on pastoral leadership in an anti-leader age

The ministry has always been full of difficulty, but I wonder if there are some difficulties that are more the symptom of our time and place than perhaps at any other time in history. One of the most difficult problems I have faced is the intractability of professing Christians. There is a claim of faith in Christ, but many of those making the claim will not accept direction from the spiritual leader God appointed for them, the pastor of the local church.

By making this observation, I want to be clear that I don’t take the position that the pastor is the dictator of every aspect of the congregant’s life. But I do believe the role pastor carries some authority, especially in spiritual matters. The Lord established the church and he gave certain gifts to the church, apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors (Eph 4). These gifts are for the purpose of building the church, equipping the saints for their own ministry.

The metaphor of building implies that the one doing the building has some authority over the construction process. That brick will go there, this beam will go here, etc. We are of course dealing with souls with wills, not with bricks and beams with no wills, so the analogy does break down at some point, but I think that the church would do better if it would break down less.

A recent difficulty with an individual got me to thinking about the problem. This individual is in constant conflict with people around him. He claims to be a Christian, but fights with everyone who attempts to exert any authority over him, whether it be a secular authority, Christian authority, family authority, government authority, you name it, he fights it. He is an extreme example, but I think that the conflict with him helps to define a much more widespread problem in the church at large.

This individual sees himself as an equal with the pastor (or any other authority he encounters). As such, he will not accept direction, and he will only accept counsel if it is given in such a way as to make him think he thought of it. In other words, the only way to affect any change with him is to manipulate him into it. He mainly wants authorities to let him do what he wants and to make him feel good. Most authorities aren’t interested in either of those two options, so conflict ensues.

This individual illustrates in a vivid way a more widespread problem that exists in the church. The pastor is seen as ‘the Bible teacher’, but not as the ‘overseer’. He is there to ‘feed me’, but he is not there to ‘lead, guide, direct, or otherwise interfere with me’. Some churches use the term ‘teaching elder’ to describe him. What an anemic title! What a ‘kept man’! The term reminds me of the man named Micah in the book of judges who kept a priest for himself (Jdg 17), a Levite, possibly the grandson of Moses, who officiated at the little shrine that Micah made for himself. A kept man. Later, the tribe of Dan discovered this Levite and hired him a way as the ‘kept man’ of the whole tribe, so that they could have their own priest in their own locale. How could such a man lead people spiritually? He was just there to provide those who hired him with religious services. He was not there by the call of God, not able to utter a thus saith the Lord!

In the church today, many people view themselves as the equal of the minister. They will defer to his Bible knowledge and enquire of him regarding Bible trivia, but there is little submission to his spiritual direction. His opinion is one among many and if it doesn’t match mine, he is a control freak, a bigot, a racist, or what have you. You name it, his voice is merely an option (at best), and certainly not authoritative.

In the meantime, personal lives and families of many professing Christians are falling apart. The pastor may lead an exemplary life, be reproducing himself in the lives of his children (the only people in the church he can really train to accept his authority), be a man of impeccable credentials in the surrounding secular world, but still, he may not tell me how I ought to live!

Well, how do we win in the pastorate with such a spirit as that?

I wish there was an easy answer. I am afraid the answer is the one that our Lord gave the disciples when they were frustrated with their own inability to exercise authority: “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.” (Mk 9.29)

That answer may not be very satisfying to us. We would like a magic bullet that we could use to just say the right thing to people to get them to change. I think we have to accept the fact that people are rebels and there is nothing WE can do to make them change. But we can pray. And we can trust in God. And God CAN do something to make them change.

It is frustrating to minister to people, especially rebels who refuse to accept any authority. Thank God there are some disciples who do encourage you by their willingness to truly receive spiritual counsel.

But the man of God must truly be a man of God. The place of leadership must drive him to prayer, because “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.” The place of leadership must drive him to the Book, because the Book is his authority, not himself or his own opinions. The courage of Christian leadership is obtained only by complete dependence on Christ. We aren’t here to win debates or argue people into the kingdom. We are here to cry to God for direction and strength, and see if he won’t do the mighty work of changing lives.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3


  1. Wallace K. Falconer says:

    Brother Don,
    This article is a week old and I am rereading it as it is so relevant. How we yearn to see willingness to change; yet supposedly mature folk are so resistant.
    Prayer is indeed our refuge, hope, and comfort in this battle.
    Thank you for articulating heart ache.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement bro. Wally. I wish I could be out at the meeting at bro. Foust’s church, but just too tied up with projects and too short on $$$ this year. May the Lord bless you all in the meeting.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3