Why Power and Status in the Early Church Matters Today

Why Power and Status in the Early Church Matters Today

Dr. Joe Hellerman has just released his new book Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why it Matters Today. His doctoral research dealt with the social history of the early Christians, and he has authored five books. In addition to a full time schedule teaching at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology, he’s a team pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship in El Segundo, California. I recently caught up with Joe to ask him about how the early church dealt with issues like power and status and what it can teach Church leaders today.

Q: Your new book is Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why it Matters Today. As the title describes, it’s about power and status in the early Church. Why is that important for church leaders today?

Joe Hellerman: It is “social given” among human beings that “wherever two or more are gathered,” leaders will emerge who will exercise power and authority over others in the groups they lead. This is true in every culture, in just about any social setting, including the church. God created us this way, and he made provisions for this very phenomenon in the Bible, by establishing church offices, along with necessary qualifications and character qualities for church leaders. Since the use (and abuse) of power tends to manifest itself somewhat differently at different times and places, it is important regularly to return to the Bible’s teaching on the proper use of power and authority in order to evaluate current tendencies and practices.

In the present climate, in particular, the breakdown of the family, along with an influx of corporate business values and practices, has generated a volatile mix of ingredients in some of our churches: (1) a highly gifted, but emotionally dysfunctional and narcissistic leader, wielding CEO-like authority, who is (2) supported by elders or deacons whose metrics for ecclesiastical success find their roots in the Wall Street Journal, rather than in the letters of Paul. Sadly, this scenario often cashes out in a whole lot of relational hurt among associate staff and their families, who are on the receiving end of the abuse of authority by senior leaders who lack the relational straw to make bricks.

Q: The concept of “power” is controversial when it comes to churches and religious organizations. But power relationships exist. What do leaders today need to be most careful of when it comes to exercising the right kinds of power?

Hellerman: Power relationships will always exist, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. The key is how power is used in the context of those relationships-particularly as a leader relates to his or her subordinates. Dysfunctional, narcissistic leaders use their employees in the service of their own personal agendas, and they marginalize subordinates who challenge their thinking, or whose gifts or abilities they perceive to be a threat. Healthy leaders, in contrast, empower their subordinates, and they are delighted to see them succeed and even surpass their own accomplishments.

Q: Many churches today are led by dynamic single leaders. Why are teams important?

Hellerman: There are many reasons:

1. I simply find it counterintuitive to place the visionary future and spiritual guidance of a group of 200 (or 2,000!) believers in a local church in the hands of a single individual, given what we know from Scripture about (a) human brokenness and fallibility and (b) the importance of making decisions in community, rather than in isolation. Our natural families certainly don’t function that way. I suspect that the only reason we think our church family ought to function that way is that we’ve bought into a corporate model of ministry that has no precedent in early Christianity.

2. Because of “the volatile mix of ingredients” outlined in answer to Question #1, above. These cultural tendencies make in particularly important, today, to spread authority across a community of leaders, rather than to concentrate it the hands of a single, senior pastor figure.

A team approach also provides more balanced teaching and modeling of the Christian life, and it challenges the tendency of our people to view these “dynamic single leaders” as spiritual celebrities, of sorts (another characteristic, by the way, identified by social scientists, which marks the relationship between toxic leaders and their followers).

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Source: Christian Post | KATHLEEN COOKE