As we find ourselves approaching Reformation Day on the five hundredth year of Protestant Reformer John Calvin's birth, it may be good to spend some time looking at the issue of Biblical leadership and challenges to that leadership's authority. One of the interesting things about the Bible is that it never is keen on presenting authorities as those who are always right.
As a matter of fact, we see repeatedly that the worst offenses, the worst problems — the problems that lead the Israelites into spiritual and physical wildernesses — come from those in authority.
Even two of the best leaders, the two humans perhaps closest to God, Moses and David, committed grave offenses. The interesting thing is that at these times of failure it was appropriate, indeed, obedient for the godly to challenge the wrongs of their leaders. The prophetic voice, it is clear, is not the voice of a fortuneteller but the voice of moral judgment from God. Given the limited access to the Spirit in the Old Testament times, necessarily that place of judgment was limited to a few appointed prophets.
The prophetic mantle is more widely spread within the church than in the Old Testament, like all of the offices bestowed by the Holy Spirit and ultimately worn by our Covenant representative, Jesus. It is in this mode that Peter and John rightly note their allegiance not to the authorities over them but to God (Acts 4).
Of course, the Bible emphasizes the importance of leadership, but as each believer is called into leadership roles at various times and seasons, it is imperative that we remember that we are fallible — and it is not wrong for those under us to call us out. Insubordination is rarely a problem in the Bible, but abuse of power is a major problem. A leader who worries about insubordination ought to instead worry about him or herself. Leaders in the church should seek to foster an environment that is open and honest, that encourages challenges to their actions.
Obviously, these challenges need to be Biblical and respectful, but so long as they are, leaders need to practice control over typical human reflexes that might bring a chill to openness. All the more so as one goes higher up in leadership. The power is too great, the temptation to use that power too strong; for our own good, we should be checked constantly by people unafraid to say, “no.”
When leaders seek too much power it is like those who misread the Bible’s commands for husbands and wives. When people read Ephesians 5, too often the focus is set on how wives are to submit, but with little care for v. 25, which gives husbands the command to love their wives as Christ loved the church — that is, unto willing death. If the husband is not perfect in that, how dare he concern himself with whether his wife submits? First, he ought to work to be more like Christ with fear and trembling.
Clearly, any leader that tries to argue for authority in sich from the Bible is missing the point. And, when that occurs, it is right that godly people such as Martin Luther and John Calvin sought reformation… divorce from those doing wrong. Ultimately, Biblical authority means to represent to the people the truths of the Bible and to live those truths as well as a human can. When leaders fail to do so, and fail to be willing to concede their failures, that authority is forfeit.
As Peter and John said in Acts 4.19, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.”
Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business.