All men are equal

For one man is not different from another before God. Rom 2:11

A few weeks back we had a Sunday school class about this verse. Using a classic German translation, it said: God does not look at the person.

I got a puzzled look from one of the boys. I then realised what he must have understood: God does not look at me. It does work in English as well: God is no respecter of people. Does that mean that God has no respect for us?

Obviously, God not only looks at us, he looks out for us. We all know what the verse means—or maybe, just maybe we have to make sure we do: God does not favour one over the other. And he tells us to do the same. James tells us not to regard a rich man higher than a beggar.

But respect? At first, respectare only means to look at. It also means to observe, to follow, and to respect.

God respects us. I have written about this before: God even respects us so much, that he will not interfere with our decisions and rather have seemingly no relationship with us than one under pressure or manipulation. We call this free will.

And God does not favour one over the other. He has given gifts to all men and women. And all gifts work together to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. God did not distribute the gifts equally—he is no egalitarian—but fairly, making the more gifted more responsible in return.

There is a class of gifts that even have double responsibility, as they have a very direct influence on the belief system and the relationship people have with God. I am talking of the teaching gifts we call the fivefold ministry. God gave them to lead the people into maturity and into their calling. God will obviously hold one accountable for what one did with his people.

I don’t know whether this was in the mind of the people that elevated the pastor—one of these five gifts—to become the leader of the church. The train of thought might have been: if they are responsible, give them the power to control the outcome. Under the influence of the culture of the time—the Roman empire—the church installed a single man over the church and gave him enough power to rule.

Soon, it was the pastor that decided when, how, and why things were done in the church. He presided over the elders that in turn oversaw the church. Soon only the pastor was allowed to lead the last supper. And in the early fourth century, the old testament priesthood was taken as a model for church leadership, helped by the Roman emperor and the church becoming the state church. Pastors were called priests, bishops and cardinals, and even a high priest called the pope was installed. And Ciprian constructed what is known as apostolic succession, developing the office of the pope from Peter.

Thus, a caste of priests was installed, clearly separated from laity.

Please understand that I am not against the catholic church. I only want to show that any hierarchical leadership in any church does not stem from the Bible, but has been introduced by men under cultural influence and logical thinking.

Peter reminded us that we are a people of kings and priests—every single one of us.

You might answer that Moses called Israel a people of priests as well, and still there was a levitical priesthood, clearly a caste just as the one described. Yet I have to reply that the levitical priesthood was only put in place when Israel decided to have Moses talk to God for them. They clearly rejected common priesthood, and God re-instantiated it in the new covenant.

Until today, there is a distorted view of church leadership. In most churches, there is the one or the few that decide upon everything, while most just watch them perform—that is what they get payed for in the first place. The ones doing the work, that is.

God does not gift us with power. He gifts us with authority. He gave the fivefold to equip and build, not to lead. At least, the word is not used in the job description of the fivefold in Ephesians 4. We derive a form of leadership from the task assigned. But we have to allow ourselves to take off our cultural glasses and re-evaluate church leadership.

In Acts 15, we see that there is a certain set of functions in the body of Christ deciding about theological questions: the elders and apostles.

The apostles and the elders were assembled together to look into and consider this matter. Acts 15:6

Why the apostles and elders? We can either look at this with our old lenses again—church leadership. Or we can see their function: those were the ones given the assignment of God to teach the body. God would talk to them about teaching matters, wouldn’t you think?

At the end, James decided. Or did he? There was quite some debate, before Peter and Paul talked about their experiences. And James, under the impression of all statements and lead by the Holy Spirit, summarised. In authority.

Democracy? By no means. Consider another story. In 2 Chronicles 14 we read a story of war. King Jehoshaphat had to decide on how to face the enemy, and he assembled the people. From their midst, a prophet had the solution by the Spirit: send the Levites ahead singing and praising, and we will win.

A prophets word was needed in the situation, and in the assembly called by the authority that searched the will of God, God gave the answer through a man gifted in this area.

Spirit lead team work, respecting the gifts.

This is not to discourage pastors or take away from them. It is as much about shaking the people to take responsibility and use their gifts as it is about leaders to do what they are called for: empower the people.

This is why Paul said that apostles are servants, even dirt. They are the foundation that lets people walk into authority. Apostles and prophets are the foundation that lets the fivefold build upon them. Upon them, not beneath them.

But if I continue with this matter this way, I encourage a turned over hierarchy. Suddenly, everybody can trample on the fivefold as they wish. It might sound like this: we pay them, so they do what has to be done. I bought my way out of it.

No. Because it’s all about relationships. We are to submit to each other, respecting and even valuing the gifts in the other. Empowering everybody, learning from them in the area of their gifting.

God respects us and does not value one over the other. Why don’t we?