Leadership, Authority, and Church Governance

note: This is a response to David Fitch’s blog that a friend of mine passed on to me the other day. I could have written so much more— getting into the details, etc. but I had to cut myself off. Will likely come back to this topic of leadership and authority at a later time.
The leadership thing is big. We need it, a group needs it, the church needs it, but how does leadership function in “real time”? Leadership necessarily involves authority, to deny this fact or reject the truth that the church and her leaders have authority is naïve and neglects the Bible itself. Yet, how is this authority to function?
I love the case study Fitch gives of a leader presenting his/her process to the group for input and interaction. This could work well in a small group setting like a Local Community, the Local Community leader forum, or a Session (the group of elders in a Presb church). It’s in groups like these where all the members are equally engaged in seeking the Lord in prayer and the Scriptures and receiving grace from Him through these means. The trouble is when we try and apply dynamics that are intended to function in a small group of equally committed leaders, into a group of people where some may be committed, some may be on the outskirts, some may be suspicious, some may even be malicious (even unintentionally so), or some may be committed and sincerely devoted to the Lord and the community yet lacking any solid theological/scriptural/Christian-life foundation for guiding a voice of wisdom. Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord, so if one has no fear or knowledge of God and His Redemptive-historical self-revelation in the Scriptures, and thus no notion of the gospel of grace applied to his own heart, how could a Christian community look to this person for guidance and input into the missional direction they ought to take, and submit to them— even if their voice is one of several?
This is not to deny that the Holy Spirit can speak through anyone, even an ass (Numbers 22:28). And, a godly leader will seek to hear God’s wisdom in anyone’s input, even if that input is delivered abrasively or without grace or significant biblical/theological knowledge. Yet, because of a lack of one or more of the following: godliness, maturity, whole-life wisdom flowing from the gospel of grace, or commitment to the community—this person’s input (even as a beloved member of the community), ought not have as much gravitas as the insights of others. This is why Paul is so thoughtful as to the type of people who ought to be set aside for the calling of elder. On one hand Paul writes that the one who aspires to the office of overseer desires a noble task (1 Tim 3:1), thus affirming the desire to influence and speak into church direction, vision, and leadership. Yet, at the same time Paul also cautions against ordaining those who are a “recent convert, lest he be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil,” (1 Tim 3:6). Spiritual authority to lead is a real thing, its a heavy thing, and for those who lack wisdom and maturity to rely on and apply the gospel of grace received by faith alone to their heart idols and tempermental tendencies, being recognized by others as having spiritual authority is not only a destructive path for the church, but a self-destructive path for that ill-equipped or immature individual, see Paul’s warnings to his young delegate Timothy in 2 Tim 3 and 4: “…they will have the appearance of godliness but deny its power…always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth…the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will acumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” While we affirm the reformation (and biblical!) principle of a priesthood of all believers (cf. 1 Peter 2), we also must affirm that not every priest is called to lead.
I’m not so much concerned about the inevitable conflict of leadership (this ought to come with any human relationship, and is a part of God’s toolbox for refining his people by grace), but I am concerned about people being given more authority to speak in to leading Christ’s church than they ought to have. Seeking input from everyone, consensus from everyone, leadership from everyone can actually be a very troubling thing, not just for a church but for any organization. Organizationally— for someone to use influence responsibly and well for the sake of the organization, they need to understand and completely own that organization’s guiding purpose, values, foundational principles, and practices— this goes for Caterpillar, Google, and even the church, just from a practical standpoint. Thus, while all members of a church ought to have a voice into the life and leadership of the church, these voices will have varying degrees of amplification based on the life of godliness, wisdom, and personal knowledge of Christ through prayer and Scripture that the speaker’s life displays— this is what we call maturity. Additionally, personal commitment to the particular community is vital for one to have a voice in helping to shape and guide it.
In the American system of representative democracy, we are meant to have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people— people are not meant to serve government, but government is meant to serve the people and be developed from that same populace. The qualifications to govern well cannot include every human living within the borders of our nation. There are certain people (perhaps a majority of people), who simply do not have the knowledge, skills, wisdom, social thoughtfulness, disposition, etc. that could make them competent to work with others in the detailed governing of our nation. Further, the sheer number of people and the difficulties resulting from this should every one person have a voice into every governing decision that needs to be made on a daily basis, could lead to either chaos or an eventual tyrrany of a vocal few. As a result, we function through the process of representative democracy— where people choose to elect who they deem the most qualified representatives on their behalf. And, these elected officials are not meant to have achieved a higher level of value, significance, and power from a hiarchical sense. Instead, their position affords them the opportunity to serve others at a greater capacity, under social contract with the people who recognized their qualifications and elected them to office in the first place. All of this is laid out in the authoritative document for the United States’ system of governance— the Constitution.
This system is not meant to be a model for the church, instead our system of American government finds it’s bearings through the biblical model of the church, actually finding significant roots in Scottish Presbyterianism. Yet, in the system of church governance or authority, how are congregations supposed to recognize the most qualified among them?— we look to our spiritual authority, the Scriptures for this. Who trains potential leaders and presents them to a congregation for consideration?– we look to our authoritative document for life and doctrine, the Scriptures. How are these leaders to govern and lead Christ’s church?– we look to the Scriptures.
This could get so much longer… so I’ll conclude.