The pressures and challenges of being true to biblically sound Christian leadership in the Church in the face of the secularizing and neo-paganistic forces of modern society. Published in Church & Society Vol.2, No. 3, December 1999.
Trinity Theological College
Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry
Secularism, Neo-Paganism & the Modern Church
Rev. Dr. Soh Guan Chin
Identifying Secularism & Neo-Paganism
The main coverage of this article is on the impact of secularism on spiritual leadership because it is a very pervasive and powerful factor in society at large that exerts great pressure on the Church. As such, at this stage, I make a brief reference to neo-paganism just to give an idea of what it is, the way in which it influences the Church and how it might be dealt with. I shall then take up the main issue.
“Neo-paganism” is a rather new term that is perhaps not yet very clearly defined. I understand the term as one that identifies a broad set of forces that are spiritualistic in nature. It covers New Age trends and resurgent pre-Christian & non-Christian forces in the world today that arise from or reflect the worldview and beliefs of these groups and forces in society. Its challenge to the Church lies in that it offers a spiritualistic and frequently syncretic view of the nature of the world, of human nature, the occult, the mysterious, the afterlife and how these might be tapped as sources of spirituality, divination, understanding, power and wholeness. The biblical counter to these lies in grasping the biblical revelation concerning these aspects of life and reality for ourselves by living it out in our lives, and teaching and ministering by these truths by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Coming to our main concern, I see secularism as the most pervasive and most powerful force that is shaping the world we live in today. One of the pillars of its strength is that it is frequently able to present itself as a neutral, sensible, egalitarian and innocuous way of life that any reasonable person should uphold. From a spiritual point of view, it has incredibly powerful stealth ability to pass undetected even by the sincere Christian, so that its beliefs and values form a fundamental part of the believer’s own values and world view without him or her ever seeing it as a problem to his or her Christian faith. In this sense it is like a serpent that is subtle and sly, able to get its way unnoticed. Another pillar of its strength lies in its very pervasiveness and that it is firmly upheld by both the powerful and the masses to such an extent that to raise objection to it may either isolate one as unreasonable, bigoted and biased, or be censored or attacked as one who disrupts the peace and good sense. In this way, it is like a roaring lion that can devour its foes. It will not be possible to do into any depth in studying and analysing the full extent of the content and significance of secularism in this article. Therefore I will centre specifically on secularism with respect to religious beliefs and do just enough to help us have a sound sense of how it impacts spiritual leadership, which is my given topic.
Secularism in society defines the society as neutral with respect to religious beliefs. This means that the institutions and processes of the society do not discriminate between those who hold different religious beliefs and bar no one with any particular religious belief from participating in these as a member of society. In so far as it is a policy of non-discrimination and in so far as it is a guide to practice for social institutions it may be genuinely neutral. However, the spiritual challenge of secularism begins once one goes beyond practical policy and practice into the realm of beliefs and values that one espouses as one’s worldview. For in this realm secularism is agnosticism. If instead of understanding it as fair and pragmatic policy for the conduct of social institutions, one adopts it as the true view of what reality is, as so many do, probably unconsciously, then it is as much a position about God, about man, about the world and reality as any religious view. Therefore what is sound social policy becomes adopted as the justification of a type of belief that says that God or gods, belief or disbelief in such is unimportant. Once so translated, secularism is very far from neutral. It is a type of agnosticism that is seen as pervasive and justified in society. On the strength of its perceived spread and legitimacy throughout many nations of the world, indeed especially those that are seen as the more advanced ones, it becomes a basis for ignoring God and of understanding life and reality without Him. Having thus dismissed God, secularism gives the green light to all kinds of humanism, where man and his ability becomes the centre stage of life and reality. We see this in the celebration of science and technology, in the prominence of big business and materialism, and in the ever pervasive and ever louder calls for human autonomy and self-determinism. The subtlety and complexity of the challenge is that each of these items of science, business and people power is not necessarily bad in itself. Yet they are all called upon as the justification of an agnostic and man-centred world where man is the master of his own destiny and God is an optional extra that can be ignored.
The Impact of Secularism on Spiritual Leadership
The impact of secularism on spiritual leadership is subtle and complex, but powerful and pervasive. I can only hope to scratch enough of the surface for us to see something of what is inside.
First & foremost, the impact of secularism affects the very way spiritual leadership is understood. The very definition and meaning of what is a spiritual leader is challenged by secularism. For it is virtually certain that even when we as Christians seek to define and understand spiritual leadership, we have in our mind, often at the forefront, what leadership is in society today. But the society that we live in is secular society. Whether we look at political leadership, business leadership, leadership of charities and societies, we are looking at secular forms of leadership. We are in the position of being followers and not initiators or innovators. Seldom does church or Christian leadership become the model for secular leadership. Far too often and widespread is the case that church and Christian leadership is often modeled after secular leadership.
What is spiritual leadership? In the secular environment within which we and our churches live, the way by which this is understood frequently reduces the “spiritual” aspect of spiritual leadership to the simple fact that it is leadership in the Church that we are talking about. Furthermore the Church is seen essentially as a type of social entity that exists in society today among other social entities. Once this reduction is made spiritual leadership is no longer essentially different from any other type of leadership. It is simply the leadership that is exercised in the churches, in Christian organisations or among Christians. Therefore this can be understood in terms of certain types of abilities as with any other type of leadership. It can also be defined in terms of a profession. Christian leaders are paid professionals of the Church who exercise their ministry for the benefit of the Church as their employer. I believe that very many, possibly most Christians and Christian leaders would see nothing controversial or problematic in how I have presented the way spiritual leadership is understood. Unfortunately, I have to differ. Let us examine some of the implications of this view.
Secular leadership puts the ability of the leader above all other considerations. Salaries, bonuses, benefits, position, promotions and the worth of the person are based on what he can do or produce. If you can only sweep the floor you are worth almost nothing, you are easily replaceable; you can be paid peanuts. If you can bring in the millions for the company, you will be worth a lot. Your salary, benefits, promotion prospect, future with the company are assured. You can afford or may even be given the best house, the best car, the best leave, the best holidays. The only fear is that you might leave them for another. What if you are an adulterer or womaniser? What if you are a wife basher? What if you are a terror to your subordinates? It does not matter since it does not affect your performance for the company. As long as you do not also steal company funds you are very wanted. Character only counts if it affects performance. It is frequently the case in churches that those who show ability are moved very quickly to the highest posts of leadership. By God’s grace, we seldom go as far as the world to discount flaws of character in leadership. Yet it remains true that abilities are given the highest priority in choosing and appointing leaders. We also tend to be quick to dismiss weak discipleship in their lives. Whenever we do this we devalue the importance of following Christ to our church members and leaders. For what has happened to the issue of being truly and duly called by God? What has happened to importance of Christ-likeness and being His disciple? We need to check the call of the person who is to lead. We need to be sure that the person is one who truly follows Christ and has maturity of character in Christ. If one is to be a spiritual leader, whatever else may be spiritual about one’s leadership it must mean that those who follow our leadership are able to see something of Christ’s own character in us. If this is not true there is nothing very spiritual about the leadership. It may be fine for the world to emphasis ability above all else, but for the Church as disciples of Christ, call and character must come first. Furthermore, a person’s worth is not pegged to his ability. A person has worth by God’s creation, salvation and love. His ability only reflects what God wants him to do in His service. Let us put each one in his or her right place in the LORD’s service.
It is also often the case that pastoral leadership is seen essentially as a profession. The pursuit of professionalism easily becomes the principal thrust of leadership and ministry. This carries danger for Christian leadership and ministry. For Christian ministry and spiritual leadership are God-given and biblically defined. Christian ministry and leadership is sui generis, there is no proper substitute for what it is. We need to be prepared to understand that Christian ministry & leadership have no exact parallel in secular society. While there are aspects of similarity with the professions, with the wage earner, and other forms of employment and roles, it is in the end a ministry that is founded in Christ for His Church and Kingdom. We must aim at being what the LORD wants us to be and not force our call and ministry to fit some position or status in society.
Financial support for Christian leadership and ministry is often understood in terms of church employment. Therefore pastors, church workers and missionaries are routinely seen as employees of the church, subject to the employers’ control. Given the spread of secularism and employment laws this legal framework is virtually pervasive throughout all modern societies. Yet, if we understand the biblical teaching on spiritual leadership, spiritual leaders are not employees of the Church but servants of the LORD! If anything God is their employer who supplies His Church with the resources necessary for the funding of His work, including that the Church should pay His workers. The true Master Must be the LORD or else these pastors, church workers or missionaries are not from the LORD. If they are not from the LORD, what are they doing in church? If they are from the LORD then the LORD and not the Church is their Master. They must first and foremost hear and carry out God’s agenda and God’s command, including what He might direct for the church that is the supposed employer of these ministers! Even more extreme is the tendency to live and act by the principle that who ever pays is the owner. Whoever has puts in the most funds has the most say. This is capitalism straight and simple, not the Word of God. Yet we can accept it as legitimate and sensible and use it to govern churches and policies in place of the truths of the Bible.
The meaning and definition of success should also be examined in relation to spiritual leadership. For depending on how success is understood, Christian leaders and the churches that follow them would direct their energies accordingly. In this secular world, success is often materialistically and numerically defined in terms of productivity and tangible results. Similarly in Christian circles and among churches, how many people attend the church, how much money it has, how productive is the leader of people who convert or attend are often taken as the key criteria of ministerial success. Is this right? If not, what is? We will take it up in the next section.
The Biblical Thrust
We now switch perspective from that of seeing how secularism impacts spiritual leadership to seeing where following the Bible would lead us. This section could be titled, “The Biblical Counter”, but I decided against such a title because it gives the idea that the initiative lies in the hand of the world and we as Christian have always to react to what is initiated by them. It is true that we need to counter the forces of the world against us and our faith, but it is not true that the initiative must lie in the world. When Christ came into the world He invaded the kingdom of Satan, not the other way round. If we focus our heart, mind and spirit on our LORD and His Bible instead of the world, we would enter into and participate in the initiative that comes from God. Therefore I title this section, “The Biblical Thrust”. The answer to the challenges of secularism against true faith is certainly found in the Bible and the guidance and empowering of the Holy Spirit as its author and our empowerer. But it will be a bad mistake for us to study the Bible only as a response to what assaults us. If anything, our weakness lies in that we have not entered into biblical living in sufficient depth and scope so that we have the initiative from God to impact the world such that the world cannot ignore but have to respond to the Church and its message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its dimensions. Biblical living and biblical ministering arise from Bible study and application to our own lives, to the lives of our congregations and to the goals and methods of our ministry. Our tendency to focus on the practical instead of the theological has actually greatly weakened our ability to perceive and counter what the world and the devil throw at us. Even more, it weakens our ability to take the initiative we have in Christ in the world. This needs addressing because there is a grave lobsidedness in what is being emphasised in churches today in favour of more and more practical skills and less and less theology. Furthermore, it is precisely this imbalance that is opening up the churches for the increasing impact of secularism on its life and leadership. Sound, comprehensive and in-depth theology that is based on and congruent with the Bible, that comes from understanding by faith and not human intellectualism, is precisely what is needed to turn the tide of secularism away from the churches and bring forth the revelation of God into the Church and into society. It is also true that it is always our theology that will guide our practical ministry. There is no doubt that practical ministry will also influence our theology. But it is the soundness and sufficiency of our theology that is the guiding force. It determines where we put our priorities and what constitutes sound or unsound ministry, or even sound or unsound Christian life. To lessen or refuse the in-depth study of teachings and implications of the biblical revelation is to assume that what we know of the Bible is right and sufficient. There is nothing further in the Bible that is of consequence to the understanding and beliefs we already hold. Our own position, whatever it is, is taken for granted and put beyond examination. This becomes in effect the all-sufficient level of theology that guides our life and ministry. If one is to improve in ministry one has to turn to the social, business and scientifc study done in the world for help and increase. Let me identify a few key biblically based teachings that points us in the direction of how we may counter the world and seize the initiative in Christ in terms of the influence of secularism on spiritual leadership that we have noted above:
Our definition of spiritual leadership MUST come from the Bible. I see that the Bible’s emphasis on spiritual leadership is first on a genuine call from the LORD, and secondly on a character and life that is submitted to and molded by Him. Capability is what He gives as He wishes. It follows AFTER Call and Character in priority. Related to this is that leadership in the world consists of presidents, prime ministers, chairmen, CEOs, directors, managers and executives. God’s given leaders for the Church are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, elders and deacons. It is hard to conceive of a more contrasting list! The leaders of the world are centred on the particular goals of their organisation. The values they uphold can be any of what is exalted in the world – such as wealth, status, power, personal ambition or personal security. People are treated as means to these ends. The leaders that are Christ-given are centred on the Ministry of the Word and the purpose of the Kingdom of God. The only sound values are those of the Bible – such as giving God the preeminence, love, joy, peace, spiritual wholeness, salvation, sacrifice for others and for the LORD. People are the object of God’s salvation, transformation and blessing as well as being His sanctified instruments. The Church itself cannot be understood as merely another type of social entity in society. It is the People of God, the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit! It cannot be simply liken to political organisations, civil services, businesses, clubs or charities. It has to be understood and led on the basis of its unique and distinctive identity, nature and purpose. Those who exercise leadership in the Church must lead it as the People of God, the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit under the Lordship of Christ. There is no suitable or possible substitute.
Spiritual leaders must 1st and foremost be the servants of the LORD, not the servants of the Church. It is Christ alone who appointed His Twelve Apostles. It is Christ alone who gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to His Church. The appointment of bishops, presbyters and deacons in the NT comes from praying for His guidance. The Church has never been authorised in Scripture to appoint its own. Only as servants of the LORD can spiritual leaders minister in the Name of the LORD and by His call, authority and power. If he is simply the servant of the Church he is subject to the wimps and fancies of men! For the Church in its humanness and without the voice and leadership of those who lead by the LORD’s calling and authority would only ape the way of the world and the way of mankind without God. This is described through two examples that I have raised earlier. The legal framework of employment so easily becomes the basis to turn the servants of the LORD into servants of the Church. The necessary distinction between a biblically based sound theological understanding of support for those who are called to serve God in the Gospel and Christian ministry and the legal forms that this frequently takes within society is often not made. Whoever pays calls the shots. Therefore the principles and practices of capitalism overtake the principles of the Bible in our practice. The pressure of professionalisation, if emphasised above a genuine call or soundness of Christian discipleship, as often happens, is a secularising force that defines the leaders of God after human professions. This would not have happened, and these need to be corrected, by a biblically based understanding of spiritual leadership and how they are to be supported.
Our understanding of success has also to be biblically based. As noted earlier, our idea of success determines what we emphasise and what we do in leadership. If success is primarily understood in numerical terms and in the ability to set trends, then every church and every church leader would do their best to get numbers and set trends. Marketing, public relations, management and productivity become the primary truths and the principal skills one must acquire. But if our understanding is that the fundamental measure of success in the biblical sense is obedience to God and His word, then any other criteria of success must first pass this test. According to an essentially quantitative criterion of success some prominent leaders in the Bible such as Hosea and Jeremiah would have been failures. They did not convert their listeners to their message. The nation of Israel continued to sin. If they were evangelists or pastors they would have had devastatingly small audience or congregation because most of their listeners despised them. But according to God they are His faithful servants because they obeyed in spite of hostile opposition from a hardhearted people whom He decided to judge. Even Jesus our LORD is guilty of turning away huge crowds that followed Him a number of times by preaching a message so demanding that most never followed Him again. He could be seen as a poor marketeer, a man who does not understand public relations. Similarly, many well-regarded missionaries in church history who lived and preached for years to unknown tribes to win a few converts would be failures who are very unproductive. If, however, obedience is the chief criterion of stewardship before Christ, if one preaches to millions when He did not send us to do so, if one succeeds in growing a big church when it is not His call, then one would be judged for disobedience even if He still sends His blessing through us to others! In so doing, one would certainly have missed one’s primary purpose and calling in Christ and failed to submit to Him as LORD, irrespective of how successful one might be by other criteria in what one has done. At the core of biblical obedience is being the kind of person He wants us to be according to the Bible, and doing the things that He wants us to do according to the Bible, and according to His more personal and specific guidance. No other criteria should overturn the priority of this truth.