Christian leaders are accountable to Christ alone

One of the oddities of ministerial life is that although as far as the Inland Revenue is concerned we ministers are employees of the church, in the eyes of the law we are in fact self-employed. The result is that no minister can sue the church for unfair dismissal, however unfair the circumstances may be – indeed, in a House of Lords ruling, if ministers wish to take issue with anybody, then they should take issue with God. For God is ultimately our employer.

Although this may be deemed to be a legal oddity, it does express a theological truth. First and foremost ministers are accountable to God, and only secondarily are they are accountable to their congregations. Indeed, that is what in effect Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, when some of the members began to criticise his ministry: “You should think of us as Christ’s servants… I am not at all concerned about being judged by you… The Lord is the one who passes judgement on me” (1 Cor 4.1a, 3a,4b). At the end of the day no minister worth his or her salt should be overly concerned to please their church – their paramount concern is to please their Lord.

It is within this context that Paul writes: “The one thing required of (Christ’s) servants is that they be faithful to their master” (1 Cor 4.2 GNB). Or in the words of the NRSV: “It is required of stewards that they be faithful”. For pastors this is a liberating thought. There is no need for us to feel tyrannized by what others may say about us: our one goal should be to please our Lord (see 2 Cor 4.4). Yes, serving Christ does involve us serving our churches: but our ultimate accountability – even within the context of a Baptist church and a Baptist church meeting – is to Christ.

But this concept of our primary accountability to Christ is also a challenging thought. This sense of accountability is , in fact, brought out by two words Paul uses of himself, and indeed of church leaders in general: we are “servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries” (2 Cor 4.1). Both are instructive words about Christian leadership.

In the first place, church leaders are servants of Christ. The Greek word Paul uses here (huperetes) is a word he only uses this once in his writings: normally he uses another Greek word (diakonos) from which we get our word ‘deacon’ (see 2 Cor 3.5). Huperetes is an interesting word. Translated by the REB as Christ’s ‘subordinates’, it refers to “one who stands and acts in the service of a higher will and is full at the disposal of this will” (Rengstorf). I discovered that “in military circles it referred to either the quartermaster of the immediate aide of a commander, while in medicine it designated an intern [registrar?] and in the judicial area could refer to the executioner” (Alan F. Johnson). All these roles were important – but ultimately the people carrying out these roles were subordinate to others. Paul’s us of this word brings out that as leaders we are not serving Christ.

In the second place, church leaders are ‘stewards’ (oikonomos) – not in the sense of an airline steward – but in the sense of a ‘manager’. Owners of large estates would often appoint a slave to ‘manage’ their properties. This position of manager carried a good deal of responsibility, as also of privilege and authority. An illustration of this is found in an ancient commissioning document:

I have empowered you by this document to administer my estate in Arsinoe, and to collect the rents and, if need be, to arrange new leases or to cultivate some land yourself, and to give receipts in my name, and to transact any business connected with stewardship, just as I can transact it when I am present, and to distribute the plots in Karamis, restoring to me what remains over, as to which matter I rely on your good faith, and I confirm whatever you decide about them.

The ‘steward’ or ‘manager’ clearly had a wide range of tasks, which required him to be pro-active and to take the initiative. But at the end of the day, the manager had to give account to his master. The authority he exercised was delegated authority. “Those who have been given a trust” (NIV) must prove themselves to be “faithful” or ”trustworthy” (1 Cor 4.2)

But what in particular does Paul have in mind when he speaks of “faithful” or “trustworthy” stewards? Within this particular context, it seems to be that there are three aspects of faithfulness:

  1. First Christian leaders are required to faithfully expound the Word of God. We are to be “stewards of God’s mysteries” (1 Cor 4.1). These “mysteries” are not the sacraments of the church, but rather the truths of the Gospel –what Paul in 1 Cor 2.10 paraphrases as “the depths of God”. Rather than to “practice cunning” or to “falsify the truth”, we are called to openly state the truth as revealed in Jesus (see 2 Cor 4.2). In Paul’s later letters, this mystery includes in particular the inclusion of the Gentiles within God’s saving purposes (see Rom 16.25-27; Eph 3.1-13; Col 1.26-27), but here the emphasis is on the Gospel in its fullness..
  2. Secondly, Christian leaders are called to have the right motivation. Paul refers to the day when God “will disclose the purposes of the heart” (1 Cor 4.5 NRSV), what the REB calls “our inward motives”.
  3. Thirdly, Christian leaders are called to ensure that the Cross is the pattern for their ministry, and not just the message of their ministry – even if this means ultimately being regarded as ”the rubbish of the world” (1 Cor 4.13). Far from expecting acclamation and adulation, Christian leaders must be prepared for scorn and rejection if they are to be true followers of Christ.

Roy Ciampa & Brian Rosner in their monumental commentary write:

The Corinthians were assessing their leaders on the criteria of wisdom, eloquence and impressive personal presence. In stark contrast, God’s basis for judgement is very different… Whereas we may be tempted to judge ministers on their success or initiative or giftedness in terms of interpersonal relations or speaking, the sole requirement Paul counsels them to keep in mind is their faithfulness to God.

Here indeed is food for thought. Christian leadership is a challenging calling.

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