A refutation of the model of leadership presented within Network teachings compared to biblical Christianity
WHAT IS BIBLICAL LEADERSHIP?
Published: October 2021
The following article was written by Jeff Miller, a former lead pastor of ClearView Church (now called Foundation Church) in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, and City Lights Church in St. Louis, Missouri. Because of his history within The Network Jeff is uniquely positioned to collaborate with LeavingTheNetwork.org on this topic. This article is presented as a refutation of the teachings which have contributed to systemic issues of spiritual abuse within The Network. Listen to Sándor Paull's 2018 teaching "Followers Should Obey Their Leaders in All Matters" as an example of the kind of harmful teaching this article refutes.
Jeff's views are his own and not the official position of City Lights Church in St. Louis, Mo where he is a pastor, nor do they necessarily represent the views of LeavingtheNetwork.org.
NOTE: This article makes a brief reference to the doctrine of male headship, a theological belief related to complementarianism. We recognize this reference may be difficult for some. Just like our readership, the contributors of LeavingtheNetwork.org have differing opinions and experiences with complementarianism.
SOME INITIAL CONTEXT
From time-to-time, people have asked me why I and City Lights Church left the network of churches we’d been a part of for so long. At the heart of my own disagreement with the church network is the nature and scope of leadership between one man and another. I believe that I can show in this essay a picture of the network philosophy of leadership in a way that they would agree with. I will also show why it is unbiblical, illogical, and can only manifest itself in a spiritually abusive way that does more harm to the follower than the good that they are attempting to do, even if the follower has been conditioned to think that it has been beneficial to them.
The key texts for the apologetic for the network leadership style are in Hebrews 13. The first is verse 7: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
The second is in verse 17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
A leader in the network sees himself as the shepherd of the people. They will happily agree that they are undershepherds of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ. They believe that Jesus watches over the sheep through them. At least some of them believe themselves to be a mediator between a particular sheep and Jesus. When I said on my way out that I had to have Jesus in between myself and the people I pastor, one of them said, “No, that’s wrong. They don’t know Jesus. They go through me to get to Him.” This is not a statement somewhere in their documents, but it shows why they think that they should have total control over a person’s life. Theirs is more of a Levitical priesthood, where the pastor or leader is a mediator between a person and God, such as were the priestly tribe of the Levites to the Jews, rather than what an elder in the church is supposed to be, a fellow sheep, a fellow member of a body in which every single participant is a part of a holy, royal priesthood with the Holy Spirit, ministering to one another (1 Pt 2:9). Elders are called by the church to do the same things that all disciples of Jesus are called to do, only they have an added equipping function (Eph 4:12-16).
A network lead pastor will watch for a new person to come into the church. They, along with other leaders under them, will attempt to meet that person, assess whether they want them in their church, and if so, they will begin “winning them.” Pastors and leaders are good at this, which is how they got this position. That new person will feel very special getting all this attention.
The rationale for this on the part of the network is that Jesus “loves” this person, especially if they are a potential leader, and that “we must love this person.” In time they will be won over. The pastor will then be testing the waters to see if they can get influence over them by a combination of their charisma and skill at “getting at stuff” in them. Where do they struggle? Where do they hurt? How have their parents caused wounds and insecurities in their lives? This is done through attention, hands on prayer, teaching, and trainings. This is what is meant by the term “relational leadership.” They believe that the leader, even a small group leader, must be able to “know what is next” for the person. They do this by attempting to discern what the Holy Spirit is saying about the person. There are general issues that most people have (e.g. sexual temptation, selfishness, childhood trauma), and so those are prodded for and brought out. Very often the result is somewhat positive: there is some degree of self-discovery, accountability, even good perspective and biblical truth applied to the person’s life. They have been encouraged and inspired to “give their life over to Jesus.” This means they will “give their life over to the local church and its purposes, its mission.” If the person is a leader, he will be trained to do unto others as he has been done unto.
If the new person is not someone that the leader wants in the church, meaning, they are not the kind of person whom the leader wants replicated, the new person will possibly receive this treatment by a small group leader instead of a pastor (if they receive attention at all). If they do not respond to the wooing of the leadership, they will be ignored, and eventually there will be some pretense given as to why the leadership “blesses them to go find a church where you will follow the leaders, since you won’t follow us.” This is the main way 1 Timothy 3:12-13 concerning testing deacons is implemented. The tests are tests of loyalty. In their leadership training materials, loyalty is listed as a number one quality looked for in a member and potential leader.
Little by little it is seen that there is a willingness to follow on bigger and bigger things. Emotions are a key factor. If the leadership can lay hands on a person, push an emotional button such as, “your dad didn’t love you well,” and make them cry as they “speak into their life,” prophesying over them, they will have them for life. John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard from whose roots the network sprang, said (paraphrasing): “If you can lay hands on them and God shows up, then God will make you their leader.”
In Hebrews 13:7, we are told to remember the leaders...consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. This gets easily interpreted as “imitate their way of life,” or even, “imitate their life.” A key leadership principle in the network is multiplication of leadership. During my time as a lead pastor in the network, the way I thought of it was that I am trying, as a pastor, to multiply myself. This seemed perfectly natural to me. I thought of leader development as “mind-sharing.” What was a church? A place where a pastor shares his mind and multiplies himself for greater reach and effect. What is a network? A place where the network leader shares his mind and multiplies himself. This is the key to effectiveness, if effectiveness is merely getting everyone pulling the same way.
In the network, unity on all things great and small is prized. It is believed that the goal of planting hundreds of churches and staying together depends on the members of the network churches being unified on all things, including secondary things, like doctrines which are not the main and plain gospel and which many Bible-believing churches disagree on, and tertiary issues, such as style of worship, and beyond that, life issues, such as where to live, where to work, how to educate your own children, etc. So it is expected that you would think what your leader thinks about any issue, because they think it. This is the only way to achieve this kind of “unity,” which is more accurately called “uniformity.”
A WORD ABOUT UNITY
No church denomination I know of believes that God calls Christians everywhere to uniformity on all things great and small. The texts that have been cited to prove that we are to be unified on all things great and small are the very texts I would use to disprove the idea. Look at one of them through the lens of unity.
1 Corinthians 1:10-17 says,
10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power (emphasis added).
At first, this seems to back up the claim that we cannot be divided on anything. What was the problem? There was quarreling. Over what? Over which leader they were going to identify with. The question is, why didn’t Paul say, “I’m your leader. Not Cephas, not Apollos. If you want them for leaders, go to their churches. Leave mine. Follow or leave.”
No, he did not say any of that. That was not the solution to their sinful tendency to want to latch on to a human for identity. The issue that Paul had was that they were trying to identify with any of the leaders at all. Yes, he wanted unity. He wanted unity on essentials. Their baptism in the name of Jesus would be the one thing that unified them, and nothing else. These people were going for greater unity by forming unified factions according to certain teachers. We do the same today according to certain leaders, denominations, and secondary doctrines. This is wrong.
Paul picks up the argument again in chapter 3.
1 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building.
10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
16 Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.
18 Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” 21 So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's.
Paul says the evidence of their spiritual immaturity is their “merely human” (meaning, unspiritual, sinful) tendency to get behind another human to “follow.” Paul wanted them to follow him in a certain way, but not in a way that showed they put him between themselves and Jesus.
So when Paul says to imitate him as he imitates Christ, he is not talking about his whole lifestyle. He is not saying “be an apostle to the Gentiles.” He is not saying, “Go to Macedonia and preach.” He is not saying, “Stay single as I have stayed single.” He is not saying, “Write Scripture to the Ephesian Church as I have.”
Rather, what he is saying is “love Jesus like I do. Follow Him in your life with your whole heart like I do. Be filled with His Holy Spirit and yield to Him in your life like I do in my life. Be obedient in the things He tells you to do, like I am obedient in the things He tells me to do. How would Jesus live your life if He was in it? Even, how would Paul live your life? How would Paul approach being a stay-at-home mom? That is for the stay-at-home mom to discern according to broad biblical principles and the leading of the Holy Spirit. That is what the author of Hebrews means when he says, “consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
HOW TO OBEY YOUR LEADERS
In the network of churches there is a principle of leadership that requires the follower to give over his will and conscience to the leader. 100% of the time, if your leader (small group leader, DC pastor, lead pastor, or network leader tells you what you should do, you are expected to see it the way they see it, to “think it because they think it” (direct quote to me). I asked my leader if 999 out of 1000 times I was inclined to obey him, but 1 time out of 1000 my conscience would not allow it, shouldn’t I in that case obey by conscience? This is especially true on an issue that had nothing to do with doctrine, or how we do church, but rather, how I raise my own kids, the kids that God has entrusted to me. One might rightly challenge my assumption and say that they are not my kids, but rather they are God’s kids. But true as that may be, they are not my pastor’s kids. Raising them is not his responsibility. It is mine. It is I and not my leader who will stand before God and answer for the decisions I’ve made as a father, a steward of these precious lives entrusted to me.
This was the main thing that led to me being kicked out of the network. Many people were told that I left because I wanted to homeschool my children. This is partially true, but the “issue behind the issue” is that I wanted to obey my conscience and what I believed was the will of God for my family, instead of what the network leader wanted me to do. When I expressed my belief that I am responsible to God and not to them primarily, I was told that I am to obey my leaders, that the leader would take over the responsibility at the Judgment. They said God only wants me to obey, and He will hold the leaders accountable if they give me wrong commands. That may be true, unless my conscience does not agree. Once my conscience does not agree, then I am on the hook. I believe that if you are attempting to hold to Scripture in your life, and you are trying to discern which ways the Holy Spirit is leading you according to the truth, then your conscience is of paramount importance.
This leader, in the presence of another high level leader and leaders from City Lights Church, said that I was wrong, and that I should obey regardless of what my conscience says. But the Bible says “whatever doesn’t proceed from faith is sin” (Ro 14:23). If my conscience (after consideration of truth and the Holy Spirit’s leading) takes away my faith for the action, then I’d better not act.
One of the leaders countered, “I make my conscience obey me.” And then this particular leader described how he had simply asked the leader of the network to tell him what to think about a particular issue of doctrine that he had previously had strong convictions about. He gave over his conscience, and his “convictions” changed. He now has no conscience when it comes to his leader. He gave over his will and his ability to judge. This is a God-given responsibility that he laid at the feet of a fallen human being. Can you imagine the mass evil that is possible in a system like that?
So whatever obeying your leaders might be (which I believe refers to following the lead of the plurality of elders, unless they are asking you to do something you think is contrary to what God wants for you according to your understanding of His will through Scripture and prayer), it is not giving over your conscience. It is not giving over your will or your reasoning mind, or your own responsibility to hear from God for yourself and your family. Biblical leaders in the church are to lead on biblical principles and issues, those that can be tested according to Scripture, particularly the main and plain issues of doctrine and life.
A CLUE IN HEAD COVERINGS
1 Corinthians 11:3-7
3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.
This is a controversial text for a couple of reasons: 1) it seems to make the point that women should always wear hats (or at least long hair), and men should never wear hats. At least that is how some interpret it. I don’t. Look beyond the head covering to the principle behind it. 2) The text is also odious to some who do not believe in the headship of the husband over the wife.
Without debating that issue, it seems clear in this text that wives wear a “sign of authority,” because they are under the authority of their husbands. The issue is headship. God is the head of Christ. Christ is the head of the man. The husband is the head of his wife. Headship is easily screwed up in a fallen world in our sinful flesh, but it can also be done beautifully in a way that the wife is honored as a fellow image bearer of God, who is a thinking, reasoning, choosing person, and who has a key role to play in the marriage and family. A wise husband will take full advantage of the gift that his wife is to him by seeing her rightly in this way and helping her to utilize her gifts and talents in the service of their family life. The headship of God over Christ is mutual love and mutual respect. Christ follows the Father, but the Father is not domineering over his “beloved Son, in whom he is well pleased.”
My point is that a wife can submit to her head as she submits to Christ without losing herself. We are all called to lose ourselves in Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
But we are not to lose the image of God in us, and therefore the unique personality God has created us to be. We are not to give over our will and conscience. God has created marriage in such a way that the two become one flesh in a relationship that is unique to all relationships, save that of Christ and the Church, and Christ and His Father and their Holy Spirit. As God is three distinct Persons in One, so are the husband and wife two distinct persons in one.
So can a follower of a leader in a church be two distinct persons in one? No. It is disgraceful. A man cannot wear a head covering, which is a sign of authority, because his head is Christ, and Christ alone. He has leaders: in government, at work, and in the church. But none of these leaders own him or his will. For a man, to give over his will and conscience to another man, is to destroy the image of God in him.
The thing that makes us human is our will. God created man in His image, and He gave man dominion. There is that word. But what did God give man dominion over? Nature, animals, fish, raw materials.
Look at Genesis 1:26-28.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
He made man in His own image. This means that He gave man a will and a creative capacity so that man could do things. God delegated authority to man over the creation with a mandate to create by subduing the earth and being fruitful. Theologians call this the Cultural Mandate. Every able-minded man and woman has been given this capacity.
THE PURPOSE OF MAN IS TO GLORIFY GOD
The way we glorify God is to worship Him. We do this by engaging with Him in active worship alone or with the gathered church. But we also worship Him and glorify Him by fulfilling our purpose in this Cultural Mandate. In order to fulfill our purpose in this way, we must make choices. Reasoning and choosing are a key aspect of bearing God’s image. We have been given a reasoning mind, unlike animals whose reason is very limited and subordinate to their instincts. To have a reasoning mind is an awesome responsibility, and even if we weren’t fallen, we might still make mistakes since we are not created omniscient. Because reasoning is choosing. Choosing is a kind of fallibility that is necessary for choices to be real choices. There must be the possibility of getting it wrong, even if all your motives are right. This is the burden for ALL HUMANS.
All humans have to make choices, and all humans are judged for their choices in two ways. First, we are judged by God. This is the God who created us as an individual, saved us as an individual, and will judge us as an individual. How will He judge us? Thankfully, He will first look in His book to see if our names are in the Book of Life. He will look for His Holy Spirit dwelling in our spirit as a guarantee of eternal life. He will judge us righteous in Christ. But our reward beyond our entrance into His home is based on the works prepared in advance for us to walk in (Eph 2:10). (I hope this paper is one of mine.) It is based on the choices we made in Him throughout our lives. It is based on the way we responded to His commands and laws.
Second, we are judged by the consequences of our choices, the outcomes. We are saved and in Christ by grace alone. We stand on the finished work of Jesus. Our lives are now hidden in Christ. Our identity then is in Christ. Like Jesus before He did any recorded miracles, we hear God say before we do anything good, “You are my beloved Son. In you I am well pleased” (this goes for women too!). Then we have lots and lots of choices to make. Based on what? Based on what we think we are called to do, how we are called to live our lives for his glory and our good and reward. These choices are powerful, because they cause things to happen. They are how we steward the life and gifts that God has given us. This is the key to a great and purposeful life.
As a saved image bearer of God, your worth is covered. You are God’s child. He loves you, because He loves you, because He loves you, because He loves you! And, you have a TON of agency! Choices upon choices upon choices. It is the biblical principle of stewardship. God created you with this capacity. Call your life your one talent (Mt 25:14-30). You can and should take your one talent and do your very best with it. That means choose what is best, and choose to act on it. If you do this, you are acting like an image bearer. You know what is best for you, because you know God, His ways, His Word, His voice. You have been given a conscience to make you stop short if you are veering off the right path. So you absolutely MUST obey your conscience no matter who tells you not to.
No, your conscience is not always right, and a good church leader will try to help you see when you are wrong. But all the leader has is the truth from the Bible. Even charisma is no good in the service of a lie, or even a dangerous error. As pastors, the number one tool we have to shepherd is the TRUTH. We are truth bearers. It’s not about us, it’s about God and what is true, that is, what is reality. And if you do not obey your conscience, you will lose it.
So, you are made in the image of God. He has put desires and values in your heart to use in His service, the world’s service and the service of the life He has given you to steward. You and only you can know what your true values and beliefs are. You and only you can find your purposes on earth according to those values and beliefs (and gifts and desires). It is part of the fun and glory of being a human in God’s image. He has entrusted a life to you that you must live.
Now, if you give all that away to a small group leader, a pastor, a network leader, you have abdicated your responsibility. If you see that you are called to serve in a church or network in a mission for Jesus, then great. But don’t give over your conscience and will. If you do, you and your leader will both be in bondage. You will each have the leash tied around both of your necks.
THE PYRAMID, AND SOMEONE DOESN'T GET A LEADER
You may have wondered about this: If everyone is supposed to have a leader, there will necessarily always be one person who does not have a leader like everyone else. There is no way around this argument. Why is it okay for one person not to have a leader if every other Christian is supposed to have one? And who decides who is at the top of the pyramid and on what grounds?
Those who believe in this unbiblical leadership style will point to biblical examples. They will say, “He’s like the Apostle Paul.” Paul isn’t considered to be infallible, but his words in Scripture are. No one today is given that sort of authority to be considered always correct in their teaching and prophetic utterances, not to be questioned. This idea is folly, and time will prove it out.
Some might also say, “Well, the leader at the top has a team of leaders who keep him accountable.”
I would ask, “And who are they?”
And they would answer, “They are the men whom the leader has raised up and who have given over their will and conscience to him.”
I would then stare at you until you get it or look away in evasion.
I would also ask, “What if we teach a whole bunch of people that they must obey their leaders to this degree, and then someone gets control of the network who does truly evil things, like calling for mass suicide?” You might think this is being overly dramatic. But how do you think Jonestown happened? How do you think Hitler convinced so many ordinary Germans to become genocidal concerning the Jews? How do you think these things happen all the time and everywhere? Human conditioning.
THE FUHRER PRINCIPLE
In Nazi Germany, citizens were taught that the Fuher (German for “leader”) is always right because he is the Fuher. A high level Nazi official, Rudolf Hess, put it this way in a speech: “Hitler is Germany and Germany is Hitler. Whatever he does is necessary. Whatever he does is successful. Clearly the Führer has divine blessing.”
It is useful to consider what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, said in his radio address in 1933 when he saw the way the country and even the Church was quickly giving their will and conscience over to the Nazis and Hitler.
Here is an excerpt:
The fearful danger of the present time is that above the cry for authority, be it of a Leader or of an office, we forget that man stands alone before the ultimate authority and that anyone who lays violent hands on man here is infringing eternal laws and taking upon himself superhuman authority which will eventually crush him. The eternal law that the individual stands alone before God takes fearful vengeance where it is attacked and distorted. Thus the Leader points to the office, but Leader and office together point to the final authority itself, before which Reich or state are penultimate authorities. Leaders or offices which set themselves up as gods mock God and the individual who stands alone before him, and must perish.
And here is another:
If [the leader] understands his function in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers quite clearly of the limited nature of his lack and of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol – then the image of the leader will pass over into the image of the misleader, and he will be acting in a criminal way not only towards those he leads, but also towards himself, the true leader must always be able to disillusion. It is just this that is his responsibility and his real object. He must lead his following away from the authority of his person to the recognition of the real authority of orders and offices....He must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those whom he leads....
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Fuhrer Principle
JESUS ON LEADERSHIP
When Jesus discoursed on leadership, he made a profound statement.
In Mark 10:42-45 it says,
42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (emphasis added).
Jesus is saying, “The world’s way is to pick out the “great ones,” the best of the best, the cream of the crop, and to let them “exercise authority.” The world’s way is to dominate by taking control of a person. Let’s find the most powerful people and give over our consciences. But this is disgraceful.
Jesus said “but it shall not be so among you.” Why? It kills the will, the choice maker, the steward of the image of God. It is death. You will notice over time a person who gives themselves over in this way will begin to appear like a shell of a person. Stunted. Inauthentic. Anxious. They will often be battling sexual sin as they struggle to reconcile all the inner conflict. In my own life, it was the inability to sleep as I was carrying the contradictions inside me. If you are reading this, and you have bought into the network view of leadership, ask yourself if you feel like a grown man or woman. If so, based on what? Your leader’s opinion? What he thinks of you? How high you have been elevated and how many people under you that you get to dominate in the name of the network leader? If you are honest, you feel like a child, because you are one, until you take responsibility for yourself in the name of Jesus.
MANIPULATION AND MAN-CENTERED RELATIONSHIPS
A further objection I have to this unbiblical leadership style is that there are only two ways to gain this kind of influence over people and one is worse than the other. The first way is to teach the doctrine outright. Command people in Jesus’ name that they are to obey leaders. Tell people when they walk in the door that they will be told to do so.
The other way, as stated above, is to “win them.” Again, according to this way, you come alongside a new person and you “love on them.” You speak into their lives. You pray for them. You look for where they need emotional healing, and you draw that out. You make them love your approval. You make them want what you want. If they do what you want them to do, you be nice to them, praise them, elevate them to higher and higher leadership. If they do not do what you want, you do the opposite of those things: withhold your love, praise, promotion. I was taught to “reward what you want, and starve what you don’t want.” I was taught that “my time was a reward.” In time, people desperately want to please you. Those who do not respond to this are ignored and kept out of any position. They will eventually be told, “I bless you to go somewhere else for church.”
If you are going to have the erroneous doctrine of leadership that the network has, I’d much prefer the first way. There is a word for the second way. Manipulation. It is a powerful tool. B.F. Skinner found through experimenting with rats, who behave much like humans in a social setting, that rewards are more powerful than punishments for behavior modification. He loved the idea that you could engineer societies by systematizing rewards for the behavior that the social engineers wanted. That way, people want what you want them to want, and everybody is happy. But they are not truly happy. They are fragmented, unthinking, slaves to the manipulation.
If this is the network model of leadership, then, the obvious problem is how do you know someone is following Jesus because they love Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is leading them? How do you know someone fears God? How do you know that they have not received their reward already (Mt 6:1), because they love the praise of man more than the praise of God? It is often said that we must plant churches in every city, because we are tired of people moving to towns where we don’t have a network church, only to fall away. How can they fall away if they are saved? Perhaps they were saved to a person, and that person was not Christ. It’s a fair question.
This is man-centered relational leadership. It is efficient and intoxicating, and it is easy to substitute for Christ-centered relational leadership. In a Christ-centered relationship, Jesus stands between two people. When Christ is at the center, the relationship is capable of handling any conflict. When Christ is at the center, the above manipulative techniques are worthless and unnecessary. In a man-centered relationship, the attraction is emotional. Diversity of any kind is hard in a man-centered relationship, but is beautifully present in a Christ-centered relationship. Truth is paramount in a Christ-centered relationship, but personality is paramount in a man-centered relationship. Disagreements are easy to live with in a Christ-centered relationship, but they are impossible in a man-centered relationship. Man-centered relating and leading is emotionalism, psychology. This is why if you have left the network, you have been shunned and likely slandered. Man-centered relationships can’t tolerate disagreement. Feelings are too powerful in a relationship of emotionalism.
The last thing I will say is this: If the network leadership had been willing to see this as a disagreement on non- primary doctrine, that would have at least been something. If I could have disagreed with this and stayed, I would have. But they instead call my view heretical, and me an unbelieving heretic. But their view on the total scope of leadership of one man over another is dangerous, wrong, and in violation of the God who created these image bearers who they want to dominate and “exercise authority” over.
BUT WHAT IS BIBLICAL LEADERSHIP?
I’ve hinted at it all along, but I want to describe briefly what I think biblical pastoral leadership looks like. I was with another lead pastor in the network, and we were having lunch with one of the men on his staff, a pastor. I have trouble with chit chat and I like talking about real stuff, so I started asking this young man questions about his life. We got fairly deep, and I listened until I thought I understood what he was saying, at which point I repeated it back to him to make sure I had it right. Then, because I sensed he was receptive to it, I offered my take on his situation. I was not his leader, but I had authority in his life. He was supposed to submit to me. Why? For the same reason I was supposed to submit to him.
“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21).
He was my brother in Christ, and I was his. I listened, which is the best ministry option always, and then I spoke what I thought was the truth. He could consider what I had to say, and then he then had to evaluate the biblical foundation of my words, which I might have proven by application of Scripture and the gospel to his situation. I could have been more forceful if the situation had warranted it. For instance, if he had told me, like a college student I was once talking to, that God told him he wanted to use him to break up a woman’s marriage, because she had married the wrong guy, I could have been more forceful in my objection as his brother.
Being his actual pastor would not have changed much, except that he might have taken it as an order. It’s okay to issue someone a command in Jesus’ name if you are calling them out on some sin. But the thing is, that has nothing to do with whether you are the person’s pastor. So, in my role as a pastor, or really, a Christian, I will speak boldly all the time to people concerning biblical truth, even if they don’t like it, even if they get mad at me. I have nothing to lose in those situations, because the outcome of speaking the truth is the right outcome always. I would be gentle and loving about it, but bold. I was less bold when I believed my job was to keep people around at all costs and teaching them to think everything just because I think it. I might even have been much nicer when I was leading by manipulation.
I heard someone say something that helped me a lot: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.” That’s what preaching is, that’s what leading is in the church. In fact, I’d say it this way, “You should lead a horse to water, but it is evil to force them to drink, whether by rules or by manipulation.”
I want to take this opportunity to repent to anyone who is reading this of my own involvement and participation in this system. It is wrong, and for many years, I was wrong. I am sorry if you are someone I led in this way. I respect you. I am in awe of the image of God in you. If you would like to contact me for processing or to call me out for my past behavior, I am willing to listen and will apologize to you personally.
I also want you to know that you are made whole by the blood of Jesus. Whatever trauma you have faced in the network or any other abusive church culture, does not define the real you. Go free, in Jesus’ name, and grow in Christ. I pray for you that you can find Christians you can trust, and even leaders you can trust to respect you and the image of God in you.
In Jesus’ name, as your brother in Christ, I charge you to pray and make decisions for your life. It is your responsibility, your birthright, and your unique calling by the One who made you for this stewardship. May you rack up reward as you take on this task in His mighty power and His mighty name.