Divine Leadership: What the Westminster Divines Taught

Westminster_Assembly_of_Divines 1644
Westminster Divines 1643

Beginning in 1643, leaders from the Erastian, Presbyterian, and Independent churches in England and Scotland were called by Parliament to assemble a doctrinal statement for. the Christian church. In this monumental work of theology, the “divines” taught “divine leadership.”

In a few sentences in their “larger catechism” they constructed a beautiful statement of God’s call to leaders.

The Fifth Commandment

As they formulated a biblical theology on the fifth Commandment, the church leaders sought to give a biblical answer to a number of questions including, “What is required of superiors towards their inferiors?” [Question 129]

Their answer: It is required of superiors, according to that power they receive from God, and that relation wherein they stand, to love, pray for, and bless their inferiors; to instruct, counsel, and admonish them; countenancing, commending, and rewarding such as do well; and discountenancing, reproving, and chastising such as do ill; protecting, and providing for them all things necessary for soul and body: and by grave, wise, holy, and exemplary carriage, to procure glory to God, honor to themselves, and so to preserve that authority which God hath put upon them.

Despite being in a time when unquestioning respect and submission to authority was the order of the day, there is a sweetness to this answer. Their answer is a river of life to subordinates.

In line with the historical interpretation of the fifth commandment as being the fundamental principal behind all relationships of uneven authority, the divines developed their reasoning both from biblical passages about general authority and specifically familial relationships. It is based upon a variety of passages including Ephesians 5-6, Colossians 3, 1 Peter 1-2, Romans 13, Isaiah 1, and 1 Timothy 4 among others.

What is particularly striking to me is the emphasis on what might be called “pastoral leadership.” I do not mean the pastorate in the church as such, but being pastoral in the way one leads. To “love, pray for, and bless their inferiors” impresses upon leaders to look out for the good of subordinates as we normally expect of church pastors. It involves recognizing your authority is derived from God’s hands, not your own.

They also asked, “What are the sins of superiors?” [Question 130]

Their answer: The sins of superiors are, besides the neglect of the duties required of them, and inordinate seeking of themselves, their own glory, ease, pro , or pleasure; commanding things unlawful, or not in the power of inferiors to perform; counseling, encouraging, or favoring them in that which is evil; dissuading, discouraging, or discountenancing them in that which is good; correcting them unduly; careless exposing, or leaving them to wrong, temptation, and danger; provoking them to wrath; or anyway dishonoring themselves, or lessening their authority, by an unjust, indiscreet, rigorous, or remiss behavior.

The Harsh Despot

Harshness, arrogance, and despotic rule [descriptions of the toxic leader] have no place in the divines’ understanding of authority. Leaders are to be selfless and encouraging. They are not to have unreasonable expectations of their followers (employees). They are, in essence, to earn their authority as the final line suggests.

Isaiah speaks the words of God to Judah in the 8th Century BC:

“learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.”

Those who have power are called to look out for those who are weaker – those who have less authority. Subordinates do not live on a level playing field with them. Subordinates must be granted justice. It is not theirs to take. It is in the power of those in authority to bring them “up.”

Therefore, in God’s economy it is the leader’s responsibility to make sure their subordinate has what he needs to live in peace and use his God-given gifts to follow God in his vocation.

Often we focus on the subordinate’s role of submission, failing to call to account the abusive leader.  Though God gives direction to those caught in the trap of rotten leadership (1 Peter 2:18-25), He is unrelenting in His exhortation to leaders to lead in love of the subordinate.

It is His standard to which the church must hold leaders accountable.

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