“Office-bearers giving leadership in Christ’s Church” by Rev PKA de Boer

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The following speech by Rev PKA de Boer was held at an annual office bearers’ conference in the Free Reformed Church of Mt Nasura 12 April 2014.

It is only in recent times that a fair amount of attention has being given to leadership. At least, it was not until quite recently that special courses were offered for leadership. A quick browse on the internet shows that both secular and Christian colleges offer such courses. Besides other organizations, there are also churches that offer seminars and meetings about this topic. In his article on leadership in the Baker Encyclopaedia of Psychology and Counselling published in 1999, K.M. Lattea says that the Study of leadership and its development has flourished in both corporate and Christian arenas in recent years[1].After making references to some non-Christian authors of psychology and business that have focused on leadership studies, he suggests that the goals of Christian leadership goes beyond earning personal or economic profit to the reward of knowing God and Christ. However, the method of leadership among non-Christians and Christians appear to run parallel. I hope to show this in this paper and then direct your attention to the kind of leadership profile Scripture gives us, followed by the practical consequences of what the Lord teaches and how it is to be applied in this present age.

To lead, generally means that others follow you, the leader. Thus L. Anderson, in his book, Who’s in Charge, Standing up to Leadership Pressures begins his chapter on leadership by emphasizing that you can only be a leader when you have others following. He then goes on to explain the best way in which to get other to follow. To begin with, he emphasises that a leader is the person from whom the initiative must originate. Along with others, for him the question and point of focus is on how you make others follow you. He lists a number of basic skills that a leader must have, which includes initiating, planning, promoting, organizing, delegating, directing, motivating, supervising, performing, influencing, controlling, evaluating, communicating and representing. In this context, faithful commitment to the Lord is also mentioned. In order to accomplish this, attention is given to psychology, including things learned from advertising, various cultural inclinations, organization, time management and so forth … as ways in which best to get others to follow you, the leader.

Suggestions are made concerning various forms of manipulation and using natural human inclinations to direct men onto a desired way of thinking. Both Christian and non-Christian articles and books on leadership are filled with case studies to determine in very practical terms what works and what does not. At times, the work of a leader is depicted as that of a coach in sports. This includes the setting of various objectives with well defined goals. Periodic evaluation is held to determine whether the objectives and goals are being met. Questions are raised as to whether the set objectives and goals are realistic and achievable. If the set goals are not achieved, revision and review then becomes necessary to determine better methods. In the business model the main goal is generally the profit margin. However, in this context many things receive attention such as product quality, customer satisfaction, follow-in pricing and so forth. At a university or college the goal would be a bit different. It is focused more on student outcome. Surveys are therefore done to evaluate student outcomes. This is usually done with as large a number of students as possible with the recognition of varying student abilities. Here the well-known statistical bell curve plays a role. Further surveys are done of student satisfaction with the argument that happy students study better. Various staff surveys are done too. In the western world in the political model the main goal is to obtain the necessary and largest number of votes. Here too, surveys are done on how to obtain people’s satisfaction and votes. Statistics are used to determine the preference of people. Politically and socially this has spilled over into forms of ethics and cultural formation where the majority determine what is noble or not.

When this model for leadership is borrowed and used in ecclesiastical context there is general recognition that the goal must be faithfulness to the Lord. It is also often recognised that this goal is difficult to measure for who can search the hearts of men? Where this model of leadership has been applied in evangelical churches surveys have been made of members trying to determine their faithfulness but it usually falls into the area of how active they are in membership, how much they read their Bible, how often they pray, how active they are in attending church and meetings, how active they are in evangelism, how well they contribute to the ministry, how much they are involved with other humanitarian endeavours such as helping the poor, tending to the ill and aged and so forth. Many of these things may indeed be recognized as the fruits of the Spirit; but can the goal of faithfulness to the Lord really be measured in this way? The problem is that this kind of model can be used inter-faith, only exchanging, for example, the Bible for the Koran and it can be used by any ‘denomination’ from Roman Catholic to Reformed and for any sect from Jehovah Witnesses to Mormons. Many who write about Christian leadership in this way recognise the problem and mention it, but often continue to make all kinds of practical suggestions without giving any satisfactory solution to this problem. In the end, as far as leadership goes, the best leaders are generally considered those who can please the greatest number of people and the largest number of followers.

While some things could perhaps be learned from this recent study and methodology of leadership, your attention will now be directed to the kind of leadership profile Scripture gives us. After doing so, attention will be given to the practical consequences of what the Lord teaches and how it is to be applied in this present age.

The Scriptural and hence Confessional profile of a leader in the Church

To get some idea of what the Lord teaches in Scripture about leaders, it is probably best to first turn to the letters written through the Apostle Paul to Timothy and Titus. These are letters addressed to leaders within the churches. In the first letter addressed to him, right after the initial greetings, Timothy is reminded “as I urged you, when I went into Macedonia – remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine …” (1:3).  The letter to Titus begins in a similar way for after the greeting he is directed to set in order what is lacking by appointing elders, and in the climactic point of instruction concerning what kind of men they are to be we are told that an elder must be “holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both exhort and convict those who contradict…” (1:9).  It is not much different in the second letter to Timothy where this leader is again told  to “hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me…” (1:13).

What we notice here from all three of these letters is that the leaders are addressed about holding fast to the true doctrine or teaching of Scripture. That is what a leader should be first and foremost! Different from any kind of suggestion that a leader manipulates and steers another person’s life, he is made to be seen as walking in front, in accordance with God’s Word, with others following after him. It reminds us of how kings and army generals in the past would lead their men by taking on the most forward position. There were exceptions, for example when King David became older, but the normal place and position of the leader is at the very front of the army and battle. By being in the fore-front he is also in the most vulnerable and dangerous position. As one army clashes head on against another army, he cops the brunt of the attack.

This way of speaking about leaders is quite a different to what is often heard today. It is unlike the leader as a coach in sport who stands at the sideline once the game begins. It is not the picture of one who urges others on with the suggestion that through their training they can now accomplish more than he. Rather it is the picture of leaders who take the full brunt in any conflict. If there are any difficulties or attacks, these attacks first of all fall on his shoulders. He cannot pass problems on to anyone else that is higher or stronger. Think of Moses who led the way through the desert or of Joshua at the fore-front of the armies of Israel. He also gave clear leadership when he said “if it seems evil to you to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15).

When speaking about a leader in this way we may with much thankfulness keep in mind that the Lord Jesus is our King. It was not simply Moses who led the way through the wilderness but the Lord God Himself in the cloud and fire. Scripture hints at the eternal Son of God as the Saviour being directly involved in giving this leadership. Already for the children of Abraham the eternal Son of God was the Head of the church even though He had not yet taken on His human nature and had not yet ascended as the victorious Christ. This was evident already at that time though for us it is has become even clearer. Christ is the Head of the church. He is the ultimate Leader. As our King and Head He has taken the full brunt of Satan’s attempt to completely destroy us as He people. In the letter to the Hebrews we who believe are directed to run the race by “looking unto Jesus as the author and finisher of the faith”(12:1).

And when this comparison to running a race is used, notice well, it is not as if the leaders of the church stand at the side to watch the racers or cheer them on. They themselves are running the race. Yet it is clear that without the fore-runner, Christ Jesus, our running would be hopeless. Because we have Him as the fore-runner, we have good hope of winning. Our running is not in vain. While the leaders appointed among the churches follow the Great Leader and King, they run in such a way that the flock follows them. Think of how sheep can be pretty stubborn animals, but once some go in a certain direction there are more that follow. The shepherd directs the leaders among the sheep and soon the entire flock starts moving in a certain direction. In Ephesians 4:6 we are told that office-bearers are appointed among the churches so that the sheep are no longer tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine.

Hopefully, by pointing at this, you will understand why Article 30 of the Belgic Confession speaks of how the office bearers are to “preserve the true religion; they see to it that the true doctrine takes its course, that evil men are disciplined in a spiritual way” and why Article 32 says that those taking care of the body of Christ “must at all times watch that they do not deviate from what Christ, our only Master, has commanded. Likewise in the Forms for Ordination of ministers, missionaries and elders particular and primary attention is given to their task to maintain the true doctrine.

When noting this emphasis on maintaining the true doctrine, we should keep in mind how in the letter to the Ephesians the Lord directs His people to put on the whole armour of God. There we are told that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heaven places” (6:12). With Christ at the Head and leaders, or rather office-bearers, of the church following directly behind Him, we who lead are confronted with the full onslaught of Satan’s attempts to destroy Christ’s work.

It has already been said that without Christ this warfare would be hopeless but because we have Christ as our Head we need not despair. Nevertheless, the warfare continues till He returns and we, as His people, are caught up in the midst of various battles. At times there is physical persecution. As you well know, when such persecution happens it is especially ministers, but also elders and deacons, who as leaders among the churches are the first to be attacked. Those persecuting try to destroy the church by destroying its leaders. The real enmity it is not of flesh and blood, but principalities and powers… Keep in mind Ephesians 4 where we are told that office-bearers are appointed among the churches with the purpose that the members of the body should no longer be children tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine. Too often we tend to lose sight of how the church, and in a particular way its leaders, are under constant philosophical and intellectual attack. If Satan manages to have the teachers and leaders of the churches cave-in to various heresies and forms of undermining Scripture, he gains much ground within the flock of Christ.

This profile of a leader is quite different from the model drawn in the society in which we live today. As has been pointed out, today’s model of good and successful leadership is measured according to numbers, human satisfaction, unity among the members and so forth. Today’s leadership is often based on surveys. These surveys include questionnaires usually focusing on things like: how well do you like the sermons, how much at home do you feel in your church, what is your involvement, how happy were you with the home visit, are the youth happy with catechism instruction, and so forth. When these kinds things are measured on a scale of 1 through 10 the real meaning of the church as the body of Christ is easily lost from sight. According to God’s Word as we uphold in the Confessions and bring to attention in the Forms for Ordination, the primary focus should be on whether through the church leaders the sheep of Christ’s flock are led through this world of sin, deception and lies to follow Christ. Your attention is directed to this in particular because today we live in a pluralistic society that undermines and neglects this very fundament principle.

Giving ecclesiastical leadership in a pluralistic society

Especially in the context of expressing our concerns about the direction taken among our sister churches in the Netherlands and our admonition addressed to them it is important to take a good look at what is happening in our society and throughout the world. Our sister-churches have been emphasizing that the changes taking place in modern day society make it necessary for them to take the path into which they have turned. We, as Free Reformed Churches along with the Canadian Churches, have addressed the Churches in the Netherlands about the post-modern way in which they tolerate almost anything. We will not argue about which term is used but the term pluralism comes to mind because in the Netherlands they speak of the pluralistic society in which we live today, a term that expresses clearly what is happening there in the Netherlands and Europe yet is not that much different from what has been happening here in Australia and all the westernized countries. It is just that in the Netherlands and European countries pluralism has really taken hold in the last half-century. Instead of pluralism we could also use the term globalization.

What we are speaking about with these terms is the increasing communication and integration of all nations, races and people. The question is how do we, as the Lord’s children, live and deal with this increasing mixture of all kinds of people. Even though we live and have grown up in a similar situation to countries like the Netherlands, there have been tremendously dramatic political, social, cultural and racial shifts there. In the generation of your and my parents or grand-parents, and we are speaking of less than a hundred years ago, there were large harbour cities in the Netherlands and also seafaring merchants, but like most European countries there was also a stable core of settled people who lived on the farms and in their villages. There were many there who were born from generations of people who had never travelled far from their local city, town or country village. They walked or biked to their own churches every Sunday. They knew the church historic struggles of the past and could distinguish reasonably well between those who followed the Scriptural and confessional path that had been laid out. Those of various churches lived beside each other, tolerating each other but not mixing together with each other.

It is only is recent years that the Netherlands has become flooded with migrants and refugees from various places. The Malaccans can be mentioned in particular as one of the first and earlier flood of foreigners. It is not only this whole flood of foreigners starting to integrate and becoming part of the Dutch nation, it is also the influence of world-wide travel, amazing forms of communication and political events such as the tearing down of the Berlin wall as well as the European union which has extended far beyond an monetary and economic union. How much has changed even in my own life time. In the not too distant past there were border guards and custom offices at the borders of all these countries. Today, you just drive from one to the other along fast multi-laned freeways without really noticing that you are going on from one country to the other. For them, culturally, this recent change in the way of life and culture may be seen as more dramatic than for us whose parents have moved to these large continents, growing up in a diverse national context with a mixture of British, Dutch, German, Japanese, Korean and all kinds of immigrants. They, like us, have also had to learn to live and cope with this kind of variety of people from different backgrounds. Like us, they too have not only heard of, but have also been pressured into, accepting an increasingly multi-cultural way of life. Like us, today, they, in Europe, do not only have Dutch restaurants, but also Chinese, American, Italian, Indonesian and so forth. We, as the first and second generation of immigrants from the Netherlands remember the country from which our parents have come as Reformed country. It was there that one would find beautiful old Reformed church buildings with huge pipe organs, a Reformed royal family, Reformed prime-ministers, Reformed political parties and real Reformed University and so forth. It is not that way anymore. Today mosques have almost become as common as church buildings. The sound of town church bells has now become mixed with the sound of the imam calling the worshippers to their prayer and the sound of excitement at the sports arena.

Today there is a generation growing up in the Netherlands that is quite different from the past. Their children play in the streets with non-religious or heathen religious neighbours. At times they notice that these neighbours can be friendly and even helpful in time of trouble. They too, at times struggle as families to make ends meet. They have witnessed foreigners being miss-used and abused. At times leaders and staunch members of the churches have become guilty of neglecting, rejecting and inflicting pain on these new neighbours. The question is; how do we deal it all? In the context of leadership, the focus has become much more on evangelism, kindness and showing generosity. Even this is difficult and done with some inconsistency for there also has been growing evidence that those who are shown kindness take a greedy advantage of what they are given. At times they clearly misuse charity and even become a threat and danger to those that give. It is difficult; that cannot be denied. The point for us today is: what kind of leadership is given and maintained in this context. Do we still keep the doctrine of the Word of God number one? Do we do so, especially when we perceive inconsistencies among those who appear so strong in upholding the doctrine? In the midst of a pluriform society will we slip into a kind of Christian pluriformity as well where the Christian life starts to matter more than the doctrine? The attitude of being Christians among other Christians without too much regard to what is being taught is characteristic of the spirit of the age. We, in immigrant countries have had to face this for a longer time. Our parents immigrated into this kind of situations. In Europe, it has grown that way for the last fifty years or so.  We have learned to resist the American evangelicalism of men like Billy Graham who felt that the instituted church, though useful, is the place of dead orthodoxy. Instead the focus is on your personal faith and your own relation with the Lord. The rest does not matter so much. But this sort of thinking really plays into the hands of modern day individualism and plurality. Everyone does his own thing. Everyone has his own truth. There is no absolute. In the end everyone worships his god in his own way according to his own insight.

In the past men like K. Schilder and B. Holwerda have drawn attention to how the Lord warns in His word that near the end of ages men’s love will in fact grow cold (Matthew 24 – 25). And they showed from Revelation how in the New Testament age, Satan, having failed to stop Christ, now directs his attacks on Christ’s bride, the church. As the world continues on toward the end of ages and Christ’s glorious return, it becomes more and more difficult for the church. The sinful world, like the city of Babel near the beginning of the ages, is seen to build up its powerful pluriform kingdom of all men worshipping the gods of their own making (see Romans 1:18ff), but it kills the true prophets who say, thus says the Lord! This remains the God-given task of every office-bearer and leader in the church of Christ. It is to open God’s Word and without changing its clear meaning to declare; thus says the Lord and along with Joshua say; But as for me and my household … we will serve the Lord. The office-bearers give leadership by first doing it themselves … and then, but doing it, urging the sheep of Christ’s flock to also hear and heed His Word!

 

[1] K.M. Latte; Baker Encyclopaedia of Psychology and Counselling