Are ‘Leaders’ Biblical?

by the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall, Dean of Chelmsford

Subverting the language of Leadership before it subverts the Church

A colleague who serves as a priest in the Church of Sweden recounts the deeply moving experience of attending an ordination at which the candidate being ordained deacon was a person with Downs Syndrome. It was clearly a powerful moment. In all the contemporary rhetoric about leadership, this ordination said something important and surprising about the kingdom of God.

Tolstoy tells a parallel story about three monks who were so forgetful that they couldn’t even remember the Lord’s Prayer, but so holy that they could walk on water. Tolstoy was no friend of organised (and organising) religion, and his story was partly another pot shot at the Russian Church. But the story but it raises the question in a pointed way of what qualities we might really need in our spiritual guides: holiness, or a good memory?

Whatever else, we clearly have a problem with language. It is very striking that the word “leader” is never used of a Christian minister in the New Testament or in Christian tradition until the latter part of the 20th century. From then on it becomes ubiquitous. This is an extraordinary phenomenon, and one that demands our critical engagement.

Don’t misunderstand me. There are clearly aspects of Christian ministry where we can learn from the language and study of leadership. Indeed, why wouldn’t we want to up our game, especially in the areas of good governance and proper accountability where churches have often come unstuck. I certainly need to learn from some of that wisdom to fulfil my role. But the absence of leadership language in the New Testament and Christian tradition – and Jesus’ own wholesale rejection of the language of power (Mark 10.43 and parallels) suggest that “leader” is at best a wholly inadequate word and at worst deeply misleading.

By contrast, when the early Christian community came to choose names for their “ordained elders” (the best phrase I have been able to come up with so far) they rejected the welter of Old Testament possibilities and the range of alternatives offered by Hellenistic culture. Instead they settled for three normal, secular, colourless words: supervisor, elder, and servant. Just a couple of generations after the death and resurrection of Jesus,  Ignatius of Antioch points out it is the deacon who represents Christ, because it is all about service.

When the church became a respectable institution, the supervisor, elder, and servant found themselves transformed into clerical officials, acquiring the appropriate finery and exotic headgear, and rather forgetting Jesus words to his disciples when they started arguing about who was the greatest: “it is not so among you” (Mark 10.43). And as Christians in the west gradually stopped speaking Greek in church and started speaking Latin, the simple name for authorising ordained elders – “laying on of hands” – became the grand word “ordination” – a word used for the installation of Roman officials. Every time I put on the traditional vestments to celebrate the Eucharist I remind myself that these are not the distinctive robes of a Christian priest, but the uniform of a fourth century pagan magistrate. It is important to feel the irony.

Beyond the sheer negative impact of managerialism, the language of leadership has taken such a hold in the churches because it dislocates us from the problematic language of priesthood. Priest in English (arriving by way of medieval French) is simply a contraction of the word “presbyter” i.e. “elder”). The title of the Common Worship ordination service is bizarrely tautological: “priests, also known as presbyters”. Well, no. They are simply different translations of exactly the same word. In the Latin rite, it has always just been “presbyters”.

Our problem is that we use typically use the word “priest” to translate to translate two completely different biblical concepts. The “presbyter” word for an ordained minister, certainly. But we also use “priest” to translate a completely unrelated word meaning “the person who sacrifices.” Certainly this word is core to the Old Testament understanding of priesthood. But this word is never used of a Christian minster; only of Christ and of the corporate body of the church. It is for instance the word used in the phrase “royal priesthood” at 1 Peter 2.9. It has nothing to do with ministry and  everything to do with all of us having equal access to God because of what Christ has done for us. We no longer need a sacrifice. That’s why Calvin said so emphatically “the priesthood is common to all. Not so the ministry”.

This ministry is never about power. Always about service. That has got lost somewhere in the language of leadership. When we have to qualify the word “leader” with the word “servant”, something has gone quite seriously astray. Servant leadership courses can easily become a way of double bluffing ourselves. As I’ve said in an earlier post on this site, whenever Christians start talking about service and vulnerability, there’s a good chance that they are really talking about power.

In Matthew 8, when Jesus says he will come and heal the pagan centurion’s servant, the centurion replies “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof”. The word translated “worthy” at 8.8 is the simple Greek word for “enough”, “sufficient”, “adequate”, “competent”.

That is my daily prayer, for myself and for the whole people of God: “Lord, I am not enough, sufficient, adequate, competent.” Subverting the language of leadership, and learning to speak the upside down language of the kingdom of God.


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6 Responses to Are ‘Leaders’ Biblical?

  1. Anna Lindley says:

    Absolutely agree with you
    As an older woman ordained to serve, I spent an extra year as a deacon precisely over the issue of servant hood and. priesthood.

  2. Tony Wesley says:

    Good morning from the USA. Engaged and taken by your words. I plan to send the link to the members of my scripture study group. Without rancor or intent to bruise, I pose this question: How do you reconcile the words you have written to your use, adoption and repetition of your honorific “the Very Reverend”. I understand that you are entitled to that honorific – the question at hand is how does the ethic of service comport with the taking of all entitlement available?

    • Nicholas Henshall says:

      Dear Tony – thanks for your response! Your question is very pertinent! I refuse to use any titles in my own correspondence, on my letter heads, on my emails, etc. The most I will stretch to is “NIcholas Henshall, Dean of Chelmsford”, which is simply descriptive. But that doesn’t stop other people adding in “the Very Revd….” Even our own social media director here at the Cathedral can’t quite stop herself doing that but my PA does! In my last post I worked for a Bishop who refused to use any titles and chose to live off a parish priests stipend. I aspire to both….!

      Go well and please use the post in anyway that takes the conversation forward – and if you haven’t already, do follow the link in the article to a previous article that explores the themes of vulnerability and power from another perspective.

      Go well.


      • Jayne Ozanne says:

        I can verify that Nicholas did not want me to use “Very Revd” when I first started posting his blogs, but I did so to keep it in keeping with all the other Via Media blogs.

      • Tony Wesley says:

        Thank you so much for your gracious reply. May the remaining shadows of Lent bring your eyes to dance with joy!

  3. Norman Chatfield says:

    When I suggested to a PCC that we should replace the title of Rector with Curate and colleagues as Assistant Curates the suggestion was rejected by a clear majority.! When non church friends asked about church affairs they almost always wanted to know “So, is an Archdeacon higher than a Dean ? Norman Chatfield

Any thoughts?