The New Presbyterians and Their Leadership Dilemma: Part I

August 31, 2011

The Gathering of Presbyterians lifted up a key question for the orthodox/conservative/evangelical wing of the PCUSA: what do you envision the church to be, at its best? My thoughts gravitate to the leadership question: How are we to be led as a particular expression of God’s presence and mission in a twenty-first century American context?

You notice I asked, “How are we to be led?” rather than “Who is the leader?” The “who is the leader” question highlights the dilemma we face. This tension arises out of the dynamics of top-down and bottom-up. Here’s a brief outline of what we know about spiritual leadership:

1. Jesus Christ is our leader, as Lord of all, Head of the Church, and shepherd of our souls. He is our ultimate “top-down” authority (Col 1:15-20).

2. Jesus imparted to the church considerable authority and power to carry out God’s will on earth (Mt 16:19; 18:18).

3. The Lord has assigned to the church people who fulfill leadership functions: pastor, teacher, evangelist, apostle, prophet, etc. (Eph 4:11).

4. Leaders do not possess power in order to lord it over others, but to serve (Mt 20:25-28). They do have power, though, which is given by the Holy Spirit in order to make the individual effective in Christ’s service. This is the nexus of the paradox: leaders are servants.

Presbyterians historically have emphasized certain aspects of leadership that derive from the principles just stated:

5. Power and authority reside in bodies, not so much in individuals. Presbyterians have steadfastly refused the idea that spiritual authority dwells in consecrated bishops. The church itself claims authority only to the degree that it conforms its decisions to the Scriptures, the only rule of faith and practice (G-1.0307).

6. Those governing bodies, or councils, comprise individuals who have been elected by those they serve. There is no “divine right of kings” here.

7. The personal call an individual might sense to serve the church in leading the people of God must therefore be confirmed by those to be led and by the wider body.

With this particular background in mind, we now have what is still an amorphous body known as the Fellowship of Presbyterians. Leadership, so far, has been given by “the seven dwarfs” (their term, affectionately adopted by the Gathering). These seven men, all pastors of fairly large congregations, went public with a challenge and an idea that emerged out of their covenant life together. The test of the viability of their ideas will be whether or not leadership for “it”—whatever it turns out to be—emerges from among those who want to be a part of it. This emergence of leadership has both top-down and bottom-up components to it.


The Seven Dwarfs are offering the essential top-down impetus to get things going in the Fellowship. These are humble men who are not in any way abusing their role. [Do I wish there were women among their number? Of course. This points to another dynamic not at issue here. Someday I will address it, but for now, Richard Mouw’s admonition on Thursday, August 25, makes the point quite effectively.] The Dwarfs should be seen as filling a temporary mid-wife role, however, until the mechanism for the election of leadership to the Fellowship and its subsidiary New Reformed Body (NRB) is established. Every effort should be made to widen the circle, think outside the box, even look in baggage claim for God’s anointed ones (à la Saul, 1 Sam 10:20-24) and yet describe the New Leadership in terms faithful to Christ’s teaching and Presbyterian distinctives.


Meanwhile, the development of leadership for the Fellowship and the NRB by necessity starts at the local level, through ministries of discipleship and equipping the saints for the work of service. A key component under the Fellowship umbrella requires congregations to figure out what will work for them locally, amid presbytery realities, congregational demographics, and financial viability. As leaders emerge in the local context, a means for their coordination in a wider circle must be facilitated. In Presbyterian history, congregations spawned presbyteries; and presbyteries eventually met in general assembly. There is nothing wrong with that bottom-up model as the NRB and the Fellowship go forward.

Tomorrow: Why leading evangelical Presbyterians is harder than herding cats.


One Response to “The New Presbyterians and Their Leadership Dilemma: Part I”

  1. Don’t forget about Snow White.

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