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Larry Perkins Ph.D.

Theologies of Leadership – are they new forms of clericalism?

During the Reformation the assumed, privileged position of clergy came under serious challenge. More radical elements claimed to have eliminated the need for any specific clergy group within their formulation of church. In the early part of the 20th century we heard renewed calls for a “theology of the laity,” which continues to have significant impact in Protestant and Catholic circles. Slogans such as “every member a minister” became rallying cries that promoted further reformation so that “lay-people” in the church might enjoy their full position as part of Christ’s body. Within Evangelical circles a sense of congratulation emerged in the progress made to empower the laity.

In the last twenty-five years the issue of leadership, at least within North American Evangelical churches, has also become dominant. Seminaries seek to develop effective “ministry leaders.” The cry is for “visionary leaders” who can propel congregations to new heights of missional endeavor. Pastors’ shelves or computer memory drives are chock-full of books, papers, and digitized essays, videos, blogs and reports to help them become the leaders they were called to be. In many ways I applaud this focus.

But accompanying this engagement with the essence, competence, and theology of leadership is a serious question – if only some within the church are leaders, what does this say about the rest of us? Is this emphasis upon leadership in ministry and the general belief that only a few are called to exercise such leadership perpetuating clericalism, but under a new guise? Did Jesus intend only a few in his Kingdom to be leaders or was one of his radical changes the opportunity and requirement for every disciple to be both leader and follower, rather than a few being leaders and the rest followers? In my reading about ministry leadership and interactions with denominational, seminary and church leaders, I sense that the prevailing perspective is the first and not the second, i.e. only a few disciples are called to be leaders. It is their vision that dominates, after all they are the visionary leaders!  The incorporation of CEO models of pastoral leadership, particularly in larger churches, as important and useful as this may be, nevertheless also contributes to this perspective.  We all “know” that successful entrepreneurs and business leaders are a select group. This thinking spills over into the way average Christians tend to view the local church organization. Spiritual leaders are few. Only some are called to be spiritual leaders or ministers.

The New Testament offers a different understanding. Pentecost demonstrated that the presence of God’s Spirit among his people enabled each one to evangelize, to proclaim the Good News, and make disciples. Paul’s use of the body metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12 demonstrates that every believer, gifted and empowered by the Spirit, contributes to the well-being of the whole body. Similarly his statement in Ephesians  4:12-16 puts emphasis upon the work of restoring “the holy ones” to do the work of ministry so that “the whole body generates the growth of the whole body” (v.16) as they live connected with Jesus Christ. The concept of mutual submission expressed in Ephesians 5:21 leans in the same direction. And then there is Peter’s concept of the new temple constructed from living stones and each one together forms a priestly community, “a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices well-pleasing to God through Jesus Messiah” (2:5). Further he asserts that God gifts believers to speak and serve to his glory. Other elements could be referenced, but these may suffice to indicate a general perspective.

These same texts, however, indicate that God provisions his people with gifts so that the whole body can be effective in its service. Some of these gifts include people who can be entrusted with responsibilities to care for, teach, and guide the local expression of the faith community. However, as Jesus himself stated, such roles are essentially serving or “slaving” roles (Mark 10:43-45). Kingdom greatness is centred in humility and available to every believer (Matthew 18:1-8). Parenting serves as a primary metaphor for how “leadership” functions in a local church.

One of the significant benefits that the Theology of Work movement can bring to the understanding of the church today is a renewed sense that every member of the body is indeed called in Christ to exercise Kingdom leadership in their place, i.e. to be a Kingdom agent. This may be through the role of parent, spouse, employee, employer, student, etc.  However, we have to recapture the Kingdom perspective that leadership is not about power, but rather is about serving and thereby demonstrating God’s proper kingship in family, vocation, church, and society. Every believer exercises influence in his or her sphere of relationships towards the accomplishment of God’s will on earth. This is Kingdom leadership – something that the Holy Spirit empowers every believer to accomplish. People who fill functional roles of organizational leadership within a congregation do important spiritual work, but they have to remember that their work serves to enable all believers in the body to be the Kingdom leaders God has called them in Christ and empowered them by his Spirit to be.

1 Response to “Theologies of Leadership – are they new forms of clericalism?”


  • There seems to be a “spirit of the age” in which you either accept and conform to what the pastor / leadership decides or you can hit the road. If direction / decisions are truly of the Lord, I would think that most of the mature members would have been consulted and agree; but for some reason, are often disregarded.

    The “Emergent” movement seems to want to return to a more “clericalism” type church which I believe will result in a more “social gospel” as old-line churches had in the past decades; along with that, the younger generations are woefully ignorant of the Scriptures.

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