The first scriptural truth we observe is that spiritual leadership involves lowly service, not legal power. This truth raises a caution — Do not confuse spiritual leadership with political position. Jesus leaves no room for confusion on this point (Mark 10:42-45). Secular rulers “lord it over” their subjects and “exercise authority” over them. “But it shall not be so among you,” Jesus continues. Instead, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” This is the pattern set by Jesus himself, the “Son of Man,” who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Peter applies the same truth when instructing spiritual leaders among his churches (1 Peter 5:1-5). He exhorts senior leaders (“the elders among you”) to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” They will be “exercising oversight,” but, if they obey the apostolic instruction, “not domineering over” those in their charge, but “being examples to the flock.” Spiritual leadership is moral in nature and it is done primarily by example and by teaching. It is entirely possible that these “elders” are not office-holders at all, but rather senior Christians who are highly-respected for their lives of faith and service. As Peter continues his encouragement, he uses the word “elders” in a relative sense regarding age and experience. “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders.” Believers of every age are told to “clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”
What does spiritual leadership look like, when one realizes that it involves lowly service and not legal power? Paul describes its conduct under three different circumstances: correcting a wrongdoer; encountering a controversialist and dealing with a divisive person. If required to correct a fellow-Christian who is doing wrong, the person who thinks he or she has legal power will usually be rude, domineering, harsh and perhaps self-righteous. Instead, Paul tells Timothy: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). Similarly, controversy often brings out the worst in people, especially those filled with self-importance because of their supposed authority or position of power. So Paul writes: “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone . . . patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim. 2:23-25).
Even if God’s leader is kind, patient and gentle as Paul instructs, controversialists are sometimes rough, short-tempered and unkind — and persistently so in each respect. When encountering such a divisive individual, the spiritual leader whose role is to serve and not to assume power or assert authority will have as little as possible to do with that one, and will seek to avoid his or her presence. This is Paul’s counsel: “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11).