“The greatest barrier to the gospel in contemporary western culture is the church,” or so says New Zealand Theologian Mike Riddell. It is quite ironic that the very message, entrusted to us by Jesus, is in danger by the body created by Jesus to spread it. But what does Riddell mean? We call the church ‘a family’ and yet, if the church were to go into therapy, it would be considered severely dysfunctional, un-communicative and often abusive.
Our congregations…function as conglomerations of committed individuals, little different from a bowling club or a Rotary club group. Most Western Christians regard even major life decisions as their private arena and would never contemplate opening the process to fellow Christians.
The church has become an impersonal club – a place where you go to once a week and then leave to go back to normal life. Those with needs or problems are seen as a burden because they disrupt the ‘normal’ functional life of the church which is about the Sunday service going smoothly and uninterrupted.
Jurgen Moltmann also raises this problem. He ponders on Romans 15:7 Receive one another, then, just as Christ also received you, to God’s glory…(New English Translation) and writes;
Accept one another. Even in Church what hurts most is our lack of human relationships. The worship services in which we participate every Sunday morning themselves remain devoid of genuine human contact. We scarcely know each other with any genuine mutuality. We do not even consider it very valuable to create community with each other. ..
Of course we ‘have’ acquaintances with people within our churches, but these relationships tend to cease once we leave the service or meeting and go home. What is the reason for this alienation? For Moltmann the issue is that we only accept people on our own turf and view them only with our preconceptions. The conclusion of this attitude is that we do not at all seek the other but only ourselves in the other . In other words, we only seek out the things in a person which we like or agree with or that are like us. The bits we dislike or disagree with or are not like us are ignored, dismissed and avoided. This seems to affirm Aristotle’s famous words ‘birds of a feather flock together.’ Yet it was not always like this in the church.
The New Testament Church had no buildings, it had no clergy, it had no money and it had no authority. People relied upon each other. To be a Christian was to go completely against the social and economic stream of the day. You would have stood out. You would have been different. People met in other peoples houses. No neutral, cold, impersonal buildings, but somebody’s private living space. Yes they had faced persecution, and they would again. You did not make the decision to become a Christian lightly. Decisions were made as a community and life was lived in the context of community. And the community of believers crossed the divides of social and economic status.
The Joining of the State and the Church
So what went wrong? All this changed with Constantine. Christianity became vogue. Very soon it was given money and lands, a status which it had never before had. The rich began worshipping this Christian God, and appropriate people had to help them. A hierarchy soon developed. The Church became institutionalised.
Whether you think Constantine was good or bad for Christianity is a matter of debate. What I would suggest is that this institutionalisation was the beginning of the dysfunctional church. It made the church respectable – and that was not the function of the Church. Dare I say it, but Constantine let the wrong sort of people into the church!
This is not about never letting the rich, respectable and powerful into the church. The Church should cross social, economic, gender and racial divides However as mentioned above, the decision to follow Christ would not have been taken lightly in the first century. You risked losing everything. You risked being an outcast. Your commitment would have to be total. This is seen in the early churches practise of taking those who were interested in joining the church and putting them through a three year course which ended in baptism. This was not a decision to take lightly or flippantly.
Constantine effectively took this away. It became fashionable to join the church. It became respectable and wealthy. Constantine began the process of the church and state coming together. Because of Constantine the church would experience incredible influence and power in society. Today, I believe we live with this legacy and for over 2000 years we have tried to untangle ourselves from the influence of Constantine.
We have lost that radicalness of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Few of us have to lose our families, our jobs, our status, our positions and our reputations when we become believers (there are people today who do risk losing these things when they follow Jesus). No longer do we live or work out our life decisions within the context of the faith community;
If the church is essentially the community of God’s people rather than an institution then it is through the church as people that God is accomplishing his cosmic plan – not in the first place through organisation and institutions, though these may be useful tools .
The dividing line between seeing the institutional church as a useful tool and the church as essentially the community of God’s people accomplishing his cosmic plan has been lost. And this has had a serious repercussion on the church. Because the church needed to maintain an institution the focus of the church shifted towards power and authority. In order for an organisation to run well it requires good, strong structures which are maintained and upheld.
Focusing On Our Actions
I would suggest that whatever our focus is that will be how we act – the church’s focus has been in holding onto power and influence and so that is how it has acted. The church, over the previous centuries, has been used to wielding great authority in the affairs of the world. The ecclesiastical institution has not taken kindly to being pushed to the margins. But the church is a canny player. If power could not be exercised within the society at large, it could at least be maintained within the church. How was this power maintained? Through the establishment of strong leadership and authority, and this was built upon knowledge. Theological and doctrinal emphasis grew. Those with knowledge were powerful. This has meant that now the pinnacle of the Christian life is to become a leader. Almost everything we do within church is to ‘train’ others in order to create leaders. This is vital in order to maintain a hierarchical structure. So, a judgment is made of you. You are either leadership material, or your not. If you are, an investment of time, energy and sometimes money is made into your life in order to develop you towards leadership. If you are judged not to be leadership material, then you are asked to simply ‘serve in the body.’ No investment of time and energy is made other than weekly preaching and small group gatherings. The result of this is that some members of the community of Christ became valued over other members.
This is one of the foundational reasons for the divided church; an institutional focused church goes against Jesus’ teaching that life in the kingdom of God in inextricably linked with the welfare of one’s neighbour, (John 13:34, Matthew 16:24 & John 13:14).
Much of the church today is not in love with its neighbour, but with words, doctrines, rational arguments and statements about faith. Alongside the need for power and control, for many, church life has been an experience of abuse. Abusive when people are told to accept the word of those in authority and to question those in authority is an affront to God. Abusive when any person or groups of person claims to speak the word of God and that claim is not subject to discernment by the wider community of believers. Abusive when decisions are made in secret by a small group of power holders, and such hierarchical rule is interpreted as being Christian. Abusive when difference is demonised, and when departure from a prescribed moralistic lifestyle is portrayed as either sinful or evil. Abusive when control is exercised to ensure the maintenance of the institution.
Abuse, be it physical, sexual or spiritual abuse, takes place when we refuse to accept another person as Christ accepted us, but rather use them for our own purposes. This has been the legacy of church for too long.
Moltmann’s suggestion is that Romans 15:7, ‘Accept one another as Christ has accepted you’ needs to become a new orientation in our lives, breaking through our limitations so that we can, to use his words, ‘spring over our narrow shadows.’ Indeed, this verse has incredible repercussions within the church. The church has simply not accepted people as Christ accepted us. It has not just disobeyed this verse, but it has put into practise throughout church history many plans to actively not accept certain people in to the church. In this respect much of the church has failed. And how would we fair, if we judged ourselves the same way that we judge others? Maybe we would reject ourselves and fail our own criteria. If Christ accepts us while still his enemies (Romans 5:10) then what theological excuse can be mustered that we continue to not accept others?
One of the most powerful examples comes from a book by Alan Jamieson called A Churchless faith – Faith Journeys Beyond the Churches. Jamieson explores the faith of those who have left the church. He discovers a number of things which surprises him; that many who leave the church are those who have held some form of leadership and often been faithful members of their churches for between 10-15 years; that their faith is not just maintained but actually develops and grows once they have left the church; that the decision to leave the church community was a major, long thought through process. He discusses the fact that in 99% of the cases, the pastors interviewed never once thought that the problem for an established member of a church to leave was on their side. The responses were that those who left were backsliders (which defied the evidence), unstable or just trouble makers. He quotes one senior pastor as saying:
Every church needs a soundproof room where a pastor can take certain people and head butt them. Of course this would be followed by prayer….
A joke maybe, but it hides the more sinister side of the church. The church which is called to be a peacemaker, a reconciler to the world, to love its neighbour, cannot bring peace to itself, both internally and between different churches. Further more, many leaders do not have a clue how to lead, manage and pastor people effectively. And a large part of the reason for this is how the church views ‘leadership.’
Mike Riddell suggests that it may be necessary for much of the formal structure of western Christianity to ‘fall into the ground and die’ (John 12:24), in order for new shoots of faith to arise. A total shift in focus is vital for the church; the shift away from power and authority to embracing powerlessness. Henri Nouwen writes that:
“[Christian leadership in the future] is not a leadership of power and control but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest…I am speaking of a leadership in which power is constantly abandoned in favour of love. It is a true spiritual leadership. Powerlessness and humility in the spiritual life do not refer to people who have no spine.”
Indeed, powerlessness requires a tremendous amount of courage and faith in God. There is nothing to prove to anyone. I call it the John the Baptist principle. John the Baptist had a tremendous ministry. People flocked to hear him and be baptised. Then Jesus comes along. In John 3, we have the disciples of John concerned for his ministry. They say to him in v26, look, that guy you baptised is also baptising and everyone is flocking to him! And John’s response? Does he increase his ‘baptism’ times, or try and maintain his ground? No, he says He must become more important while I become less important. (v30). Other translations says He must become greater and I must become less!
The goal of ministry is not church growth but Kingdom growth. Or even better, the goal of ministry is to become less while Christ becomes greater. It is from this place that we can again begin to be a peacemaking church, a church who brings reconciliation, because we bring only Christ, not our authority, or power or influence. Just as Christ emptied himself of his divinity, humbling himself, so we too empty ourselves of everything in order to bring Christ. If this was the principle upon which leaders operated, there would be greater unity within churches, and between churches.
What Is Our Attitude?
Philippians 2:5 begins with Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus…. and goes on to talk of Jesus making himself nothing; taking the very nature of a servant; humbled himself; became obedient to death.
This should be our attitude, yet our courses for training ‘leaders’ today do not include classes on ‘making yourself nothing’ or ‘taking the nature of a servant’ or ‘humility’ or ‘how to humble yourself to the point of death.’
This is because within the church the word for ‘leader’ is associated with power and authority; that leadership is the goal and aim for a Christian in church life. My suggestion is that we cannot create leaders – leaders are called. So often we have made a person a leader because they are gifted in communication, or are charismatic in their personality or are great motivators. All these gifts are valuable but they do not make you a leader. These gifts need to be developed and encouraged in creating disciples, but leadership is a calling upon a life which comes from God. Leonard Sweet, author of Summoned to Lead says that “the church has it all wrong. It is trying to train leaders. Instead it ought to train everyone to listen and develop their own soundtrack.” We can stop putting leadership upon the pedestal of authority. Indeed, we should now remove it completely from the pedestal.
The power based leadership is the cause of the divided church. The desire to protect and maintain authority among the congregation, causes people to be neglected or used; It results in dealing suspiciously with anyone who might challenge the leadership, especially other leaders from other churches. Hence, a protective cocoon develops around the leader and the church, and anyone who tries or is perceived as trying to break into or through the cocoon is a threat and needs to be dealt with.
New Model of Leadership
Henri Nouwen calls for a whole new type of leadership, free from the model of power games and focusing on the servant leader, Jesus . We need to recapture something of the attitude and spirit of the early church which had servant hood, peacemaking and loving your enemies at the core of their thinking. Yet, over a period of time talk went from the converting of weapons into plough shares, spears into farmers hooks (Justin Martyr) to picking up the ploughshare and converting it back into a sword (Augustine).
How seriously do we take the call of Jesus to love our enemy; to turn the other cheek? Surely, the argument goes, Jesus does not want us to be weak. Surely this teaching is figurative, not literal! We try and do creative accounting with the gospel – we need to make the Gospel back our ideas for how we deal with people – we need to use violence, or be aggressive towards others so how can the gospel help us. Oh yes, Jesus showed anger in the temple, he used a whip, he drove people out. This is a whip moment – this is us imitating Christ in the temple. Many times I have heard the argument from Pastors that anger is acceptable because Jesus got angry, and then preceded to act in horrendous ways towards people.
This does not mean we avoid conflict – on the contrary, as Lederach has said regarding Matthew 18, we must embrace conflict; church does not have enough conflict in it. We must stop avoiding issues, or ignoring them and hoping they will go away, but instead move towards conflict. But so often, the conflict step within churches, the conflict begins from someone in the congregation approaching a minister and expressing their problem. The pastor sees a threat and immediately entrenches himself in order to protect his authority. The battle lines are drawn. Pastors need to stop entrenching themselves and immediately ask the question of themselves, ‘Am I at fault?’ ‘Is this a fair or true reflection of my actions?’ The congregation member may be wrong. But currently, the power model, dismisses any possible fault with the minister.
Jesus’ motive within conflict is not to establish power but to bring peace and reconciliation, reconciliation to himself and the father. Should not this be our focus as well? Larry Crabb, the well known Christian writer had a vision of this, which changed his entire outlook and ministry. His book, Connecting: Healing For ourselves And Our Relationships describes his journey. He writes:
The most powerful thing we can do to help someone change is to offer them a rich taste of God’s incredible goodness in the New Covenant. He looks at us with eyes of delight, with eyes that see a goodness beneath the mess, with a heart that beats wildly with excitement over who we are and who we will become. And sometimes he exposes what we are convinced that it would make him turn away in disgust in order to amaze us with his grace. That’s connecting .
Moving from a power and authority based leadership model to one which embraces powerlessness and a servant outlook will not be easy. Alan Krieder is right to say that we live in an environment that is not conducive to good conflict or peacemaking. As Christian’s we have lived within a worldview of adversarial and combative thinking. It has been so ingrained within us that to move away from it will take time, education and example.
I tend to agree with Mike Riddell that it may be necessary for much of the formal structure of western Christianity to fall into the ground and die in order for new shoots of faith to arise. This cannot be a change which happens over months and years, but rather decades. Even so, that does not mean that we cannot begin to model the example now.
What does embracing powerlessness as a leader look like? It looks like Jesus. It does not do ‘things’ in order to gain status or recognition. Henri Nouwen captures the essence of this when he says;
I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. This is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love. The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.
If Jesus emptied himself of his divinity, humbled himself and took the role of a servant, why should a follower and a leader of the people of Jesus be any different? Maybe it is because too many leaders do not how to exercise healthy, intimate relationships. They have become empire builders who are unable to give and receive love. This brings me again to my suggestion that too many leaders have been created in stead of being called.
As Jesus dies on the cross, the temple curtain was ripped from top to bottom revealing the holy of holies . It was symbolic. God declared in a very powerful way that no longer was access to him done through the ‘professional’ priest who restricted access to God. God is available to all. Yet the institutionalised Church has, for the last 1500 years, been trying to sow that curtain up again.
If the church is to become a reconciler, a peacemaker, then we need to re-think how we exist as believers. Alan Krieder gives four attitudes and four skills of a peacemaker. The attitudes are; humility, commitment to the safety of others, acceptance of conflict and hope. The four skills are; truthful speech, expectant listening, alertness to community and good process (making decisions which are truthful, just and corporate.) While these skills and attitudes can be taught they need to be lived. They must become apart of the DNA of the Church Leader. Powerlessness, brokenness and servanthood are resident within these skills and attitudes.
But fundamentally, this change needs to happen in the places where leaders are trained. There needs to be a complete re-working of what we teach and how we teach people in seminaries and colleges. For Nouwen, while powerlessness is a key to the leader of the future, the leadership of the future must also be a theological leadership. Nouwen says:
Thinking about the future of Christian leadership, I am convinced that it needs a theological leadership. For this to come about much, very much, has to happen in seminaries and divinity schools. They have to become centres where people are trained in true discernment of the signs of the time. This cannot be just an intellectual training. It requires a deep spiritual formation involving the whole person – body, mind and heart. I think we are only half aware of how secular even theological schools have become. Formation in the mind of Christ, who did not cling to power but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, is not what most seminaries are about. Everything in our competitive and ambitious world militates against it. But to the degree that such formation is being sought for and realised, there is hope for the church of the next century.
Nouwen is saying that theological leadership needs to be reclaimed. In the past theological knowledge was used to establish authority and power over people, creating a separation between leaders and the community; the new model of leadership takes theology and helps leaders to close the gap. Theology is not about knowledge and the mind, but about the whole person. True theological knowledge leads us to taking on the mind of Christ who emptied himself of the privileges of his divinity. True theology should lead us to powerlessness, peacemaking and reconciliation, formation in the mind of Christ. And while our seminaries and leadership schools are not teaching this at the moment, we need to continue to teach this message so that future seminary leaders can begin to teach spiritual formation in its wholeness.