Everything in life and ministry is summed up with the little phrase “the glory of God.” God made all things to display the glory of His grace. God’s passionate love for His glory is the ground on which everything stands. Therefore, Christian leaders are to always be centered on God at all times.
At the heart of every leader’s sin, every church split, and every church conflict is self-exaltation. God’s glory must always be the goal and it can never be assumed. A pastor with high expectations about his ministry must keep in the forefront of his mind that his ministry never has been and never will be about him. It is Christ’s church and He promised He would build it as long as we submit to Him and let Him use us as He builds the church for His own glory.
Church leaders who are God-centered will be more concerned about displaying God’s glory than they will anything else, including their own personal success. When a church leader has this kind of God-centered focus he will inevitably be concerned about how to magnify the glory of God through the truth of the gospel and character of God.
God-centered leaders are gospel-centered leaders. You cannot be a gospel-centered leader and not God-centered and there is no such things as a God-centered leader who is not gospel-centered.
The most important thing about any church leader is that he knows and believes the gospel. This may seem obvious, but without the gospel there is no church to lead and no Christian leaders to lead it. The importance of the gospel is not only clear throughout all the New Testament, but also throughout the history of the church. For centuries, the correct preaching of the gospel and the proper administration of the ordinances has defined what the church is.
A Matter of First Importance
It should be no surprise to read in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that the gospel is “a matter of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). The gospel is the rock on which Christ will build his church and it is the source of all genuine growth and fruit. If a church is going to grow and become healthier it will only be through the Holy Spirit as he works through the proclamation of the gospel. A pastor’s dreams of leading a church towards healthy ministry will never happen unless the gospel is being proclaimed and applied week after week and day after day.
Only Preach Christ!
Let’s say a weakness in your church is its ministry to the family (parenting, youth, children, etc…). It may seem logical for many pastors that in order to have a healthy ministry to families, there needs to be sermons regularly on marriage and parenting. However, the truth is that pastors should never lose sight of the cross and the focus of the preaching should ALWAYS be on Christ.
For this is exactly what we see in scripture. The apostle Paul says he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Fred Zaspel’s comments on this passage are very helpful. He notes, “it is important to notice the exclusiveness of Paul’s language. ‘I determined to know nothing.’ Nothing else was allowed in and this is not a reference to his preaching, but his whole ministry, indeed his very thinking.”
Only Preach Christ?
What does this mean for family ministry and topics like marriage and parenting? Does Paul mean that we do not need to focus on these things? Of course not! Paul himself a few chapters later in 1 Corinthians has an entire chapter devoted to the topic of marriage. The difference is that as Paul is confronted with problems and issues on marriage in the church he traces them back to the gospel. Notice the way Paul approaches the topic of marriage right in the middle of 1 Corinthians 7. “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.” (1 Cor. 7:23) There is much we can learn from this but let us simply observe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the ground of Paul’s commands and exhortations on marriage.
Christ is the Whole Counsel of God
“The one who claimed to preach the whole counsel of God also claimed to only preach Christ. That is…to say you will preach the whole counsel of God is to say you will preach Christ.” (Fred Zaspel) What this means is that pastors must understand how the gospel applies to marriage, parenting, singles, widows, and every topic and issue in the church. This is the main labor of pastoral ministry and by far the most important concept for any church leader who wants to transition a church to greater health.
Don Carson also picks up on Paul’s single-minded focus of the gospel from a passage in 1 Corinthians 4:1. “At the heart of the commission [pastors] have received form their master lies one particular assignment. They have been ‘entrusted with the secret things of God.’” Our master, Jesus Christ, has entrusted church leaders with the secret things of God, the gospel, and this is their one particular assignment. Everything else in pastoral ministry will flow out of this ministry of the gospel.
Preaching, Prayer, & Patience
If a church leader is convinced that he is working for God’s glory and not his own and he knows that his main role as a pastor is to faithfully preach and apply the gospel to everything, then the only thing left to do is pray and be patient. Gospel proclamation should be a pastor’s primary focus and so he can wait months or even years before even suggesting certain ministries begin or end. Our world’s current fetish with instant gratification has blinded many of us to see the biblical truth that gospel growth is often like watching trees grow. It is slow! Transitions in churches are often slow and there is a great need for more pastors to commit long term to faithfully preaching the gospel in one church.
The Church Makes God Visible
The next concern a God-centered leader should have is the glory of God’s character displayed through the church. The church is called to reflect God’s image and be holy as He is holy (1 Pet. 1:16). This means the world should see our love for one another and know that we are his disciples (John. 13:35). The angels will look on and see the wisdom of God as they look at the church (Eph. 3:10). As the Holy Spirit sanctifies the church through the washing of the word God’s patience, kindness, mercy, grace, forgiveness, compassion, and so many more attributes will be put on display.
The Glory of God’s Submission
Every church and every church leader should be focused on being a better witness of God’s glory. For example, think about the glory of God’s submission. In the scriptures we see God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit joyfully submitting to one another. All through the gospels we see Jesus praying to the Father and submitting perfectly to the Father’s will. The early church creeds picked up on this theme in the Nicene Creed. “The Nicene doctrine includes the principle of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Father and the Son.”
The church can reveal this aspect of God’s character when everyone in the church submits to the head of the church, Christ (Eph. 5:23). The members of the church are commanded to submit to the elders and pastors (Heb. 13:17). Lastly, we see in Ephesians 5:21 that everyone in the church should in one way or another submit themselves to one another.
Trust In God, Not Church Leaders
In a world that is allergic to the word submission and even more to the practice of it, the church of Jesus Christ can shine bright by having leaders who are submissive to Christ and church members who are submissive to their leaders. It is vital for the whole church to understand that God is ultimately in charge and in control of all things. He has authority over the church (Matt. 16:18-19), He appoints all rulers, kings, and judges (Dan. 2:37-38), and all leaders are held accountable to Him (Heb. 13:17).** The reason these things are so vital for a church is because it teaches the church to ultimately trust God and not in their leaders. He appointed them and so we should trust His judgment.
If someone has problems or issues with the leadership, then a mature response would be to respectfully voice their differences, pray for God’s will to be done, and then put their faith in God to work things out for His good purposes (Rom. 8:28). The alternative response is to resist the leaders and their proposed changes and by doing so disobey God. A leader who has a God-centered view of authority and teaches these things to his church can be putting out fires before they ever start.
God-Centered = Humble
If a leader truly knows the gospel and that God in His mercy has appointed him to leadership, then a God-centered leader is a humble leader.
Meditate for a moment on the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. It clearly reveals to us that our God is a holy God. His absolute sovereignty over all things truly sets Him apart. With that in mind, now consider what the gospel teaches us about our sinfulness. In C.J. Mahaney’s book Humility he says that these two truths are the definition of humility. “Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness. That’s the twin reality that all genuine humility is rooted in: God’s holiness and our sinfulness”* Therefore, it is logical to conclude that a God-centered leader is a humble leader.
A HUMBLE LEADER SERVES
What Is Most Important?
The two most important elements of leadership are clearly laid out in 1 Corinthians 4:1, “this is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” The importance of being a steward of the gospel, “the mysteries of God”, has already been addressed in a previous post. Thus, it is the next most important element of leadership, being servants of Christ, that I want to address here.
Don Carson comments on this verse and says, “Christian leaders do not try to be independent gurus, all-wise teachers. They see themselves simply as servants and want other Christians to see them that way too.”** This perspective on church leadership could not be more needed today with the rising of so many evangelical rock stars who have been promoted to celebrity like status because of their preaching or writing. The leaders of the church should not only see themselves as humble servants, but they should work extra hard at making sure the church they are leading sees them that way as well.
The Emphasis of Being a Servant
The New Testament and especially the teachings of Jesus are littered with passages that speak to the importance of all Christians, especially leaders, to have the attitude of Christ and becoming a servant (Phil. 2:5-7). Jesus laid down his life for the sheep (John 10:15), Jesus washed the disciples feet (John 13:3-17), Jesus taught that the greatest among us will be the servants (Matt. 23:11), Paul described his ministry to the Ephesians as continuously serving with humility and with tears through extremely difficult trials (Acts 20:18-19), and to the Corinthians Paul says he does not lord his leadership over them, rather he is a fellow worker with them for their joy (2 Cor. 1:24). This is only scratching the surface of the scriptures teaching on being servants. Hopefully, the point is clear: biblical leaders are self-sacrificing, feet washing, humble servants of Christ for the joy of the church.
The emphasis of service should impact everything a leader says and does. Servant leaders will say that their position is a gift from God. They will say that it is only by God’s grace that they are saved and regularly acknowledge their sin and need of a savior. When praised they will regularly give the credit and glory to God who provided the strength for them to serve (1 Pet. 4:11). For God alone is worthy of our praise. They will regularly pray with humility and show their dependence upon God in prayer. Servant leaders will constantly fight the temptation to boast in themselves and not in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:31).
Humble Servants Are Not Weak!
The kind of humility and service being discussed here should not be confused with a meekness and humility that is weak, timid, lacking courage, fearful to speak up, or not bold enough to take a stance. This is a false humility because it is done in the fear of man rather than in the fear of the Lord. Obedience to God requires us to contend for the truth (Jude 3) and protect the sheep from wolves (Acts 20:28-31). This is why it is important to remember the definition of humility and that biblical humility is always defined in respect to God and His holiness. Or as Calvin Miller says, “servant leaders generally are created not in commanding others but in obeying their commander…the yielded leader is always an incarnation of Christ, the real leader of His Church.”*** That is exactly what is meant by humble servant leadership. Church leaders are not to demand that people follow them, rather Christians will follow them as they pursue faithfulness and obedience to God. It is in this way that the church should view their leaders and the way leaders should view themselves. We leaders need all the help we can get and this brings us to our next topic. God calls leaders to share their leadership.
It is the fruit of humility that produces the desires to share the burdens and joys of leadership. It is the fruit of pride that produces the desires to hoard the responsibilities and not let others lead.
Spirit-Filled Leaders Share
Christopher Wright masterfully explains the relationship between shared leadership and humility. He says:
Spirit-filled leadership becomes shared leadership. Actually, this takes more humility than dependence on God alone. Some of us are very willing to trust God. Trusting others, who (we are asked to believe) also have the Spirit of God feels like a much more dubious proposal. But it is one of the marks of the Holy Spirit in anyone who is a servant-leader like Moses that they are humble enough to recognize God’s gifts in others, and share leadership with them. Pride says…make sure it is through me and nobody else. Humility says…let God provide Spirit-filled helpers for me. The more the better.
God Centered Leaders Share
If a leader is God-centered, then he will always strive at putting himself in positions that will greater magnify God. Shared leadership diverts the attention away from one leader and helps make the glory of God more clear. If God is the most God-centered being in the universe, then we would expect Him to be in favor of shared leadership. That is exactly what is found in the pages of scripture. “The New Testament provides conclusive evidence that the pastoral oversight of the apostolic churches was a team effort – not the sole responsibility of one person.”
New Testament Leaders Shared
This theme of shared leadership in the New Testament begins with Jesus and his selection of twelve disciples (Mark 3:13-19). The selection of twelve disciples shows “Jesus gave the church plurality of leadership” from its inception. Through the book of Acts there are deacons being given leadership to distribute funds to the church’s widows (Acts 6:3-6), elders in Jerusalem meeting together discuss doctrinal controversy (Acts 15:1-21), and Paul addressing the elders of the church in his farewell address (Acts 20:17, 28).
Most of the remaining books of the New Testament continually use the Greek word “elder” in the plural form and the word for “church” in the singular. It is only logical to assume that every church in the New Testament had a plurality of elders. For example, notice the way Paul addresses Timothy and the church in Ephesus, “let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). This passage makes it clear that there were elders who ruled and then there were other men who worked hard at preaching and teaching. The simple observation I want to make is that leadership is shared. There was a plurality of leaders in the New Testament churches. Never are there churches being led by one person. Even the big name leaders like Peter and Paul continually taught and practiced shared leadership.
Sharing Protects the Senior Pastor
If a church does not already have a plurality of leaders, then it would be wise to put this at the top of the to do list. It is a big step and as it is the case with all changes that will be made there needs to be patience and sensitivity. There are almost always church members who will object to any change of the leadership structure no matter what the change. Some may even get the impression that moving toward a plurality of leaders is just a power move by the pastor so that he can get more control.
However, the truth is that shared leadership is trying to protect the senior leader from having all the control. A leader who wants to share leadership often is doing it because he is humble and familiar enough with his own sin so that he knows he should not have that kind of control.
Sharing Protects the Church
One of the advantages of a plurality of leaders is better continuity in leadership. “A ministry team remedies the vulnerability of solo leadership in its very ‘team-ness.’ This insulates the ministry from leadership loss when a current leader steps down. Others within the team or the team’s leadership core are then ready to step in, and the team experiences continuity of leadership.” A pastor who longs for lasting change can be more confident the changes will last even long after he has left because he has humbly shared leadership with other men in the church. When it comes time for a leader to step down someone else will be ready to step right up.
In Jesus ministry he asked his disciples to come follow him (Matt. 16:24) and he says in John 13:15 “I have set an example that you should do as I have done for you.” In Paul’s ministry he called people to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1). The writer of Hebrews says “we do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” (Heb. 6:12). This theme of imitating and following someone’s example is an important aspect to leadership. In fact, is a requirement of leadership in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. An elder in the church must have good character and be able to provide an example for others to follow. If someone does not have good character then they should not be a leader.
Is Saying “Follow Me” Proud?
In fact, it is so important for leaders to be humble that one of the qualifications of being a leader in the church is they not be a recent convert so they will not become conceited (1 Tim. 3:6). This means someone could potentially have all the other qualifications but be a recent convert and that would disqualify him from leadership. The reason for this is because there is an incredible amount of humility needed to ask people to imitate and follow your example as you follow the example of Christ.
“Follow My Example of Humility”
Thus, the way leaders should go about asking the members of the church to follow them is to ask them to follow their example of completely and totally depending on Christ for everything. This was the example that Christ gave us. He depended completely on God. There is nothing flattering about with this kind of leadership. There is nothing about complete helplessness and dependance on God that makes a leader look great. A leader who imitates Christ is weak so that Christ looks strong. He is poor so that Christ looks rich. He is hungry so that Christ looks satisfying. A God-centered leader and a humble leader imitating Christ is the same thing. There does not need to be any conflict between wanting God to be praised and wanting human leaders to be imitated.
“Kids, Follow Me”
You ever wonder why God requires obedient children as a qualification for being a leader in the church. “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)” (1 Tim. 3:4-5). Dr. Timothy Jones of Southern Seminary regularly tells his students “what you do for God beyond your home will typically never be greater than what you practice with God within your home.”
It does not matter how big the church is, the first responsibility of any man is to their spouse and then their children. Leadership always begins in the home as a husband learns to humbly serve his wife and children. If a church leader can learn how to die to himself day after day after day, then he will begin to have a clue as to what his leadership should like in the church. In the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery it points out several different images of leadership given, but one of the images is the leadership in the family. Men in the home are to love, correct, discipline, instruct, pray, and nurture their spouse and children.* The interesting thing about this list is that all of these things are also descriptions of what God has called the leaders of His church to do as well.
The connection between humble service in the home and humble service in the church is crystal clear. This is why every leader in the church should think twice as hard about his strategic plan for his own home and give twice as much energy to serving his wife and children, then he does the church. It is true that God will always use leaders in spite of their sin and their failures to faithfully lead in the home, but it is also generally true that a church will never be more mature than their most mature leader.
Shepherd the Flock!
The actual activities of service a church leader should be involved in are summarized in the phrase “shepherd the flock” (1 Peter 5:2). Alexander Strauch in his book on eldership shares four ways the New Testament unpacks this image of a leader as a shepherd.*
Protect the Flock!
First, he says church leaders are to protect the flock as seen in Paul’s charge to guard the flock from savage wolves in Acts 20:29. This includes being the alert for false doctrine that is creeping into the church as well as being courageous enough to kick out the savage wolves when they have slipped by unnoticed.
Feed the Flock!
The second task is to feed the flock. One of the distinctive marks of a Christian leader is sound teaching of God’s word. Jesus said to Peter three times to feed his sheep in John 21. Paul commands Timothy to devote his time and attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhortation and teaching (1 Tim. 4:13). The Christian leader must give much of his time and energy to reading, studying, and preaching the word. “God’s word has always been His chosen instrument to create, convict, and conform His people.”**
Lead the Flock!
The third aspect Strauch gives of shepherds is leading. In 1 Timothy 5:17 Paul says, “let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor.” The word for “rule” could mean lead or direct or manage. “Elders, then, are to lead, direct, govern, manage and care for the flock of God.”***
Care for the Flock!
The final aspect of shepherds is to care for the practical needs of the church. The elders are to be called upon when someone is sick and needs prayer according to James 5:14. Paul’s example in Acts 20:35 was to help the weak. Also, in Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 5 the leaders of the church show great concern and care for the widows of the church.
Shepherds are servants of the sheep. They are to teach, teach, teach, and teach some more. A church should be hearing the gospel from the pulpit, in small groups, during extra weekend seminars, in discipleship relationships and pastors should continue to give away and recommend great resources for church members to learn more about the gospel. One of the reasons why the gospel is not central in many churches is because too many church leaders believe they have clearly communicated it and taught it from God’s word. Pastors and elders need to stop assuming and get to the point were they are tired of hearing themselves say the same things over and over again. Feed the sheep! Feed the sheep! Feed the sheep! It is the way of humble service. Sheep are dumb animals and the work of shepherding is dirty, tiring, and humbling work.