Leadership in God's Family (Acts 6:1-6)

A fundamental insight Christians need about the nature of the church is that it is a family where everyone belongs, everyone is valued, and everyone is responsible for its function. It is not a restaurant where a fairly predictable bunch of patrons show up with some degree of regularity, sit down to an appetizing and nourishing meal, linger for a while in pleasant surroundings, and then get up and go home feeling no sense of connectedness or interdependence with one another.

God's family needs effective leaders. The church needs leaders who see its life as family life rather than an organizational flow chart or business plan. We need shepherds, ministry leaders, and staff who are connected with this body through service, sacrifice, and submission. We need flexible people in leadership who can think creatively. And we certainly don't need insecure people who can't trust others to have motives and abilities as good as their own, who need to micromanage others, who get heady with their own importance when trusted to lead, or who think their personal insights are better than those of the larger group of which they are a part.

The church is the Body of Christ and the Family of God. Until we think in terms of these organic and family models for our life, we will continue to "do church" institutionally. So long as we function institutionally, we aren't really the church. A business maybe. Perhaps a club or restaurant. But not the family of God.

Apostolic Leadership

In the earliest days of the first church in Jerusalem, everything seems to have presumed the personal leadership of the twelve apostles. Yet that church grew so large so rapidly that they had to be flexible enough to evolve some expanded leadership positions. A problem arose, in fact, when some minority Hellenist members were convinced that widows among their number were being neglected in the distribution of goods and services to those vulnerable members of first-century society. The Twelve handled that challenge admirably and flexibly. This is Luke's account of the event:

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word." What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them (Acts 6:1-6, New Revised Standard Version).
Some of you know the book Flight of the Buffalo.[1] It has been a best-selling book on leadership and argues that effective organizations are ones that give up the command-and-control model for a more flexible shared, empowering leadership model.

Early settlers on the American frontier decimated the huge buffalo herds they found there. It was rather easy because of a peculiarity of how buffalo herds operate. Buffalo follow a single leader. A hunter would watch a herd for a day or so, spot the lead animal, and move in to kill it. The rest of the herd would simply stand there waiting for their leader to show them the next move. While they stood there, hunters picked them off one after another and slaughtered whole herds. Belasco and Stayer argue that some businesses have failed because they had a single visionary, a single planner, a single leader. He drops dead or loses his vision or doesn't spot changes in the market, and the company fails and goes belly-up. Does that sound like anything you've ever seen in a church?

The apostles never thought the church belonged to them; it is the Body of Christ. The apostles weren't power-hunger; they relinquished a ministry over which they had held authority. The apostles weren't arrogant; they knew others could handle something they had been overseeing. And they knew they were supposed to attend to their primary calling of teaching the Word of God; as important as ministry to the widows in that church was, it was neither their personal calling nor strength. So they yielded that task to other qualified people.

If you will permit me to borrow again from Flight of the Buffalo, a couple of paragraphs fit what I see happening at Jerusalem in Acts 6.

Then one day I got it. What I really wanted in [my business] was a group of responsible, interdependent workers, similar to a flock of geese [instead of a herd of buffalo]. I could see the geese flying in their "V" formation, the leadership changing frequently, with different geese taking the lead. I saw every goose being responsible for getting itself to wherever the gaggle was going, changing roles whenever necessary, alternating as a leader, a follower, or a scout. And when the task changed, the geese would be responsible for changing the structure of the group to accommodate . . .

Then I saw clearly that the biggest obstacle to success was my picture of a loyal herd of buffalo waiting for me, the leader, to tell them what to do. I knew I had to change the pictures to become a different kind of leader, so everyone could become a leader. [2]
The Twelve did not adopt a buffalo-mentality. They turned this important ministry task to the church as a whole and told them to seek out people to coordinate caring for the widows. Their theory seems to be that leadership could "rise from below" and could be recognized by the church. That is our theory of leadership here, and we are currently seeking additional male leaders to join our shepherd body.[3] Next Sunday, John will look at 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 for an overview of the lifestyle of such men. Today I simply call attention to the three fundamental qualities that every man and woman in the church must have who aspires to leadership in teaching, benevolence, counseling, or any other spiritual ministry.

Three Essential Qualities of Leaders

The three essential qualities of spiritual leadership cited in Acts 6 are these: one must have a good reputation, be filled with the Holy Spirit, and be filled with wisdom.

First, a church leader must be "of good standing" within the group. The authority to lead others in spiritual matters does not flow from titles and positions but from a life that is authentic. As an art, leadership is more a network of influence within a group than a degree, books read, or ideas advanced. You can always spot a leader within any group large or small. Merle Van Vleet said it a couple of weeks ago: We're looking to affirm people who already exhibit positive influence through their authentic Christian presence rather than to appoint some people we hope can develop that sort of lifestyle.

Second, spiritual leaders are "full of the Spirit." Galatians 5:22-23 names some of the traits of a personality that is Spirit-filled love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc. The Holy Spirit of God indwells every saved person and makes his or her body into a temple, but some people are further along than others in surrendering to the Spirit. The evidence of that surrender is in life-traits of generosity and faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I heard about a church committee where a fellow said, "So the vote is as follows: Joe, Ruth, David, Sid, and Marcia are for the proposal. God and I are against it." That spirit isn't the Holy Spirit. That's a divisive spirit, an arrogant spirit, a self- centered spirit, but not the Holy Spirit.

Third, we are looking for people "full of wisdom." Wisdom is problem-solving ability. It is sanctified common sense. It is the ability to avoid panic in a crisis, to get and focus on good information, and to discover through prayer and spiritual discernment a course to follow that honors the Lord. One of the evidences of wisdom in church leadership is not only personal discernment but understanding that one's task is to teach and raise up others with such wisdom. We need shepherds who know their task is to create a church culture and leadership structure that will outlast them. Another evidence of wisdom is the ability to hear others and build consensus among people. Too often it works out that people who think their eyes have been opened to a vision simultaneously close their ears to others around them. "But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy" (Jas. 3:17).


If your judgment about this sermon is that it has claimed nothing more than that biblical leadership is built on the foundation of being the person God expects every one of his children to be, you've gotten the point. Church leaders are simply those men and women who are a little further along in the process of spiritual living that their character, reputation, and life skills are seen as exemplary. They bear scrutiny and imitation by the rest of us. My personal definition of a leader, in fact, is that a leader is someone who is going somewhere with such confidence and clarity that others fall in behind.

Since this is black history month and since hers is one of my favorite stories, let me close on leadership by reminding you of Ruby Bridges. When she was only six, Ruby was the first black student ever at all-white William Frantz Public School in New Orleans in 1960. Norman Rockwell immortalized the event in his famous 1964 painting "The Problem We All Live With." It shows Ruby being escorted to class by federal marshals, while hostile crowds called her names and shouted death threats. Each day of her first-grade year, she went to a classroom where there was only a teacher and Ruby. The parents of the white children would not permit them to be in class with her. How could a child endure such hatred? How could she sleep at night? How could she eat or learn? "I try to get there, and I figure if I do, then other kids might say they're willing to try and go too," she said, "and pretty soon, it could be better for us here."[4]

The church needs leaders who have a reputation for Spirit-surrendered lives that exhibit wisdom in going first to the very places of discernment, faithfulness, and obedience the rest of us need to find and whose presence there inspires us on our way. Eventually, it gets better for all of us. The church gets healthier. And God is both honored and pleased.

[1] James A. Belasco and Ralph C. Stayer, Flight of the Buffalo (New York: Warner Books, 1993).
[2] Flight of the Buffalo, p. 18.
[3] For new members of our body, the only "office" of the church we believe the New Testament reserves for males only is the role of shepherd-elder. Deacons we call them Ministry Leaders may be either male or female in the life of our church.
[4] Robert Coles, Lives of Moral Leadership (New York: Random House, 2000), p. xiv.

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