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Commentary Let Her Lead Ministry Theology

How I Changed My Mind on Women’s Roles in Ministry

I walked out of the room once she stood up to speak.

It wasn’t anything personal (or so I thought).

It was a matter of conscience. Of conviction! I was taught to believe–and came to the conclusion myself–that a woman should not teach men from the Scriptures in a public worship setting. This wasn’t “church” proper on a Sunday morning; it was a multi-ministry, interdenominational worship event. But it felt the same to me.

I had to stick to my conviction. I had Bible verses to prove my point!

Women aren’t allowed to teach or lead men.

So I walked out quietly.

That night back in mid-2008 in Johannesburg, South Africa, still haunts me. I felt brazen and principled and manly. Like I died on the right hill.

But as I look back at the me from eleven years ago, I feel small. Confused. Cowardly. Anything but manly. Ashamed of my thoughts, words, and actions. Most likely, my missionary teammates wouldn’t remember that night (I hope). But I do.

And I cringe.

I wish I could go back and stop myself from walking out.

I wish I could tell my teammates how wrong I was.

Mostly, I wish I could ask the young woman who stood up to teach from the Scriptures for her forgiveness. She is a person, with a name, gifted by God to minister to his people. Including me.

But I don’t know her name.

I didn’t stick around to ask.

It was more personal than I foolishly believed.

Unfortunately, I can’t go back.

But what I can do is repent.

Pursuing Private and Public Repentance

I’ve repented privately through countless hours of study, prayer, conversations (particularly with my wife, bless her heart), and explaining to others how I now understand specific Bible texts about women and ministry when I have an opportunity.

What I’m writing now, and what I will write over the course of the summer, is what I’ll call my public repentance.

I need to repent because I have knowingly and unknowingly marginalized and even rejected women who were gifted and called by God because of a shortsighted and narrow view of gender roles, the Scriptures, and how we apply certain passages.

It’s a vulnerable position to be in. “I think I was wrong on this before and am changing my mind” is one of the most humbling things you can say. It’s also one of the most freeing.

The combination of being humbled (aka humiliation) and freedom is at the core of what repentance brings in our relationship with God and each other. It’s powerful and beautiful and I forget it far too often.

What I’ve Come to Believe About Women in Ministry

Repentance means change. So what am I changing? Over the past twenty months or so, I’ve intentionally reexamined the Bible to see what it has to say about leadership in the church, in general, and the role of women, in particular.

Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to embrace:

We must not only permit but encourage and champion the full participation of women in the life and leadership of the Church.

It’s important to say that this is not a belief that someone needs to hold (or even have an opinion on!) to be a Christian. It’s not, in Christian lingo, a “salvation issue.” For some Christians in other parts of the world, this would never even be an issue.

We must not only permit but encourage and champion the full participation of women in the life and leadership of the Church.

But what we believe about women in the church has real-world implications and consequences. If Christians (read: Christian men) treat women as second-class kingdom citizens, we undermine the very essence of God’s kingdom and how he has designed his people to function. We’ll operate at 50% efficiency (at best), meanwhile destroying our witness before a watching world. There’s much more to say about this and I will (hopefully) write more in upcoming posts.

When I’ve told people recently that I believe we must open up the full participation of women in the life and leadership of the Church, it’s often met with this kind of question, “So, what does that mean? Can women teach? Be pastors? Elders? What can they do?”

In another post, I’ll explain why those questions are actually the wrong place to begin.

For now, I’ll answer: yes. I believe women should be able to exercise their gifts as teachers and leaders (elder, pastor, bishop, etc.–whatever a denomination calls them) in order to minister to women and men in the church.

How Did I Get Here?

Three lines of evidence helped me arrive at this new place: 1) personal experience in life and ministry; 2) observations within evangelical subculture that emphasizes male dominance and female subservience; and 3) conclusions drawn from my own extensive biblical study of the issue.

If you’re freaking out right now that the Bible was third on the list, these are not in order of importance. (Keep reading for an explanation!)

My journey didn’t start on a whim. I didn’t wake up and say, “I’m going to read Paul’s letters differently today!” No, experiences and observations snowballed over time. As I put the jigsaw pieces together, I started to make sense of what I (and my wife) had experienced, seen, and heard for decades.

Experiences and observations then forced me to go back to the Bible to ask the all-important question: are my inclinations in line with God’s word or am I way off?

It’s been a long and grueling, yet rewarding, journey. Of course, it’s not over. I don’t have all the answers. But I’m moving, I think, in the right direction.

About six months in (to the twenty month journey I mentioned above), I began to sense my view on women was shifting. I realized, eventually, since this shift would be seismic, I needed to tell my wife!

When I did, she was a bit surprised, but not shocked. There were things in our life, as individuals and a couple, that helped break up the concrete-hard “male-only leader” position we both held from childhood. We both had icky feelings about how women had been treated in the church. But icky feelings alone aren’t a good reason to change a theological position and practice.

After initially telling my wife, I continued to examine the key Scriptures in this conversation. As I did, I only became more convinced that women ought to be fully included in the church’s leadership.

As you think about the three lines of intersecting evidence I mentioned, you may have an immediate objection: What if your observations and experiences have influenced your biblical conclusions?

That may be true. I’m self-aware enough to acknowledge that. No one is an unbiased interpreter of any text, Bible or otherwise. However, consider an alternative perspective.

I never intentionally sought to change my mind on this issue without God’s gracious intervention. In fact, to maintain my (now old) position would have benefited me as a male in the traditional North American structure of the church. It required no sacrifice on my part.

To champion the full inclusion and participation of women in church leadership means that I must divest myself of any power I had or could have. The sinful nature in me would never depart with anything that feeds the idols of power or control. Instead, sin seeks to hoard it.

To champion the full inclusion and participation of women in church leadership means that I must divest myself of any power I had or could have.

As a man, this makes no sense if we are playing for keeps. But since the foundational principle of God’s kingdom is that we lose our lives to gain our lives, the inclusion of women aligns more fully with what Jesus taught about relationships and leadership in his kingdom.

This all makes me wonder if it is possible that God, in his kindness, has provided these experiences and observations to open my eyes to see his word in a fresh way that I never could have before. I think so.

The Scriptures never change. But the way I see them certainly does. Prayer, community, wisdom, and empathy will help us use–not ignore–the experiences to see more clearly to love God and our neighbor better.

We can’t hold up a stonewalled hand to God and say, “I do not permit you to teach me!”

If we did, well, then we might still be practicing slavery today.

Journey with Me and Practice Charity

This summer, I’m going to write about my journey. I’ll start by sharing parts of what I’ve experienced and observed as it relates to gender in the church, hopefully framing it within the wider cultural context the church is in now.

Then, over several posts (who knows how many), I’ll explain what I see in the Scriptures that lead me to believe that women can be full participants in the life and leadership of the church.

I don’t have it all figured out. There’s still a whole lot I’m struggling through. But, right now, it’s a good place to be.

It likely won’t be this neat and tidy, but in general I’ll have four major themes or types of posts:

  1. Examining the overarching narrative of the Bible. We’ll see how it reveals God’s design for gender roles in his Kingdom, how sin has marred that design and brought about all kinds of destruction and division between the genders, and how God is graciously, incrementally, and radically redeeming this brokenness.
  2. Examining the elevated place of women in the ministries of Jesus and Paul. We’ll see how Jesus and Paul, even though they operated in patriarchal cultures, empowered women to be full-fledged, active participants and leaders in the ministry of the church.
  3. Examining closely the controversial texts that relate directly to women in the church. This is what you’re here for, I’d guess. We’ll tackle head-on those passages that have been traditionally understood to limit, silence, or exclude women. What we’ll see is that these passages can be viewed in a different light with a few key historical and cultural insights as well as analysis of the original language, particularly in Paul (it will only get a little bit nerdy, I hope). We’ll see that these passages can’t always be applied generically and universally to all church situations everywhere.
  4. Examining anything else noteworthy I have filed away in my notes. There may be things outside of these categories that I come across as I review what I’ve studied. Those will get lumped together at some point. Think of it like a junk-drawer appendix.

The heart behind all this writing is to benefit everyday Christians, not impress the academics. Of course, I’ll cite lots of sources (there has been a whole lot written on this for decades) and get into some heady stuff. But I’ll do my best to cut through the mire, define big churchy words, try to keep it easy to follow.

You may be shouting for joy. You may be ready to cancel me. Wherever you are, I invite you to follow me on this journey.

And if you do (especially if you’re inclined to comment), please practice charity.

You’re free to disagree here. All you want, in fact. I want to hear your side. But, if you follow Jesus–whichever “side” you’re on–you are not free to be uncharitable.

As it is written, “If I can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge…but don’t have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2-3).

Let’s heed the warning, and get into it.

Categories
Life

When Leaders Lose Their Soul

There is a massive conversation that needs to happen within Christianity in America right now. More specifically, within the evangelical movement.

It will be a messy conversation with too many topics to cover. Nationalism and racism are priorities. But I don’t think these top the list. What does?

Leadership.

Right now, we have a leadership crisis in our churches and organizations.

Just today, I began reading Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton. In the introduction, she writes:

Jesus indicates that it is possible to gain the whole world but lose your own soul. If he were talking to us as Christian leaders today, he might point out that it is possible to gain the world of ministry success and lose your own soul in the midst of it all. He might remind us that it is possible to find your soul, after so much seeking, only to lose it again.

We have seen leaders reach the summit of Christian ministry (whatever that means). And yet they have lost their soul in the process. What can a person give in exchange for their soul? Jesus tells us nothing.

The timing of starting this book is providential. A friend recommended it this week and I can’t help but connect it with recent news (initially reported in November) about Carl Lentz, the now ex-pastor of Hillsong New York City, who was fired by Hillsong for a number of reasons.

This comes after a number of other evangelicals in the last ten years have fallen from leadership–or their faith altogether. There are almost too many to name, and it saddens me deeply.

I’m not here to blame fallen pastors or shame them for “losing their soul.” Of course, they bear responsibility for their actions. But while I am not a megachurch pastor, I have been a pastor and I understand the temptation to seek the praise of people or receive special treatment a minister might benefit from. Every time the news breaks about another pastor, I ask myself, “Why did God have mercy on me?”

This all goes way beyond individual pastors. This is a “capital-C” Church crisis. We are all culpable. We have created and perpetuated a culture that allows and enables pastors–and even other ministry leaders–to lose their souls while gaining the world.

In a nutshell, we’ve rejected servanthood for celebrity.

And just to be clear, the incredibly significant problems of nationalism and racism fall under this problem of leadership. We are allowing “biblically qualified” leaders to abuse their authority and undermine the Scriptures to suit their political and ideological preferences at the expense of love, mercy, and justice.

I’ve written recently about how to understand true leadership and how to pursue it. So I won’t rehash that here.

The simple point I want to make is that our North American church system is broken and something needs to change. The system we have is hierarchical, rigid, and institutional. You won’t find this in the New Testament–where leadership was shared among many, service-oriented, and community-based.

It’s easy to think this is a megachurch problem. We only hear about “failed pastors” because they are, well, famous inside and outside of the church.

But as Rich Villodas, a pastor of a large church in Queens, tweeted yesterday, “This is not a big church problem alone. I’ve seen small and medium sized church leaders act like they’re the royal family.”

How do we solve this problem? It’s not simple or easy or quick. And I hope to provide some suggestions over the coming months as I take more time to process Barton’s book and my own spiritual leadership journey.

I can briefly say that it will take an innovative, unique, and more robust approach to recruitment, training, and preparation for church leadership. It will require a concerted effort to focus on the way and life of Jesus rather than simply the truth of Jesus. It will require a fundamental restructuring of our communities and what it means to be accountable as a leader. It will require a radical reorientation of what it means to lead when you are not the Leader (that’s Jesus’ role, not yours or mine).

In the end, it will take the marvelous, matchless grace of God in and through each of us so that collectively we live out our calling as the body of Christ. So long as we fail to live out this calling, leaders will continue to lose their souls, churches will be destroyed, and a watching world will not impressed at what they see.

Categories
Commentary Ministry

The 3 Things You Need to Become a Servant Leader

Most of us just shared a Thanksgiving meal (safely, I hope!) with our loved ones. Close your eyes and paint the picture of that decadent day. 

Think back and ask, Who’s sitting waiting for the meal to arrive at the table? Who’s slaving and sweating so everyone else can sit and wait? Who’s washing dishes after the meal? Who’s dishing out the pie and brewing the coffee at dessert? 

We’d all admit that the people who served us on Thanksgiving or any other day, are the real heroes. And whether they held an important title in our family or community, without a shred of doubt we’d call them leaders

Right?

This is a picture of servant-leadership. And being a servant is the heartbeat of true leadership. Deep down we get this. But when push comes to shove, it’s hard to live out. Why? 

Because we’d rather be the one watching the NFL on FOX waiting for the pumpkin pie to land in our laps.

Being a servant takes work. That’s why when it comes to leadership in everyday life—whether it’s at work, at home, in the church, on a team, in the classroom, anywhere—any other leadership style is so much easier.

A few newsletters back, I wrote about what servant-leadership looks like. I emphasized being a servant rather than just adding characteristics to your leadership arsenal. Give that a read if you haven’t and then come back here.

Today, I’ll answer the question, How do I become a servant? But first, a tiny bit of history.

Where does Servant-Leadership Come From?

Robert Greenleaf is often credited as the originator of the concept of servant-leadership. He wrote an essay in 1970 that eventually turned into a book. This was Greenleaf’s primary contribution to the field of leadership. 

I find it a bit humorous that Greenleaf holds the prestigious honor of founding this idea. 

After all, Jesus, the greatest servant-leader who ever lived, came on the scene a tad before 1970. 

Greenleaf wrote about servant-leadership from a business management perspective. Jesus actually lived the life of a servant in flesh and blood and sacrificed his life for the entire world (aka major servant-leadership act there).

Jesus was a rabbi—literally “teacher” in Hebrew. Rabbis had “disciples.” These were people who learned their rabbi’s teaching and his way of life. Rabbis were community leaders. 

On the last night before he was crucified, Rabbi Jesus was with his disciples ready to eat a festival meal together (called Passover). They gathered in a furnished room after a busy week. It was customary in those days for the servant of the house to wash the feet of dinner guests before eating. Without paved roads, sanitation, and a sewer system the walkways would get pretty gnarly. It was a dirty job but someone had to do it. 

As the meal progressed, no house servant showed up. And none of the disciples stepped up to the task. So Jesus stripped down, grabbed a towel, and started to clean the mud-caked feet of his students. 

Everyone in the room saw him doing the lowest possible job. 

And in that moment everyone in that room knew who the real leader was.

The One who served. 

I hate to break it to Mr. Greenleaf, but he didn’t discover servant-leadership in 1970. 

As a Christian, I take my leadership cues from Jesus. If you aren’t a Christian, I don’t know where you go for leadership, but I’d encourage you to at least listen to Jesus and watch his way of life.

You have nothing to lose.

Now, how do you become a servant-leader? It’s not as easy as 1-2-3. Few things are. These aren’t so much “steps” as a three-part paradigm shift to how you see the world of leadership. 

Admit Your Desire to Dominate

One time Jesus’ friends were fighting about what cabinet positions they would hold when Jesus becomes pres—I mean, king. So Jesus had a frank conversation with them about how leadership works in this world compared to how it works in his kingdom. 

He said, “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant” (Mark 10:42-43).

Jesus exposes the human craving to dominate. He knows that we aren’t born servants with humble, tender hearts ready to say, “What can I do for you?” Instead, Jesus knows we are born with a desire to be everyone’s master. 

And when we actually get power? Watch out. You know the phrase, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s true. 

So the first “step” to becoming a servant-leader is to acknowledge and admit that being a servant goes against your very nature.

How does this work practically? Talk to yourself. Whenever you make a decision or go into a conversation or make a change or whatever you do as a leader, remind yourself, “I admit going into this situation that it’s easy for power to get the best of me. I’m naturally a power-hungry, authority-loving, lord-it-over kind of leader who tends to squish everyone in my path.”

Once you say this to yourself you’ll realize how horrible it sounds. You’ll realize that no one wants to follow a leader like that. (You wouldn’t either.)

When I do this, I don’t go in guns a blazin’. And I’m no longer hellbent on getting my own way. Instead, I’m ready to listen, empathize, collaborate, weep, teach, help, correct, train, encourage. Whatever is needed in the moment. 

Admit your desire to dominate. You’ll begin to see how futile and counterproductive domination actually is.

Find the Right Model

Once you’re in this position of admitting your tendency to be the kind of leader no one wants to follow, you’re ready to find the right model. 

And this is where Jesus comes in. He’s the perfect leader who always spoke truthfully and graciously. Who always spoke truth to power and had compassion on the vulnerable. He called out hypocrisy and empowered people society overlooked. He body confronted sin and made the ultimate sacrifice for sin by dying in our place.

In the last part of that passage from Mark 10 above, Jesus says this: “Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage” (verses 44-45).

Jesus is the Son of Man. He’s telling his disciples about his mission. And this is where my HUGE DISCLAIMER comes in.

Jesus is not merely saying, “I’m your model. I’m a servant. Imitate me!” 

If he were only saying that, he would crush us because we could never live up to his example. 

That’s why it bothers me so much when I hear, “On the cross, Jesus is the greatest example of love.” Of course that’s true. 

But he is so much more than that. 

Examples can’t save you. But a Redeemer can. And that’s who Jesus is.

Jesus is really saying, “I came to save you from lord-it-over kind of life. You don’t need to live to dominate others and live for your own power and glory. Don’t you see that you are enslaved to self-glory? Because you live this way, I will give my life as a ransom for you. And once you’ve been ransomed, what else can you do but make yourself a servant of everyone you meet?” 

When we see that Jesus is the right model, we actually come to find out that he’s morethan a model. He’s the true Servant-Leader who ransomed us from slavery to self-glory. And he’s brought us into life of freedom where we gladly serve others.

Because Jesus is more than a model, he actually won’t crush us when we fail to live up to his example. Instead, he forgives us and empowers us to keep going. 

That’s servant-leadership.

How do you do this practically? Watch Jesus. Spend a lot of time reading the Gospels. Marvel at him. Worship him. Obey him. Imitate him. 

Chances are you also know someone who reflects this (at least a little bit). Watch them, too. Ask them questions. Listen to them. Learn from the bad. Imitate the good.

Embrace the Process

The third “step” is an ongoing mindset. You don’t just become a servant leader. You are always becoming. It’s a never-ending, messy process. 

You will fail. I fail. We all fail. Embrace it. Admit it. 

Then remember the good news that we have a Servant-Leader who never failed. And remind yourself of that. Every. Single. Day.

The best part? When we let power go to our heads, our Servant-Leader doesn’t frown over us saying, “Here we go again. I can’t believe you!” 

No. He kneels down, right there with us, in the mess. He gently corrects, holds us, washes us clean, and says, “Remember that I’ve served you. I’ve given you everything I have. Now, let me help you up. I’m with you. Keep going. Keep leading. Keep serving.”


    This post originally appeared at https://jamespruch.substack.com/p/the-3-things-you-need-to-become-a on December 1, 2020.

    Categories
    Commentary

    Understanding True Servant Leadership

    The image above is what we usually think of when we hear the word “leadership.”

    In fact, it’s the first picture that comes up when you search “leadership” on Unsplash.com  (that’s why I picked it).

    Leaders, we think, are genius oddballs who are always ahead of the pack, equipped with all the answers. Perhaps they have a secret insight that makes them, well, better than everyone else.

    The Center for Creative Leadership notes 10 characteristics of a great leader. Integrity, empathy, respect, self-awareness, and communication, among others, are on the list.

    These are all good and necessary things. I want to possess all of these qualities!

    But the research behind these 10 characteristics is overlooking something, I think. It’s missing something more foundational than qualities or skills you can add to your arsenal. What is it?

    Being a servant.

    Be, Don’t Just Do

    Most leadership qualities we’re taught are things we can do.

    A servant-leader is something you are.

    You can learn it to be sure. No one is born a servant. We’re all born screaming, “Hold me! Feed me! Help me!” That’s not a servant.

    Servants do the holding, the feeding, the helping.

    Over time, we grow. We don’t just learn skills. We become a certain kind of person. Servant-leadership is a disposition of your heart. It’s hard to describe, honestly. Yet it’s easy to recognize when we see it. And when we see it in our leaders? Oh my, do we want to follow!

    It might be best to say it like this: when you are a servant, you will possess those leadership characteristics or qualities and develop them in increasing measure over time.

    But if you aren’t a servant, you can’t hide your true self by adding a bit of empathy here and a bit of communication there.

    I’ll say it again. Servant-leadership is a disposition of your heart. An attitude and approach to everything that falls under your oversight.

    What is a Servant-Leader?

    What’s a good definition for a “servant-leader”? Let me take a crack at it:

    A servant-leader puts people before power by considering the needs of others as more significant than his/her own.

    Let’s dig into that idea.

    Every leader has an agenda. Bring in better results, more profit, expanded scope. You wouldn’t be a leader without a vision and specific goals.

    But servant-leaders don’t try to get people to fit into their nice, tidy agenda. Usually, that ends up with the boss looking great and everyone else being stepped on in the process.

    Great servant-leaders don’t try to show others who’s the boss. I’ve worked under those kinds of bosses. You probably have, too. It’s exhausting and demoralizing. And it makes you want to quit.

    Servant-leaders, on the other hand, seek to meet the needs of others by putting people before power. They prioritize relationships over results and building trust over completing tasks.

    Servant-Leadership in Real Life

    Having a hard time picturing this? Here’s a real-life example. Imagine you’re a supervisor at, oh I don’t know, let’s say a prestigious paper company somewhere in northeast Pennsylvania.

    One of your employees is struggling to meet the metrics you agreed on during the last performance review. In fact, it’s been pretty awful.

    A regular check-in with this person comes along. Here are two scenarios with two different approaches from the supervisor.

    Scenario #1: “I know you’ve been struggling. I’ve been pretty disappointed in your numbers, and you need to get your act together. Your performance reflects poorly on me as your boss. You’ll need to hit at least 60% by next quarter or we’ll have to let you go.”

    Scenario #2: “I know you’ve been struggling. Can I ask you a few questions? How are you? How are things going at home? What do you need here to thrive in your role? And what do you think I could be doing to help you succeed?”

    Do you see the difference?

    The first elevates you. It clearly communicates that you have the power to crush them. It might feel good. But it will never motivate anyone at their core. You’ll always have people who will struggle. With this approach, you’ll let them go, only to replace them with more people who struggle with the same problems.

    Do you see the common denominator? (Hint: it’s not them.)

    Now for the second scenario. It puts you in a rather vulnerable position. It admits you may have fallen short, even failed, as a leader. It shows that you’re willing to change and do more to help them be the best they possibly can be.

    Of course, there will always be people that just aren’t a good fit for your organization, but we’ll leave that for another article. It also communicates care for them as a human. It’s oozing with empathy.

    That’s servant-leadership. If you want to motivate, inspire, and influence, and if you want to work for the genuine well-being of your people and your company, then you must become a servant.

    Still not convinced?

    Here’s a simple question that might help: which kind of leader would you rather work for?

    Be that leader.


    This post originally appeared at https://jamespruch.substack.com/p/understanding-true-leadership on October 7, 2020.

    Categories
    Life Ministry

    Your Leadership Priority: Relax!

    One of my privileges as a pastor is to help small group leaders thrive. Over the past few weeks, I’ve thought about this question: “What is the one piece of advice you’d give to a small group leader?” What’s your answer?

    Here’s mine: Relax!

    Of course, be faithful to the Scriptures, preach the gospel, love people. Yes. Yes. Yes. Do that! But underneath these leadership tasks, are you depending on God or yourself? For so many of us who have a history in the American church of leading small groups, we are conditioned to be pressured and create pressure. We think that the success or failure of our group stand or falls on us—the leader. If the group seems to do well over time, we are told, it is because we are a good leader. If the group eventually crumbles, we have an inward sense that we are to blame. We may not be able to put a finger on it and no one may say it explicitly, but deep down, we have a sense of personal failure and shame.

    Most of this arises out of a good intention: we truly desire to lead well. We want to our groups to thrive. We want people to encounter Christ through his word in community by the power of the Holy Spirit. But it can quickly become very self-absorbed: we become prideful if the group succeeds; we despair if it fails.

    The Apostle Paul had a drastically different approach to leadership. In 1 Corinthians 3, he address the problem of division in the church. The problem there was that the Corinthians felt a certain allegiance to some leaders and not others. This created strife and division. Our application comes in when Paul describes what leader in the church is and does:

    What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth…For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building (vv. 5-7, 9).

    Paul understood that leaders are servants. He’s saying that you can’t put too much stock in a leader’s ultimate significance because they are just workers on God’s team! And because of that, the health and growth of a group (in Corinth’s case a whole church) did not depend on the leaders. It depended on God. God is the one who grows a church or small group. It’s not personality or knowledge or curriculum or charisma or baked goods (and I’m all for baked goods) that nurture and grow a small group. It’s God.

    And if that’s the case, then we can and must relax.

    The gospel, not a small group leader, is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16). And it’s the gospel that gives reason to rejoice and relax because it frees us from both pride in success (because I am more sinful than I could ever believe) and despair in failure (because I am more loved by God than I could ever hope). Because of this new gospel reality, we are free to be servants, not saviors, knowing that God is making things grow right in front of our eyes.

    Of course, relaxing doesn’t mean we don’t put forth effort. We still evaluate our leadership calling, abilities, and passions as we seek to develop. And just because a group’s well-being doesn’t ultimately depend on us doesn’t mean we aren’t responsible if we are lazy or ungodly or foolish. We are. But Paul’s words are a grace-drenched rebuke meant to stir our hearts to relax and depend on God. Ultimately, we can’t make things grow. God does.

    “Relax!” is something I’m learning over and over again through God’s word and personal experience. It’s a hard, but good, lesson. We aren’t that powerful or important! And truth be told, it’s strangely comforting to realize.