From the Vaunted Leadership of Bill Hybels, Mark Driscoll, and James MacDonald to the Deprecated Leadership of Paul

My previous claims that no authority relieves us of the responsibility of thought and agency (here) and that this is an ongoing personal realization (here), rest upon rightly recognizing the role of authority (ecclesiastical, apostolic, biblical, and divine). Authority is a necessary factor in shaping our lives, and where this authority is misused, misdirected, or misunderstood (the universal predicament), then it warps us accordingly. We are ushered into this world under failed regimes of social power (the “principalities and powers”) and this is the point of being adopted into a new family and becoming citizens of a new kingdom.  We are to be nurtured, discipled, and guided into being image bearers which requires real world models – and here is the rub. The abuse of authority and power in the church seems to have reached epidemic proportions. The endless scandals (most recently the resignation of Bill Hybels and the entire board of elders from Willow Creek Community Church following a sex scandal) along with the rise of the #ChurchToo movement for victims of evangelical church abuse indicates the pervasive nature of the problem. However, it is not simply clergy sex scandals, or what Episcopalians have dubbed “impaired communion” (the inability to line up doctrine and authority), but even the ideal notions of authority which are problematic.

 The public failures, that is, are indicative that the ideals of leadership are themselves flawed. The mega-church CEO model of authority continues to produce abusive authoritarians (e.g.  Mark Driscoll and most recently James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, in MacDonald’s case threats of physical violence, excommunication of elders who complained, financial corruption, etc. etc.). These “successful pastors” fall under scrutiny only when they take the notions of leadership which gained them numbers and prominence to extremes. They are, however, simply following the blueprint for marketing of the Church as outlined by Donald McGavran and Peter Wagner which focuses on centralized leadership (of the CEO sort). This marketing and management plan though, seems to have not simply displaced the priority of theology but has smuggled in its own unbiblical theology. As one well known proponent of the method puts it, “I don’t deal with theology. I’m simply a methodologist.” Whatever the theological emphasis employed, as Os Guinness has noted, methodology and technique are at the center and in control and so constitute the theology or bend it accordingly.[1] The technique works to gain numbers and this valuation or “sign of success,” often directly equated with divine approval, is itself a sign of theological failure.  

The church-growth movement, arising from McGavran’s missionary experience in India, flows out of another missionary presumption called “contextualization.” There is the obvious need in Bible translation to adjust biblical idioms and language to fit the linguistic context but this idea can be and sometimes is, I believe, erroneously extended to the overall presentation of the Gospel. The danger in contextualization is to presume that the culture is a stable factor determinative of meaning rather than a flawed and fallen system. Likewise, the horizon of the Gospel can become isolated from the culture so that the two horizons are only related by force. If culture is the ultimate determiner of meaning and value then there is the danger the Gospel is simply made to comply to cultural norms (Don Richardson’s Peace Child, is a popular example which, however legitimate, points to the potential danger). This may result in a static notion of both Gospel and culture as one’s reading of Scripture is not impacted by the culture and one’s reading of the culture is not through the interpretive lens of Scripture.

An example from Japan is the concept of amae or dependence (the full explanation is beyond the scope of my point but is explained here), which is certainly key to understanding Japan but the question is whether the Gospel should be shaped to the concept (e.g. the novels of Shūsaku Endō in which God is our divine Mother upon whom we are childishly dependent gets at the problem) or whether the concept is one that the Gospel exposes and defeats. One of my finest students in Japan, an American missionary of Japanese descent, discovered the universal application of the concept and had a much deeper understanding than I did of its resonance throughout the culture. The problem was, perhaps due to his training as a missionary, that he presumed amae was an unchangeable cultural trait of Japanese to which the Gospel should be made to fit. My own understanding is that amae, while it is a pervasive characteristic of Japanese, entails a profound misconception of what it means to be human. Amae is a prime example of how death is taken up through culture into identity and entails precisely what it is in culture that needs overturning. I would not have developed this understanding apart from a dynamic reading of the culture through a scriptural lens and a renewed (revised) understanding of Scripture through this same interpretive process. 

The problem with contextualization, especially as applied in church-growth thought, is it privileges cultural notions of leadership that consistently subvert the Gospel.  This can be demonstrated through, what may be, the prime proof text of the church growth-movement and contextualization – I Co 9:22: “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” Church-growth advocates presume that this text means we must adjust to the times, be innovative, do what is effective to bring people in (e.g. “niche marketing,” the need for “audience-driven,” “seeker-friendly,” services under a forceful leader). The context of this passage does indeed pertain directly to authority and leadership but Paul is not arguing that the Corinthians should utilize their cultural norms to maximize their leadership potential. He is arguing that they need to give up on their notions of “effective styles of leadership.”

Chapter 9 is not a departure from Paul’s point in chapter 8 that the strong need to forego their rights or sacrifice their power so as to build up the weak. He first establishes the fact that as an Apostle he has the right to receive support from the Corinthians and then he explains that he has sacrificed this right. He is using himself and his apostolic authority as a case in point of how the strong should act in regard to the weak. At the same time, we are given a picture of how authority in the church is to be and not to be constituted.

Rollo May in his book, Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence, could be summing up both what the Corinthians admire and what church-growth methodology might sometimes seem to require in a leader.[2] May lists five ways a leader might employ power: 1. “Exploitative power” employs force or the threat of violence so that it leaves the other with no choice but to comply. 2. “Manipulative power” uses the covert methods of the con man. 3. “Competitive power” employs an I win/you lose strategy. 4. “Nutrient power” is likened to a parent’s care for a child in that it is exercised on behalf of another’s welfare. It can create dependency and become smothering by seeking to do the other good according to “our way” (as in strategies which would accommodate amae).

In the two letters to Corinth, it is clear that Paul’s rivals (the super-apostles) have been exploitative, manipulative, and competitive in their use of power. They enslave, devour, seek to gain control, put on airs, and strike the Corinthians in the face, or publicly insult them (11:20). The Corinthians not only have submitted themselves to this authoritarian domination but they figure Paul does not live up to the standard of an Apostle.[3] He is not what they would consider an effective leader. Paul, however, is attempting to develop a very different set of values in regard to leadership. Paul’s goal fits with May’s fifth notion of a leader’s exercise of power: 5. “Integrative power” works with others (instead of on them) to enable them to grow both mentally and spiritually and to abet their power. Paul is employing and developing this integrative notion of power: “we work with you for your joy” (1:24; see 13:10), and his concentrated explanation is in I Co 9. Paul is attempting to model an alternative mode of power and leadership but common readings of chapter 9, due, perhaps, to cultural presumptions about power, miss the point.

Christ did not create a monarchy, a hierarchy, a dictatorship, or a fellowship on the basis of a regime of power. He takes up the cross, washes the disciples’ feet, and is the servant of all, and this is the model of leadership and mode of power Paul is calling the Corinthians to imitate: the power to serve, the power to identify directly with the disempowered and the weak, the power to forego one’s rights. Paul is modelling what Christ modeled. Money is a direct correlate of power and though Paul says he has a right to this power or money, as a means of displaying the paradigm of leadership (apostolic leadership) he is doing manual labor (shameful, no doubt, to the super-apostles and the Corinthian elites).

In the opening rhetoric of the chapter (“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus or Lord?”) Paul is not appealing to his authority so as to Lord it over them or even that they might simply do what he tells them. He seems to be imitating their own claim to act on the basis of “rights,” “freedom,” and “knowledge” (8:1,2,4,7,9,10.11). Paul establishes these rights, makes claims of freedom, indicates his own knowledge, only to renounce these as the basis for exercising power and leadership. He is modelling what he wants them to do, and in this he is simply modeling what Christ did. Christian leadership and Apostleship thus point away from the self to Christ. It is not a relinquishing of agency but becoming a transparent bearer of the agency of Christ, that for which we were intended as image bearers.

The signs of the apostle (sharing in the suffering and death of Christ, enduring weakness as a point of strength, living out a cruciform agency) are peculiarly unpleasing to the Corinthians. One could take all of their critiques of Paul (he is weak and cowardly (10:1,10; 11:7; 13:3-4), he lacks apostolic power (12:12), he continues to work at a trade and so, in the Corinthians view he denigrates his apostleship and brings shame on them (11:7-9; 12:13-18; see 1 Cor. 9:3-18)) as clear evidence that his is not a CEO- power ministry or a ministry of miracles. He is modeling humility, self-abasement, relinquishing of rights, as the Christian mode of authority. “I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling” (2:3); “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!” (4:10); “To the weak I became weak” (9:22). In comparison to the super-apostles Paul appears too weak to be effective. They would have Paul be a mega-church super-apostle but he eschews this “glory” for a cruciform leadership. In other words, the farthest thing from Paul’s notion of a leader would be ornamental robes, signet rings, crowns, royal colors, or the presentation of power as we normally think of it. He is not a rhetorician, a flamboyant preacher, or an arrogant CEO bishop. Paul asserts his authority for building up the Christian community, not himself (12:19; 13:9-10), which is the only way that authority should be employed in the church.  

One wonders if Paul’s critique of the Corinthians might be directly leveled at some contemporary notions of successful church leadership. They are guilty of disobedience (10:6); comparing and commending themselves unduly (10:12); being ignorant of the true source of authority, the Lord (10:12b, 17-18); seducing Christians as Satan did Eve (11:2-3); preaching another Jesus, spirit, and gospel (11:4); and boasting unduly (10:15; 11:12; see 5:12). Could it be that in privileging our cultures notion of successful leaders we also have to do with false apostles, deceitful workers, and emissaries of Satan who have only disguised themselves as apostles of Christ (11:13,15)?  To become a leader in the mold of Paul will probably not result in the approbation our culture gives to notable preachers and leaders but this very lack of recognition – the failure to live up to the values of the culture – may be step one in pursuit of authentic Christian leadership.  


[1] Os Guinness, “Sounding Out the Idols of Church Growth,” http://icpnetwork.nl/members-files/fase5/evaluation-megachurches.pdf

[2] R. May, Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972), 105-113. Quoted from David £ Garland, “Paul’s Apostolic Authority,” Review and Expositor, 86 (1989) http://www.compasschurch.org/women/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/03/L16-Pauls-apostolic-authority-the-power-of-Christ-sustaining-weakness-2-

[3]See Garland Ibid.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.