Not a Hierarchy, Not a Democracy, But a Pneumatocracy: The Church’s True Politics

Yesterday I said on twitter:

Take hierarchy away from most Christians and they default to democracy which is almost worse. We don’t know how to live into pneumatocracy.

Allow me to expand on this a little.

Despite most N. Americans growing up in democracy, we are most used to living within organizations that run on hierarchy. Our churches, jobs, schools, governments, most often, run via top down authority. For sure there is some kind of democratic legitimization, but our leaders operate with an authority that operates over us. In other words, after all the conversation, all the discussion, in the end, the leader at the top makes the decision. They tell us what to do. A good leader cannot be a despot for long unless he or she gets good results (in a business). Generally, he or she has to have the broad support of his or her constituency. Even monarchs can’t go on forever abusing their people. But they are all ultimately still in a position over the people, they rule, and the buck stops with them.

I have been arguing for years (along with some streams of Anabaptism) that hierarchy has been overcome in Christ. The church is a new politics. So Jesus told his disciples over and over again “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. (Mark 10:42-44). Instead of hierarchy, the church now is a live body of the Spirit where the gifts of the Spirit embody Christ’s authority in mutual submission to Christ the singular head of the body and in mutual dependence (and servanthood) upon one another (1 Cor 12; Eph 4 1-16).

But when we get down to doing all this, say in church planting, or in organizing missional communities, or even in organizing larger churches around the five-fold gifting, it seems we default into a mode of democracy. In the name of flat leadership, we operate as if all voices are to be treated equal on all concerns. We end up now in endless conversations discerning the issues a community is facing. And what developed is the church as a bunch of individuals talking a lot and in the end going nowhere together. Instead each individual goes their own way on any number of issues. This is why people persist in saying things like “flat leadership is no leadership.”

But the model of the New Testament is not hierarchy (or aristocracy) or democracy. It is pneumatocracy. It is the gifts of the Spirit recognized and empowered to fulfil and lead in certain gift areas (or we might call them tasks) in mutual submission one to one another under one Lord the head of all. It starts first with a set or recognized leaders in certain gifts: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers (Eph 4:11) OR apostles, prophets, teachers in (1 Cor 12:28). These leaders are the “first” leaders which then set into motion the rest of the gifted body. They are not only to lead, but to always encouraging, affirm and call the rest of the body into its giftedness in the various contexts of tasks and arenas the church is serving in. These first gifts get recognized in order to then “equip” the rest of the body for ministry (Eph 4:12). This beginning leadership circle is polycentric, not one singular leader at the top. It demands of each leader mutual submission, because one person cannot see or know everything considering the issues of a political body (the church).  And this leadership circle models for the rest of the church how we are all together to operate.

The gifted one always leads out of their giftedness only and then submits to the rest of the body. A conversation is not leadership. The teacher teaches. The pastor pastors, etc. (1 Cor 12: 8-11; Rom 12:6). The Lord of the church distributes to each as He determines (1 Cor 12:11). So I always ask whoever is leading on an issue to a.) talk about what drives their concern and discernment, b.) make a proposal and then c.) submit it to the rest of us. We discuss, we might have some other angles on the issue, and make another proposal with slight changes. It becomes our joint decisions as led by the one with a particular gift. The apostle (are we engaging!) will generate different issues for concern than the pastor (are we caring for!) than the teacher (are we heretics!!) than the evangelist (are we reaching these hurting people!!) . But in the end we together discern the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16).

This is a stunningly different form of leadership than is possible in the world. It is made possible only in Christ. It displays a different politics before the world: noncoercive, mutual, coalescing instead of antagonistic. It recognizes diversity, not a false unity or endless tolerance in a conversation that goes nowhere. For sure there will be leaders who are more visible given their gift. (Paul acknowledges as much in 1 Cor 12). But this does not mean the less visible are any less important. The body of gifts empowers all, not a few. It disperses power instead of amassing it in a few. It is the way of the Kingdom. What do you think? 

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