Over the last few years, I’ve seen people more and more say things like “since we are all sinners, we can’t trust ourselves and we need to rely on the pastors and elders of our local churches to guide us.”
That sounds spiritual. But it represents a very significant misunderstanding.
I know that can sound radical. So, first off, let me clarify what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that counsel is a bad thing, or that the local church has no role to play in giving good counsel. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to [good] advice” (Proverbs 12:15).
The problem with this statement is that it is reversing the way the doctrine of sin is supposed to be applied in relation to the role of leaders.
The implications of the doctrine of sin for decision making are not first about church members and everyday people needing the help of leaders to guide their lives. Centuries of human history in general and church history in particular bear out that making that the focus is actually a recipe for tyranny.
Further, it almost assumes that people are not competent to lead their own lives and fails to recognize that no human being has ultimate authority over us. “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls” (Romans 14:4). This applies to church leaders as well as everyone else: no one is to insert themselves between any Christian and the Lord. Each person is directly accountable to Jesus Christ alone. (This is a standard Reformed doctrine, and is discussed in a very helpful way in Paul Helm’s short book The Callings; it is also the basis on which Martin Luther was able to stand up to the corruption of his day in the church.)
Instead, the first implication the doctrine of sin has in relation to the role of leaders in the church (and anywhere else) is that leadership needs to be held accountable and have checks and balances.
In other words, of course we are all sinners — and we need to remember that this applies to leaders also. Further, sin is most easily given legs to cause harm when it is institutionalized through positional authority.
For that reason, the first and most important implication for the doctrine of sin for how we lead our lives does not have to do with followers needing church leaders to help guide their lives. It has first of all to do with leaders having checks and balances and recognizing that they are accountable to the people they lead. This is the only way to prevent abuse of power. And note that the issue is not the virtue or intentions of the leaders; good leaders need this just as much as leaders of poor character (who, of course, shouldn’t be leading anyway).
Centuries of history bear this out, and the lessons have been encapsulated in the rise of democracy and the founding of our nation. The greatest danger arising from universal sin is not that the everyday people will cause harm, but that those in positions of formal authority will misuse that authority, thereby causing even greater harm to a much larger number of people.
The problem, then, with the quote at the start of this post is that it is leaving this out. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is failing to recognize that this truth about leaders being accountable to those they lead is what needs to be given pre-eminence in our thinking when we consider the doctrine of sin and its relationship to the role of leaders. That is, our first thought should not be “we are sinners, therefore we need the help of leaders,” but rather “leaders are sinners, and therefore they need to be accountable to the people and their power needs to have checks and balances.”
A true leader welcomes this mindset, because he or she does not see himself as above the people they are leading (cf. Deuteronomy 17:20) but rather as in fact beneath them as their servant (Matthew 20:27; 23:11-12).
If you don’t feel that you can handle that, then I would say you are not qualified to lead.
With that mindset in place, and only with that mindset in place, are we then in a position to say “OK, now recognizing that all of us are fallible, let’s all of us also seek input and counsel, as is relevant and natural, from those in positions of formal leadership in our churches.”
And while doing so, we also need to recognize that counsel from anyone, including church leaders, only must be followed when it is simply a restatement of what the Scriptures command. Anything that goes beyond that may be good advice, but it is never an obligation for a person. To treat it as an obligation is equivalent to adding to the word of God — which is not looked upon as a small thing in the Scriptures (Deuteronomy 4:2; etc.).