It is often said that when God wants a great work done, He chooses one man to pioneer and lead.
It is not difficult to find examples in the bible or in history. It is easy to conclude that God’s operating principle is always to appoint a hierarchy and a clear chain of command. Most of our churches operate this way.
But when we read the New Testament, we encounter something new and strange. Jesus selected twelve apostles and He favoured three above the others, Peter, James and John. But there is something about the story which is so weird, that it is like something from another planet.
Jesus did NOT appoint one successor. Abraham appointed Isaac; Moses appointed Joshua; Elijah appointed Elisha and David appointed Solomon but Jesus did not appoint a supreme leader to take over after He returned to Heaven.
The Bible tells us a lot about the sins and faults of the Apostles and preachers love to make sermons about them.
A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.
And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. Lk 22:24-26 (ESV)
What were the Apostles disputing? Was each of the twelve claiming to be number one? That would be absurdly childish. I have never heard a group of men or boys being so silly.
What most preachers fail to notice is this. Jesus had not conformed to the perfectly reasonable expectation of any group of leaders. Jesus had not appointed a single successor to be supreme leader after His departure.
Peter was an obvious candidate but he could be impulsive and make mistakes. John was especially favoured and loved but he was the youngest. James was also a serious candidate.
But who was the chosen one? Since Jesus had not told them, they did what any group of men would do. They tried to work it out themselves.
After Jesus returned to heaven, Peter seemed to take the lead in Acts chapters 1 to 3. Nevertheless, the writer of Acts emphasises the collective leadership of “The Apostles.” In Acts 2, Peter preached the first sermon but the main emphasis is on the inspired and inspiring unity of all the disciples.
All this is not because of any neglect or forgetfulness of Jesus or the Father in Heaven.
Jesus declared a whole new approach to leadership in Matthew 23.
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. Mt 23:8-10 (ESV)
This is so radical, that most Christians and most Christian leaders have not even begun to understand it. I have been a member of Pentecostal churches for 35 years and I have never heard any preacher, any teacher or any pastor seriously attempt to explain this vitally important text.
The mystery does not end here.
The first witness of the resurrection of Jesus Christ was not an Apostle, or a Pastor or even an Elder.
It was Mary Magdalene, a woman with a sinful past and a testimony but no office or position in the church. When she told the Apostles, they did not believe her. Then Jesus came and rebuked the men of God for not receiving her testimony!
Leadership remains important but God’s way is somewhat different from what we normally expect in churches.
The founders of the first mission to the non-Jewish pagans were not Apostles and they were not appointed or sent by the Apostles.
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.
But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus.
And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. Acts 11:19-21 (ESV)
If all this raises more questions than answers, that is OK. The New Testament text does the same.
I am not preaching Christian anarchy. I really admire great Christian leaders and many inspired preachers. But Christianity is not all about priests and people or shepherds and sheep. Coaches don’t win football matches; the players do.
Jesus called a brotherhood of mighty believers who change the world. We must not rely on Pastors or leaders to do everything important and take all the initiative.