I wrote a few days ago about my serious doubts regarding the idea that a pastor (or frankly, any leader) is the sole source of “Vision” in an organization. The article is HERE. While noting that some of the difficulty is that Christians use AT LEAST two different definitions of vision rather freely and inconsistently, I still feel that any definition still would lead one to the conclusion that all Christians can (and perhaps the term “can” is not strong enough) have vision.
But this struck me from a different direction in the last few days. A church that my wife and I helped plant, is going through moderate struggles. The church is congregational in its structure, but there is a move from some members, led by one member in particular, to change the constitution and bylaws so that the leader makes all the decisions for the church. At least, that is what I am told… there is often more than one story in these situations. Since we are no longer there, it is not any of my business, but it did get me thinking.
My immediate reaction regarding the dissension in the church was to assume this came from two sources: Power politics, and Culture. From the power politics side, the one seeking to make the changes is quite open that the changes would be so that he can be the one who makes all the decisions— has all of the power (again, so I am told). Not surprising… the desire for power is pretty common, even for people in whom this desire is not immediately obvious. Of course, we all are typically not that self-aware as to recognize the allure of power. Usually, it is more like “I know what needs to be done, and so my apparent desire for power is really concern for the good of the organization.”
Culturally, the Philippines likes democracy much like people enjoy a good fiesta. But, in practice, people tend towards autocracy— in the government and in their religious institutions. This combination can lead to some wild situations, like in a church I am familiar with, evangelism is being promoted by groups within the church so that one group can develop a pure majority in the church to get their own way and rule over the others. One might think that is congregational behavior, but much like constitutional democracy (in contrast to pure democracy), congregational leadership is meant to be constrained by its written law to ensure the will of the majority is carried out as long as it doesn’t violate the vision, mission, and principles of the church body, nor does it oppress the minority.
So how does this tie in with VISION?
- If God only gives vision to one member of the church, then only one person really knows what the church should do and what it should become. The membership’s job is essentially to listen and respond (with perhaps an intermediate step of discerning, if the gift of discernment is not limited to the visionary person as well).
- If the church operates as if that one visionary person should be the one who has executive powers then that is a lot of power. Essentially, the church operates on a Moses model— serving in a prophetic and kingly capacity. Fortunately for Israel— Moses did not appear to enjoy power that much (seeking to avoid it in his early years, and quite willing to delegate power at the suggestion of his father-in-law. Also fortunately, Moses did not assume a priestly role, but gave that to his brother Aaron. For many religious leaders, the temptation to assume a Messianic role (prophet, priest, and king) is too great. Anthropologically, the most powerful tribal chiefs are from cultures where the political and religious leadership are centered on the same person. That places the faith of the tribe very heavily on the good will and good moral character of one person.
But suppose, we assume that all Christians are given vision (potentially at least) and all serve in a priestly role (direct, unmediated access to God). I believe both are theologically supportable views. Prophetic authority should not be seen as concentrated only in one or two or three people. The Bible warns that a prophetic word must always be tested… presumably by the broader religious body. Priestly authority should, likewise, not be seen as emanating only from one person or an elite group of divine mediators.
How should a church operate? The gifting of all members does not deny roles within the church. It is not to say that there cannot be some people who assume a more prophetic (teaching and preaching) or priestly (liturgical) role. This, however, should be seen within the context of unity and diversity of roles within the church.
So what about Kingly authority? If each member has access to God (priestly) and each have vision/wisdom from God (prophetic), then power of rule should be set up that effectively utilizes, rather than denigrates or minimizes, this boon for the church.
I would argue that in such a situation, power and authority come from God, VIA THE MEMBERSHIP. The membership empowers the leadership structure of the church for religious and ministerial leadership, and holds them accountable. This logic would support a congregational system. That accountability is vital as part of the role of each member for mutual support. It also helps prevent the formation of tyrants.
Some church leaders who do not accept accountability from the membership say they are accountable only to God, but if they take on prophetic and priestly roles (messenger of God and mediator before God), they have assumed a power that God really doesn’t give individuals… and history doesn’t allow us a sanguine view of what will eventually happen. Those who see themselves accountable only to God, eventually act as if they are accountable to no one.
Of course, I would argue that all churches are congregational to some extent. If the membership does not vote with its hands, they vote with their wallets or feet. But it makes more sense in my mind to embrace the possibility that God has spread His gifts freely in the church body and that gifting should be sought for the benefit of the church rather than squelched.