It’s a common theme in movies and television. You see a group of friends all hanging together, and one of them comes into sudden good fortune: wins the lottery, gets famous, something like that. All the promises are made that nothing will change between the friends, but everything does. The movie or TV show becomes all about how the money or prestige changes people, and changes the relationships, usually for the worse. A lot of times the focus is on the person who won the lottery, or whatever. But look more closely, and you see that there’s just as much (if not more) change that happens with everyone else around that person. Makes for a great story every time.
Why does everything change like that? In my opinion, it’s because there’s something that happens when we perceive one of our own has “risen above”, it upsets the equilibrium–even when we are happy for that person’s success. From that point, human nature tends to respond in one of two ways: coveteousness or resentment. Either we kiss up to the person, using him/her to climb the ladder ourselves (coveteousness), or we start digging at the person, attempting to knock them off the ladder (resentment). Most of the time these responses are expressed very subtly, but reactions are a subconscious attempt to restore balance–or our perception of balance. No one can be “higher” than the others.
Believe it or not, the same dynamic happens in the presumed divide between clergy and laity in the church. It didn’t start out this way with the church, but over time (despite Jesus’ warnings not to lead one another in the same way as the world around us), the church began to perceive its leaders as “above” the others. The “ministry” became a place of special prestige, and the clergy became an elite class. People who were “called” to ministry became venerated, not just set apart, but set above
in the minds of others. And this continues to this day. And right along with it, you see the same two gut reactions from people toward the clergy class: coveteousness or resentment. It’s more subtle in some than in others, but for many–we either cozy up to our leaders to curry their favor (or aspire to the ministry ourselves), or we criticize and judge them in our hearts, holding them up to a microscope, looking for any flaw or fault that we can use to cut them down to size.
Why? Because deep within, we feel there is an imbalance that must be restored.
Now, let me say right now that both coveteousness and resentment are part of our sinful human nature and are un-Christlike. These two reactions fuel most of the politics in our culture–politics in government, in the workplace, among friends, and even in the church. (Especially in the church, it would seem.) I have experienced these feelings as a churchgoer, and I have experienced their sting as a leader. As believers, we are challenged to do the opposite–to share in the joy of others without being jealous, and not to look at someone else’s position to compare our own value to theirs. Paul puts it this way: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; neither slave nor free; neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ.”
And that’s just the point. While it is not right to be coveteous or resentful toward anyone, including leadership…at the same time, I think the false prestige we’ve attached to church leadership sets us up for needless temptation. If I’m looking at Scripture correctly, then at its heart, this whole equilibrium/balance thing is a myth–a matter of false perception. It isn’t that church leadership is a corrupt concept; in fact, there is much in Bible to support it. Rather, it’s that being a leader doesn’t make anyone better than anyone else. It’s a function, a role; it was never meant to be a social class. The authority one carries (or the money or honor one has, for that matter) does not change that person’s DNA, or the color of his/her blood. It only changes everyone’s attitude. The things that make ministry positions so coveted and/or resented are things that don’t even exist in the eyes of God.
This competitive prestige thing was a stumbling block even for the earliest disciples, who apparently got in several arguments over who was the “greatest.” Jesus’ response (my paraphrase) was: “Fellas, you’re missing the whole point. See this child? If you want to be great in My kingdom, learn a lesson or two from her. And those who want to lead–you get to be everyone’s slave. Still want the job?”
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On the Politics of Church Leadership and Completely Missing the Point
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