I have written before about the high standards for leadership and the greater accountability expected of them.
In this writing, I want to bring leaders down to earth . . . with a view to heaven.
I hope these ideas are both biblical and helpful in challenging common misconceptions about our Christian leaders. Leaders are important . . . and so they need to get it right. When speaking with Jada, I was again confronted with the teaching in some churches that leaders are to be obeyed absolutely.
I am going to use Numbers for some analysis of this view. But, I first must begin with a spoiler alert. The Old Testament priests are not in all ways equivalent to the New Testament leader or pastor in the church. I would suggest that there are some general principles that we gleen from OT Scripture for leadership, but we cannot make one-to-one comparisons.
Therefore, I will work from a principled way as we look at the Old Testament priesthood and apply it to current church leadership.
God’s Leaders: The High Calling
Leadership in the church is a high calling. It is likely that every society that gives credence to “religion” gives special honor to leaders of those religions. The spiritual guidance these leaders provide, bad or good, creates a we-them perspective. Religious leaders are normally set apart. They are often looked upon as having special knowledge or skills of the spiritual realm.
Some cultures especially give attention to spiritual leaders. We experienced significant honor in Africa and even in the United States there is a general sense of respect and honor for church pastors.
We see this in the Bible in Numbers 8 where the LORD gave Moses guidance for the establishment of the Levitical priesthood.
“Take the Levites from among the people of Israel and cleanse them. Thus you shall do to them to cleanse them: sprinkle the water of purification upon them, and let them go with a razor over all their body, and wash their clothes and cleanse themselves.” [Numbers 8:6-7]
The priests were set apart for the work they did, even in their physical appearance. There was clearly a uniqueness to their vocation (calling).
And in the New Testament,
“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”1 Peter 5:5 (ESV)
“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”1 Timothy 5:17 (ESV)
The elder in the church is placed in a position of authority that others submit to them and they are to be “honored,” especially the ones who do it well.
In addition, the qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 point to their calling to be guides and examples to God’s people.
Our Leaders: Not So Much
This is where we begin to see the balance with which we must grapple in our view of leaders.
Their authority is not absolute because they are not absolute.
The LORD is the only One Who is absolute and this becomes apparent when we look at the above Numbers passage and consider those same qualifications for elders found in Timothy and Titus.
“When you bring the Levites before the LORD, the people of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites, and Aaron shall offer the Levites before the LORD as a wave offering from the people of Israel, that they may do the service of the LORD. Then the Levites shall lay their hands on the heads of the bulls, and you shall offer the one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering to the LORD to make atonement for the Levites.”Numbers 8:10-12
Note that these leaders – priests – are sinners just as the rest of the people of Israel are. Their sins must be atoned for and that sacrifice for sins is done in full view of the people.
Not only that, the people lay their hands on these priests. The people ordain the priests.
This is significant.
The priests represent the people – they come from among the people. They are not the end-all of leadership. The LORD is.
He calls leaders. He instructs them in righteous leading. He calls His people to follow them.
And He holds them accountable. They have, do, and will sin. It must be atoned for.
“When a leader sins, doing unintentionally any one of all the things that by the commandments of the LORD his God ought not to be done, and realizes his guilt, or the sin which he has committed is made known to him, he shall bring as his offering a goat, a male without blemish, and shall lay his hand on the head of the goat and kill it in the place where they kill the burnt offering before the LORD; it is a sin offering.”Leviticus 4:22-24 (ESV)
The leader is to admit his wrong whether it was intentional or not. And, in the Old Testament law, he was to bring his sacrifice . . . a public presentation of their need for God’s forgiveness.
Leaders are Accountable
But, when those sins deeply affect his leadership, God brings an end to his leadership through His and His people’s systems of justice. God does not look kindly on wicked leaders who feed on the sheep rather than care for them.
So He calls them out:
“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: As I live, declares the Lord GOD, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep.”Ezekiel 34:7-10 (ESV)
Sometimes he strikes them by His own hand and sometimes He uses man’s justice. Either way, it becomes clear that leaders in the church (or anywhere for that matter) are not absolute in their authority or honor.
What do these principles mean?
In the big picture, they mean that leaders are given by God, but they are accountable for their leadership. They are to be respected, but they are to be held to high standards of behavior.
To get more specific, we serve our leaders as they call us to follow them towards the heavenly. As they teach us well, we learn well. As they give vision and example for ministry to others, we fulfill the vision and ministry. They are, after all, called to train us for works of ministry (Ephesians 4:12).
On the other hand, leaders who teach or behave contrary to Scripture can be called out by subordinates. Leaders who are unwilling to humble themselves, recognizing their own need of forgiveness from the Lord and others, need to cease being leaders.
Those who are responsible for appointing those leaders need to take their responsibility seriously and provide accountability. And they should never suggest to followers that they keep silent about errors on the leader’s part. As followers we should never feel and be taught as Jada was that we cannot challenge an “elder” in the church.
We must always remember that pastors and organizational CEOs are God’s leaders . . . and they are OUR leaders.
I encourage you to read Dr. Diane Langberg’s wonderful book, “Redeeming Power.”
In addition, this podcast sheds some light on power dynamics in the church: “Adult Clergy Sexual Abuse.”
2 thoughts on “God’s Leaders; Our Leaders”
What is the NT basis for saying that Christians should obey church elders? This article of mine discusses that question.
Thank you Barbara for the link. I appreciate your analysis of those passages. Very helpful in regards to a common misconception that elders are to be obeyed absolutely.