So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
Along with my sisters, I was brought up within Scottish Congregationalism – which, from time to time, struggled with leadership in the Church. It was widely held that the ‘mind of Christ’ should be expressed through discussion in the Church Meeting. This polity, derived from the apostle Paul’s, was widely accepted as the norm. Admirable in itself, this could allow a number of vocal strong minded individuals to dominate discussion and decision making. Some of these voices were distinctly anti-clerical. No doubt a few egocentric ministers misusing the Church Meeting would encourage such a stance.
At the General Assembly of the Congregational Union of Scotland dominant voices were heard from time to time. After one rather contentious gathering, in private, my late father was encouraged to express his view. His considered opinion was that ministerial leadership had to be by consent, expressed in the phrase ‘primus inter pares’ (well he had been a Latin teacher). ‘First among equals’ allowed leadership in the Church to flourish on the understanding that it was not status which mattered, but the exercise of gifts granted by God for the good of the Church and her mission.
Jesus’ followers struggled with leadership. They were promised greatness and took as their model contemporary examples – both Jewish and Roman. Existing models of behaviour were not what Jesus had in mind at all – for them, or us. To be a servant or slave was one difficult role which he espoused – along with the title ‘friend’ of Jesus, a role very different from the imperial claim of ‘Friend of the People’.
The Church, throughout history, has drawn many differing conclusions about how leadership should be exercised. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. The leadership style of the United Reformed Church is conciliar, one which is a shared dependence of participating members seeking ‘the mind of Christ’. It stands or falls by the willingness of all to contribute what they can. How are your gifts (and mine) being used?
Gracious God, you have given us many gifts of heart and mind some of which we prefer to harbour rather than share. Open our lives to your Spirit that our reluctance to offer ourselves for your work may give way to generosity and sharing the mind of your Son. Amen
The Rev’d John A Young retired minister Scottish Synod, member of Giffnock URC