Leadership in Christ’s Church

by Liam Goligher November 1, 2018

What does leadership look like in Christ’s Church? To begin to answer that question we need to remind ourselves that leadership works at different levels:

  • Christ is the king and head of the Church and his laws expressed in Scripture rule his assembly.
  • The apostles provide the divine revelation on which the Church’s order and ordinances are constructed.
  • Elders sitting on Session have delegated authority from Christ to teach, model, and implement his laws in the corporate life of each assembly. They serve by guarding the faith and the flock.
  • Deacons and deaconesses are to lead by serving the body of the church.
  • Leadership in more specific ministries emerges naturally from the body of Christ relative to the gifts and working of the Holy Spirit.
  • Every Christian believer is expected to take the lead in loving service of the Body. 

What does Christian leadership under Christ and the instruction of the apostles look like? The answer is relatively simple—it is primarily ministerial, not magisterial. By definition, Christian leadership at every level is servant leadership.

I recently heard someone overstate this principle. He quoted the words of Jesus: “The Son of Man came to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” The speaker then applied it to us generally, “we are here to serve and give our lives as a ransom for many.” This is sadly nonsense, for it fails to see the distinction as well as the continuity between Jesus and us.

The Lord Jesus is in fact the Servant of the Lord, promised in Isaiah, anointed with the Holy Spirit without measure, who would bear the sins of many. However, in his human nature he is also the model believer and saint.

I think we see these two aspects illustrated from the story of the feet washing in John 13. There the story hinges on two statements Jesus makes which apparently say opposite things: “you do not understand now” (meaning that after the Resurrection/Exaltation/Pentecost they will) and “you do understand” (where he urges them to follow his example). In other words, the text invites us to view the foot washing at two levels.

At one level, the action of Jesus in leaving his place, discarding his outer garment, donning the towel as the badge of the servant, pouring out water, washing their feet, and returning to his place are all set in the context of his saving mission. The introduction tells us it was Passover, his “hour” had come, and he “had come from God and was returning to God.” Specifically, what that means is spelt out in the reference to Isaiah’s vision of the Lord God of hosts: John adds “this Isaiah said when he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke of him.” Later, in John 17, he will speak to the Father of “the glory I had with you before the world was.” Jesus’ leaving his eternal place and taking on the form of a servant was unprecedented, unrepeatable, and utterly unique to him. He alone “poured out” his soul to death and he alone can cleanse his people so that they enjoy fellowship with him. That is the full meaning of the foot washing action which they would not understand until his exaltation and the coming of the Spirit.

Yet at another level, there was something they could understand. Luke tells us that after their last supper with Jesus they had “argued among themselves who was the greatest” —their question is grotesque in the presence of Jesus. Most likely the foot washing happened after this event. He was their Lord and Teacher and now he performed the action of the lowest servant. He had seen a need and had done what was required to meet it. They had been on the receiving end of that thoughtful, loving service. Of course, there was theological significance to it, but even its obvious elements held a lesson for them to emulate in their treatment of one another. Jesus was teaching them to lead in service. Luke records that Jesus countered their self-serving argument about who was the greatest by saying: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over people and those in authority call themselves benefactors. But not so with you. Let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” That is the kind of leadership every true Christian can show—we can all take the initiative in service.

Once we grasp that principle, we can see how it works out in specific details of life:

  • Elders, for example, will not “lord it over the flock of God.” In other words, they will not abuse their power but use it for the common good.
  • People who aspire to be the church boss, like Demas (of whom Paul wrote, “Demas likes to have the pre-eminence”), will crucify their prideful ambition.
  • And for all the rest of us: “do not do anything out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” “In love serve one another.”

Christian leadership, like Christian living, generally is about serving the servants of Christ and thereby serving Christ, who, by his Spirit, dwells within them.