Sunday 5 November 2023 Fourth before Advent
The levers of power
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Context: a Sunday morning service in a town-centre URC in the North of England, with fifty to sixty adults in the congregation
Aim: to affirm healthy approaches to church leadership in the contemporary context
I once heard a church leader speak about their experience of being appointed to a prominent role in their church denomination. They reported that the first time a denominational crisis arose they responded by swiftly applying all the levers of power that their new office commanded, only to discover that they were not attached to anything! Local church leaders may recognise that experience.
Writing to Christians in the city of Thessaloniki, the Apostle Paul shared with them his deep concern that ‘you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom of glory.’ Christian leaders today, whether at denominational or local church level, share Paul’s desire, but how do you get individuals and congregations to live lives worthy of God when the usual ‘levers of power’ are not attached to anything?
After all, church-going today is a voluntary activity by and large. Leaders who attempt to enforce a godly lifestyle (however they might define that) are liable to empty churches, thus undermining their own best intentions. But in any case, why be authoritarian when Paul provides us with a much better approach?
For Paul, leadership begins with leaders setting the example. He points to what the Thessalonian Christians had observed in him and his companions in ministry: ‘You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers’. Of course, any temptation to boasting by church leaders is to be avoided, and I’d be wary of describing myself to you as pure, upright and blameless, in case you all burst into laughter.
That said, when issuing commands won’t work, leaders who lead by good example are more liable to get others to follow. Especially, leaders who want Christian congregations to live lives worthy of God need to start with their own lives and lifestyle.
And good examples then need to be combined with persuasion. For some, the Apostle Paul comes across as an authoritarian figure. I wonder to what extent they feel this because of what he wrote or because of what they have heard others say about him? Here, in these verses at least, Paul is anything but authoritarian. He writes, ‘we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God’.
Urging, encouraging and pleading – that’s the language of persuasion, not command. Here, leadership is grounded in warm, personal relationships, described as akin to that of a parent with a child. If Paul’s language of fatherhood jars with you, by the way, feel free to replace it with ‘mother’, ‘older sibling’, or ‘trusted friend’. After all, his focus here is upon leadership which seeks to persuade on the basis of love, rather than relating through orders issued and obeyed within an unequal relationship of power.
The option of Christian leadership which restricts itself to setting the example and seeking to persuade, rather than pulling levers of power, sits strangely in comparison to how governments and many other institutions work today. It also feels different from how many churches have worked in the past, and from what some within them continue to hanker for today. Yet both practically and in principle this alternative approach may serve us well.
Practically, we live in an age when the old-fashioned political and social authority of the church has diminished. This has happened across the centuries, and even within the lifetime of many of us who are here today. Whether we like it or not, the opportunity for church leaders to lead in an authoritarian manner has much diminished. (Victims of continuing authoritarianism in church life hope and pray for this process to continue, and we should all join them in praying for that.) It also benefits church leaders when opportunities to strike attitudes or take actions not worthy of God are removed from them.
Then, finally, not only is example-based, persuasive-powered church leadership good in practice, it also works out in principle! For after all, what did Paul commend here, in his letter to the Thessalonian Christians, but to follow in the footsteps of his Saviour and Lord? Jesus was the one who did not stand upon status (Philippians 2:6). Jesus was the one who set the example, persuading others through a life characterised by not expecting to be served but serving others (Mark 10:45).
So yes, along with Paul, and following in the footsteps of Jesus, we look for Christian leaders who set the example, and who seek to persuade through warm relationships. These are the true ‘levers of power’ our leaders have at their command today, so may they use them to help us all live lives that are worthy of God.
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