Less leader and more shepherd and servant

Who is head of the church? In true Sunday School style, everyone knows the answer, as always, is Jesus. Colossians 1 and Ephesians 5 both says it so. Jesus is head of the church.

But, if Jesus is the head of the church, where does that put pastors and elders? Surely we can talk about this being their church, can’t we? Aren’t they the ones who run the show?

Jesus’ words in Matthew 20 speak into this very thing:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

In the topsy-turvy world of the kingdom of God, leadership is borne out in servanthood, greatness is borne out in humility. The one who is head of the church is the same one who came not to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many. He humbled himself even to the point of death on a cross for our sake and God raised him up to be head over the church.

Church leaders are called to emulate the Lord Jesus. Not in the sense that we are also to be head, for there is one head of the church and it isn’t us. Rather, our leadership is to be exercised as servants. We are called to serve the good of God’s people, not lording it over them, but being willing to sacrifice ourselves for their spiritual good. In the topsy-turvy world of the kingdom, leaders are in fact servants and not rulers.

I was having this very discussion with someone just yesterday. Isn’t the pastor really the head of the church? They were surprised when I said no (it cropped up because of a study we had done earlier in the morning which highlighted Jesus as head of the church). Okay, Jesus is head, but the pastor is the ruler in the church, surely? Again, I said no. Who, I asked, appointed me to my role? It was the church. Who, I asked again, can remove me from my role? Again, it is the church. So, who do I work for? First, for Jesus (as every believer – who is a priest in his kingdom – does in whatever he has given them to do) and then for the church. Jesus is head of the church, the members of the church rule temporally and those appointed as elders are servants of the church called by the church and under the rule of the church.

I am not quite sure when the term ‘leader’ took hold as our preferred nomenclature, but it seems worth pointing out that it isn’t the term the Bible tend to use. When scripture calls husbands ‘head’ it simply does not use, or even describe, what most of us would understand as ‘leadership’ but a call to servanthood. Similarly, when Peter speaks about the role of elders in 1 Peter 5:1-5, the word ‘leader’ doesn’t appear, but rather shepherd. The emphasis – as with the term ‘head’ for husbands – focuses specifically on serving the good of those entrusted to our care. Never does the Bible use the term ‘leader’ or ‘ruler’ for husbands and, in only one case, does it do so of elders having specified exactly what that leadership should look like and it isn’t the kind of thing we tend to think of when we hear the word ‘leader’.

Indeed, Jesus makes something of a negative comment in Matthew 20 about this in which he says, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you.’ The Gentile rulers insist on ‘lordship’ and their high officials ‘exercise authority over them’. Jesus says specifically this will not be so of his people, but rather they are called to be servants. Jesus insists his people will not exercise authority as leaders are wont to do but will be servants of all. Peter emphasises this in 1 Peter 5:3 insisting elders will not lord it over church members, but will function as examples to them. They do not shepherd by command and diktat but by example, being ‘eager to serve’. It is always servanthood and shepherding being emphasised and, in Jesus’ specific case, not the typical exercise of authority and leadership.

Whilst I understand why we may sometimes employ the language of leadership in the church, it is important to see that the Bible doesn’t typically use that word. Which means, if we are going to talk about Christian leadership (and I think we can because Hebrews 13 does), we just need to be very clear that what we mean isn’t leadership as we typically hear that word. Biblical leadership is not a matter of high position, but humility. It is not the exercise of authority, but of godly example. It is not a matter of command and diktat, but servanthood that seeks to serve the spiritual good of those under their care. It might be considered ‘leadership’ in a fashion, but it is a kind of leadership that is to be exercised in such a way our typical use of the word ‘leader’ is deeply misleading and is not the preferred term of either Jesus or his Apostles.

In the topsy-turvy world of the kingdom, God’s leaders are not at the top but the bottom. Jesus – the head of the church – came to be the servant of all. Elders are not those who hold authority in the church, but rather are the servants of the members who hold the God-given right to rule. They lead with humility, serving the good of the church and encouraging others to follow their example, not by making demands and doling out commands. Husbands are not ‘leaders’, but are familial head called to lay down their lives for their wives, serving their good, in the same way as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

I think somewhere along the way we got stuck on the term ‘leader’ – which the Bible uses only once (and in passing at that) – and embued both husbandly headship and church eldership with a particular understanding that much of scripture would actively suggest ought not to be so in the church. We somewhere decided ‘leader’ was better than ‘servant’ and ‘shepherd’, which has pointed much of how we operate. If we could recover more use of the servanthood language and more prominent use of shepherding imagery, I think we would do a great deal to pull our models of Christian leadership somewhere back towards what Jesus would have us do.