Continuing with this series of posts examining the language of church leadership, I now raise the issue of the proper biblical framework for the term “head.” Sometimes, pastors, priests, bishops, or popes are referred to as “heads” of the church. But in within the community of faith, Jesus Christ – not the pastor, priest, or pope – is the center of its life together. Paul clarifies this when he writes in Colossians that “Christ is the head of the body, the church.” (Col. 1:18) No category of ecclesial servants can claim the distinction of heading the church when Christ is held in proper esteem.
A brief passage from a recent church leadership text illustrates the regrettable tendency to think of clergy as the head of the body. Discussing the need for strong pastoral leadership, the author maintains:
The people of God, regardless of size, need someone to whom they give an upward glance for the sake of orientation and direction. The body of Christ that has strong hands and swift feet needs a head to see the big picture and keep the parts working together … [A] certified, licensed, or ordained church leader is clearly the catalyst who releases and focuses the native energy of a … church.
I don’t want to name the book or the author because I’m quite sure the misuse of this metaphor was an innocent and unintentional slip. But it illustrates the tendency to use the language of church leadership in a way that is unbiblical, exclusionary, and injurious to lay persons.
A lingering legacy of the sacerdotal paradigm of ministry is the idea that the clergy represent Christ or embody Christ’s presence in a unique way. Scripture makes it clear that the entire church as the body of Christ bears Christ’s presence to the world. Every Christian as a member of the body of Christ can be said to represent Christ, but only as part of the whole body. No category of ecclesial servants can assume the representative function that rightly belongs to the whole body.
Paul’s comparison of the church to the human body reveals that no part of member of the body of Christ is less essential than any other. To the contrary, functions regarded as less important are vital to the overall health of the body. They are deemed vital by Paul and worthy of respect. This teaching is the foundation of a non-hierarchical understanding of ministry.
As Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson have written in their book Leading from the Second Chair, “Ultimately, in Christ’s kingdom, we are all in the second chair, submitting to Christ as the head.”