Christa McKirland, a lecturer in systematic theology at Carey, offers a personal view of church leadership.
My family and I had lived in Aotearoa for less than 100 days before the period of national isolation amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Finding a home church remained one outlying piece of the puzzle that had not yet fit into the jigsaw of our new life here.
However, before lockdown, we had the distinct pleasure of attending a local Baptist church. We visited once in person when a friend invited us, and it just so happened to be the same week she was preaching. At the time, we were planning to visit more churches, but once we were homebound, we kept ‘attending’ this community.
The co-pastors warmly reached out to say that they would love to be our home church even if only for the period of online meetings over lockdown. Such a welcome meant the world to us and gave us freedom to keep tuning in with no expectations on any formal commitment. Such open-handedness and embodiment of manaakitanga—a concept we had only just learned about—primed us to consider prayerfully whether this might be our church home.
‘CEO’ church leadership
Thinking about church has long been on our hearts and minds as we have been shaped by over three decades of church contexts. My husband Matt and I grew up in large Southern Baptist megachurches in Georgia. While we are grateful for the love for Scripture that those communities instilled, the application of those scriptures regarding the concept of leadership was a source of tension.
Language of ‘servant-leadership’ and ‘Paul-Timothy’ models of discipleship thinly veil the reality that our churches ran as businesses far more than as families. The pastor, always assuredly a ‘he’, functioned as the CEO of the corporation. He would lead multiple staff, who served at his will, and could make unilateral decisions affecting several thousand church members. He required charisma, financial acumen and the ability to cast a vision for the whole community. The ‘success’ of the church rose or fell based on his effective communication, moral standing and strategic planning.
After marrying, Matt and I moved to California to attend seminary together. There we found a smaller church with much of the same structure. After serving there for four years, we continued to run into tensions with this church‑as-business model. We spent much of the fifth year trying to work it out, through extensive prayer and many long conversations, but we kept running into impasses on church leadership.
These beliefs were further sharpened in our studies as Matt and I earnestly sought out what the New Testament has to say about leadership.1 Ironically, what we found is that the New Testament is not overly concerned with leadership, but it is enraptured with Christ-centered community. Yes, leadership matters, as seen in language of elders, bishops, and under-shepherds. But these people consistently operate in functional, not positional, ways: serving is based on gifting more so than office.
‘Earned influence’ leadership
Furthermore, Paul is especially concerned that all believers are moving from immaturity to maturity. All believers have the potential to be an elder in the faith, but this is a by‑product of maturity. Maturity is what his letters are consistently calling people toward—not so much being leaders, but being mature in Christ‑likeness. Such maturity then enables leadership. This is not positional, command-directive authority, but an earned influence. (By command-directive, I mean, “You must do x, or I will enforce y consequence.”) In other words, when Christians look more like Christ, others want to look like them. The leaders lead by example, not by position.
Part of the confusion in all of this, we have found, is that we often conflate the unique authority of Jesus, or the temporary authority of the apostles, with the kind of authority we think pastors and elders should have. However, this is not the picture we get in the New Testament.
Take Corinth, for example, a rowdy bunch of immature Christians. They had all kinds of moral problems and internal strife. One would think that Paul would address the letter to the person in charge so that he/she could get this raucous group in line with speed and efficiency. But that is not what he does. Paul writes to the whole community, expecting them to corporately take responsibility for their immaturity and the consequences of their infantile state. Looking at the rest of the New Testament, depending on the level of maturity in each community, Paul’s tone shifts to be more or less commanding with an appropriately apostolic authority.
‘Whole body’ authority
This does not mean that there is no place for command‑directive authority in our churches today. However, this is a last resort kind of authority, and it is not actually vested in the pastor, or even the eldership team, but in the whole body.
An excellent example of this is Matthew 18:15-17 where Jesus spells out the process for church discipline. First, the person offended approches the offender to seek out reconciliation. If there is no repentance, then the offended party brings along one or two witnesses. If there is still no repentance, the offended party brings the offence before the entire community. This is the strongest form of command-directive authority given to believers who are not apostles and it is the community that has this authority regarding how to handle the non-repentant offender. Even so, how this is meant to be done is moderated by the context. This text in Matthew immediately follows the parable of the lost sheep. The aim of the discipline is always reconciliation. The point is never about ‘who gets to be in charge’, even when the whole community has this responsibility.
Growing into Christ-likeness
Leadership definitely matters, and this is a gift from God for the healthy functioning of our church communities. However, it is the nature of that leadership that often needs to be questioned. Instead of command‑directive authority, the emphasis in the New Testament is on maturing into Christ-likeness. As we become more like him, we actually earn influence in our communities so people want to follow us. But this is really a by‑product of Christ-likeness. We don’t ‘sit under’ the teaching of the senior pastor, because we all sit at the feet of Jesus together as his disciples. We want to imitate our leaders, not because they are in charge, but because they imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 4:16 and 11:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:7,9; Philippians 3:17).
Matt and I see this model of leadership in place at the local Baptist church we are attending, now face to face. The co-pastor team models Christ-likeness, and they teach with humility. The microphone is shared among multiple people every week. Children are dignified members of the community, and toddlers roam around during the service. Dozens of people are involved with greeting, children’s church, set up, tear down, offering collection, preaching, singing and praying. Everyone is encouraged to move from immaturity to maturity and from spectating to participating. From what we have seen, this is a church that is a whānau instead of a business—and it’s a community where we are excited to grow with our brothers and sisters into the likeness of Christ Jesus.
Contributor: Christa McKirland
Christa is a lecturer in systematic theology at Carey and moved to New Zealand in January 2020 to take up that post. She is married to Matt and they have two children, Raya (4) and John (18 months). They are loving exploring the country and are so grateful to be here.
- “Who’s in Charge? Questioning Our Common Assumptions About Spiritual Authority,” Matthew McKirland & Christa L McKirland: CBE International, www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/whos-charge-questioning-our-common-assumptions.