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The Next Faithful Step

Making Spiritual Sense

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

From the earliest biblical times, God has called leaders to speak in God’s name to God’s people. These leaders provided a divine perspective on the daily dilemmas that the people faced. Moses, for instance, proclaimed to the people in Egypt that God had heard their cries. And then at Sinai, he gave them the law as a framework for interpreting life as God’s chosen people. And, finally, as he prepared to hand leadership over to Joshua, Moses told the people who stood on the banks of the Jordan River that they had a choice between life in the land God promised and death in fearful wandering—and he urged them to choose life. At each of these critical moments in Hebrew history, God’s appointed leader explained the spiritual meaning of the people’s common experience.

This interpretative leadership continued once the people had taken possession of the land. There the judges reminded the people that their only hope lay in the God who brought them out of Egypt and not in being like other nations. This leadership culminated in Samuel’s counsel that they would one day regret clamoring for a king. Yet God gave them a king. But Yahweh did not make the king the only leader of God’s People. The prophets explained God’s interpretation of national events to succeeding generations and instructed the kings when they strayed. Nathan, for example, helped David see his sin for what it was. Elijah and Elisha told the people that a wicked king was no reason to turn to false gods who would only let them down. Jeremiah informed the people of God’s coming judgment and led them in lament when that judgment came crashing upon them. And Hagaii called on the returning exiles to stop focusing on their own selfish pursuits long enough to rebuild God’s temple. In each case, God’s leader provided a divine perspective for God’s people—a perspective that demanded action from those with ears to hear.

Likewise, in the New Testament, we see leaders whose primary task was to proclaim a new way of interpreting the world. Jesus repeatedly re-framed the very meaning of the law. For example, he said, “Let him who has no sin cast the first stone”—and punctured the self-righteous arrogance of a crowd that could no longer see its own sin. He also extended the law in new and uncomfortable ways, using for example the story of the Good Samaritan to show that “love thy neighbor” extends beyond the comfortable confines of polite society. After Jesus, the apostles sent epistle after epistle to newly-formed churches in order to help them understand how Christians should interpret Greek culture. Should Christians purchase meat that had been sacrificed to idols? Did Christians in Europe and Asia Minor bear a responsibility for the poor in Jerusalem? These are the kinds of questions the apostles addressed. God called these people as leaders so that they would teach the church how to use Christian categories to make sense of their daily lives. Indeed, this act of interpretation was the primary way that the apostles and prophets led the people of God.

This work of interpretative leadership functioned at two levels. On the one hand, the apostles directed specific churches on how to handle specific circumstances. Indeed, the book of Philemon is all about adjudicating one such dilemma. But the epistles also provide guidelines that allow the fledgling congregations to make their own decisions apart from the apostles. Even in Philemon, the Apostle Paul gives explanations that go far beyond the specific situation at hand. For example, he explains that Onesimus’ identity as a brother in Christ is more important than his secular identity as Philemon’s slave. Thus, the apostle’s argument turns on a point that has broad application: one’s identity in Christ transforms even the most basic relationships and ways of understanding a person. By interpreting the daily dilemmas of life, these Christian leaders inculcated basic principles that the church could apply to all of life.

We tend to forget, in this day of bureaucratic organizations and non-directive therapy, that the first duty of a Christian leader is to provide a Christian perspective, an interpretative framework for people who want to live faithful lives. We expect Christian leaders either to be hierarchical authorities who control their congregations or egalitarian enablers who support their staffs. And we call that leadership. But the authoritarians cannot mobilize God’s people (at least not for long), and the enablers are ultimately ineffectual. We settle for these poor shadows of the leadership we see in the secular world. And we tend to forget that Christian leadership is fundamentally an act of theological interpretation.
I want to argue for a different way to understand Christian leadership, one that says that the purpose of Christian leadership is to make spiritual meaning. Just as the prophets showed the Hebrews where God was at work in their world, so a Christian leader should help God’s people see how to interpret their daily lives from God’s perspective. And just as the Apostle Paul reinterpreted such basic tasks such as buying meat to eat, so a Christian leader today leads by shaping the ways that God’s people interpret everything going on in their worlds.

The stereotype of a leader is a person who tells people what to do. But the best leaders rarely have to order people around. Instead, the best leaders give people the tools to think for themselves. And then those leaders point people on a path forged by those new ideas. That’s what Martin Luther King did when he awoke America—white and black—to civil rights. And that’s what Jesus did when he preached the Sermon on the Mount. The best leaders change the way that we see the world.

What does that look like in a local congregation? There was once a congregational board of elders discussing the question of money. Most of the conversation focused on the fear the elders had because there never seemed to be enough money. They were looking for a program that would increase their fund-raising. In other words, they wanted a leader who would tell them what to do. But that’s not what they needed from a leader. In fact, every time that the congregation raised a little more money, the board almost immediately spent it because there were lots of needs in their area. What they came to see was that the key issue was not the amount of money. The key issue was their fear. They only saw the world in terms of scarcity—and, of course, that meant that they were always afraid. So it turns out that they did not need someone to tell them what to do. They needed someone to help them see the world differently. Their leader talked with them one night about some insights from the biblical scholar, Walter Breuggemann, who uses the Old Testament to show how we can replace our “myths of scarcity” with “liturgies of abundance.” And eventually this church board began to discuss ways of re-shaping its outlook so that it focused on God’s abundance. It took a number of months of work and a lot of trial and error before they had conquered their fears. And it would be easy to say that those months of work represented the place of “leadership.” But that would miss the lesson this story has to tell. The key moment was when the board turned from scarcity and toward abundance. And the most important moment of leadership happened when their leader helped them see their world differently. Everything else flowed from that moment when the elders adopted a new way of seeing the world—one built on abundance rather than scarcity.

It is easy to misunderstand leadership as telling people what to do. And it’s not even about telling them what to think because, as we’ll see later, no leader can do that for someone else. You cannot coerce people. But a leader can entice people to change what we will call their “mental models”—the categories (like scarcity) they use to interpret their worlds. And when people have new mental models, they can make spiritual sense for themselves. That’s what it means to lead the People of God.