In arguing that the roots of how we lead in the North American church is rooted in culture, I find J. Denny Weaver in his book, The Nonviolent Atonement to be an interesting conversation partner. In it he makes the following statement regarding the post-Constantinian church and its accommodation to the social order:
“When the church comes to accept the social order and to see the structures of the social order (such as political authority) as a means of furthering the church and expressing church concerns, then ethics are derived more from the social order than the specific narrative of Jesus. Returning to the sword as the primary example, rather than opposing the sword, the church came to rationalize it as a means to defend or extend Christ’s church or the now Christianized social order in which the church was at home” (Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, 117).
What was also true of the church within Christendom – and is still true of a significant part of the North American church, as demonstrated in the support given by churches to both the Republican and Democratic parties in the present electoral process, is that the church within the social order seeks to be a witness of the Gospel of Christ within the social order, yet, without realizing how the Gospel has been reinterpreted in light of the values of the social order and accommodated to the social order, rather than the ethics of God’s reign.
In this sense, believing in America is tantamount to believing in the Gospel (at least the accommodated gospel of present North American Christendom) without challenging the social order or present culture with the contrasting radical demands of the Gospel of God’s Reign, which always calls every social order to repentance – to give allegiance to Christ and his reign alone.
What can be said of the North American (and even the Western) church is also applicable to our approach to the way we lead as church leaders within North American Christendom. In exercising leadership in light of the values of culture – which is all too evident in all the Christian leadership books of the past twenty-five years, “as a means of furthering the church” we need to ask why we fear the narrative of Jesus and the narrative of the Gospel of God’s reign in shaping the way we lead. It is evident that Jesus’ way of leading was regarded as a threat to the empire; a threat that was deemed to have been overcome by his arrest and crucifixion – if it were not for the resurrection. Why is not the way we lead a threat to the North American social order, to the structures of society? In fact, the opposite has been true – our way of leading has found its way onto the leadership best seller lists (for example, Bill Maxwell’s numerous books on leadership).
The early disciples of Jesus were also deemed a threat to the empire. After the 4th and 5th centuries, the church no longer was a threat, nor is our way of leading a threat, when we have found ways to accommodate the ways of Jesus to culture. We have to ask ourselves the same set of questions – in what ways have we accommodated the way we live out our callings as pastors in order to find a place within the North American culture. Though Paul stated he became all things to all people in order to win some for Christ, he still led and practiced a way of following Jesus in which he was a threat to the social order.
We have become too soft, too accommodating – and by we I also mean me. We live in a culture of violence that advocates a way of leading that does not disturb the foundations of the culture – faith has become a mere veneer over the social order. Yet, in aligning myself with Christ and his Lordship; in giving allegiance to Christ and his reign, I commit to live, in the power and presence of God’s Spirit, within an ethic or culture that is shaped by the radical demands of the Gospel of God’s reign. My way of leading then also needs to be rooted in an ethic of God’s reign. In God’s reign being rooted in an ethic of nonviolence, then a repentance and rediscovery is necessary – if not a culture of violence, but a culture of peace is to shape the way we live, the way we lead – then how are we to live, how are we to lead?
According to Jesus in Mark 10 it has little to do with lording it over others, and more to do, as exampled by Jesus in John 13, by being servants of all. I believe we eschew the image of servantship because we see it through the lens of the culture of violence, the culture of power, rather than seeing it through the lens of an ethic of God’s reign.
What then, does leading, what does servantship look like in an ethic of God’s reign? That is something I would like to explore and engage in with you in dialogue – call me, let’s grab a cup of coffee and talk.
An Invitation: For those of you who live near Lake County, IL, I invite you to an initial presentation I am giving relating to my sabbatical work – Undoing the Violence of Leadership in the Church. What I hope will be more of a dialogue than a presentation is scheduled for Thursday, September 20th at 7 pm at the Mennonite Ministries office of North Suburban Mennonite Church – 324 Peterson Road, Libertyville, IL. You can contact me for more information and/or let me know you're coming.