Lessons in Common Grace
How do we balance the desire for biblical church leadership with wisdom from the world? We look at common grace, which is demonstrated in Scripture, particularly in Exodus 18.
In this article, I want to suggest that we must not misinterpret the meaning of the Lord's warnings about ways of leading.
“Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high official officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”’ (Matt 20:25-28)
It is seriously important that any who speak and lead on the Lord's behalf seek to please him, and do so in ways which obey what he says.1 We should be nervous of aping anything that isn't reflective of God’s holiness, grace and truth.
But this is a counter-cultural warning about worldly leadership, yet not a total rejection of any wisdom from outside the Bible.
Sometimes I see a narrative of total suspicion when it comes to insights, wisdom or advice from the world about leadership and organising the church community well. Comments like: “We don't want business practices to intrude here.” That means some evangelicals have distanced themselves from any insights from common grace. I don’t think that’s helpful, because Scripture itself teaches common grace, and believers down through the centuries have benefited from it.
Examples from Scripture
Let's look at Scripture first. The locus classicus is Exodus 18 and Jethro's visit to Moses, his son-in-law.
- First, we should note that he is an outsider, a priest of Midian, and not a member of the covenant community.
- When he visits, he finds the people of God in an organisational mess. Moses is overstretched, weary, and near to breaking-point. The people of God aren't being properly cared for and they are close to experiencing a melt-down of the justice system.
- He brings some organisational wisdom, structure, process and systems to a group experiencing what leadership writer Les McKeown might describe as ‘white water.’2
- He recognises the need for the blessing of God on all of this. His advice is not an automatic humanistic fix for the problems they face, but a God-fearing approach for bringing some order into chaos. Paul urges the same principle on the Corinthians, “God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor 14:33a). “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Cor 14:40).
- Jethro's advice seems to have been very effective. Establishing a caring leadership structure, based on small groups of ten, brought benefit to all. His wise insights were adopted by the people of God without a sense that they were by-passing the revealed will of God.
Indeed, the context of Exodus 18 is salutary. It comes just before the revelation of the law of God, which prescribes so much detail about how the people of God are to worship him. There seems no incongruity between the common grace wisdom of chapter 18, and chapter 19 and its special revelation of what is normative and obligatory.
Acts 6:1-7 seems a New Testament parallel to all of this. The apostles were leading the people of God, but things were seriously creaking. They handled the situation wisely. Their solution to the organisational failure to help some of the neediest amongst them was to establish a team of people who took on the responsibility on behalf of the whole church. This left the pastor-teachers free to use their gifts and carry out other priorities. The solution, as with Jethro, seems wise and indeed elegant, but it's not based on any specific command to do it that way.
Some evangelicals, in my opinion, have misread Acts 6 as if the only lesson is, “Don't let anything get in the way of Word ministry.” I hear this concern, but still feel it is misplaced.
The leaders back then had to deal with a serious situation and utilised great organisational insight to do so. They didn't just preach about it. They had to lead well.
Many who are strong Bible teachers in the contemporary world are well-organised because they up-skilled by leading organisations. This may have come from involvement in the public sector (military, school and university, medical, judicial, governmental, or charitable) or the private (large and small entrepreneurial enterprises). The danger is that we down-play this as if it has little place in the church which means its benefits can be undervalued.
Examples from Church History
Our Christian forefathers recognised the significance of this in their teaching on how the church should be led. The Westminster Confession, for example, states it like this:
“…there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed.” (Chapter 1, 6)
One would not accuse those leaders of being unprincipled pragmatists bypassing the regulative principle! Neither were they undermining the sufficiency of Scripture. They saw that the Bible itself requires that some wisdom in ordering things is left to the people of God. They are to harness insights from God’s kindness to all that he has placed in his creation, both in the physical world, and in the world of human affairs. Both the direct examples of Scripture, and the insights of our forefathers into Scripture’s implications, taken together, can encourage us to seek the wisdom we need to lead the people of God well.
The heritage entrusted to us enables us to know where the riverbanks are. That is, we have clearly marked out boundaries about what Scripture requires and warns us about, but freedom to navigate within those boundaries. There is great scope to help the people of God go forward. This will involve growing in leadership and organisational insights, amongst other things.
A robust, biblically-informed, understanding of the doctrine of common grace will enable us to get help without transgressing the Lord Jesus’ injunction, “Not so with you.” The pride, conceit, jealousy, competitiveness, bullying, ruthlessness, and lack of principle which may characterise leaders and their organisations, should transparently be rejected by Christian servant leaders.
But wisdom can be found in many places – placed there by the Lord in his kindness, for the benefit of all.
1. Patrick Lencioni, What’s Your Motive? (Global Leadership Summit, 2019). In his presentation he outlines two kinds of leadership. One he calls ‘Rewards Leadership’ where the individual leads that he/she may get from leading, and Responsibility Leadership – Servant Leadership – the only kind of legitimate leadership. It is worth listening to find out how you can tell which kind of leader you are tending to be.
2. Les McKeown, Predictable Success: Getting Your Organization on the Growth Track - and Keeping It There (Greenleaf Book Group, 2014).