“Jesus tied all authority in the community to service, one to another. Genuine spiritual authority is to be found only where the service of listening, helping, forbearing, and proclaiming is carried out.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 84.
The last section of the chapter on Service focuses on authority and leadership. Bonhoeffer begins the section by quoting Mark 10:43, the context is James and John coming to Jesus and asking to be the number 1 and 2 men in His kingdom. When the other ten apostles hear the request they become angry with James and John.
“But Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet is shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.’” Mark 10:42 – 45.
Bonhoeffer writes (page 85) that, “Every personality cult that bears the mark of the distinguished qualities, outstanding abilities, powers, and talents of an other [person], even if these are of a thoroughly spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community of faith; indeed, it poisons the community.”
Bonhoeffer says that people long for these types of figures because “the genuine authority of service appears to be too insignificant.” He then contrasts the type of visible human authority that people desire with the portrait of a bishop/elder in 1 Timothy Chapter 3. “None of the magic of human talents or the brilliant qualities of a spiritual personality is to be found there. Bishops are those unpretentious persons who are sound and loyal in faith and life…The authority of bishops lies in accomplishing the tasks of their service (page 85).”
I am reminded of Israel’s desire for a king in 1 Samuel Chapter 8; they wanted to be like all the other nations. So it is with much of the church, we want leadership like the world. I write this in 2017, the 500-year anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, commonly seen as the beginning of the Reformation. And yet, where is the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:1 – 10)? Where is a people sharing the Bible one with another without its being mediated through “experts” and charismatic leaders? If the Roman Catholic priests in Luther’s day were accused of mediating the Scriptures and not permitting their parishioners to have direct contact with the Word, what about those Protestant Christians today who view themselves as second or third-class Christians, dependent on experts to filter the Bible through to them? While Protestant pastors and leaders may not explicitly teach that this must be so, they often model it with their low expectations for their people and by not insisting that their congregations learn to read the Bible and share it with one another.
How will people grow if we do not challenge them? How will they grow if we don’t show them the way? How will they grow if we don’t model for them? How will they grow if we don’t allow them to venture out, to explore, to try, to fail, to work through subjects and passages and enigmas that we may never fully understand? How will they ever grow if we approach the Bible as a data bank, an infomercial, Trivial Pursuit, an academic endeavor – rather than the living and abiding Word of God which transforms us into the image of Jesus Christ, into koinonia in the Trinity, and into life together?
How often do we take new Christians and read the Bible with them? From the very first day we ought to be doing this…instead of giving them books about the Bible to read…those first days and weeks and months of liftoff will determine the new life’s trajectory. Of course the Bible may seem hard to read at first – it is a new context, a new orientation (but if it is hard to read, what does that say about the way we have presented Jesus Christ?); but if we model reading the Bible as it is written, and if we model the relationship with our Lord Jesus and His Father, relying on the Holy Spirit – may we not introduce the new Christian into a never-ending and every-expending life in Christ that he or she may share with others for the rest of their lives?!
Giving new Christians books about the Bible to read rather than spending time with them in reading the Bible is like a parent putting children in front of a video screen and leaving them. It is like showing someone who wants to swim videos about swimming but never taking them into a swimming pool. “Oh, he’ll get wet if we put him in, we must not do that. He might feel cold. She might feel uncomfortable…better to show more video.” Our time is too precious to spend time with others. I am thankful Jesus and Paul and Peter didn’t think like that.
Could it be that we have day-care centers rather than churches? Children in day-care centers cannot do much for themselves…
And then there is the cult of personality. Where did this come from? Rather than a focus on Christ and the Church we often have entrepreneurs leading churches; some leaders want to be like this, others feel they are forced to be like this. They are forced to become leaders they may not want to be because that is what their congregations expect of them – just like Israel in 1 Samuel Chapter 8, churches want to be like the world. There are pastors and elders who no doubt feel called to serve, called to focus on the souls of men, called to study and teach the Word of God – but instead they must conform themselves to worldly patterns of leadership to accommodate congregational expectations. The people of God do not want to do the work and service of God, they want their leaders to do it for them (see Ephesians 4:7 – 16 and note “the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry”). Biblical leadership says to the congregation, “By God’s grace I will equip you as I have been called, but you will function in the work of the ministry, you will participate in building up the Body of Christ.” Leadership requires saying the all-important word “no” when the congregation wants to abdicate its responsibility to know and function in the Word of God and insists that leadership do its work for them, live its life for them.
Ironically, servant-leaders say often say “no” so that the church will grow, while leaders that insist on control and preeminence say “yes” so that others will be dependent on them.
One of the key notes of the Gospel is accessibility to God through Christ. Yet, how can we have intimacy with our Father if we are barred from enjoying His Word? How can we enjoy His Word if we are not given encouragement and permission to learn and explore and experience and share His Word? How can a body grow if it is not permitted to function? How can it function if it is bound tight? A ceremony does not make a marriage, without consummation there is no marriage (at least in the historic understanding of marriage – which is why a witness was once required in some cultures, including some European cultures – the consummation of Luther’s marriage to Katie was witnessed).
Biblical leadership is not to take the place of the Bridegroom – there is only one Jesus Christ.