Without question, the Church is a paradox: messy, earthy, and sinful, while at the same time holy, gifted, and united. Of course, we shouldn't be surprised by this, because the Church is simply a composite of paradoxical people: sinful and yet holy all wrapped up in one life lived under the banner of Jesus Christ. And as this is true for each one of us, it is also true of church leaders--sinners saved by grace and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
In 1 Corinthians 4:1, the Apostle Paul refers to himself and other church leaders as "servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God." The word translated “servant” is not the usual diakonos (where we get our English word "deacon") but hyperetes, which originally denoted those who row in the lower tier of an ancient Greek warship. When you look at church leaders today is that what you see? Do you see rowers in the belly of a warship, or do you see captains standing up top yelling out orders?
Indeed, there is a need for captains to guide, direct, and lead. But that leadership should always come from the heart of a rower. Pastors, elders, and other church leaders are "underlings," "under-rowers," and "subordinates" (Revised Standard Version). Foundational for all church leaders is that we are in daily submission to Christ, which should bring us both comfort and challenge.
Here’s the comfort: “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself" (1 Corinthians 4:3). Paul goes on and writes, “My conscience is clear” (verse 4, NIV). The comfort comes in knowing that when we have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and we are accountable to Him as His servants--His under-rowers--what other people say about us, or how they judge us, means nothing compared to the Lord who judges us (verses 4-7). Criticism can hurt, but our ultimate judge is the Lord! This tells us what to do with anonymous letters! They can be hurtful, but if the writer lacks the courage to share his or her identity, then we shouldn’t take the message too seriously. There was a preacher by the name of Joseph Parker who stood up to preach one day and a lady actually threw a piece of paper at him. He picked it up and read it, and it only had one word on it: “Fool!” Parker began his sermon by saying, “I have received many anonymous letters in my life, but they have always had a text without a signature. Today is the first time I’ve received a signature without a text!”
So, there’s comfort when we’re an underling, because we’re just doing our job, and we rejoice in the gift of serving Christ. But there’s also challenge, because we will be judged by the Lord (verse 4). And so we don’t grow slack or careless. When you pull back the curtain of the church, sometimes it’s mediocrity you see. People are complacent. Staff and leaders are just going through the motion. But our time is limited, and our marching orders are clear. Church leaders are to be under-rowers on a battle ship not a cruise ship! We’re at war with the enemy, Satan, and his legion of demons! This is spiritual warfare, and we all have a part to play in the advancement of the Kingdom of God! So, the call we receive from the Lord Jesus Christ is not a call of status and prestige but of humility and service. May we all aspire to live out that call through the power of the Holy Spirit.