What does a leader look like? In human history, various opinions have slanted in the same direction. “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both,” says Machievelli. Leadership in human history is about power and ambition. Conquerors make good leaders, we would assume.
How mysterious is it in then that God chooses not glorious generals, but dirty shepherds and powerless servants as the leaders of his people? Let Ephesians 4 make the case for us.
The Humble Vocation
The chapter begins with Paul advocating for Christians acting in proper relation to Christ. He makes his case not from a position of power, but from weakness. He is the “prisoner of the Lord” (v. 1), one taken captive but not a captor. The life he lifts up is one of humility over ambition (v. 2) and peace over division (v. 3). Unity is the watchword of Christ’s people, not selfishness (v. 4-6).
Our culture says power is always taken, never given. For Paul our abilities are not spoils of our own victory in life’s contest, but rather the spoils of Christ’s victory. Grace is given, not taken (v. 7). In the gospel worldview, Christ is the conqueror, not us. “He led captivity captive” (v. 8). The gifts of leadership that flow into the church are the gifts he offers out of his own generosity. Our culture says power seeks its own interest over that of others, but Christ’s victory was selfless and serves as the model for his selected leaders.
The Humble Titles & Task
The titles given to these offices are themselves confirmation of the humility expected of the role. Apostles are literally “one sent” by someone else, not one possessing their own authority. Prophets are those who speak for someone else, not crafters of their own word. Evangelists are proclaimers of another’s good news, not the subject of the news. Shepherds are those who look after others. In this case they don’t even own the sheep (1 Peter 5).
The task then supplements this conclusion. Leadership serves to equip others to work, not to build up self (v. 12). They are to bring “all” to unity, knowledge, and maturity, rather then promoting self or even a favored few (v. 13). They are the protectors and nurturers of children growing into faith (v. 14). They are truth speakers and love speakers (v. 15-16).
But Is It Sacramental?
In the Roman Church, ordination of holy orders are considered sacraments themselves. These living sacraments then extend the sacraments to others. Predictably, I do not embrace the orders of the Roman Church, but I concur that leaders in God’s purpose are themselves mysteries of God, reenactments of the gospel, and mediators of God’s presence. The mystery part is clear above. Their very existence defies and reverses the human conceptions of power. But what about the other two principles?
I believe shepherds and servants in God’s house reenact the gospel. Like Christ, they exert power through service. They lead by obedience. They gain glory through humility. Our deacon/servants are reenactments in miniature of the descent and exaltation of Christ (Philippians 2:1-11). The shepherds are small mirrors of the chief shepherd (1 Peter 5:1-4).
I believe shepherds and servants in God’s house bring us into the presence of God, because God inseverably ties himself to his leaders. To defy Moses was to provoke the consuming power of God (Numbers 16). To reject Samuel was to reject God (1 Samuel 8:7). Paul even tells elders to think of themselves in an explicitly Trinitarian terms: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” The Spirit appoints these leaders to guide the Father’s people who are purchased with the Son’s blood. They are living sacraments.