Reassessing Church Leadership

I just read “The Dirt on Organic” by Brian Hofmeister. It appeared in Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal (April, 2010). Brian talks about his experience of planting and leading organic churches.

I don’t know Brian, but I think he makes some excellent points in the article—while I don’t agree with everything—points that those who are still reacting to the abusive top-down leadership in “institutional” Christianity will fail to see. Why? I believe it’s primarily because they’re still caught up with trying to weed out “pagan Christianity” and doing their best to re-imagine a church utopia on the earth.

Many well-intentioned, Christ-loving folks are still stuck in the world of ideas. I could say it’s a bit of cynicism and immaturity (I guess I just did), but I don’t want that to sound arrogant or rude. I’m not trying to be. But I do think that’s what was going on in me when I once believed organization and pronounced leadership was the real problem.

I don’t believe that anymore.

In the end, it’s jumping from one extreme to the other. I think it needs to be realized that there is nothing wrong with more of a pronounced leadership (e.g. the Jerusalem church). As far as I can tell, from being on both sides of this, you will not grow (spiritually or numerically) beyond a certain point without more of a pronounced leadership. And I don’t see that there is anything inherently wrong with this.

The “Gentile” leadership, which Jesus spoke of, was heavy-handed, power-over, carry a big stick kind of ruling (Mark 10:42). Pronounced leadership doesn’t have to be that way. It just doesn’t. I don’t care how many bad experiences a person has had in the organized or even “institutional” expressions of the church.

Based on my study and reflection, I think the reason you don’t see more pronounced leadership in the first century is because the churches were young and dependent upon the leadership of apostles. What happens when the eyewitness and first-followers are gone? Well, naturally there is leadership that rises up to meet the challenges of the church. You can read about this in any church history book. That leadership organizes quickly after the death of the apostles.

Was every development of that leadership good? No. For example, I don’t think that adopting Roman governmental hierarchy as a model where bishops have absolute authority is a good idea. It turned out to be a terrible move by the second century church. But I do understand how it happened. And no… you can’t blame it all on Constantine.

For all of its ugliness, it did help in the defense against Gnosticism and the articulation of Christian theology on behalf of the illiterate mass of Christians at that time. This was a church trying to respond to explosive growth (approx. 5-10 million by 325 AD) during intense persecutions and poisonous heresies.

I’ve written on this before. I don’t think Paul’s practice and instructions are prescriptive, I believe what we see in the NT is de-scriptive. We do not have a church manual. There is room for some development, though not outside of Christ. I don’t find this being unfaithful to the Gospel. In fact, I think we have been guilty of restricting the Gospel of Jesus instead of being creative and expansive in our implementation of it.

So, while I don’t support the abusive power-over tyranny of some pastors and “clergy” members, or the wasteful spending of “mega churches” in America, to move from that to imagining that all leadership must be from a guy who denies he’s a leader, shuns monetary blessing as being satanic, and is under the delusion that a form or model of church is going to magically solve all the dilemmas that face us now is just idealistic jargon.

What happens to these folks who aren’t willing to grow out of that? Well, I think it ends up just like the author of this article reports. We’re back to square one. I have seen and personally heard the same things from those who have followed the “Finding Organic Church” blueprint. There is much to learn from familial fellowships where leadership isn’t as pronounced, but let’s not imagine that pronounced leadership is the enemy.

Here’s the way I see it. You can keep trying to implement these idealistic views of leadership and church life, or you can move forward rejoicing wherever others are seeking to know and imitate Christ in community. I recommend simply following Christ as faithfully as you know how, and to enjoy him in deep Trinitarian community.

Let’s keep that in mind when reassessing church leadership.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

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About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 15 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Virginia. View all posts by David D. Flowers

21 responses to “Reassessing Church Leadership

  • April Sellers

    David, I think your descriptions of organic church people are caricatured. Organic church people have incredibly varied views. The unifying views that I have seen in the Organic church movement include

    -leadership is not about being in an office, it’s about leading (and really it’s about serving).
    -church is the people, not the building. Churches can meet anywhere.
    -it is vital to spiritual growth to have a group of believers that know you and “live life” with you
    -all believers have spiritual gifts and should be encouraged to use them.

    For the sake of disclosure: I’ve been in an organic church for five years. I’ve read books, blogs, been to conferences and talked with influential leaders.

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey April, have you read any of my previous posts on the organic church? Please see the Archives page. I’m personal friends with organic church leaders. I was also in the organic church for five years, attended conferences, and have recognized the diversity. I don’t disagree with any of the points you have listed to describe the church. Thanks for reading.

  • Bill Benninghoff

    Very good thoughts David. Thanks for sharing this! I’ve been a part of house churches now for 9 years and we really haven’t done a good job of making disciples and providing a context for spiritual formation. On the positive side, we’ve experienced some wonderful fellowship and definitely a deeper level of community than many of us had found in the traditional church.

    We’ve also enjoyed many open participatory meetings, where individuals have the freedom to share short exhortations from Scripture versus one person dominating the meeting with a long teaching. I think that has been helpful in that each person has begun to see themselves as a contributing, functioning member of the Body of Christ. However, we are very weak in the areas of evangelism and discipleship. Perhaps more pronounced leadership and a little more organization would help in those areas. Thanks again for this article – it is helping me to distill some of my own thoughts in this area.

  • aprilthesellers

    David,
    I read your stuff pretty regularly and I like what you have to say. I just thought this post made it sound like the organic church movement as a whole is anti-leadership, cynical and immature but maybe I just read it differently than most people. I think seeing the title of the article you referenced might have colored my reading. I get the play on words, but I would hesitate to title any article about the “dirt on” any group of people. I might just be being too sensitive, though.

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey April, I would read Brian’s article. Remember, I didn’t write that article. Maybe the title of his article misled you about my point? I can see how his title would be a bit provocative. To be clear, his article prompted me to comment on the emphasis of many in the organic church to continually speak against pronounced forms of leadership and church practices that are more organized. I think his experience speaks to what many people recognize as the shortcomings of those who discourage pronounced leadership and organization in the church.

  • Mac Dumcum

    Way to knock the ball out of the park Brother David. Your article provides some much needed wisdom as we move forward into the next phase of what God is doing in His Church. Thank you!

  • aprilthesellers

    David, I did read Brian’s article. I just thought his title made it sound like he was writing an organic church bash (even though his article was not that). I understand now that in your article you were only referring to a specific extreme teaching not to organic church or people in the organic church as a whole. And perhaps we differ in how often we have seen this teaching among organic church folks.

  • Tom Schultz

    Thanks for the comments. I suppose the disconnect comes between people who have experienced gentle leadership and those who have experienced ‘Gentile’ leadership….yes you can borrow that great pun.

  • Joshua Lawson (@lawsonJ23)

    Good article, David. I share the sentiments you have expressed here. We must rejoice wherever we find Christ expressed and working and move forward from there.

  • Eli

    I totally agree, if we base our community and functioning on what we are against, rather than what we are for, the writing is on the wall for trouble. Yes we must wrestle back neutral terms like ‘leadership’.

    One must keep in mind though that the empire controls the discourse and does not need to defend what it sees as normative. I’m all for finding christ wherever he may be and being faithful to whats been revealed to you… but its merely going to another unhealthy extreme if we lose our prophetic and critical voice, minimizing the role religious empire has on the masses.

    If our christian walk is not intensely idealistic and aspirational then it is dead and has elevated that which is natural, practical and of man to the highest place. This doesn’t mean we should have our head in the clouds, placing heavy expectations on one another, but it also doesn’t mean we should limit what is possible to our previous experiences.

    Honestly I think a huge problem with the western business driven church is the need to sell certainty. So its not enough to sow vision, as an author or ‘leader’ i have to claim I have found the answers and am living it out even though if we peel back the rhetoric, clearly thats not the case. If I don’t claim my organic flavor is better than everyone else then maybe I wont sell as many books or have such a large blog following.

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Eli, I prefer using “hopeful realism” instead of idealism. And yes, I agree. Just a few minutes ago I saw a commercial for a local mega-church that was selling itself for American consumers. That’s what we’ve become: a church of consumers. Instead, we should be a church that expresses Christ and a beautiful vision of the Kingdom of God… and invite people to join in the work.

      I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. Thanks for reading!

  • Curt Story

    I wandered over here from your Amazon review of “Pagan Christianity”. I was involved in churches for many years, but left 8 years ago due my perception that self-appointed authority mattered more than freedom and life Christ sought to bring. Interesting to see that while I was completely unaware of this movement in Christianity, my thoughts were taking a similar direction. Thanks for the good read!

  • Justin Gilpin

    I like the discussion here about organic churches, but is it always practical? I know the extreme side of it is having a mega church that wastes a lot of money that could be used to start up orphanages or retiree homes. This is what the church used to do but lost correct? We’ve let the government take over these issues.

    So as an organic church, doing these things should be priority? I really like what April had said on the subject, though I’m quiet naive about organic churches. I’ve been in a couple house churches, but they out grow themselves fast. In a place like China it is required where people are persecuted. Looking forward to a follow up post on this one!

  • Chris Thomas

    I continue to enjoy reading your thoughtful, evenhanded treatments of your topics. I do think, however, that the very nature and structure of the “institutional” church system places certain, inherent, and limitations on personal growth and development that should, can best take place, through the “one anothering” of a less restrictive form of “organization.”

    Blessings to you!

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey, Chris. I do agree that certain structures and emphases can place limitations on growth, even stunting growth. However, it will ultimately come down to people being intentional about community. Even when the structure and opportunities are there for face-to-face community, there is no guarantee that spiritual growth will happen.

      That’s why I’m proposing folks stop idolizing an idealistic church life, and enjoy both corporate and small fellowship teaching, worship, and life together.

      Thanks for reading and chiming in, bro.

  • mark

    David,

    I think there is some difference between not having a designated clergy and being against all organization and leadership. I am part of an “organic” fellowship where we work very hard to find and understand the Spirit’s leading for us in corporate and even some individual decisions. We are not against leadership or organization. The reality we have seen is that Christ as Head will lead His body through any and all of the local members. Teaching, encouragement, admonishing, counseling, shepherding, leading, etc are not off limits to any member of the body.

    How do you foresee balancing a more “pronounced” leadership with the priesthood of all believers?

    Thank you for your writing. It is appreciated.

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Mark, I participated in organic church life from 2006-2011. I do understand how the Lord can lead in meetings that are set aside for every member functioning. You can find more of what I’ve written at the Archives page under Organic Church Life.

      However, in previous posts I have argued that NT church life is descriptive, not prescriptive. While I do believe and encourage all believers to experience open participatory meetings on a regular basis, I do not think that every meeting must conform to 1 Cor 14:26. In fact, the Body of Christ misses out on the joys of corporate worship and teaching led by a pronounced leadership that has been gifted for the building up of the believers in this way when one form is set up against another.

      The “priesthood of all believers” isn’t simply a doctrine for every member functioning as priests, but it also speaks to our personal connection with Christ, and our task of being ministers of reconciliation to the world around us. “Priests” were responsible for bringing their communities into worship and reconciliation with God. So, I think this doctrine is multi-faceted.

      Thanks for reading.

  • mark

    I agree with your comment. Thanks for expanding on what you meant. The article seemed to emphasize pronounced leadership in opposition to open participatory meetings. And my comment probably did the reverse. We definitely have times where specific people teach/lead the body. Sometimes this is someone outside the local body, sometimes it is someone within the body. But it is not consistently the same person/people. Again, it is as the Spirit leads.

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