Chip: So the question concerns spiritual leadership, and of course I’m going to take this lengthy question and organize my answer as if I were doing a teaching on the subject, which means boiling it down to answering these basic questions: what is spiritual leadership, is it needed today, and if so, how does it function, or, how is it supposed to function – because we all know that the spiritual intent of something often breaks down once we try to implement it in real life.
I’ve actually talked a great deal about spiritual leadership, so if you haven’t heard me talking about it before I just assume you’ll come across it eventually. I talk about spiritual leadership in my book, The Irresistible Kingdom. And I talked about it quite a bit in my book, The Church in the Wilderness. So I’ve already written quite a lot on this, but let me give you my first impressions as I digest your question and think about how to answer it.
It seems that there is too much of an emphasis on the meeting. Not just in your question, but I mean people in general (and Christians in particular) just place too much emphasis on how to “do the meeting.” I’m unconcerned about meetings, and how they are organized, and who does what. I’m just uninterested in the form of the meeting. So when someone says we meet in homes, or we meet in a building, or we don’t have leaders, or we have a plurality of elders, I think it reflects an elementary level of thinking. I’m just being honest. That seems to be the focus for so many people, and I’m suggesting that it is the wrong focus. It’s the wrong way to look at it. It’s all external. Really, I don’t care, and the reason I don’t care is because I don’t see “the meeting” as being the primary expression of faith. I know for some people, their whole goal as a Christian is to meet with other Christians. I just reject that. I don’t think “the meeting” should be the primary force that drives the spirituality of God’s people.
It just goes back to a basic principle: what is fellowship to you? What does it mean? And for most people fellowship is a verb – it is something they do, or attend, or participate in. And if you primarily see fellowship as a verb, then of course you are very interested in where to meet, when to meet, how to meet, what to do when you meet, and who should be doing what. To me, those questions and concerns are all based on a viewpoint that sees fellowship as a verb – something to be done.
I see it quite differently. I know most won’t agree with me, and most fight me on this, and are quick to point out that the believers in the New Testament met together in their homes. I don’t deny that at all. I’m just saying that meeting together is not what made them followers of Jesus; no more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger. Followers of Jesus are people who follow JESUS. And so, yes, I emphasize your personal relationship with God, first and foremost. Jesus says come to ME and learn of ME. And I give that a lot of weight and importance.
This is how Religion gets a foothold – we become concerned with the outward elements, like meetings: how to meet, what to do when we meet, who’s in charge, blah blah blah blah blah. Would you agree that everyone has different ideas on those things? It’s really no different than talking about what color should the carpet in the sanctuary be – red, or blue? Who cares? So when people focus on fellowship as a verb, that’s what you get. And it isn’t profitable to your spiritual life to become consumed with those things. We will never get agreement on them, and everyone tends to identify with the groups that most closely resemble what they think the “ideal” meeting or fellowship is supposed to look like.
Listen, there is no “ideal” meeting or fellowship or group or way to worship God insofar as external things are concerned. And you say, “Well Chip, that’s a pretty dismissive attitude you have there.” I don’t think so. I see it the same way Jesus saw it when He was talking with the woman at the well in John 4. As soon as she finds out that Jesus is a prophet (so she thinks – of course we know Him as much more than a prophet), she starts to have a religious discussion with Him. “Well, I can see You are a prophet, a holy man, so let me ask You a religious question, let me get Your opinion on this big controversy, so I can settle this right now: our people say you should worship God here in this mountain, but Your people say that Jerusalem is the place where people should worship. Now, You tell me where people should worship: is it in Jerusalem, or in this mountain?”
And Jesus just totally dismissed the whole question, in the sense that He did not choose sides, and He didn’t satisfy her curiosity, because here is a woman who has been married five times and she isn’t even married to the one she’s living with now – but she’s putting out this religious question that is really irrelevant to her own spiritual condition. Who cares? “Woman, you’re living in sin, and you’re concerned with who’s right or wrong about ‘where’ to worship God? You’re asking the wrong question.” So how did Jesus respond? “Neither,” He said. Oh, you know she didn’t like that answer! She wanted a right or wrong, yes or no, black or white kind of answer, and Jesus just brushed all that aside. “It doesn’t matter – because God’s not interested in WHERE you worship.”
See, that to me is the right answer. If God is not concerned about it, I’m not going to waste any of my brain cells trying to figure it out. I know some people just get a kick out of discussing, debating, and dissecting all those issues, but if God isn’t concerned about it, then I couldn’t care less. That’s my attitude. But right along with that, what I want to know is: what DOES God care about? What man thinks is important, and what God thinks is important, are usually two very different things. So she was concerned with WHERE to worship God, and Jesus says God is more concerned about HOW God is worshipped – that God seeks those who will worship Him in Spirit and Truth.
So once you have seen what God is after, it would be elementary and immature to then go back and say, “OK, I know you’re saying God wants Spirit and Truth worship, but I still want an answer to my question – tell me yes or no, in this mountain, or in Jerusalem?” That would be taking a step backwards. And that’s why I am very detached from the whole issue of when to meet, where to meet, and what to do when you meet. I think those issues have been discussed and debated until people are sick of hearing about them, and yet – AND YET – we are no closer to Spirit and Truth worship NOW than we were when we first started debating them.
Now this is all related to spiritual leadership, because in my experience, how you view “the meeting” has a lot to do with how you view spiritual leadership. If you view “the meeting” as a time when Christians come together in a relaxed, informal setting where everyone just kind of does whatever they feel led to do, shares whatever they feel like sharing, then you probably see spiritual leadership is unneeded and unnecessary. On the other hand, if you view “the meeting” as something that should look more goal-oriented, a little more structured, because you’re trying to teach specific things and minister to people in a specific way, then you probably have a more formal view of spiritual leadership – a high view, where it is more about servant leadership, or a lower view, where it is very authoritarian and more like a benevolent dictatorship. Most people in the religious system operate under the premise that the pastor is the spiritual leader of the church, some favor a plurality of elders, and then some have thrown off spiritual leadership altogether and think the best way is for everyone to come together and just be “led by the Spirit.”
So which way is best? I’m going to answer the same way Jesus answered the woman at the well; He said, “Neither,” (given a choice of two options) – and I’ll say, “None of the above,” (given a choice of three or more options). You’ve got problems with all those views of spiritual leadership. Everyone can produce Scriptures to justify their position. So when you say, “But brother, the Bible talks about apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers,” I would say: absolutely. I’m not saying it doesn’t, but I’m saying just because the Bible talks about a thing, it doesn’t mean we have rightly interpreted and applied the thing it’s talking about. I mean, you can use the Bible to justify polygamy – so just because you’ve got Scriptures to support a particular viewpoint, it doesn’t make your viewpoint correct. For all the ones who point to the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers in the Bible, you’ve got people who will take the same Bible and talk about the priesthood of all believers – God has made us all kings and priests, and then there’s First John saying, “You have no need of any man to teach you, for the anointing will teach you all things, and lead you into all truth.” So people will seize on that and say, “See? We don’t need leaders, we can just be led by the Spirit.”
So what happens is we all have a standard in our mind that tells us what the ideal church looks like, what the ideal group is, what the ideal meeting consists of, what the ideal form of spiritual leadership is, and so on. We form these “fellowship fantasies” in our mind – we actually visualize the ideal for us, what we’re comfortable with, what we think is right – and then, in the name of “like-mindedness,” we gather together with people who see it the same way we do. Well… that’s not Spirit and Truth. That’s agreement on the basis of how to do a meeting. I’m sick to death of those kinds of meetings. Aren’t you? But that’s human nature. You’re not being led by the Spirit of God just because you’re meeting with people who happen to agree with how the meetings should be conducted.
So my view is this: if your view of fellowship is wrong, your view of spiritual leadership will be wrong. Some people cannot visualize the Body of Christ in any context other than “the meeting.” These are the people who don’t understand how you can be a Christian without going to church. To them, being a Christian is synonymous with “going to church.” Originally, about 2, 000 years ago, it had to do with following Jesus. Now, it has more to do with the meeting. And that’s how people view the Body of Christ – one big hook-up joint where they can get their fellowship fix. I’m just speaking plainly. I don’t see the Body of Christ that way anymore. I don’t think the Body of Christ was ever intended, or meant to be interpreted, through the context of where they met, how they met, or what they did when they met.
Let me tell you how I view the Body of Christ, and then you’ll understand how I view fellowship, and then you’ll understand how I view leadership. My thoughts can be summed up in three points.
1. The Body of Christ is first, and foremost, a FAMILY. The Body of Christ is the Family of God. I don’t see the Body of Christ as an institution, or a religion. I see the Body of Christ as a Family.
2. FELLOWSHIP in this family is a state of being, not a state of doing. Fellowship (to me) either exists or it doesn’t. The Fellowship of the Son is not based on meetings, it’s based on union with Christ. If we are one with Him then we are one with all who are joined with Him. “If we walk in the Light, as He is in the light, we HAVE FELLOWSHIP with one another” (1 Jn. 1:7). It doesn’t say we WILL FELLOWSHIP (that’s “fellowship” being used as a verb); it says we HAVE FELLOWSHIP (that’s “fellowship” being used as a noun). Fellowship in this Family is a state of being. We are One Body in Christ; therefore, we have fellowship with one another, so long as we walk in the light as He is in the light. Not a word about meetings. You can meet all you like, but fellowship is not based on meeting, it’s based on walking in the light.
3. In the Family of God, the “olders” are the “elders.” That’s what an elder is – an elderly person, or an older person. Someone who is older in the Lord than me is my elder brother or my elder sister. Again, you have to look at this in terms of a FAMILY. If you look at it in any other context, you’ll mess it all up. You look at it in a religious context and you’ll see the elders at the top of the organizational chart, and everyone below them on the chart submitting to them and doing what they say. That always ends badly, when you look at it that way. And I respect the fact that some want to stress “servant leadership” as a way to try and soften the blow, and create some distance between that top-heavy kind of leadership and a softer, gentler kind of leadership. It’s admirable. It’s a good step.
But it’s a lot simpler to just think of the Body of Christ as the Family of God, and in this Family, you’ve got older brothers and younger brothers; older sisters, and younger sisters; and the older brothers and sisters in any family are supposed to watch over their younger brothers and sisters. It’s just natural. Mom sends the two brothers off somewhere, and she says, “Now Johnny, you keep an eye on your younger brother!” And Johnny says “Yes ma’am”, and he keeps an eye on his younger brother. If someone messes with his kid brother, Johnny defends him. If his brother falls down and scrapes his knee, Johnny helps him get up. If his brother’s shoelaces become untied, he ties his brother’s shoelaces. I mean, I’m the oldest in my family; I have a younger brother and a younger sister; and that’s the way it worked in my family. “Chip, watch out for your brother, keep an eye on your sister, she’s younger than you.” That’s a normal family experience I think most of us can relate to. And if your parents found out that you didn’t watch out for your younger brother or sister, or worse, if you took advantage of being the elder and you abused your younger brother or sister, you would be in a world of trouble when your parents found out.
So I think there is such wisdom in God setting it up this way from the start – the Body of Christ is the Family of God. God is our Father, Jesus is our Eldest Brother, Who is watching over us. Then, we have some in this Family that are older than the others – and in the case of spiritual maturity, we’re not interested in their physical age, and we’re not interested in how many years they’ve followed the Lord, we’re interested in their true spiritual age that reflects their deep history with God, and the wisdom and maturity and experience they have, regardless of their chronological age. That’s why Timothy is considered an elder even though he is physically younger.
So when it says that Paul appointed or confirmed elders by the Holy Spirit, if you look at the Body of Christ as an organization, you’re going to interpret that differently than if you look at the Body of Christ as a Family. Paul was saying, “OK, you’re the elders – you’re older, so watch over your younger brothers and sisters.” You may think that’s over-simplifying the process, but I think if you try to make it any more than that, you are over-complicating the process.
When it comes to fellowship, again, look at it in terms of a Family. Some family members you live with, some are near to you, and you see them all the time. Some family members live a long ways off, and you may see them once or twice a year, or never. Well, they don’t stop being family just because you don’t meet with them every week. So many times I see Christians who claim they are all about “fellowship” but only so long as you attend their meetings, and once you stop attending the meeting, they stop treating you like family. Obviously, they have a different idea of what fellowship is supposed to mean. I see fellowship as happening anywhere, anytime members of the Family interact with one another. My daughter is no less my daughter just because she lives 600 miles away and I talk to her on the phone. We get together and see each other when we can, but our relationship isn’t based on how many “family reunions” we attend.
So those are some of my thoughts on spiritual leadership. Is spiritual leadership needed? Absolutely. Especially when I consider what groups look like after a few months of having no leadership at all. Do we really have a clue what spiritual leadership consists of, especially “outside the camp”? Probably not, at least not until we unlearn all the things we learned in the religious system, and begin to see the Body of Christ as the Family of God. Then I think all our issues with fellowship and leadership will be resolved, and we can just begin to love one another, help one another, and go on towards Christ-centered spiritual maturity.