Principled, Contextual Leadership

One of the things that you learn before long in church leadership is that often decisions are made that affect people, and yet those people themselves had no say in the decision. Sometimes you will be the one tasked with representing that decision to them. Sometimes you will be the one who the decision affects. Walking these situations well requires deep convictions, pastoral skill and lots of humility.

I have recently found myself fascinated by Paul’s apostolic ministry into the Gentile world and in particular the Council of Jerusalem. Prior to Paul, Christianity was largely a Jewish phenomenon, and the early converts were either ethnically Jewish or had previously converted to Judaism. After Paul had been commissioned by Jesus to take the gospel to the Gentiles, this left a question hanging that would define the shape of Christianity moving forward: must the expression of Christianity in Antioch, Corinth and Rome match the expression of Christianity in Jerusalem. To put it another way: if a Gentile wanted to become a Christian, did they first need to become a Jew and submit themselves to all that this entailed (particularly the rite of circumcision and the observance of the law).

Paul contended strongly that the answer was ‘no’, Gentile Christians should not be forced to submit to the Jewish law, and he outlines many of his arguments for this position in his letter to the Galatians. His view was far from unanimous, and Paul had to contend with the ‘Judaisers’ who were preaching to his new converts the need for circumcision and obedience to the law. Because of this, an apostolic conference was called in Jerusalem where the issue could be resolved once and for all.

Present at the conference were people representing a number of viewpoints. Some believers from amongst the Pharisees argued that Gentiles should keep the law. Others (such as Peter) did not have this view, even though their primary calling was to ministry amongst the Jews. Peter strenuously argued against imposing the law upon Gentile converts, saying, “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10) At the same time, Peter would have been very aware of the concerns of some of the Jewish people that he was trying to reach and would have understood how the different positions advocated at the conference would have played out to their ears. Paul and Barnabas too, would have understood what would serve well in reaching Jews, but they were also able to give testimony to the wonders that God had done in the Gentile world.

The final judgment was given by James, and he came down on the side of Paul and Peter, pronouncing that Gentile believers should not be asked to keep the law. He did, however, ask for a few concessions from the Gentile believers, in areas that would serve the effort to reach out to Jews with the gospel of Christ: “Therefore my judgement is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” (Acts 15:19-21)

These requests make sense, because they pick up on issues that were particularly important to the Jewish people. Throughout the story of the Old Testament, the people of Israel again and again were led astray from their worship of the Lord by idolatry and sexual immorality. Finally, by the first century A.D., they had managed to free themselves from this grip of idols and devote themselves to God (one of the reasons that the Pharisees were so strict in their interpretation of the law was to protect this). If they saw that Gentile followers of Jesus, the so-called Messiah of Israel, were drifting back into the sphere of influence of idols, it would be very damaging to the credibility of the gospel being preached to them that all the promises and hopes of their Scriptures were fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.  

Idols In Corinth

It was a few years after the council of Jerusalem had made its ruling that Paul planted into the city of Corinth. Obviously, the Corinthians themselves had no say in the decision that had been made, and yet it affected them more than most – particularly the instruction to abstain from things polluted by idols. 

Corinth was a city that was saturated with idols. Within a hundred and fifty metres of the central Agora (Market Square) there were temples or statues to Dionysus, Artemis, Baccheaus, Fortune, Poseidon, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Zeus, Zeus of the Underworld, Zeus Most High and the Muses. Clinging to the wall of the main pagan temple were two large general-purpose markets, and just across a small street was another market devoted specifically to meat and fish. Idolatry and shopping dominated civic life. 

Each of the gods represented by the statues and temples had their own priests, feast days and sacrifices, and most people in Corinth would hedge their bets, joining in the feasts to as many of the gods as they could. The sacrifices made on these feast days belonged to the priests, who would eat would they could but be left with a surplus that they would then sell. This influx of meat drove the prices  down on the markets, so the aftermath of a pagan feast  presented the opportunity to poorer citizens (such as many of the Corinthian Christians) to actually afford and eat meat. 

‘Abstaining from things polluted by idols’ was easier said than done in Corinth. Would they have to start interrogating the butchers who were selling their products? What about when they were invited for dinner at somebody’s house? Would they need to grill their host about where the food came from? The influence these idols and their festivals had was fully woven into Corinthian life, and for believers to absolutely abstain would be very difficult indeed. Besides, these idols had no real existence (a point made frequently by Old Testament prophets to make a mockery of worshipping them) and the Corinthians knew it, so there couldn’t be too much harm in just going along with things could there, as long as they weren’t actually led away into the worship of false deities?

The problem, as Kenneth Bailey explains was that, “in the context of a city like Corinth all of this made perfect sense. But if reported in Jerusalem, such a practice would sound like a trashing of the Jerusalem agreement.”

This issue came up in Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthian church, and the way he handles it with both principle and flexibility offers a fantastic example for any leaders to follow when working out decisions made from afar into a particular context.

He Gave Them Access to the Decision

For most people to go along with a decision that has been made, they need to have either been in the room themselves when the decision was made, or to have a relationship with somebody who was. When a decision has been made by strangers in a distant ‘ivory tower’, however good the rationale was for what was decided, the urgency tends to be diluted by the real concerns on the ground and it is even possible to question the motives of those who made the call. Without Paul, it would have been easy for the Corinthians to dismiss the Jerusalem agreement as irrelevant, impractical and unrealistic and resent the distant interfering apostles. With Paul, they had their place to ask questions, grasp the heart of what had been decided and feel like a part of the story (even though they themselves were saved after the Jerusalem agreement had been reached).

The important principle is that whatever level you are leading at, you need to make sure that everybody who will be affected by a decision has some kind of relational access to the place where decisions are made. In my own context of a multi-site church, I know it is much easier for people in my site to understand decisions that are made when I have been in the room and can explain the thought-process to them, than it would be if I had not been in the room and was relaying second-hand information. In a similar way, it is much easier for people to to buy into the direction of a wider movement when they personally relate to one or more of the core leaders in that movement than when they simply hear announcements from a stage without any personal connection.

He Represented Their Interests

Not only was Paul able to represent the decision made at the Jerusalem council to the Corinthian church, but he was also able to represent their interests to the Jerusalem council. 

Though Paul had not yet reached Corinth, he had set his trajectory into the Gentile world, and had already planted churches in other Gentile cities. He was acutely aware of the particular challenges faced by Gentile converts in Asia Minor and the Greek world. Nobody was firmer than Paul in making the case that Gentiles should not be subjected to the law, and Paul’s strong advocacy for this position was one of the factors in the council reaching this conclusion. 

In my experience, many people will go along with a decision that may not be what they would have chosen, as long as they knew that their interests were represented and their views were factored into the discussion. It is important to hear different views, particularly when those views are expressed in a gracious way, and to make sure that everybody who will be impacted by what is decided has somebody representing those interests in the discussion. As much as the Corinthians may have been inconvenienced by the decision about abstinence from things polluted by idols, they knew that the position of Gentile Christians was well represented and favoured in the discussion.

He Affirmed Their Position

What I find fascinating about Paul’s approach when the issue arose with the Corinthian believers is how willing he was to affirm their position and agree with their arguments. If I was in his shoes, there would have been a real temptation for a show of force. A blanket statement that a decision had been made, that all the apostles had been present and that now the Corinthians needed to go along with it and toe the line.

Instead, in 1 Corinthians 8 he indulges their arguments that the idol has no real existence, and indeed affirms it for it is true. A mistake that leaders can often make when approaching a challenging conversation is that they go in ready for confrontation, and so they shoot down whatever it said in response. Instead we must seek to hear what the other party has to say, understand where they are coming  from and affirm absolutely everything we can in their position. When we do this we build a sense of partnership and ready the ground for the hard things that we will need to communicate.

He Started With Why

I love how Paul gives the Corinthians very clear reasons for what he is asking of them. Having already affirmed the truth in their arguments that the idols aren’t real, he then shows them a few different angles to consider the issue from. They may have it clear in their head that what they are doing doesn’t have any substance, but to others looking on it may be perceived very differently. As people see supposedly mature believers participating in the idol feasts, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that it is okay to worship both God and idols and so it could lead them astray.

This was probably a perspective that the Corinthians had not considered to this point. By taking time to explain the rationale behind the instruction, Paul helped the Corinthians work towards a mature decision. Had he skipped this stage, the best he could have hoped for was blind obedience with no foundation other than ‘Paul says‘. This way he helps them understand the self-denial involved in the kingdom of God, gain a new insight into the impact of their actions and gives them the opportunity to truly put the interests of others above their own.

He Lived It Out

In Chapter 9, Paul uses himself as an illustration of what he was teaching them, and particularly the unpaid nature of his ministry in Corinth. He talks about how he had the right to financial remuneration when he was with them, and yet he had not made use of that right but had funded himself by making tents for their sake and for that of the gospel.

The principle that Paul wants the Corinthians to apply here – laying down something that they have a right to in the gospel, in order to serve others – was a principle that he lived out in his own life. This is crucial when you are representing a decision to a group of people that will ask for some sacrifice on their behalf. If it seems like you are asking for bigger sacrifices from them than you are willing to make yourself, then it can be very difficult to get a hearing. You need to be living out the gospel in your life first, and doing so in such a transparent way that others can look to you as an example of what it is to deny yourself and take up your cross.

He Contextualised the Application

Another master-stroke from Paul is found in chapter ten where he speaks into the particular nuances of the Corinthian situation. The city was so awash with idolatry that to over-apply the Jerusalem agreement would make life very difficult indeed. The spirit of what was intended at Jerusalem was not to give an endorsement to idolatry, and so Paul helps the Corinthians to find a solution that honours this principle but still makes sense in the context of their city. 

Whilst they wouldn’t participate in the idol feats, if they were just at  the market shopping for meat there was no need to ask about the origins or history of that meat. It is likely that a lot of it had been offered in the idol feasts, but by the time it gets to the markets it is no different to the rest of the meat for sale and so would hardly be an endorsement of idolatry to buy it. Similarly, if they were invited to a friends house for dinner, there was no need to ask questions about the meat – although if the friend made a thing of it being an offering, then decline to eat it, because in that circumstance it would be an endorsement of the idol.

I have noticed that sometimes leaders can go into a conversation with an idea already formed in their head of what they outcome to be. This can make conversation difficult, because it can mean they fail to hear the legitimate concerns brought forward by the other party. Much better to go in with a bandwidth of acceptable outcomes. Understand what you want in principle but then take care to listen and truly hear what the other part is saying and together work out a way forward that you are both happy with.

Paul as a leader was incredibly principled. He knew where he stood and he was not willing to back down from it. He was also incredibly pragmatic and was able to contextualise those principles into the particular situation of his hearers. The need for this kind of principled, contextualise leadership is high as we lead in our varied settings.