Relational – Theology & Practice
As a church leader I am aware of the importance of both clear doctrinal definitions and missional strategy; I am also convinced that mates matter! Since being introduced to Life in the Spirit in 2000, I have been grateful to God for the friends it has given. Therefore, when defining our ‘key values’, it was without hesitation we stated that we were ‘relational’, valuing ‘authentic and accountable friendship’. Moreover, so does God! By taking an overview of Scripture we can see just how essential these righteous relationships are.
A whistle-stop tour
At the outset of time it was God who said ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ (Gen 1:26). This is a remarkable passage in that it gives us our first glimpse of God in relationship with God. We very soon see Adam and Eve delighting also in a relationship with God that was untainted by sin and undoubtedly enjoying their relationship with one another without any hint of the strife that was to follow. Sadly though, this bliss was shattered as they succumbed to that sin which brought division between them and God and between one another.
As the story unfolds we discover that God continues to relate to humanity through a variety of means. After calling the Jewish nation, as a ‘people for his own possession’ (Deut 7:6), God establishes a series of prophets in order to both inform and instruct them. Rather than perceiving the role of the prophet as purely a ‘divine conduit’ it is vital to remember that we are given numerous glimpses of a prophet’s personal relationship with God. Probably the most obvious example of this is that of Moses. In Exodus 33:11, we discover that ‘the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend’. Therefore through his ‘friend’ God communicated to his people both his mind and his heart; in order that His people may live in a righteous relationship, both with Him and with one another. Better however was still to come.
God determined the means by which a right relationship with humanity would be restored. God would not send another prophet; rather He would send Himself! So, ‘The Word’, (that is, ‘the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being’, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Lord Jesus Christ) ‘became flesh and made Hs dwelling among us’ (Jo 1:14; Heb 1:3). Just pause for a moment and allow these profound truths to stir your spirit. Why? Because more than anything, these truths, teach us about need, means and the nature of true relationship.
Throughout his life Jesus modelled amazing intimacy with His Father. Initially, the Fathers delight, the Son’s humility and the Spirit’s enabling are powerfully displayed through the baptism of the Lord Jesus (Matt 3:16-17). Later, Jesus claims that he was so close with His Father, that he only did ‘what I see my Father doing’ (Jo 5:19). However, the perfection of this relationship is most visibly portrayed as Jesus, in an act of His own will, is pinned to a rough Roman cross in order that His Father’s glory may be perfectly made known. Additionally, but also vitally, we see Jesus had a very real love and indeed on occasions a need for others. I am sure that those of us who are ‘goal focussed’ need to be reminded of this. Before commissioning this rag-tag bunch of followers ‘to preach’, Jesus called them ‘that they might be with Him’, (Mark 3:14). For Jesus, the disciples were not simply a means to an end; they were not only His followers, but were on numerous occasions he called them His ‘friends’.
So then, if Jesus’ mission was to restore that which was lost as a result of the ‘fall’, how should we expect His followers to relate to one another, once they have been brought back into relationship with God? I love Dr. Luke’s insights from the early chapters of Acts. ‘The disciples were together’, when the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost (Ac 2:1). ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common’ (Ac 2:44) and rather than gathering weekly, the fledgling church met daily (Ac 2:46). Very quickly however, we see that cultural division emerge, hence the Apostles’, Spirit led, quick thinking in Acts 6:2-6 and the substantial teaching in forthcoming epistles that address new and emerging issues among churches far and wide. Paul reminds the church at Ephesus that Christian unity cannot be manufactured, even as a response to Jesus’ instruction that we ‘love one another’ (Jo 13:34-35). Rather Christian unity can only be maintained on the basis by which it was granted (Eph 4:3), namely the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.
So on the basis of the above, what do God-honouring relationships look like among church leaders today? It would be easy at this point to try to find a fail-safe structure on which we can depend. Although, I am convinced by the Biblical basis for a form of church government that unites Apostolic Team and Local Eldership, I also know that organisational charts are not prominent within the New Testament canon! Indeed, if Paul’s purpose in writing His letters was simply to provide us with a simple structure of church government, he appears to have failed miserably. Instead, Paul appears far more concerned with the character of those appointed to lead and the necessity of authentic relationships between them.
For the sake of brevity, here are five hallmarks of good and biblical relationships for leaders today.
- i) Love
If Jesus instructed His followers to ‘love one another’ (Jo 13:34), how much more ought this love to be demonstrated among church leaders? Please compare for a moment Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian Elders (Acts 20), or his heart for Timothy who he greets as ‘my true Son in the faith’ (1 Tim 1:20) with relationships within your own sphere of ministry. Sadly, I fear John Piper may have been correct in suggesting that the church was being killed ‘by the professionalising of the pastoral ministry’.
- ii) Plurality
Although undoubtedly a foundational Apostle of the church, there is no evidence that Paul was in any way a ‘lone ranger’. It has been calculated that there are around one hundred individuals associated with Paul in both Acts and the Epistles. Of these, a dozen appear to be long term relationships; with Timothy, who had been Paul’s assistant for up to fifteen years, appearing to be his closest confidant. Given this evidence, it is little surprise that Paul and indeed Timothy were instrumental in establishing local elderships, rather than appointing sole pastors or leaders. Indeed, whatever questions remain with regard to the ideal structure of church government, the plurality of eldership remains the essential pattern.
Humility does not suggest that leaders should not lead. Rather, not to lead God’s people would be an abdication of a leader’s God given responsibility. However, it was Jesus who being the ultimate leader was willing to take the place of the hired hand and wash the feet of the one who would betray Him. True leaders should be the first to do likewise (Jo 13:1-17). It is only when we see this heart revealed that we can be sure that we are seeing God’s Kingdom established as opposed to an empire of man!
- iv) Accountability
I initially placed accountability before humility, but then changed the order. Through experience I have discovered that humility is a pre-requisite for true accountability. Without humility, accountability becomes something which is demanded and may very quickly become resented. Willing accountability among leaders, reveals trust, exposes division and ensures teach-ability, thus facilitating personal growth and holiness. True accountability that flows out of relationship, demonstrates that in the Lord’s service we have nothing to lose, but everything to gain!
- v) Common Purpose
Having been involved in church leadership for a good number of years, I have found that there are those I see eye to eye with and those I don’t! I have also discovered that however important it is to clearly express the mission, values and vision of our own church; there must still be a greater goal. According to Jesus’ cousin John, that goal is ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (Jo 3:30). Indeed, unless each of us in ministry retains this as our ultimate goal, then our relationships with one-another will be a sad reflection of those relationships we see in the ‘world’ rather than being a contrast to them.
Given what we have seen, being ‘relational’ is not part of a ‘strap line’ nor is an additional extra. Rather the ‘relational’ nature of Life in the Spirit is an expression of Biblical unity and is, in some small way a foretaste of God’s consummate purpose in Christ. I therefore thank God for mates in ministry and trust that they also are thankful for me!