I am often asked: When is it appropriate to challenge or confront my church leadership? There is a full spectrum of opinions about the definition and expression of leadership in the church. There is also a broad spectrum of opinion on if, when, and how to confront church leadership. Jesus is our example in this matter, whether we like His example or not. Take my little “Leadership Legitimacy” survey and discover what Jesus would have you do.
When people hurt one another it is difficult to have discourse beyond the passion of their pain. Ministry-type/leaders abuse people, and people abuse leaders. Abuse goes both ways. However, it is often difficult for those abused to see from the other side. Sometimes they cannot even believe there is another side.
When it comes to leadership, some believe there is no such thing in the church, that the very notion of leadership implies hierarchy and superiority, and that the kingdom functions as an egalitarian association.
On the other hand, there are those who think leaders are an enlightened class of professionals, entitled to rank and privilege, immune from criticism, untouchable because they are “God’s anointed” and the rest of us are not. (I have written elsewhere on the illegitimacy of this view).
For me, the former is reading too much of western democratic sociopolitical values into the text, and the latter is emotional extortion and spiritual imperialism. Neither are the kingdom norm. The kingdom norm is a family bound together in love with new-borns, little children, brothers, sisters, young men (no gender implied) fathers, and mothers. Of course there is leadership because fathers/mothers are different than little children. The question is: How is leadership defined and how is it expressed? What “values” and “methods” populate the term, leadership. That’s the debate.
Can we avoid both extremes of “open season” on those who function in a leadership capacity (defined relationally and functionally, not positionally), as well as perpetual immunity because of perceived calling and function? When is it appropriate to confront or challenge church leadership, regardless of one’s opinion about the bigger issues of leadership? I am not addressing here the whole church-pastor-clergy-laity system. Others have done so, thoroughly, and those resources are readily available. I am addressing “what is,” for better or worse as the norm for the majority.
My Jesus is not like that.
I once had a conversation with an elder’s wife. I pointed to some red letter stuff in Luke’s gospel. She didn’t like it because it challenged her western American 1950s values of what she considered to be “polite.” She responded to me:
“My Jesus is not like that.”
I tried to contain the shocked look on my face, but probably did a poor job of it. She is typical of scores of believers I have met, who have a functionally idolatrous image of Jesus in their minds–a Jesus they have made up in the chambers of their imagery as surely as Israel of old–a cultural Jesus, rather than a biblical one. The image of Jesus that many have is a pale and wispy cleric (Mr. Rogers with a beard as someone has quipped) who does nothing but offer pleasant platitudes of happiness and the secrets to the good life of self-realization, blessing, health, and wealth.
She and her husband left the church because “her Jesus” wouldn’t say or do certain things she found difficult and offensive.
The Leadership Legitimacy Survey
I trust that anyone reading this would agree that Jesus is our pattern, and ideal norm in all things. As obvious as this might seem, I want to emphasize this because it is not as obvious as it might first seem, especially in regard to the matter at hand: confronting established religious leadership.
In the spread sheet below, I have gone through the gospels and summarized in my own language, the issues Jesus confronted in the conservative, moral, religious leadership of his day, as well as the political leadership of His day. Jesus was severe with these people for the reasons I have itemized.
Here’s how you take the survey. Simply review each item, and put a check mark in the column next to it if your “pastor,” “bishop,” “apostle,” “elder,” “deacon,” “superintendent,” “board member,” “home-group leader” (Whatever you call him or her.) demonstrates some degree of the attribute described.
How did you do? Are you ready to be like Jesus?
No Check Marks?
Praise God! You have some legitimate leadership! Treat those folks like the gold they are and thank God for the blessing they are in your life, and be a blessing to them in return in every way: spiritually, emotionally, and financially!
A Few Check Marks?
Hey, no one is perfect, we can all grow in an area of weakness. You likely have legitimate leadership! Perhaps a gentle conversation is in order, depending on the implications of each individual check mark.
Five or More Check Marks?
There is reason to question your leadership. You need to have a conversation, now. With witnesses if necessary.
Close to Ten or More Check Marks?
Your leadership is spiritually illegitimate. A rebuke is in order, and you need to immediately get out of the group you are in if you are not met with repentance and a willingness to change.
Someone might say:
“Well, what about grace, aren’t we just supposed to overlook sin in others.” “This is so judgmental.” “This is performance-based religion.” “We are supposed to support our pastors.” “This is behavior management.” This is fault finding.” And so on.
I am just calling you to be like Jesus. If thinking, being, and acting like Jesus is a problem for you, there is nothing I can do for you other than to beg you to read the Gospels without your spiritually, theologically, culturally, and emotionally conditioned filters on your eyes.
Grace includes empowerment to overcome sin not perpetually turn a blind eye to it. It is not judgmentalism to address issues in leadership that is harming, or will harm, others. Leaders are held to a higher standard of accountability. “Supporting your pastor” does not include being “nicer” than Jesus.
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Good job Steve. Practical advise. I have found one check mark- gate keeper of the truth- can obstruct fellowship. When there is an unwillingness to even discuss certain fundamental doctrines where I believe an elder was in error his response was that any other view is not according to the “pattern of doctrine” that we hold to here. He felt no need to defend his position or explain why mine was wrong. This one check becomes an impasse, and any persisting in questioning typically results in the use of the “cudgel verse” Titus 3:10. To me, this is the ultimate abuse of power and disqualifies most leadership in the institutional church. If I understand him correctly, Zens believes that this response is typical of of leadership in 95% of institutional churches.
Most Christians will not rebuke. They have their own sins that they don’t want called out or they simply know that their confrontation will not be heard and they don’t want more problems.
They will leave and join another fellowship wounded and refusing to engage. The Leadership will pass their weakness or failures via the grapevine to their down line and those people who leave will be marked “persona non grata”
The priesthood of the believer has been usurped by seminary degrees, titles and the famous “touch not God’s anointed” What hurts the most is the people love it so.
Sadly, there are many people I know who have had bad experiences in churches and have even turned away from the church, and subsequently from the Lord. Your article is timely and balanced, and should help those who are struggling with issues related to their church leadership.
Even if a leader is abusing his/her authority in the church, those who react and respond to the wrong behavior had better evaluate their own motives and attitudes, as they seek to deal with the problem. We must keep a right heart, lest we become critical, resentful or bitter about the situation, and therefore invoke the displeasure of the Lord. The aim for all of us is to be growing ever more Christlike.
Many people get hung up on the admonition to “judge (criticize) not, that you be not judged”, ignoring the further instruction in 1Corinthians 6:1-5, that we are to judge (discern).
What do you all think about this?
A Warning To all young Christians – If You Plan to Attend Traditional Institutional Churches
Do not study the bible and draw conclusions and convictions beyond the very elementary teachings of the gospel, especially if you are gifted by God to teach. Do no in-depth studies of soteriology, eschatology, ecclesiology, church membership, NT giving vs tithing, redemptive history, law & grace, the covenants, the operation of gifts, biblical history, unity of the universal church as opposed to sectarianism, pro-life activism, or fulfilled prophecy. Do not hold, with conviction, any belief that is contrary to anything the pastor and leadership of your current church believe. If you do, you will be forbidden to teach and may even be forbidden to join the church. If you attend and teach others, as God would have you to do, you will be driven from most every traditional church.
It is axiomatic that the traditional business church requires, as a condition for peaceful and continuing fellowship, that you abandon, or leave at the door, your own biblical convictions in order to become a blank and gullible slate on which the proprietor/pastor can write his convictions whether right or wrong. What he teaches, with absolute conviction, you most hold tentatively because you may have to jettison some of those teachings in the next church you attend. Few pastor-teachers will humble themselves and consider examining and changing their views based upon proper hermeneutical exegesis. It may be because their continuing livelihood is based upon an accrued clientele that have become convinced or accustomed to his teaching. They likely may not even discuss differences. A change in a theological position may cause a split and an exodus of a percentage of his support. It becomes too threatening for them to honestly and fairly examine differing views in an irenic way with those who hold an opposing position. Furthermore, you will incur the abuse and rejection of many in the congregation that have transferred their faith from their own Holy Spirit led study of scriptures over to the pastor and elders who tell them what “we believe here”.
This may seem cynical, but I was young and now I am old and I have seen many righteous bible scholars rejected from churches without a fair hearing and without a cogent refutation of their biblically sound convictions. The result is a legion of faithful, learned and badly treated saints that no longer can hope to find welcoming fellowship. The fear of losing income and church property, desire for control, a desire for credit or prominence, an unwillingness to humbly consider that one’s teaching may be wrong, a mob mentality from certain of those in the congregation that viciously and thoughtlessly defend their leaders right or wrong, all are obstacles to mutual ministry and the priesthood of all believers. These are contrary to what is clearly set forth in the Scriptures such as in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 and in Romans 12. If you cast your pearls before this kind of institutional church, which most seem to be, you will be gored.
The more that you learn the more difficult it is to find those that would agree with you on much that you believe because there are relatively few in the average church empowered or encouraged to study the scriptures except to find agreement with the pastor and his beliefs. It is futile to do otherwise because it may set one uncomfortably at odds with others in the church. Most Christians will not be interested enough to diligently and patiently work through these differences with a Berean spirit. Alarmed church leaders, today, wonder why the church at large is seeing shrinking congregations. They refuse to admit that it is the structure and traditions of the institutional church that are in conflict with scripture in so many ways. In the spirit of Diotrephes, the pastor’s glib, arrogant and hostile rejection usually sounds something like this. “Why did you come to our church? Go find another one that believes what you believe, or start your own.” It is said as if there was another church than the ONE that Christ established with His blood.
Taking myself as an example, where will a teacher be able to find fellowship if he holds to believer baptism, sovereign grace in election, continuation of the gifts of the Spirit, New Covenant theology, the Decalogue not being binding upon the Christian, priesthood of ALL believers, all prophecy fulfilled, NT giving as opposed to compulsory tithing, church unity, freedom in Christ, servant leadership as opposed to authoritarian, office-holding leadership, pro-life activism, remembering the poor by preventing mass poverty by opposing the covetousness and theft of socialism, etc.? Yet, to a humble and loving Christian that is not slothful in his study of God’s word and is willing to study these things, I believe I can demonstrate their biblical accuracy. Furthermore, I would gladly and eagerly change and upgrade my positions if one could demonstrate that I’m in error on anything that I believe. After all, that is how I learned all of these things. I do listen and study because I fear God, love His word and love His people. Like many others, I miss the fellowship of the brethren. Alan