Tuesday, September 1, 2009

You Don’t Own Me (And Vice Versa)

The other day, I picked up my unread copy of Adolf Schlatter’s commentary on the Book of Romans:  Romans: The Righteousness of God, translated by Siegfried Schatzmann. It’s apparently hard to get, because when I tried to find a link to the book through either CBD (christianbook.com) or Amazon, I came up with. . . nothing. Out of print, perhaps? Check with Hendrickson Publishers, of Peabody, MA; there might be a spare copy lying around somewhere….

Anyway, I’ve had this commentary for about 6 years, since I read a brief intro to Schlatter’s theology in a class. Last week, I decided the time had come to delve into the book (some things take a little time getting around to….). It’s been a good read, though a bit stilted (this is a translation, after all).

Early on, I came across a little statement Schlatter slips in as he discusses Paul’s reasons for writing to the Roman church:  “From the Corinthian letters we gather how earnestly Paul refuted the notion of a Pauline church” (p. 12). This little sentence, slipped in as a little background fact while Schlatter is on his way to his main point, caught my attention because of what it implies about leadership, ministry, and (to a certain degree) ecclesiology.

In my notebook, I wrote this comment:

“This little statement says volumes about the church (local) and the Church (universal), and how we all, leaders and laypeople, are to look at the church/Church. The Corinthian assembly wasn’t Paul’s possession or work or ministry; it was Christ’s alone. Whatever put Paul’s (or Peter’s or Apollos’) own stamp on it was wrong. Whatever was a personal mark of ownership was wrong. This is different from saying:  ‘As an apostle, I know that Christ has ordered this; and I hold you to account to do this.’ There is a difference between the owner and the one delegated by the owner.

“No pastor or staff gives a church its form or its message or its mission. The most leaders can do is pass on to the body what Jesus Christ has commanded and what Jesus Christ has brought into being. If we shape the assembly into our own image, we desecrate it. If we proclaim Christ’s ownership of the body, and mean it, then we are trusting him to maintain it.”

It strikes me that a lot of the abuses I’ve seen in churches are simply because leaders think of the churches as theirs. The church is the group of people they are trying to influence in one way or another—for good, of course; that goes without saying. But the pastor’s job is not to make his mark on the body or to leave it imprinted with his stamp. His job is to preach the Gospel, and that means to proclaim Jesus Christ in all his fulness. The only mark that should be left on a body is the imprint of Jesus Christ; and only the Holy Spirit can make that mark.

We all want a sphere of influence. I want people to know my name and to quote me, and to think I’m wise and good. I want the chance to lead—in other words, to make people into me. I want to leave my mark on people. Don’t shake your head at me; I know you do, too. You’re not that different from me. Just as I’d shape you into my own image if I could, so you’d shape me into yours.

What’s the point of ecclesial leadership? All of Christianity—the work of the Cross, the Resurrection, the coming of the Spirit, the infilling of the Spirit, the ordination of the church—is about one thing only:  “Those God foreknew, he predestined to be conformed to the likeness of Christ, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” That’s the point of ecclesial leadership; that’s why there are pastors. If a leader sees anything else as the reason for ministry, that leader is being misled. That Christ be formed in us is why the gospel is preached and why the Spirit is given. Not that we be educated, relevant, influential, prominent, or counter-cultural. Only that Christ be formed in us.

There are plenty of tools for this—prayer, fellowship, the Scriptures—but there is only one agent who does the work. That agent isn’t the pastor, nor is it the believer. People don’t do this, not in others nor in ourselves. People are no more than tools in the hands of the one who does the work. If we look to people to do all this shaping, we’ll fail. If a pastor looks to him/herself to do the work, he/she will fail. Only the Spirit (“the presence of God on the Earth today,” as Gordon Fee wrote) can do the work.

Here’s what Schlatter’s little statement meant for me:  In a New Testament church, only God has ownership. A true leader sees this and emphatically rejects any notion that he/she owns the body or shapes the body. Only God shapes the body, in the person of the Holy Spirit who conforms us into the likeness of Christ. Leaders will be tempted to forget this, especially in a culture that thinks leadership is ownership and that ownership is proof of worth. But in God’s kingdom, it’s the humble whom he exalts…the ones who know who the owner is.

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