Updated: Feb 5
By Russ Johnson
If you are wanting to help others find life in the movement of Jesus, know you will find people operating out of a view of “church” they have from previous experience. I say “know this” because one question will eventually come up: “So what do you guys do about church leadership?”
Seeing people struggle with this because they don’t speak like Pastor so and so; seeing people hesitate from stepping into the table-centered spiritual formation Jesus modeled, I wanted to pass on a few insights in regards to what the Scriptures actually reveal about leadership in the Church.
To get started, we find: Leadership Is a Sacrament, not a Vocation
The sacraments are “signs” by definition. The two we always hear about are communion and baptism, two acts designed to continuously point us to something. Someone. In communion, we find Jesus telling us to take two things everyone needs, food and drink, and use them to “remember” His sacrifice. In addition to this, we find Jesus telling every believer to baptize those who believe, an act that offers a sign of the salvation they have found in Him.
Like these signs, it seems that leadership is a sacrament in how it too is a sign to the world, not of Jesus’ death (communion) or resurrection (baptism), but of the life -- the ministry -- God is doing through every believer by way of His death and resurrection.
The Church: a Body of Priests
In 2 Corinthians 5, we learn every believer is “an ambassador of Christ” (a representative) who has “been given the ministry of reconciliation” (the act of helping others awaken to what God has done in Christ). To be an “ambassador” who helps others walk with Jesus is to lead them, to influence them. At the core of this work is a doctrine known as the Priesthood of the Saints.
“... you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5)
As someone who lived in a dominant church culture devoid of this truth, the reformer, Martin Luther, wrote in The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude: Preached and Explained: “this word priest should become as common as the word Christian” because all Christians by definition are priests.
By design, those who believe in Jesus are the Church, and the message of God’s boundless love spreads to every place through love and discipleship in the hands of every believer. And while it’s true that few people would deny this, the primary posture of leadership in the modern church culture is no different than what Luther saw 500 years ago.
Now, whenever that point surfaces one question surfaces with it:
Do the Scriptures not show a divide between clergy (church leaders) and laity (the everyday members of the church)?
To answer that, we could dive into a myriad of things. That said, for the purpose of this being Part 1 in a discussion, here is something to consider.
In Acts 20, Paul called for the “elders” (plural) of the ekklesia (singular) in Ephesus. Note the tenses: plural and singular. Here, and in other New Testament letters, we find no expression of the Church had one person functioning as the leader (the pastor). The New Testament gives no credence to this idea. None. Zero. Nada.
The New Testament shows the terms “clergy” (Greek: kleros) and “laity” (Greek: laos) apply to the same group—ALL of God’s people. There are no distinctions, and therefore no divide. Why? Because as Ephesians 3:10 states, Jesus desires to reveal himself to our age. Eugene Peterson described the mystery well when he wrote: “all the great realities that we can’t touch or see take form on ground that we can touch and see.” In other words, the world sees Jesus when the whole body of Christ walks in the things of Jesus--not just a select few.
So let’s let leadership be what it is: a sign of God at work through every believer.
The idea that some are leaders, most are not; the myth of the laity/clergy divide, not only results in a very limited sign of Jesus to the world, it results in those who do step into leadership becoming someone’s hero or eventual scapegoat.
Neither is good for anyone.