Archive for April, 2009

Leadership, Part One

April 30, 2009


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about leadership. What does good leadership look like in a simple/organic/home church? The best thinking that I have heard on that subject always stresses the need for organically developed leadership. What does that mean, and what keeps it from happening more often?

First of all, the vast majority of churches have a “program” mentality. I recently read a really good article about developing house churches, and it does a good job of showing what organic growth of house churches could look like, in this case if approached from a traditional church starting point. Towards the end, the article illustrates how growth in the Kingdom of God happens relationally, not programmatically. You don’t start with a plan, then execute it in the same way that you would execute a business plan or a teacher’s lesson plan. Growth in the church has to happen along lines you can’t predict ahead of time. Your plans have to flex constantly, adapting to the changing relationships as they develop.

Individuals develop organically, too, which is why leadership must be as Watchman Nee called spiritual and not official. According to Nee, spiritual authority in the church waxes and wanes according to the activity of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individuals in the church. Official authority sits on a person for life, or at least for a predetermined length of time, regardless of the Lord’s activity in the heart of that individual. Ideally of course, you would like the two kinds of authority to coincide. But it doesn’t always.

Men (or women) with official authority must be followed simply because they have that office, that title, that role. You follow them because they are over you, like in a chain of command. Jesus said leadership would not be like that in his kingdom. That’s how “the Gentiles” do it. They lord it over people. But it’s not to be so among us.

A person exhibiting spiritual authority is followed to the extent that he or she is expressing the will of God at any given moment. To the extent that he/she is speaking by the Spirit, his or her word has weight. But spiritual authority can fade, because people are not that consistent. We stumble sometimes, and the Lord provides other voices to take up the slack. A community that is learning to hear and recognize the voice of the Lord knows this to be true, and they know how to listen out for that voice.

Granted, I believe that mature individuals in the church learn to listen for that voice and respond to it quickly, so that this kind of leadership/influence comes to characterize their lives. That is how it should be. Churches should learn to recognize those individuals and listen to what they have to say (more on that in the next post). But they aren’t always right, and no one should be afforded so much power that they must be always followed, no matter what.

Ironically, Watchman Nee himself went back on this notion from time to time. In direct contradiction to his own words, he had a habit of encouraging believers to submit to older believers as unto the Lord, even if they are wrong. In the Normal Christian Life he told a story in which an older brother was clearly in the wrong, but Nee’s mentor (Sister Barber) told him to submit to the older brother anyway. Under the circumstances, Nee says, submitting to erroneous leadership is justified. The older brother can be wrong, but you are right in submitting to him, so it’s all good.

Dennis McCallum over at Xenos Fellowship suggests that Nee may have picked up this quirk from his own Chinese cultural background:

Confucius taught that parents were never wrong, and that even when they were, one should obey them.

I think he’s right. I would add that the Plymouth Brethren influence on him probably reinforced a “top heavy” view of authority, in direct contradiction to his notion of spiritual vs. official authority. I think maybe his gut told him one thing but his environment told him the opposite. I don’t know.

But this only illustrates my point. Is Watchman Nee an authority on simple/organic/house church leadership? Yes, to whatever extent he is articulating dependence upon the Spirit for that leadership. If his upbringing nudged him away from that notion from time to time, we can overlook it. The idea still rings true, IMHO.

More on this soon…

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Error by Overstatement

April 24, 2009

“Lighten up, Francis.”
–Sergeant Hulka, in Stripes

Some people are just wound up really tight. Whenever they come to believe something, they clutch it with both hands and never let go. I guess some people are just hardwired with the temperament of a zealot. Do you know anyone like that? They dive headlong into what they do, consequences be damned, with fervor growing upon each encounter of resistance.

Passion is good of course. But this carries with it a kind of oblivion, a single-minded insensitivity to extenuating factors. I also readily observe that we men are the ones who suffer from this problem the most. I read once that men have fewer connectors between their left and right brain hemispheres. Maybe that makes us more tunnel-visioned. I don’t know. But I do know that the following imbalance happens most among groups that don’t value the input of women:

I keep bumping into folks who believe in house church, like I do, but they are dogmatic about it. They don’t merely believe house church is biblical, or that it is an effective way to do church in our contemporary society. No, they believe it is commanded by God. They don’t merely argue that home-based communities are ideal. They go five steps further to say that no other way of being church is valid.

Now, I’m someone who left behind my own denominational tradition to pursue meeting with other Christians in homes. In my case, that required a significant social risk. In a way, this simple/organic/home church thing is my life. I’d even call it a calling. But I’ve got enough education to question my own biases. And when I read the passages that validate our way of meeting, I don’t see the same things that some other people see. I don’t see prescription. I clearly see description.

Why am I making this point? Well, it’s not because I just want to nitpick. I think something important is lost when we overstate a biblical notion. There’s such a thing as error by overemphasis, and some of us are swimming in it.

First Corinthians 14 does not command that we meet in an open, participatory style. On the contrary, it chastens a group for being overly participatory, overly chaotic. If you really look at the surrounding text, you’ll see that Paul was trying to correct them because they were all talking on top of each other. It’s like everybody had to be heard, regardless of what really edified the whole fellowship. That’s a pretty selfish way to function in a meeting. Some people talk because they don’t know how to stop. Paul was giving them some guidelines about how to express all that they had to say in an orderly way.

This passage impresses us today because we have the opposite problem to the Corinthians. In our (traditional) churches, only one guy does just about all the talking! That’s the only way traditional churches know how to do it. And I consider that a problem. But I also consider it a problem that we house church folks don’t acknowledge that the first century church had variety in how they met, too. More to the point, I believe there is validity to a multitude of ways of meeting today. Let’s not be so one-sided.

We’re reacting against entrenched tradition. So I get the impetus to be extreme. But we undermine our own credibility when we teach that open, participatory meetings are the only New Testament way to do church. So give it a rest, will ya?

Lighten up.