How should church leaders exercise authority

Not dictatorship, but servanthood

(Mat 20:25-27 NIV)  Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. {26} Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, {27} and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—

(1 Pet 5:2-3 NIV)  Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers–not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; {3} not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.

Being examples to our followers means that we do what we want them to do. Jesus did just that. He wanted us to serve others therefore He set an example by washing His disciples’ feet.

(John 13:14-15 NIV)  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. {15} I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.

Not demanding that followers obey without questioning

As a leader, even the Son of God did not prohibit His disciples from questioning His actions.

(Mat 13:10-13 NIV)  The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” {11} He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. {12} Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. {13} This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

Jesus not only entertained the questions of His disciples, He also entertained the questions of others as to the way He leads His disciples.

(Mark 2:18-19 NIV)  Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?” {19} Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them.

The early church leaders also followed the example of Jesus and did not prohibit people from questioning their decisions. Peter is one such example.

(Acts 11:1-18 NIV)  The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. {2} So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him {3} and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” {4} Peter began and explained everything to them precisely as it had happened: {5} “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. {6} I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles, and birds of the air. {7} Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ {8} “I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ {9} “The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ {10} This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again. {11} “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. {12} The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. {13} He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. {14} He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’ {15} “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. {16} Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ {17} So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?” {18} When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”

The people criticized Peter not because he had sinned. All he did was to eat with uncircumcised men. Didn’t Jesus do the same? Jesus even ate with prostitutes! The people criticized Peter because they did not like this behavior nonetheless.

Peter did not react to the criticism negatively or in anger. He explained that it was the Holy Spirit who instructed him to do so. When the people heard that, they had no further objections and praised God.

A good leader does not avoid criticisms or reacts angrily to them. He rises up to criticisms and wins over his members with clear explanations.

A leader who cannot tolerate his followers’ questioning is revealing an inner sense of pride.

Not rejecting suggestions/feedback from your followers

When the early church leaders received a suggestion from their followers, they did not neglect the issue. They took it seriously. They even met to discuss and eventually came up with a response.

(Acts 15:5-6 NIV)  Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.” {6} The apostles and elders met to consider this question.

(Acts 15:19-20 NIV)  “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. {20} Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.

This is in accordance with the Biblical principle that we should be quick to listen and slow to anger. In other words, we do not become angry when our followers suggest something but we are “all ears” concerning what they have to say.

(James 1:19 NIV)  My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,

We may think that we know the work better than our subordinates. But everybody likes to be listened to. We can increase their morale if we listen to them and show that we respect their views.

Even though Moses was the leader of Israel, he was humble enough to hear the advice of his father-in-law. And that brought him great efficiency in his ministry.

Exod 18: 13  The next day, Moses sat as usual to hear the people’s complaints against each other. They were lined up in front of him from morning till evening. 14When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “Why are you trying to do all this alone? The people have been standing here all day to get your help.” 15Moses replied, “Well, the people come to me to seek God’s guidance. 16  When an argument arises, I am the one who settles the case. I inform the people of God’s decisions and teach them his laws and instructions.” 17″This is not good!” his father-in-law exclaimed. 18″You’re going to wear yourself out—and the people, too. This job is too heavy a burden for you to handle all by yourself. 19Now let me give you a word of advice, and may God be with you. You should continue to be the people’s representative before God, bringing him their questions to be decided. 20You should tell them God’s decisions, teach them God’s laws and instructions, and show them how to conduct their lives. 21But find some capable, honest men who fear God and hate bribes. Appoint them as judges over groups of one thousand, one hundred, fifty, and ten. 22These men can serve the people, resolving all the ordinary cases. Anything that is too important or too complicated can be brought to you. But they can take care of the smaller matters themselves. They will help you carry the load, making the task easier for you. 23If you follow this advice, and if God directs you to do so, then you will be able to endure the pressures, and all these people will go home in peace.”

Even Jesus was always looking for feedback from His followers. He wants to know “What do people think of me? What do you think of me? What can I do for you?”

(Mark 8:27-29 NIV)  Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” {28} They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” {29} “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.”

(Mat 7:7-8 NIV)  “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. {8} For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

Not feeling resentful when subordinates point out our faults

(Mat 14:3-4 NIV)  Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, {4} for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.”

The fact that Herod was in authority did not stop John from pointing out areas in his life that needs correction.

Some point out that John is speaking from an authority as a prophet of God and that it should not be generally applied to the case of church members pointing out the faults of their leaders. I would disagree on this point.

(Luke 17:3 NIV)  So watch yourselves. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.

We are to rebuke our Christian brothers and sisters. Not just those who are below us in rank. When the Bible talks about brothers and sisters-in-Christ, it transcends rank. Even Jesus regards us as His brothers and sisters.

(Mat 12:48-50 NIV)  He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” {49} Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. {50} For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

David confronted King Saul of his wrong.

(1 Sam 24:7-11 NIV)  With these words David rebuked his men and did not allow them to attack Saul. And Saul left the cave and went his way. {8} Then David went out of the cave and called out to Saul, “My lord the king!” When Saul looked behind him, David bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. {9} He said to Saul, “Why do you listen when men say, ‘David is bent on harming you’? {10} This day you have seen with your own eyes how the LORD delivered you into my hands in the cave. Some urged me to kill you, but I spared you; I said, ‘I will not lift my hand against my master, because he is the Lord’s anointed.’ {11} See, my father, look at this piece of your robe in my hand! I cut off the corner of your robe but did not kill you. Now understand and recognize that I am not guilty of wrongdoing or rebellion. I have not wronged you, but you are hunting me down to take my life.

In addition to pointing out the sins of our leaders, we also have the right (and responsibility) to point out to them areas in which we feel they are making the wrong decisions. There are several examples in the Bible.

The other example is in the life of Esther. When she learnt that the king had made a wrong decision to exterminate the Jews, she set out a plan to explain the king’s mistake to him.

(Est 3:8-11 NIV)  Then Haman said to King Xerxes, “There is a certain people dispersed and scattered among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom whose customs are different from those of all other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. {9} If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will put ten thousand talents of silver into the royal treasury for the men who carry out this business.” {10} So the king took his signet ring from his finger and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews. {11} “Keep the money,” the king said to Haman, “and do with the people as you please.”

Esther looked for an opportunity to inform the king of the consequences of his wrong decisions.

(Est 7:4-6 NIV)  For I and my people have been sold for destruction and slaughter and annihilation. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.” {5} King Xerxes asked Queen Esther, “Who is he? Where is the man who has dared to do such a thing?” {6} Esther said, “The adversary and enemy is this vile Haman.” Then Haman was terrified before the king and queen.

However, we must be very sure about this and not entertain any fancy report about the leader.

(1 Tim 5:19-20 NIV)  Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. {20} Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.

We have to point out the mistakes of those more senior than us in respect.

(1 Tim 5:1 NIV)  Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers,

This verse talks about rebuking an older person with respect and not harshly. I believe it applies as well to those in authority. Rebuking those in authority in love and respect would fulfill the dual requirement of honoring those in authority and rebuking those in error.

A case worth examining in the story of Aaron and Miriam speaking against Moses.

(Num 12:1-8 NIV)  Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. {2} “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” And the LORD heard this. {3} (Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.) {4} At once the LORD said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, “Come out to the Tent of Meeting, all three of you.” So the three of them came out. {5} Then the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the Tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When both of them stepped forward, {6} he said, “Listen to my words: “When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. {7} But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. {8} With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”

Moses may have sinned when he married a Cushite wife because God had warned against marring foreign wives in Deuteronomy. But was God angry with them for pointing out Moses’ fault because Moses was their leader? I don’t think that was the reason why God was angry. I believe God was angry because Aaron and Miriam spoke against Moses out of contempt and not out of discussion with genuine intention to correct him. Their wrong intentions of jealousy clearly show up in verse 2.

Enforce God’s agenda, not personal preferences

(1 Th 4:2-5 NIV)  For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. {3} It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; {4} that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, {5} not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God;

Use authority to build up, not tear down

(2 Cor 13:10 NIV)  This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority–the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down.

Exercise authority to punish and commend

(1 Pet 2:13-14 NIV)  Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, {14} or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.