The Influence of Leadership
Straight Talk from the Apostle James – The Need for Spirit Led Elders
An article from SVM Fall 2014
By Jim Patterson
The role of teaching in a congregation presumes a leadership work in some capacity, and the role such a person assumes will have a kind of authority that will vary from one congregation to another. Teaching is a highly regarded work in scripture (Acts 13:1-3; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 5:17), and with proper training, a leader or a group of leaders can cultivate a progressing and fruitful environment for the brethren: those in their care can then carry that forward where their lives take them. The wisdom and Spirit led training of an elder is critical to the growth of any congregation.
For the purposes of this discussion, we are considering teachers, leaders and elders together. While there are subtle differences, their functions overlap and all provide leadership to the brethren. Leadership is a challenging subject and by no means can we cover it with extensive depth even in a series of articles. In this article we want to emphasize a few Biblical teachings on the Biblical expectations of effective elders that I believe have been under emphasized, but I have seen work in positive ways.
Straight Talk from James
The message of James in chapter 3 is for all of us, however the emphasis is to those who are in or desire to be in a teaching capacity. We will use James Chapter 3 as guide and structure for our discussion.
The writings of James are one of the more explicit theological presentations of the gospel in the new Testament. It addresses universal issues of social ethics in specificity: speech, conduct of teachers, dealing with poverty, war and peace. Much of its teaching is aimed directly at believers. We want to take advantage of his straight talk on teachers to make our own investigation into a few key Biblical expectations of leaders.
James Chapter 3
My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body (James 3:1,2).
In this segment of his epistle we are given his admonition to those who are considering being teachers. It is evident to him that first off few should consider it, as opposed to opening up any false encouragement to become one. Teachers come under stricter judgment by God, but as experience has taught us, by brethren also. Whether or not James had the judgment of the brethren in mind I am not sure, but I feel comfortable extending the application of his concern here.
The reason is that we all (being inclusive) stumble in many things (3:2), particularly in what is said in speech. Uncontrolled speech is not human error, but a deadly form of evil generated by the fires of hell (3:6). Just a small amount of it can set an entire forest ablaze (3:5). We may wonder how that is, but words that incite, often political, can be words that resonate with the carnal mind. When ideas resonate they take a life of their own. The language that resonates with carnal thinking is evident in contentious words or writings that become divisive. Prime examples are words of condemnation of those who do not agree with the various approaches to conducting church, or those who do not agree with specific doctrines not directly relating to salvation. We may hear words that create an Us-versus-Them syndrome which is contrary to the message of Jesus Christ. They fuel our self-centeredness and are designed to proclaim one’s own righteousness. Confusion is usually the end result.
The Lord recognizes the greater impact the approach to teaching and leadership of an elder will have on others, and will intervene sooner to correct those who are erring. This process can be grievous, and the proper response is necessary by the individual to please the Lord, and bring about the proper outcome. This from my assessment is the most difficult. James would suggest to us some may have knowledge, but the maturity to interpret and use it correctly is not common. Authority, even self-perceived authority, sometimes tempts us to make contemptible exclamations both in speech and print regarding others who are not co-operating with sound teachings and Church programs, or who do not measure up.
Today, the use of publications, broadly distributed emails and websites and social media make it easy. Cursing others (deserved or not) is inconsistent with blessing God (3:9), slandering will be judged by God (4:11-12). Angry speech does not advance the righteousness of God (1:19,20). It appears from James’ overall assessment, that only the spiritual wisdom from above can control speech. Deep receptivity to the implanted Word will keep us from filthy and useless wrangling and save our souls, and others, from destruction (1:21).
Wisdom from Above
Teaching and leadership is not a one-dimensional work. It is multifaceted, requiring the need to serve and respond suitably for the circumstances, the affected individuals, and being able to account for other dynamics. This is also implied by our Lord’s vision of a good scribe:
“Therefore, every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a house holder who brings out of his treasure things new and old” (Matthew 13:52).
The studied teacher of the scriptures, and properly internalized life experiences, will present the Kingdom in a full and applicable way as is necessary, drawing from the treasures of understanding he has. The Lord’s description of a good scribe: one who has more than academic learning, but has a wisdom that presents that which is old, in new and useful ways, for his own edification and the edification of others.
Wise and Understanding
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there (James 3:13-16).
Those who are wise and have understanding are evidently James’ favored individuals who can manage most successfully in a teaching capacity. He contrasts the unlearned and unwise with those who are wise and learned by their type of motivation.
Before looking at his words in detail, we should step back a little to recognize current experience. I believe an honest evaluation of common approaches taught and practiced in church leadership have been a mixture of secular and biblical wisdom. A mixture of these should not be interpreted as necessarily un-biblical, but history has shown that one system of wisdom will swallow up another in some but not all cases. Secular wisdom has been used by church leaders with some success, but in many cases with less than desirable results. Therefore, understanding the source of the wisdom is perhaps a kind of wisdom itself.
Stephen in his discourse to the high priest and others actually defended the Egyptian wisdom learned by Moses, implying the understanding of it made for its effective use in his work to free God’s people from Egypt:
“And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds” (Acts 7:22).
We see secular wisdom is not inherently evil as to be rejected, and may be used effectively for God’s purpose. It is not innocuous however, much in the same way as money.
Secular wisdom has positive attributes, but has evidenced to produce bad results. Embedded somehow in it there is also the danger of cultivating the need for control, the need for efficiency, and other ideas not sensitive to the real needs of brethren. Secular wisdom often manifests the needs for physical power and control to maintain authority, versus faith in God upon which a biblical leader should trust to uphold his leadership. James is more to the point as to the actual nature that dependency on secular wisdom cultivates: bitter envy and self-seeking hearts (3:14). James argues that these are a kind of wisdom of their own, (3:15), which is born out of sensual and even demonic origins, which are powerful. The result is that the leader can cultivate an environment that is contentious, confusing, and dysfunctional.
An observation that I and others have shared is that a number of church leaders have corporate business backgrounds, and thus have been fully exposed to the wisdom of these secular worlds. I have worked in industry for 20 years and I have observed the various strengths of those who have been most successful. Certain ideas on motivating and training people, the need for structure, communicating vision, discerning profits over losses and navigating politics are a few that come to mind. There is also the ability to make mental disconnects so as not to be affected in making or supporting difficult decisions that can be to the detriment of others. The survival of the institution often overlooks other needs. Attrition is just part of the job.
The above is not an indictment; it has its place in the affairs of business. It is therefore critical that a leader with this background make the additional disconnect that somehow separates their spiritual leadership from certain corporate ideologies. God’s ideas of growth, motivation and what is real gain may be considered backwards and useless by worldly standards. Without properly discerning the limitations of worldly wisdom in light of the wisdom that comes from above, there can be a broad range of impact on the leader and the group over which he has influence, from the innocuous to total apostasy. I have learned to recognize when secular strategies are utilized in an effort to promote the desired results of peace, growth and learning. The results are often at best mixed.
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. (1 Corinthians 1:21).
For God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
Yes, even the admirable tenets of wisdom in society are subject to shame before God.
The wisdom from above makes for a dramatically different story:
But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy (James 3:17).
What James writes sounds good to just about everyone, but it does not come naturally. The actual experiential awareness and practice of it is an extraordinary thing, and all descriptors James uses to characterize the wisdom from above are worthy of discussion. For the purposes of this article we will focus on Gentle, Willing to Yield, Full of Mercy and Without Partiality and Without Hypocrisy. Let us see how what their actual practice is to their fullest degree.
Gentle, Willing to Yield – Take the Hit
The word used by James (epieikes) is translated “gentle” in the King James Version, but the word is not so straightforwardly translated into English. It has been translated forbearance, reasonableness, and courtesy among others. it means there is something more than mere justice, as to be gracious.
There is something more here in the wisdom from above that takes us from beyond black and white theology and black and white justice. Perhaps a few examples may help us ascertain the meaning better.
If there is a challenging measure that leaders have to learn it is the willingness to take the hit. What that is, is to truly be gentle, willing to yield, not to be stubborn or hard, not having a need to assert one’s own rights on others.
We first note Paul’s testimony when he was in custody in Rome.
Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: the former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; …. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice (Philippians 1:15,16).
Paul’s concern was not for himself, but for the gospel. Retribution was not his agenda though the gospel is preached at his expense.
When Peter was confronted regarding the question of his Teacher paying the temple tax, Jesus used the occasion to teach Peter and all of us a lesson:
“What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?” Peter said to Him, “From strangers”. Jesus said to him, “then the sons are free. Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you” (Matthew 17:25- 27).
Though Jesus was not obligated by virtue of Who He was to pay the temple tax, He was willing to pay it anyway. Jesus did not come to assert His own rights on others, but to carry out His Father’s will. We should meditate on this and see where we have asserted ourselves unnecessarily on others.
Christ Himself took the hit for us all though He could have escaped at any time by calling the legions of angels who were ready at a moment’s notice to intervene if He asked (Matthew 27:53).
The application of this in leadership is taking responsibility even for dissent for which the leader had little or no responsibility. He rises to the occasion and recognizes the weaknesses and immaturity of others and can take the blame in such a way as to dissolve tensions, and use the occasion to promote peace and goodwill. Yes, this actually works in many arenas.
Full of Mercy—Be Affected to be Effective
To have mercy one must be affected by others and by those over which they have influence or authority. An indifferent, detached ministry which operates solely on principles without regard to human frailties and follies will not last, at least hopefully not.
Consider the message from Paul, Silas and Timothy to the Thessalonians:
So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us (1 Thessalonians 2:8).
We see that all three; Paul, Silas, and Timothy, imparted not only the gospel of God to them, but also gave them their own souls.
“a gospel messenger who stands detached from his audience has not yet been touched by the gospel he proclaims.” – Michael D. Martin
In essence, the elder belongs to those over who he has oversight (1 Corinthians 3:22).
We need to connect mercy with “without partiality.” It is easier to have pity on a saint. It is not as easy to have pity on the sinner, or those who have not been supportive, or on those who do not fit our social norms. Mercy is truly expressed when the undeserving and ungrateful are involved. Congregations are full of people like these.
In some of the Lord’s final words to Peter, He explains that a teacher who loves Him will feed His sheep and subject himself to the calling–not his own will.
Simon Peter, son of Jonah, do you love me?
…Feed My lambs
…Tend My sheep
… Feed My Sheep
Peter’s service of subjecting himself to the Lord and to His flock, will cost him his life (John 21:18). Preaching that does not cost the preacher has little value.
It is contrary to worldly wisdom to offer one’s own soul for others. Worldly wisdom puts restrictions on service and self-sacrifice.
Without Hypocrisy – For Whose Sake Does One Preach?It is evident that hypocrisy can debilitate and discredit any ministry. Much can be said for the seriousness regarding the behavior of teachers. It is therefore critical that leaders can self-evaluate the motivation behind their own ministry first. Motivation helps to define the character of the individual in ministry. Consider again Paul, Timothy and Silas in their message to the Thessalonians:
For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake (1 Thessalonians 1:5).
They were men of conviction, and conviction is contagious. The manner of these men encompassed many things, but the totality of their conviction or passion in the gospel inspired those who learned from them. Consider those you look to for your teaching today. Is your conviction affected by their conviction? if we are not affected, are we becoming indifferent?
Let us face the fact that Christians and non-Christians are always watching. They can recognize those who deliver a message that they themselves follow. Paul, Silas, and Timothy all were examples to them. This exemplary behavior is for the brethren’s sake in Thessalonica, although not to be considered the sole reason.
Yes, we can be inspired by the faithfulness of other brethren that the Lord sends to us. The Thessalonians have received a letter from all three of their elders that had begotten (taught) them, Paul, Silas and Timothy. This was meaningful to the Church in Thessalonica.
All of this has a reciprocal effect on the ministry. Considering further the words of Paul in Chapter 1 of 1 Thessalonians, Paul writes that he remembers without ceasing their works of faith, labor of love and patience (v 3). He even hears of them from others in various parts of the world (v9), and bolsters up his, Silas’s and Timothy’s ministry (v9).
Reputation does matter in this work, but not at the expense of sincerity. Over concern with perception can lead to an artificial ministry. Consider John the Baptist. Although full of conviction we know that he certainly was not a refined man as far as society goes. He wore smelly camel garments, had a diet of honey and bugs, but his calling was great.
Conviction and Passion sometimes does not lead to popularity. Paul’s passion got him under custody by the Romans, and he was abandoned by some brethren. The Passion of the Christ led Him to crucifixion, a shameful way to die, but gave us an example of God’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 2). These examples may seem extreme and they are, but it is not outside the realm of possibility. They do however show the superiority of sincerity over hypocrisy and selfish gain.
Paul reminds the Thessalonians that they were not entrusted to the gospel by God only to turn around and please men (1 Thessalonians 2:4). What he may be referring to in part is the use of flattery to forward the gospel.
Elders preach and work for the reward of others.
We will conclude with James’ interim conclusion in Chapter 3:
Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (James 3:18).The fruits of righteousness (fruits of the Spirit), come about from those who preach the word (by mouth and by actions) in a peaceful way. This peaceful way should be recognized by the sincere believer. These are words that do not incite the believer. It takes a certain kind of climate to cultivate and raise righteousness, much like having good weather. In harsh and bitter weather, it is difficult, if not impossible, to grow a healthy crop. an environment that is lacking the ministerial traits that James speaks of will make it difficult to bring about the righteousness of God in the believers. An environment that is dominated by worldly wisdom will bring about confusion and dysfunctional congregations. The power of the gospel invokes real change in a person, not the wisdom of words (Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 2:5). Therefore, we want power restored to God’s people where there is an undercurrent of confusion. We are all in part responsible for our worship environment.
In light of our discussions above, though an individual may have a desire to teach, have ample knowledge, and perhaps an attractive image with oratory skills, consideration should be taken into account for the stricter judgment, which includes the higher expectations the Lord and others will have of them. To escape the trappings of worldly wisdom, to have a willingness to take the hit, to offer their own soul, and the capacity to have mercy, is not for those who may be well meaning, but for the few who have or can develop the spiritual sensitivities our Lord has in mind communicated by our brother James.
Therefore, seriously again consider the reality of our Lord’s call for prayer:
But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore, pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers in His harvest” (Matthew 9:37).