The foundation of everything about the shape, character, and function of the leadership community of the church of Jesus Christ is this: the model for the community that is the church, and most importantly its leadership, is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now, I know that this seems both obvious and vague, but I am persuaded that it is neither, and that if the primary driving force of leadership in local churches around the world was the gospel of Jesus Christ, many of the sad things we have seen happen in the lives of leaders and their churches would not have happened.
I want to invite you to examine with me a passage that lays down a gospel foundation for all relationships in the church, from the average person in the pew to the most influential, culture, and mission-setting leaders. Let me say, before we look at this passage, that no organizational or achievement-oriented leadership model should overwhelm the values and call of the gospel as the core structural and functional model and identity for local church and Christian ministry leaders. As I have reflected upon this passage, my mind has gone to the thousands and thousands of pastors, ministry leaders, elder boards, and deacon boards around the world, and I have wondered if the community norms of this passage are their normal experience as leaders. The passage comes in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. —Ephesians 4:1–3
Best-selling author Paul David Tripp offers 12 gospel-centered leadership principles for both aspiring leaders and weathered pastors as they navigate the challenging waters of pastoral ministry. This resource shows the vital role that the leadership community plays in molding leaders.
It should be noted that Paul’s first application of the truths of the gospel, which he has just expounded for the Ephesians, is to remind them that it is those very truths that are to form the way they think about themselves and their relationships to one another. Those truths are to be the foundation stones of whatever community structures they build. There are few more important applications of the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ than to consider how they set the agenda for the way we live with, relate to, and work with each other as members of the body of Christ. And let me point out that there is no exception clause for pastors, elders, and deacons or some different community model for them in this passage or in any of the similar passages. The gospel, which is our hope in life and death, also sets the agenda for how we live, relate, and lead between the “already” of our conversion and the “not yet” of our final home going.
My purpose here is not to do a detailed study of Ephesians 4:1–3 but to propose how its gospel values can begin to form the way we think about how we function and relate as church leaders. I want to suggest that if you really do want your relationships to be worthy of the gospel you received, then you will value humility, gentleness, patience, forbearing love, and peace, and if you value these gospel characteristics, you will ask yourself, “What would my leadership community look like if we truly valued these things more than positions, power, achievement, acclaim, or success?” Let me answer this question by suggesting six characteristics that will mark out a leadership community formed by gospel values.
Humility means that each leader’s relationship to other leaders is characterized by an acknowledgment that he deserves none of the recognition, power, or influence that his position affords him. It means knowing, as a leader, that as long as sin still lives inside you, you will need to be rescued from you. Humility means you love serving more than you crave leading. It means owning your inability rather than boasting in your abilities. It means always being committed to listen and learn. Humility means seeing fellow leaders not so much as serving your success but serving the one who called each of you. It means being more excited about your fellow leaders’ commitment to Christ than you are about their loyalty to you. It’s about fearing the power of position rather than craving it. It’s about being more motivated to serve than to be seen. Humility is always being ready to consider the concern of others for you, confess what God reveals through them, and to commit to personal change. Humility is about firing your inner lawyer and opening yourself up to the ongoing power of transforming grace.
Dependency means living, as a leader, as if I really do believe that my walk with God is a community project. It means that because of the blinding power of remaining sin, I give up on the belief that no one knows me better than I know myself. Dependency means no longer being afraid of exposure, because I really do believe that there is nothing that could be known, exposed, or revealed about me that has not already been addressed by the person and work of Jesus. It means living as if I really do believe that isolated, individualized, independent Christianity never produces good fruit. It means acknowledging that every leader needs to be led and every pastor needs to be pastored. Dependency means acknowledging theological understanding, biblical literacy, ministry gifts, and ministry experience and success do not mean that I no longer need the essential sanctifying ministry of the body of Christ. It means confessing that as long as sin remains in me, and that apart from restraining grace and the rescuing ministry of those around me, I continue to be a danger to myself.
3. Prepared Spontaneity
If you acknowledge the presence and the seducing and deceiving power of remaining sin, you will also acknowledge that everyone in your leadership community is still susceptible to temptation and is still at risk. You know that sins, small and great, will infect your community and obstruct and divert its work. You live with the knowledge that everyone in your leadership community is still in need of rescuing and sanctifying grace. So you set in motion plans for dealing with the sin, weakness, and failure that will inevitably rear their ugly heads. You will not be shocked by, deny, or minimize what God, in grace, reveals but deal with it forthrightly in a spirit of biblical love and grace. You will not be more concerned with defending the reputation of your leadership community than dealing with its failures. Prepared spontaneity means that because you have taken seriously what the gospel says about ongoing spiritual battles in the heart of every leader, you have prepared yourself to deal with the sin that God exposes, even though you don’t know beforehand what he will, in grace, expose.
The model for the community that is the church, and most importantly its leadership, is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Inspection means that we invite people to step over the normal boundaries of leadership relationships to look into our lives to help us see things that we would not see on our own. It means inviting fellow leaders to watch for our souls. It means inviting them to interrupt our private conversation with protective biblical insights and restorative gospel truths. It means acknowledging that self-examination is a community project, because we are still able to swindle ourselves into thinking that we are okay when we are in danger and in need of help. So every leader must be willing to live under loving, grace-infused, patient, and forgiving biblical inspection.
We all sin, but we don’t all sin the same. For reasons of history, experience, gift, biology, and a host of other things, we aren’t equally tempted by the same things. You may be susceptible to the temptations of power, while someone else may be susceptible to the temptations of pleasure, while I may be tempted by the lure of material things. This understanding of the variegated seductions of sin and the different way they impact each one of us is vital to the long-term health and gospel fruitfulness of every local church leadership community. True biblical love doesn’t just accept you, bless you with patience, and greet your failures with forgiveness. Along with all these things, it works to do everything it can to protect you from the eternal weaknesses of heart that make you susceptible to temptation.
The words of Hebrews 13:17 speak with a motivational clarity: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” Leaders are responsible to protect the souls of those who are under their care. The words here are both specific and provocative. It doesn’t say leaders are commissioned to take note of your behavior; of course that is true, but there is something deeper and more fundamental pictured here. It’s souls that leaders are held accountable to protect. Soul points to the inner person, his thoughts, desires, motives, weaknesses, strengths, level of maturity, susceptibilities, etc. It means knowing someone at the level of his heart so that you can predict where he may step over God’s wise boundaries. What is depicted here is a level of protective leadership that will only ever happen in the context of depth of relationship.
If this protection is meant to be the experience of everyone in the body of Christ, should it not be present in the core leadership community? It has saddened me how many times I have been contacted to help a leadership community deal with a fallen leader, only to discover there were indicators all along of particular weakness and susceptibilities that no one in his leadership community seemed to see. Because we as leaders don’t always see ourselves with accuracy, and because we don’t always see the areas in which we are weak, we all need a protective community that is watching for us even when we aren’t as watchful as we should be. If we are to be protected, we need to be known at the level where temptation is its most powerful, the heart.
One of the most beautiful, hopeful, and encouraging gospel themes that courses its way through Scripture is the theme of fresh starts and new beginnings. Fresh starts and new beginnings are a hallmark of the rescuing, forgiving, restoring, and transforming power of God’s grace. For Moses a fresh start looked like a burning-bush voice calling him back to Egypt to liberate God’s people, this time by God’s power. For David it meant being confronted by a prophet, confessing the horror of what he had done, and continuing his kingship. For Jonah it meant being vomited up on the seashore and commissioned a second time to take God’s message to Nineveh. For Peter a fresh start happened on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, as the Messiah he betrayed forgave him and sent him once again into his service. For Paul, a fresh start and new beginning looked like a blinding light on a road to Damascus and words of forgiveness and commission
carried by a rather fearful messenger.
Grace means we are not held to our worst moment or cursed by our worst decision. Grace means out of the ashes of sin, leaders can rise because the Savior has resurrection power. I wonder, in the way we think about leaders and the function of the leadership community, would we have restored any of these biblical characters? What is different about the way we look at the sin, weakness, and failure of a leader and the way God looks at the same? In none of the instances that I cited was the sin denied, hidden, or minimized. In each situation it looks as though what was done was so grave that there could be no hope for the sinner’s future. Our tendency in such situations is to think that while God’s forgiveness demonstrates amazing grace, he will nevertheless say, “As far as usefulness in my kingdom, you’re done.” But in those biblical situations, each was restored to a position of spiritual leadership.
Do our leadership communities function with a gospel-driven, restoration mentality? I know so many fallen leaders who were cast away and are supporting their families doing telemarketing, house construction, or computer sales. We should never minimize a leader’s sin, nor should we rush to put a leader back in the saddle who has not yet dealt with central issues in his heart, and certainly there are some cases in which a leader should never be restored to a position of leadership, but we also must not abandon our functional belief in the restorative power of God’s right-here, right-now grace.
This article is adapted from Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church by Paul David Tripp.
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