Johnathan C. Richardson: How can we understand our authority as Christian leaders?

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Leaders must rely on an authority grounded in Christ as prophet, priest and king, writes an AME pastor in North Carolina.

Years ago, my great-grandmother and my father were walking down the street when they saw their pastor coming out of the home of a woman who was not his wife. The pastor had not been there to commune with the sick or a shut-in. The woman was, in fact, known as a prostitute.

Sometime later, my father asked his grandmother why she continued to give her money, support and service to the church, knowing what the pastor had been doing.

To which my grandmother responded, “I give my money and service to God’s church because God told me to, and if the pastor doesn’t use the money right, he is going to hell, and not me.”

For many in my generation and younger, that kind of logic fails. My great-grandmother’s sense of authority in the church doesn’t exist anymore for people of my generation. At one point, the church could use its authority to claim time, money and attention, and the pastor derived authority from the office. That’s no longer true.

When I was growing up, the leadership of the church relied primarily upon the principle of authority. (Even today, people are more inclined to follow someone who is an expert, and someone who wears a clerical collar and a crucifix is more likely to receive a level of deference than someone who doesn’t.)

However, times have changed, and anyone involved in the good work of Jesus can attest to the fact that employing this concept of authority has its dangers. I am suggesting that Christian leaders and the whole body of Christ cultivate a broader understanding of authority grounded in Christ as prophet, priest, and king, and the work of the Holy Spirit.

This raises a set of questions: What does a bishop mean -- or command -- when she or he says over a newly ordained person, “Take thou authority” to lead in ministry? What is the authority that we have as ordained persons and as other church leaders? What is the authority of baptism to live and lead in the world?

The church’s understanding of Christ as prophet, priest and king is both ancient and new. As leaders who seek to serve imitating Christ, we are called to inhabit these roles in our public ministries. As the body of Christ, we are called to be prophets, priests and royalty.

As prophets, we are called to engage in the work of justice, in social activism, defending the poor and marginalized in our world from any and all who would oppress. As priests, we are called to stand between God and God’s people and intercede, offering a word from God to the people and offering the hopes, fears, dreams and sufferings of our people to God. As royalty, we are called to order the body, to manage and steward its gifts for faithful future ministry.

In every place where I have pastored, there has been both a desire and a need for the church’s leadership to lead more from one of these than the other two. In one congregation, they needed royal leadership. They needed sound administration and good management; they needed structures of accountability and guarantees of integrity if they were to trust in the authority of the church.

In another congregation, they needed to know that their pastor and their leaders were praying for them, carrying them to God, before they could ever trust the church’s authority in any other part of their lives.

In still another, they needed their leadership to be prophetic -- out front -- on the questions of justice that define our time. Without bold prophetic leadership, the church would have squandered its authority in every arena of congregational life.

For a particular people, in a particular place, at a particular time, we are called to exercise leadership -- leadership that looks to varying degrees like prophet, priest and king.

That said, in some congregations, one role of leadership has been favored to the exclusion of the others, to the detriment of the church.

One church I served was used to a priestly form of leadership, which meant that the people were accustomed to a pastoral care model of ministry. The prophetic and royal roles of leadership were lacking if not totally absent.

My ministry with them required encouraging practices that attempted to embody those areas of Christ’s threefold office already present but not yet actualized, while simultaneously nurturing that office to which the people were already accustomed.

Since it was the Holy Spirit’s work and not my own, I had to be very careful about setting clear outcomes and release them into God’s hands.

This understanding of authority -- practiced with attention to a particular people situated in a particular place and time -- is different from that of my great-grandmother.

It is an intentional awareness of not just one of the elements of our role as Christian leaders but all of them. Because surely, “Take thou authority” means more than “because I said so.”