“Leaders and Followers” in the Church

Contributed by Larry J. Perkins, PhD, Professor Emeritus in Biblical Studies and President Emeritus of Northwest Baptist Seminary.

Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s great effort was made to dispel the myth of the clergy-laity distinction within the church, we have resurrected it in a new guise, the categorization of believers into leaders or followers. Without doubt ‘leadership’ and ‘leaders’ receive inordinate attention from church pundits and writers. In the last two decades more and more we see the stress being placed on “preparing leaders for the church” within seminaries. Congregational search committees define the pastoral role as that of leader and/or organizational leader – not necessarily the same thing.

Whether we use the terms “clergy-laity,” “leader-follower,” or “pastor-people,” we are trying to express an essential reality within the church, namely that God gifts individuals to the church with specific abilities and competencies who “equip the saints for the work of ‘ministry’” (Ephesians 4:11-12). This is a useful distinction to make as we seek to grasp God’s purpose for his people. However, such terminology, despite its potential usefulness, distorts God’s intent for his people. When Jesus transforms people through the gospel and gives them the Spirit, he intends each one in his assembly to become a learner (disciple), an assistant (diakonos), and a witness (martur), each able to articulate the meaning of God’s revelation in Christ and in the Word of God (Matthew 13:52). Every believer first and foremost is a disciple, a learner, no matter what role humans might assign to them in the body of Christ.

Those to whom we apply the term ‘leader’ have to hold the epithet lightly, because it merely signals that they serve and care for the body. It gives them no special spiritual status in the kingdom. As Jesus stated (Matthew 18:1-6), he desires all of his followers to be great in the kingdom and the path to greatness is humility. Further, he expressly forbids his followers to apply titles such as rabbi or teacher to themselves, because the Messiah alone is our teacher (Matthew 23:8-12).

If we regard every believer as a kingdom leader, it radically alters how we perceive their place in God’s church. I think Paul was pursuing this goal in 1 Corinthians 12-13 when he uses the image of a functioning body to indicate that God’s puts every believer in the body for a purpose and resources their capacity to fulfill this purpose. All parts of the body are necessary. I think Paul emphasizes the same message in 1 Corinthians 2-3 when he affirms that every believer has the “mind of Christ,” is ‘pneumatikos,’ i.e., energized by the Spirit of God, and for this reason, contributes in some way to the building of God’s people because they are God’s “fellow workers” (sunergoi). Believers exercise their ‘leadership’ by obeying the three great commands – loving God, loving neighbour, and making other disciples. Paul defines this application of agape in 1 Corinthians 13, a chapter on discipleship that applies to both ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ without exception. By exercising agape collaboratively with each other, believers “grow the body” (Ephesians 4:16). Discipleship is the process by which we enable every believer to become the kingdom leader that God saved them to be in every role they possess.

The pervasive instruction to ‘submit’, articulated to believers throughout the New Testament, finds a summary in Ephesians 5:21 – “rank yourselves appropriately (hupotassomenoi) among one another in fear of Messiah” (my translation). The Greek verb ὑποτάσσω (hupotassō), used primarily by Paul and Peter in their writings, encapsulates the Messiah’s instruction about humility (Matthew 18:1-6) and greatness. He models its meaning when he claims in Mark 10:45 that he has come to serve as God’s assistant, not to be served, and this requires him to “give his life as a ransom for many.” He makes himself the assistant and slave of every human being so that they might experience salvation. As a result, he ranks himself appropriately before God, his father, and with his people (cf. Phil. 2:5-11). Peter the apostle urges the same perspective for those who “care for the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:1-7). At the heart of this care is a voluntary humbling of self by “wrapping around oneself the apron of humble-mindedness,” knowing that God commends the humble.

We are all leaders in the kingdom because Christ makes us so – priests and kings (Revelation 1:6; 1 Peter 2:9-10), by enabling the Holy Spirit to take up his residence in our lives. We are all followers in the kingdom because we are all learners/disciples. We are all temples of his Holy Spirit. The terms ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ are to be carefully used within the body. When misused or overused, they distort the essence of the Messiah’s assembly.

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