OPINION: What James MacDonald & Matt Chandler can teach us about humility in church leadership

by Keith Collier/TEXAN, |
T4G/Sarah Danaher

FORT WORTH, Texas (TEXAN) -- In the span of six weeks, two prominent megachurch pastors offered humble apologies for matters related to church government.

The first came in a blog post by James MacDonald, pastor of Harvest Bible Church in Chicago. MacDonald, who received criticism for a blog post four years ago that said congregationalism was from Satan, apologized April 16 for his "inflammatory," "unbalanced," and "unfair" analysis of churches who give final authority in decision-making to its members.

MacDonald says while he still holds to an elder-ruled church polity—not to be confused with elder-led churches, which still give final authority to members—he admits, "What has changed is my confidence that elder rule is a better protection against satanic attacks on a local church than congregational governance that attempts to be biblical in distributing authority among mature church members."

Further, MacDonald says, he has realized that with both elder-ruled and congregational models, "The potential for damage to a church seems likely in both models if a lack of humility is resident in those participating in the governance."

The second apology came from Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in Dallas. After concerns related to several church discipline cases went public on news outlets and the blogosphere, Chandlertold Christianity Today May 28 that elders at the Village Church were guilty of a "domineering" approach in some cases and that he would be publicly apologizing to his church the following Sunday morning.

"We have sinned against some people—and we are owning that before God and specifically before the people we have hurt," Chandler said. He issued a lengthy, convincing apology during his sermon May 31.

I'm thankful for the humility by both of these men to own up to prideful comments and actions in such a public way. They did what was right and in the right way. I believe each of them to be sincere apologies.

Both of these scenarios are a striking reminder of the need for humility in the church. As Paul exhorts, "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus," (Philippians 2:3-5).

The relationship between church leadership and members can easily be fractured when we fail to reflect Christlike love and humility toward one another.

Likewise, the Apostle Peter exhorts elders to shepherd the flock that God has entrusted to them with carefulness and tenderness rather than compulsion and tyranny. He also urges church members to submit themselves to the elders' care. (1 Peter 5:1-5). He concludes, "Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.'" Here, the call to humility is applied to both leaders and members.

Additionally, the scenarios with MacDonald and Chandler remind us to think critically about church government.

The church growth, or seeker-sensitive, movement of the 1990s encouraged churches to take a businesslike approach to leadership and structure, with CEO pastors steering the ship in a "more efficient" system that avoided the liabilities of too many hands in the decision-making pot (i.e., congregationalism). Even congregational churches that adopted this approach essentially relegated the members' decision-making solely to approving a budget and calling a new senior pastor.

In recent years, more churches have adopted a plurality of elders as leadership. But, while I believe having elders is more biblically supported than the CEO-style of church leadership, I fear that some of the same "business principles" that guided the CEO model have filtered down into the elder model as well. For example, elder-ruled churches simply swap out the CEO for a board of trustees and minimize the biblical role of the congregation in matters of doctrine, membership, and discipline. (see Matthew 18:15-17; Acts 6:1-5; 1 Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 2:6-8; 2 Timothy 4:3). But even in elder-led, congregational churches, these business practices can find expression when elders overstep their authority, choosing control over compassion and policies over people.

Baptists have historically been advocates of both congregational polity and, prior to the 20th century, a plurality of elders (see Mark Dever's By Whose Authority: Elders in Baptist Life). Even the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, W.B. Johnson, spoke of this in his book The Gospel Developed. The two can co-exist provided both the elders and members exercise the humility of Christ.

But, ultimately, MacDonald is right—regardless of the model of church government (elder rule, elder led, single pastor, congregational, etc.), abuses abound when we do not demonstrate Christlike concern for and submission to one another. So, brothers and sisters, whichever camp you find yourself in, let's practice this kind of humility and love. When we do, Christ will be glorified as the gospel is put on display to a watching world.

Keith Collier is managing editor for the Southern Baptist Texan, the official newspaper of the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention. This article reprinted with permission from the Texan Online.


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