One of the great scenes in "The Return of the King" is when Gandalf goes before Denethor, the steward of Gondor, and challenges him to do his duty. Denethor is only concerned at that point of keeping his throne, a throne that does not belong to him in the first place. He is drunk with power (and despair for fear of losing it, since he's been frightened by what he has seen in the seeing stone) and cannot, therefore, see clearly. Gandalf then rebukes him by telling him that he is not the king, but only a steward. He does not have the authority to prevent the return of the king, i.e., the right of the king to take up the throne in place of the steward who must relinquish it.
This scene has some resonance for me, as I have loved the church and have desired Christ to rule over it, but there seem to be far too many who wish to rule over it instead. In fact, I could have simply entitled this post, "A Tale of Two Overseers," since my concern is to lay out what the "desire" of the overseer should be versus what it should never be. Because I have so many friends who have gone into ministry, and have been good friends with virtually all of my pastors, I think I have a bit of an insight into something that I have noticed in many of them, but not in others (others who, unfortunately, are few among their number). And this tendency that I have noticed in them is simply this: a desire for power.
On the one hand, people are going to want to use their gifts, and will seek out the greatest amount of opportunity to do so. That's a good thing. If one is a teacher or pastor, then one will often want to seek out the office of overseer, as it will afford him more opportunity to use those gifts. But one must be very careful that he does not seek it out because he likes to be in front of people, or have control. Controlling people are dangerous people to the ministry. They have a hard time letting Christ lead.
You see, if you have an overseer that starts talking about the church as "his," and that not in a more common way as even layman do (i.e., "I'm going to my church today" --- the possessive pronoun used to convey belonging rather than personally possessing), then you may be encountering one who desires to ascend rather than to serve in humility. This is why hierarchies in the church eldership are so dangerous. They exist when we view elders as senior pastors and associate pastors, or even more subtly, as elders within which a non-labeled hierarchy still exists. There is no hierarchy in the community of elders in the Bible, and when the Corinthians try to pull this even among the apostles, they are rebuked for it (1 Cor 1:12-15). There is only one King. Everyone else is just a steward. There is a hierarchy among God's kingdom for purposes of holding up the truth against heresy and impurity that leads Christ's kingdom to ruin (1 Tim 3:15 in view of the entire letter); but this hierarchy is one of multiple elders who function as authoritative servants who must seek Christ to rule over them and the people, not the desire to rule itself.
The tricky thing is that people often don't realize that they are seeking power, and of course, no one presents it that way to himself. Our desire for power is often hidden in the desire that we do things "the right way," which ends up being what one particular individual wants over the other individuals.
So in light of our own self delusions, let me ask you a series of questions to help you see if you might be seeking more control than stewardship before God.
1. Are you fine with other elders taking the head as preaching and exercising authority instead of you overseeing their overseeing? Obviously, elders should function together, so nothing is simply a one man show, or should be, at any time; but my point here is to ask whether you need to be the one who always gets the veto power or needs to spearhead something. In other words, does it make you uncomfortable, like someone is stealing your power, when another overseer (in continuity with the larger group of course) takes the reigns of something that may not be in your personal control? Does this create an anxiety for you or a relief that you are not the only one working to exalt Christ as King over the congregation?
2. Do you feel like you want more of an inlet into people's lives in your congregation? Now, this one can be tricky (aren't they all?), as it may be that sometimes an overseer is too disconnected from people in the congregation. However, many times this is the subtle desire to get more control/power, so that the more one is in the lives of others, the more one can steer those lives in the direction he wants. Less anxiety then exists if one can see what's going on behind the scenes. This, of course, does not give control and trust to the Holy Spirit who testifies to individuals of Christ who works all things to the glory of the Father, and the Father, in return, exalts Him as King over those people's lives. In other words, it is a sin against the entire Godhead to need such control.
3. Are you continually worried that people will leave if you say or do the wrong thing, even when what you say or do comes from the Bible itself? For example, if you exercise church discipline, do you have such anxiety over it (everyone will have some anxiety over such a difficult thing) that you fail to do it altogether? Do you hold back preaching and teaching certain aspects of the whole counsel of God in Scripture because people might leave or attribute you less authority to say other things to them? This is pure manipulation of your duty in an effort to gain or keep power. It seeks to obtain power through giving people what they want rather than exalting Christ as King through one's teaching and exercise of authority. Hence, in this one, an illusion that one wants less power is created by diminishing one's role as an overseer, but in reality, it is a diminishing of Christ's authority in order that the overseer might grab more authority for himself. The steward is to exalt Christ as King, not himself, and therefore, ought to obey Christ in his making disciples by means of teaching ALL that Christ commanded (Matt 28:19-20).
4. Do you feel jealous when others compliment another overseer for their teaching ability, or what they learned by him, or their show of love for him? Perhaps, they want him to preach for awhile? Are you threatened by that? Perhaps they invite him over to dinner more? Are you offended by that? You should rejoice that the Word of the King is desired through anyone who would preach it accurately. You should rejoice that affection is shown toward anyone representing Christ and His Lordship to the congregation. This is about Christ, not you or that other elder. We are nothing. Christ is everything. We are stewards. Christ is King. We are brothers. He is our Everlasting Father. We are servants. He is Lord.
As Paul said, "Is Christ divided?" Are we all not working toward the result that the people placed under us might exalt Christ as King over them? Some plant. Others water. But it is God who causes growth. It is God who brings the people into His kingdom and keeps them there. It is God who has all power and glory and majesty. We are to be empty vessels for Him to fill in whatever way He desires.
I truly believe that most overseers need to become janitors of the church first. They need to serve as chair stackers and bulletin makers for awhile. They need to understand that every job in the church is a job for a servant, not a king. If you have a lust for power, please don't apply for the job of overseer. God will surely humble you in the most violent of ways if you attempt to do this with the wrong attitude. I have seen it over and over again. The desire for control destroys churches, because it destroys the Lordship of Christ in those churches and replaces it by a self-willed individual who just wants to set up his own little kingdom, using Christ as his means to achieve it.
And what else would be a greater instrument to use? God is the ultimate authority, and so one seeking power over others, over his own kingdom, would seek to use God to boost his power. This makes the church a dangerous place, but one cannot be sanctified without it. What we need to do is not shun the church, as one will only prove that he is not under Christ's Lordship at all, but only seeks to be self-willed in his own life as well. Instead, the answer is to reform the church, and we do that by reforming our understanding of the church from top down. We need to reform the way we think of the eldership. We need to reform the way it functions in the church, and why we desire to be a part of it.
So here are some helpful ways you can reform it:
1. Trade off. Take turns, or just allow for equal say, in where you go as a church. Take turns preaching and teaching, and let each elder choose what he preaches or teaches according to where God is leading him (again, everything being run through the entire group of overseers, as you are a collective). Let others lead, as they should let you lead.
2. Let go. You don't need that much of an inlet into people's lives. You don't see the apostles constantly checking up on people to see if their living according to Christ. Our job is to preach/teach, pray, and discipline (which is an exercise of authority that is a part of teaching/discipleship). God's presence will be manifest among us and among the laity if we are faithful to do that job (and that job alone is overwhelming enough). We don't need to constantly impose ourselves on the laity to ease our anxiety. Let God worry about transforming His children with the Word we are commanded to preach and through our prayers for them, which is our primary means of giving Christ a voice into their lives.
3. Preach the whole counsel of God. This is God's Church, not yours. If people are offended by God and want to leave, even leaving you without a job, it should not be that you withhold the life that is in the whole counsel of God simply because people want to be dead instead. Give the life that is found in all of what Christ commanded, and do not withhold it from the congregation because you are afraid of the repercussions. Have some faith that God will do what is right, even if you end up without a job in the end.
4. Rejoice when the gospel goes forth, regardless whether it has anything to do with you or to your credit. Rejoice when other Christian leaders are spoken of well, if in fact they are busy preaching that Word to others. Rejoice when affection is shown for those who represent Christ, even if you are getting grief by those very people. Be glad that Christ still has an inlet into their lives and they may yet be conformed to His image through it. Hence, He may yet be exalted, and since this is all you seek, not the glory of yourself, this should make you happy.
I know, as I write this, most of my friends in ministry will not like it. There is within all of us the need for vindication for all of the hard work we've done. There is a need to be recognized. There is a desire to have control, as we see ourselves as the protectors of the flock, and we are to a lesser degree. But the great protector is Christ, and He has given us, His stewards, the means through which we give Him a voice to protect His flock, and it is not in the grabbing of power, but in the humility of a shared goal to exalt Him through Word and prayer, even to the sacrifice of our own prestige, our own comfort, and our own security. We are to cast all of our crowns at His feet, and that includes the crown we get when we become an overseer. This kingdom is not ours to keep. It is His to rule through His servants, and that is all we should desire when we desire the office of overseer.
Denethor would have led his people to ruin in seeking to obtain the throne for himself. But it was the return of the true king that brought about victory and salvation to the people, a lesson all overseers, both candidates and well-established, would do well to ponder.