to mean that parishioners are subordinate to the church’s leadership. This form of subordinationism highlighted in the debate over the role of women in the church is a near heretical idea suggesting that Jesus is subordinate to the Father therefore submissive and not equal to the Father just as woman is subordinate to man and not equal to him (1 Cor 11:3). In Western ecclesiology, such subordination is observed in the requirement of church members to be submitted to staff and elders. However, just as there is no subordination in the Trinity, so there is no subordination in the body except to the head who alone is Jesus Christ (Col 1:18).

Second, the 18th century moniker, “pastoral epistles,” placed on 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus focuses an unmerited preference on the role of pastor as leader of the church. Neither Timothy nor Titus were pastors. In fact, Paul explicitly identifies Timothy as a diakonos (deacon, 1 Tim 4:6). The idea of “pastor” is derived from the Latin translation of the Greek for shepherd and is explicitly one of five co-equal leadership gifts to ensure a church is properly equipped to engage in God’s mission (Eph 4:11). Those leaders were co-equally united on that mission and equipped the saints for ministry rather than for contrived programs of a local church.

Third, the 20th and 21st century Western church adopted business leadership models with expectations that each local church derive their own vision and mission led by a pastor and/or an elder board. Perhaps such short-sightedness and presumption expose a deeper gap in the Western church’s understanding of her purpose to be on God’s mission until the completion of His great vision of all nations, tribes, peoples, and languages kneeling before the throne (Rev 5:9). The idea that the local church must develop a vision and mission results in a call to parishioners to conform to the hierarchical leadership of the church, when in reality there is only one vision established by God to unite all things in Christ (Eph 1:10).

Fourth, as necessitated by adopting business models of leadership, church has become a volunteer-based organization with the need to fill positions in order for church programs to attract more people on Sunday morning. Volunteers have become commodities necessary to sustain an institution rather than disciple makers who grow a movement (Matt 28:18-20). Such a volunteer-based organization must have hierarchical leadership in order to ensure efficiency. However, the end result of hierarchical leadership is a marginalized priesthood of believers (1 Peter 2:5-9).

Finally, servant leadership evolved during the tumultuous 1960s in the United States. It expresses a unique American leadership system that served as a corrective during a time period of abusive leaders. While the notion of being a “servant” is most definitely recognized in Scripture, servant leadership is not. Nevertheless, servant leadership is held to be the model of church leadership and used as a power word to assure church members that what their leaders are doing to them is serving them. Such service is often focused on the fulfillment of the leadership’s vision and mission for the church rather than on equipping the saints to engage in God’s mission. In such a leadership model, pastors are looking for people to take care of the menial tasks that keep a facility functioning so that more people are attracted to the church. Leaders seem more interested in volunteers serving as parking lot attendants, ushers, nursery workers, or set up/tear down crews rather than people equipped for works of ministry focused on defending the faith, standing in the gap for the marginalized, and proclaiming the glory of God to all nations (Rev 2:1-7).

No doubt there are other contributing factors to the dark side of hierarchical leadership. It has been a long road for the church to devolve into such a leadership style. I suspect it will be a long road for the church to figure out how to return to biblical leadership. Nevertheless, here are a few reflections to consider. 

Biblical Leadership

The model of leadership in the early church was clearly flat. This type of leadership can only work in the ecclesial structures emerging out of a leadership modeled after Christ Himself. The early church understood that there was only one mission: the declaration of God’s glory to every nation. This mission is myopically focused on God with Christ as the single head of the church. It is a singular mission and when an entire church including those APEST (Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Shepherd, Teacher in Eph 4:11) leaders focus on this mission, they are empowered and entrusted to fulfill their gifting and identity as members of the household of God (Eph 2:19). 

In order to successfully achieve a flat leadership model, a clear understanding of New Testament ecclesiology is necessary. Here are five essential markers of biblical leadership observed in the first century church:

  1. Mutual submission – biblical leadership understands that all God’s people are gifted and essential in the body of Christ. Out of profound honor for the other, biblical leadership is marked by the desire to not simply submit, but to see the other and their abilities as beneficial in God mission. It is not haughty, nor does it puff up others. Rather, this flat leadership values the other as a member of the body of Christ and entrusts them on God’s mission (2 Tim 2:2).
  2. Empowerment – biblical leadership empowers others (1 Tim 4:11-16). It is not concerned with the power of the leader or the fulfillment of a pastor’s vision. Empowerment recognizes a common mission declared by God Himself and unites around that single mission. Such unity of purpose ensures the unity of the church (Eph 3:10). When all leaders recognize their mutually held responsibility to equip people, they are not jockeying for positions of power (1 Peter 5:3). Rather, they are celebrating true acts of service for God’s glory (Heb 13:17).
  3. APEST – biblical leadership follows the model instituted by Jesus to ensure the healthy growth of the church (Eph 4:11-16). APEST is not a straight-line hierarchy nor is it a chronological hierarchy. We are not in an age of only shepherds and teachers who lead the church although the church today functions as if she is in such an age. One of the primary reasons why we are seeing moral failures of pastors like Lentz, Hybels, and McDonald is because they do not have APEs on their team or, if they did, their voices were not heard. When pastors are seen as the single leader of a church, then the church has positioned the pastor for failure. There might be some who can handle it for a time, perhaps their whole pastoral career. But there are others who a swayed by their own authority and take license in dark areas of sin.
  4. Jesus is the head of the church – biblical leadership recognizes that there is only one head of the church (Eph 2:22). Everyone else submits to this headship. Everyone else, period.
  5. Models the Trinity – biblical leadership is modeled after the relationships in the Trinity. Just as there is co-equality in the Trinity, so biblical leadership models a co-equality. This does not mean leaders are the same as clearly leadership roles in the church are different, just as the roles of each person of the Trinity are different from the other. Nevertheless, God Himself models the type of leadership that is necessary in His household. It is a leadership that does not manipulate others with their authority, but rather values the other as equal in authority.

A Consideration

As Jesus’ 12 disciples were maneuvering for positions of power in the Kingdom, He taught that they were not to lord authority over others as the Gentiles did (Matt 20:25-28). Instead, Jesus later provided a remarkable example of who the true leader was as he took the towel and basin to wash their feet (John 13:1-20). This cultural custom proved to be a model of leadership that empowers others to humbly serve on God’s mission. It did not discriminate nor did it demand from others. Instead, it recognized the inherent value of all people and their giftedness in the body of Christ and put co-equal leaders in the position to freely empower others for ministry because they all served the true head of the church.

Learn more about the first century church in Ephesiology: The Study of the Ephesian Movement

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