In 1932, the University of Southern California started stenciling “Property of USC” on athletic t-shirts for the purpose of preventing theft. Their anti-theft strategy backfired when the stenciled attire became more popular than the original unstenciled t-shirts. USC turned this problem into a profit by producing and selling “Property of USC” shirts to students. Today, nearly every university and sports team in the United States stocks and sells some sort of “Property of” sportswear.
The phrases “kingdom of priests” and “holy priesthood” (Exodus 19:6; 1 Peter 2:5) are like “Property of” t-shirts that God places on everyone he has chosen and purchased as his own. When God referred to Israel as a “kingdom of priests,” he was declaring his people to be “Property of God.” The apostle Peter applied this terminology to the church, identifying new covenant believers as a chosen community devoted to God’s purposes.
Leadership in a Holy Priesthood
United with Christ the great high priest, the new covenant people of God become God’s property, devoted to God’s purposes. This devotion of the whole community frees leaders from at least two deadly delusions about their role in the church. Through this devotion to God’s purposes, leaders are released
- from the delusion that the people are the leader’s property and
- from the delusion that the leader is the people’s property.
The Delusion that the People Are the Leader’s Property
It is a privilege to lead the people of God—but the privilege of being a leader of God’s people never transforms the people into the leader’s property. Godly leadership results in humble stewardship, not prideful ownership. Church leaders are not called to stand above a conglomeration of individuals as if the purpose of these people is to fulfill our vision. God calls us to serve as shepherds in the midst of a flock that has been wholly devoted to his purposes.
And yet, the delusion that the people are our property remains a persistent temptation.
Some expressions of this delusion are obvious. There’s the dictatorial pastor who’s driven to rage when people don’t measure up to his expectations, the bullying elder who silences dissent by abusing the gift of church discipline, the unaccountable leader who demands control over the church’s finances. A leader may rack up charges on the church’s credit card that don’t clearly contribute to the purposes of the church. In each of these instances, the people and their resources are clearly being treated as if they’re the leader’s property instead of God’s property. Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the despairing results of this delusion well when he wrote:
The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community … enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. … He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
The Temptation of Treating the People as a Platform
The delusion that the people are the leader’s property also manifests itself in more subtle ways—in ways that may be hidden or even accepted among church leaders.
Sometimes, the delusion is revealed through our complaining and impatience when the church doesn’t immediately applaud our best-laid plans. Other times, it’s treating a small congregation or an associate ministry role as a passing inconvenience until a more prominent position becomes available.
Increasingly, this pattern is seen when a church is used as a pastor’s platform to promote his own personal brand for the purpose of gaining book deals, multiplying his popularity in the world of social media, or landing lucrative speaking gigs on evangelical conference platforms. “With the internet being what it is, local church ministry is no longer local church ministry,” Barnabas Piper has pointed out. “Pride is an occupational hazard for all of us: if you have a byline, if your name is on a book, or you have a podcast, it comes with pride.”
The church is not a platform to send a pastor’s visionary ideals into orbit around his own wishful dreams. Neither is the church meant to serve as the source of our social stature or emotional well-being. The church is the blood-bought property of God. For a pastor to treat the people as his platform is an act of treasonous theft, stealing for himself that which Christ our great high priest has purchased at the cost of his own blood. The church is not a tool to be manipulated for our benefit; it is a holy communion in which we share a sacred stewardship.
The Delusion that the Leader Is the People’s Property
“Let me tell you something, Dr. T.,” the deacon leaned over the lunch table to make certain I didn’t miss a single word he had to say, “if your wife ever has to call me about this again, I will personally take over your calendar so that you’re home when you need to be.” More than a decade in retrospect, I realize that this threat from a deacon who loved me probably saved my ministry.
I had served four years as this church’s associate pastor when the senior pastor left to lead a church plant. A few months after the pastor resigned, the congregation asked me to take his place, and I accepted the call. But there was a problem: Even after calling an additional staff member, I wasn’t letting go of the roles I’d had as associate pastor. And so, in addition to leading the staff and preparing multiple messages each week, I was still overseeing monthly trainings for Sunday School teachers, attending every youth and children’s ministry committee meeting, playing guitar in the youth worship band, and helping with the logistics for three upcoming mission trips. The result was that my wife was spending far too many evenings at home alone with our first daughter.
My wife tried to talk to me about releasing some of my previous responsibilities, but I didn’t see the same problems that she was seeing. So Rayann called a faithful deacon named Mark and described what was happening in our household. And that’s how I ended up being interrogated over lunch at Applebee’s about why I was spending so many evenings enmeshed in church meetings instead of heading home.
That afternoon, I began the process of delegating and reassigning a long list of responsibilities, but I found the release to be much more of a struggle than I thought it would be. After an hour or so of wrestling with the list, I came to a painful recognition: I was living under the delusion that the church could not accomplish any of these tasks without my direct involvement. One result of this delusion was that I was living as if I belonged to the people and programs of the church instead of living first and foremost as an adopted of God.
In some ways, the notion of living this way seemed noble and sacrificial. I recalled hearing older pastors boast about spending all their evenings at church and even admonishing younger pastors, “You take care of the church, and God will take care of your family.” But Scripture does not support such a split in responsibilities. According to the apostle Paul, our integrity as leaders in the church is grounded in our habits of leadership in our homes (1 Timothy 3:4-5). A pastor who neglects his family and acts as if he is the church’s property isn’t demonstrating sacrificial love for the church. What he’s revealing instead is his own unwillingness to develop and deploy the people of God for the work of God (Ephesians 4:12).
In many cases, leaders who live as if the church depends on them are forced to live behind a mask of strength, never revealing their weakness. They cannot afford to disappoint or disillusion anyone, because they are the essential property without which the church cannot function—or so they believe. The problem with this pattern is that none of us can successfully isolate our interior life from our exterior life. Whenever we neglect the unseen aspects of ministry, we eventually find ourselves unable to engage in the visible practices of ministry in the power of Christ. What makes matters worse is that too many churches celebrate leaders who are overly busy and who fail to delegate responsibilities. When churches treat their leaders as the congregation’s indispensable property, the people of the church miss opportunities to use the gifts that the Spirit has given them.
So what’s the answer to this struggle?
The pastor must learn to see his central identity not as a property of God’s people or even as a leader of God’s people but, first and foremost, as a child of God and a follower of God’s Son. The pastor is the church’s servant but the church is never the pastor’s master. Leaders and laity alike are not the property of each other; together, they are the devoted property of God and God alone.
To learn more about healthy church leadership, take a look at my book The God Who Goes Before You.
The people in your church are God’s treasured possession. Particularly if you’re a leader in the church, do you treat these people as the property of God or as your own? In what ways are you tempted to respond to the people as if they are your platform, gathered together to implement your vision and plans? In what ways do you fall short in seeing your leadership role as a sacred stewardship of a community that has been purchased by the blood of Christ?