A Relational Ethos of Leadership

Perhaps it is appropriate to start the year with this post. The ideas expressed here shape and define my understanding of Scripture and relationships. They influence my ideas about church, they form my personal relationship values for marriage and friendships, and they reflect my understanding of my relationship with the Father.

For me it isn’t possible to address the issues of power and leadership within relationships without those beliefs being reflected in every area of my life. At the core of these issues is the perception of who we are in relationship to God and who we are in relationship to others. I cannot imagine anything more defining or impacting on our relationships than one’s perception of their standing in relationship to God and others.

I would describe myself as flexible concerning my views of church expression, realizing that God can and will use the many different models and structures that exist. I am not a militant proponent of the “one true church model.” However, I do believe that within the myriad of church expressions, a proper understanding of authority and power is possible, and it is essential.

The problem with functioning under an inaccurate power structure is that it creates a trajectory that ultimately puts us where we did not intend to be. We find ourselves down the road realizing that our results are not what we aimed for. As far as the trajectory of church leadership is concerned, we are dealing with the trajectory of hundreds of years of history of traditional church government hierarchy.

I do not presume to have all of the answers concerning leadership, but I do see a few key values that create the foundation of how we view leadership roles and authority within the Body. While there are many aspects of our life together that are simply matters of preference, proper understanding of how we are to relate to one another is necessary. Our organizations, whatever model they happen to be, should reflect this relational understanding.

The problem with misunderstanding the nature of roles and relationships goes beyond just being an issue of doctrine or belief, because as we live out wrong beliefs in this area, the results are relationally damaging. It is not a benign issue. In an attempt to fulfill roles that were not intended, we miss out on the kind of relationships we were intended to have.

I expressed similar thoughts in a post titled Grids which was an introductory post to the leadership series:

…hierarchy is damaging to relationships because it removes the beauty of mutual submission and service which God intends for our relationships. To define our church relationships through the lens of mutuality rather than by government and hierarchy would make a huge impact in our understanding of body life and community.

Hierarchy imposes a power structure on relationships that were intended to be mutual. With mutuality, we have the freedom to give love and respect. We freely submit to one another in authentic relationship. Power and control remove that freedom by demanding submission. Requirement replaces love and relationship.

The ideas of headship and spiritual authority create a role of mediation. For each member of the Body, there is one King and Lord. He is our source of Life. No one else should presume to take that role in another believer’s spiritual life. At the extreme, there are those who presume to broker God’s grace to others. In a more subtle way, there are many who create dependence upon themselves for spiritual leadership and guidance.

We see this dysfunction in our corporate lives when there is an underlying belief that responsibility for the care of the body rests on the pastor. It is common that we not only passively allow this dynamic, but many demand that this individual meet all of their expectations. By doing so, we functionally neglect caring for one another and miss the opportunity to learn what living according to the one-another passages would be like in its fullest expression.

The narrative of the New Testament is heavy with the theme of a new era of unobstructed access to the Father. The veil is torn, we are no longer dependent on priests. All systems of mediation have been removed, and we are now encouraged to approach God as sons and daughters. Not only that, but Jesus was very clear in His command that believers not rule over one another.

For those whose circumstances and gifts create influence, there is a responsibility to steward their influence. The purpose of gifts and leadership within the body is to serve and equip. Those who are mature and gifted have the responsibility to empower and release others without demanding subservience. I would go so far as to say that as the body of Christ, we are supposed to learn to function in this way together.

Living in mutually submissive relationships isn’t always the easiest or most expedient because it requires that our actions and decisions be based in authentic and actual relationships with one another. However it is beneficial that we pursue and work toward this relational ethos in order that the work of the Holy Spirit can be reflected in the unity and relationships that occur as we submit to Jesus as the Head and to one another.


28 thoughts on “A Relational Ethos of Leadership

  1. This is worth repeating:

    “For those whose circumstances and gifts create influence, there is a responsibility to steward their influence. The purpose of gifts and leadership within the body is to serve and equip. Those who are mature and gifted have the responsibility to empower and release others without demanding subservience. I would go so far as to say that as the body of Christ, we are supposed to learn to function in this way together.”

    I think that the operative words in this paragraph are:

    1) gifts create influence: puts this whole thing in perspective.. influence is a gift that He gives.

    2) steward their influence: what a marvelous perspective.. not to lord over but to exercise with sensitivity.

    3) responsibility to empower and release: again the focus is sensitive stewardship of responsibilty.

    4) learn to function: new paradigms need to be learned by those influencing and those being influenced.

    Great job Grace!

  2. I think what you write here about influence and serving is really helpful – at least for my own thinking around the theme of structure and hierarchy. Because in some of the critique of more hierarchial structures that you find theese days, I kind of sense a neglection for the fact that some people do get influence in a group, setting, relation etc. And I’m not so sure if its better to pretend that everyone is equal – if the reality is that someone has more influence than others. But too focus on the servanthood is a good step further.

    What I do wonder is how you start to move the people that are pretty comfortabel with beeing under a hierarchy – letting others have the responsibilty, out of that?

  3. I agree with most of what you say here, Grace, and I think you’re on solid ground when you talk about the New Testament call to be mutually submissive, to serve each other, to find and use the gifts God has given us for the benefit of his church.

    And yet, reading Grids and seeing that you come out of a church experience with a very strong authoritarian tradition, it seems to me that you’ve over-reacted and gone too far the other way. Between unquestioning obedience to a human spiritual leader and a completely egalitarian body there is a large, and I think healthy, field of possible alternatives.

    In my own experience, in my own church, it seems to me that men and women assume leadership positions based on their gifts, yet recognize their peership in the priesthood of all believers.

    We see clear examples of humble, servant leadership in Acts, where the Apostles and others took leadership roles, not only for the material needs of the believers who were joining them, but also for the spiritual formation of the church.

    And yet, we also see numerous examples in the Epistles where men and women rise to positions of leadership as a result of their gifts (you mention gifts creating influence, but I think it goes beyond mere influence in many of these cases), apparently put in those positions by the mutual consent of the church itself, and by a recognition of the work of the Holy Spirit.

    Such people are not more favored by God, but they can be delegated by God to lead without losing sight of the fact that they are equally in need of the salvation and grace of the cross.

    I suppose I think your statement, “hierarchy is damaging to relationships” is too strong and fails to acknowledge the servant leadership model that we see post-resurrection in Scripture. I do agree that the sort of unquestioning authoritarianism we see in some church traditions is damaging and unsupported in the New Testament.

    I do think you are right about the way that a strongly authoritarian church structure can cause the body to become weak, by encouraging the church to merely observe rather than finding their place of service. That may be the greatest weakness in the modern church — we’re consumers rather than laborers.

  4. Grace,
    I think you make some really good points here.
    I also agree that hierarchy causes a division , in any relationship. In my job the hierarchy creates and maintains a necessary division between management and employees.
    I think what we need to ask ourselves is , is that the sort of Church structure that Jesus intends for us? Can we actually have any sort of real relationship with people when one is in an obvious position of power?
    I believe this is an important issue to look at when we are thinking about this new paradigm for the Body ,that inevitably is happening.
    Church bodies are changing and I think that it is especially important for those on the forefront of this “shift” are very careful not to fall into this trap. Ok so I say that like it is some sinister plan to rule, which I doubt is usually the case. I think more often than not it is a natural process of people wanting a human to lead them. I think we gravitate towards this kind of structure to remove some of the personal responsibility of walking with God and calling ourselves His sons and daughters.
    Thanks for bringing it up , really good post.

  5. I serve 2 small rural congregations where we live in the frontier. I say this because the old ways are still very much alive and well here. The congregations are of the silver haired variety and they expect the pastor to be in charge. I do not feel this is in the best interest of any of us but the change for them is very hard. The other half is that when younger people come here they are of the new mindset of some equality.
    I am caught in the middle of what Grace says, some will expect the authority. I do believe you are all on to something here and there is a great danger when some new idea emerges that it doesn’t swing the penduleum to far the other way.
    Any help, or ideas??
    Pastor WaynO

  6. dan,
    LOL, the secret fantasy was at the bottom of the list, and I’m trying to forget it.

    Thank you! I really like the explanations you added.

    Thanks Jemila!

    Good thoughts! There will be some people who choose to remain passive. We don’t get to decide what they do. However, some of the things that we can do are to make space for the gifts of others, to draw out those who might be hesitant, to create an environment that encourages participation, and to be an example.

  7. Charlie,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I also agree with most of what you said.

    I would like to believe that the amount of thought I have put into this topic is more than reactionary.

    I wondered what the difference is to you between “a completely egalitarian body” and “peership in the priesthood of all believers.” It seemed that you said one in a negative light and the other positive. In my mind, they would mean the same thing.

    We might have to agree to disagree in the area of hierarchy and delegated authority. I simply don’t believe that there are people selected by God to be in a position of authority over other believers.

    I was intentionally vague in describing how leadership functions. There is a lot of room for variation and preference depending on what type of church structure is involved. However, I think that regardless of the structure, understanding mutual submission and peership are fundamental in developing healthy leadership.

    I always enjoy discussions about this topic. Thanks for joining in.

    Interesting point about management and employees, intentional division. Rob Bell said that love and power are mutually exclusive. I very much agree that there is a strong gravitational pull toward wanting to default responsibility to someone else.

    Pastor WaynO,
    Hopefully some of the guys pastoring churches will chime in here. I can picture the kinds of congregations that you describe. I was at a funeral today in a rural Presbyterian church. In some ways, I think that the rural churches are already living the kind of community that many of us long for. Their relationships have developed through lifetimes of shared history. For your silver hairs, I would simply serve them by being the clergy that they expect you to be. You might be able to encourage more participation in the younger people both within the church, but also in the community.

  8. In my mind the following questions resound on a regular basis, “Is it possible for any structure that has formal roles or positions of leadership to avoid the problem of power?” “Why do we think we need any structure?” “What is ‘leadership’ within the ekklesia if it is not a formal position or role?”

  9. This is a good question;

    “What is ‘leadership’ within the ekklesia if it is not a formal position or role?”

    I think this question reflects a misunderstanding–that “leadership” and “hierarchy” are synonyms.

    From my perspective and experience the two terms are viewed synonymously only because “minister” has come to be understood as a positional title rather than a descriptor of function.

    Good essay, Grace. Thank you.


  10. “Is it possible for any structure that has formal roles or positions of leadership to avoid the problem of power?”

    Absolutely not. It is extremely difficult even for “non-institutional” “non-positional” ekklesias to avoid the many pitfalls presented by our resident sinfulness and fleshly desire to “be the Man”.


  11. Hi Grace,

    A super book on leadership, hierarchy, women in the church and other related topics is Gilbert Bilezikian’s book: Community 101.

    His interest is: Reclaiming the Local Church as Community of Oneness. He develops that theme. I have many quotes from his book.

    I have reflected many times on the ideas he has presented. I find it refreshing and liberating. It is a must read. Anyone with any comments about this book?

    Bye for now. Keep at it!

  12. Well of course I could not stay away… :)

    Maybe relational dynamics are not as flat as we may want them to be if we consider that The Body is in fact a family?

    There may be deliberate reasons for coining the term Early Church Fathers or Paul’s reference to being a father to the Corinthians (a good group to compare ourselves with I believe).

    I am a father by biology as well as spiritually. I am also responsible to carry out my title or position or function to the best of my ability. And whether or not my children comply with my guidance, they will always remain my children…

    However, there will be consequences to the rules of the family as they are taught by me. I love them completely. But that will require the exercise of discipline & correction & even extreme measures if warranted.

    Now I may wish to have some other entity step in. Local law enforcement. Or social services if my child will not abide by my rules of order. I do have the authority. I do have hierarchal position. And I certainly will make decrees & enforce them when it is necessary.

    I choose what is being modeled in my home. I am the one teaching what it taught in this family. And I will decide what is the right way & wrong way to behave or what attitudes are appropriate or inappropriate.

    Now I may not feel a need for any spiritual elder or father or mother for that matter in any church relationships I choose to invest in. I am my own man. Grown up. Can make my own decisions for myself, thank you very much. Brother or sister? Certainly. Peers are we all. But then I may be overstepping by boundaries if I perceive you are raising your children with less concern for how they behave than I do mine?

    I am not going to be a teacher then? Not one that can determine correct doctrine and/or behavior for whatever gathering it is we mutually agree to be members of?

    I would like to think the Holy Spirit is the one doing all the necessary spanking of those unruly kids of His. I would like to think there is such a supernatural outpouring of conviction that the group has no need to police itself. But still the issue of correct doctrine & modes of behavior must be taught, modeled & preserved.

    And how is the issue of making such decisions reached? Maybe church discipline is outmoded? Disruptions simply made allowance for? No need to exert apostolic authority for those having erroneous theological perspectives or behaving immorally?

    Now maybe the church has been given apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, administrators, etc. to maintain some semblance of well, being the church. I suppose if such roles are not identified or formalized we may not have to state we are then a church? Maybe it is the concept of church identity that is wack & so let’s state we are not such a thing? Maybe doctrine & moral behavior the sticking points we wish to avoid being dogmatic about? If so, what then are the minimum doctrinal issues we can agree on as well as behavior considered relationally acceptable? Does scripture address these things clearly enough to make such distinctions?

  13. Had a like discussion with another pastor the other day and came up with the thought of the church operating in a society where hieirachy is the norm. If that is true then can the people grasp the church operating differently or would it be a great releif to be part of something at oposite to the world???
    I agree that one can be in leadership without being authoritarian. I claim pastor rather than minister for the reason of perception of my role in the church and community. Pastor WaynO

  14. traveller,
    Those are the questions that always come up. In fact it seems that it is difficult to have this conversation without an attempt to define the relationships both structurally and positionally. I think the questions you mentioned are really important, but they are difficult to discuss if the underlying values aren’t first defined. For example, if someone believes differently about mutual submission and the headship of Jesus (which to me means level or peer relationship of believers), it would be difficult to come to similar conclusions concerning how leadership functions in the body. I might take a stab at answering your questions from my perspective in a future post. I’ve been thinking about them.

    Great insights on these questions. I find it helpful for myself to think of the leadership descriptions as verbs to help counteract the ingrained teaching of these roles as offices and positions. For me it is helpful to see them as eldering, pastoring, overseeing, apostling, etc. as I read the texts about these functions in the body.

    Thanks for the recommendation Barb. There are large portions of the book available online with google books. It looked interesting.

    In many ways, the family metaphor is appropriate for the church. However, I believe that the Father is God. Those who lead in the body should always be pointing others to relationship and dependence on Him. Personally I think the body could use a lot more loving and one anothering and a lot less policing.

    I think the church should reflect a different way of relating than the world. That isn’t widely understood in the church however. I know that most of my previous experience in church was with the expectation of strong, charismatic CEO-style leadership.

  15. After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel. Judges 2:10

    Today this is more apparent than ever. So, what is the sound doctrine Paul wanted Timothy & Titus to teach? What were the apostolic traditions patterned for them? Who is going to decide what is the correct doctrine to promulgate & how will it be commanded?

    This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.

    Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.

    Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. 1Timothy 4:9-15

    There must be sound doctrine. Can this be identified & taught? And of course what would a godly example be for speech, life, love, faith & purity? Somebody must have an idea of what is exemplary Christian decorum in a world polluted by ungodliness, no? What is the next generation going to be taught?

    You’re familiar with all similar passages in the epistles to Timothy & Titus. No need to make reference to every one of them here. Paul was very specific about dealing with false doctrine, false teachers, false apostles even & of course, immoral behaviors. Especially sexual purity which was, I am sure, a constant bane for a conservative Jew dealing with those licentious Corinthian gentiles. Seems to be the same situation today.

    How do we go about patterning this accurately? Both doctrine & behavior must be addressed. No way around it. There must be something common with every other believer if you do agree ‘they’ are all part of The Body regardless of their apostolic or denominational traditions.

    What of the very core event that was the central aspect of worship together? Communion? What has happened with this one chief identifying hallmark of Christian community? And then baptism. What about having only one baptism?

    Today there multiple communion rituals with their associated theological implications. Same with baptisms. If a less cluttered essence is to be extracted from the landscape of 2,000 years of religious expression, what core elements are worth preserving, teaching & reproducing?

    These, of course, more rhetorical questions than direct. They are simply mentioned again as some of the more pointed concerns still plaguing emerging thought & the shift toward organic home churches that Barna & Viola allude to in their writings. Heck, grace has even plastered their book, Pagan Christianity, on her site for discussion. I simply have brought up the obvious concerns once again since I did mention that this is my ‘gifting’ in one of my earliest posts… :)

    Not expecting any definite answers…


  16. Grace, I understand your point about underlying values and we may be saying the same thing but I think it goes to how we see God and how we read the Bible. As you suggest if we read pastor, elder, etc. as verbs not positions then we are on one path. If we read them as positions or roles we are on a different path. If we see God as himself a sort of hierarchy, God, Son, Spirit, with the so-called institutions of family, government, church falling into hierarchical patterns as well we are on a very different path from those who do not see hierarchy. In my personal view, both the co-opting of the church by Constantine and the later similar subsequent co-opting of the church by Enlightenment/Modernism ideas have greatly corrupted the church. But many would say the opposite…..that this is the church.

    Tom, while I continue to ask these questions because I think it is important to continually do so, I agree with your responses to my questions. I would go further than that people mistakenly believe leadership equates to hierarchy and say that people tend to equate leadership as some role or position in an organization. I am not sure leadership is a word we should even use in the ekklesia unless it is completely redefined. Finally, I am becoming convinced that no structure is necessary in the ekklesia, at least in part because I have actually seen it work that way.

  17. Joseph,
    Whew, I’m glad all those questions were rhetorical. ;) I’m sure we’ll soon have plenty more discussions over topics addressed in the book.

    Good point. I agree that the underlying values I described are ultimately determined by how we see God. I also agree that it seems nearly impossible for people to understand leadership without attaching some form of hierarchy or designated position.

  18. Joseph wrote;

    There must be sound doctrine. Can this be identified & taught? And of course what would a godly example be for speech, life, love, faith & purity? Somebody must have an idea of what is exemplary Christian decorum in a world polluted by ungodliness, no? What is the next generation going to be taught?

    Do you really think that it takes a “somebody” (singular) to accomplish this? What of the whole of the local Body functioning in the way it is supposed to with each member functioning fully in the gifting they have been given? What of the power of the Holy Spirit–the Spirit which each and every Believer possesses? Are we a parliament of orphans, devoid of Spirit and without direction from the written witness of the Apostles?

    I tend to think that part of the problem posed by your rhetorical questions (good questions, and thanks for sharing your gift ;o) [seriously, no irony intended] ) is that we fail to balance such passages as Judges 2:10 with Jer. 31:31-34 — especially vs. 34.

    So, I don’t think it is necessary for ecclesial elites to determine for all others which way the Spirit is blowing.

    Leaders serve the Family by modeling, teaching, admonishing, cajoling, rebuking, etc. and especially by shepherding the spiritual development of those in their care. That happens because leaders have Spirit formed lives specifically for the serving of the Body…not because they have been crammed full of head knowledge then “ordained” by some ecclesiastical authority. Leaders are “recognized” in/by a church family because of demonstrated maturity in the Faith and their demonstrated ability and desire to “watch over” and “provide pasture” for the flock.

    It really isn’t an issue whether or not there are some who “lead” in the congregation of the Saints—leadership IS. The real issue seems to be that we often fail to distinguish between “ruler-ship” and “leadership”.

    Definite questions suggest definite answers…


  19. Quote: “Do you really think that it takes a “somebody” (singular) to accomplish this?”

    I am not sure how this is applicable, but did Paul think it prudent to make certain ‘qualified’ statements to the churches he established?

    I am sure my unenlightened perspectives make for repetititve points being rehashed. Maybe the manner which Jesus appointed Paul & then permitted him to exercise apostolic authority as necessary only a first church generation curiosity. After that, the Holy Spirit depended upon the mutually cooperative giftings of His choosing as opposed to say the limited appointments Jesus made prior to His ascension…

    But since the Damascus road experience a one-time deal nobody today now can claim such authority from Jesus directly…

    Could be we are all damned to have the blind leading the blind after all..? :(

    The question today is not how or what or who interprets what it is they think Paul or Apollos or Peter or even Jesus said/taught, but who really has apostolic position to preserve apostolic tradition in faith & practice today.

    Nobody that claims to be an apostle really worth giving the time of day to, correct? And who is going to want to point to so-and-so claiming they are in fact modern day apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, preachers or miracle workers?

    Signs & wonders following?

    I think the big problem with trying to compare the 1st century church with today is this: there is no apostolic authority in effect. No real apostles as grace mentioned. No real prophets. Maybe some wannabes. Some facsimiles of such. But if Jesus gave the church such things, He must have limited it to the first go around & left the Holy Spirit to try & make some sense of it through His giftings for all succeeding generations…

    You’ve got to admit, no such apostolic authority has been exercised since the original foundational elect. And prophets? Any of the so-called prophets that I have any familiarity with so unlike what I think such a gifting should be that it leaves much to be desired.

    I think there is much talk in the emergent circle, but really little divine confirmation. Because as is always the case, talk is easier to add words unlike the action that Paul in or even Peter were noted for.

    Now it could be the entire issue of wishing for or hoping for such clear confirmation a silly notion rooted in superstition more than divine unction. I certainly would be hestiant to acknowledge any maverick for Jesus suddenly claiming they are indeed anointed for apostolic function in the church today. It is my skeptical nature really. That & the seemingly unhurried approach Jesus has taken these past 2,000 years trying to get The Bride to actually get herself ready (Rev 19:7)…

  20. Joseph,
    I’m not sure that I understand your concept of apostolic authority. But I want to clarify that I believe that all of the gifts of the spirit for equipping the body are available and operational in the church today. What I meant previously is that often those declaring their titles are sometimes least likely to be truly functioning in said position, while behind the scenes you will find people faithfully apostling, prophesying, pastoring, and teaching for the sake of the kingdom rather than in an attempt to build their own kingdom. Usually in the circles in which they serve, their gifts are apparent and recognized and appreciated by others.

  21. Hey, Barb and Grace,

    Bielzekian’s books have been important in my process. His “Beyond Sex Roles” was the first and his Community 101 was next … been almost eight years since I first read them. Very much worth looking at!

    And, Grace…thank you so much for what you do and how you do it, sister. You are so appreciated!

  22. I know this post is a little old, but you nailed it and unveiled the real problem with what we call church. Entrenched tradition, and as the flow of replies reveals, distracted by who has the greatest calling ( authority, power and position ). Same old waste of time since the days of Constantine, and a tool to provoke submission. It’s Koolaid and we have been drinking it for a long time.
    Questions need to be asked, here’s one I’ve asked. Our Father absolutely loves His Human creation and wants all of us with Him (Who wants non to perish…). If what we call church is doctrinally correct, God planned and endorsed, why isn’t He drawing the lost and filling every church and multiplying them over and over? Please think this through, and no Koolaid please.

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