In 1932, the University of Southern California started stenciling “Property of USC” on athletic T-shirts for the purpose of preventing theft. The strategy backfired, however, when the stenciled attire became more popular than the original unstenciled T-shirts. So USC turned this problem into a profit by producing and selling “Property of USC” shirts to students. Today, nearly every university and sports team in the United States stocks and sells some sort of “Property of” sportswear.
The phrases “kingdom of priests” and “holy priesthood” (Ex. 19:6; 1 Pet. 2:5) are like “Property of” T-shirts that God places on everyone he has chosen and purchased as his own. When God referred to Israel as a “kingdom of priests,” he was declaring them to be “Property of God.” The apostle Peter applied this terminology to the church, identifying new covenant believers as a chosen community devoted to God’s purposes.
This devotion of the whole community frees leaders and members from at least two deadly delusions about their role in the church.
Delusion 1: The People Are Property of the Leader
It’s a privilege to lead the people of God, but that privilege never transforms the people into the leader’s property. Godly leadership results in humble stewardship, not prideful ownership. Church leaders are not called to stand above a conglomeration of individuals as if the purpose of these people is to fulfill our vision. Rather, God calls shepherds to serve in the midst of a flock wholly devoted to his purposes.
And yet, the delusion that the people are our property can remain a temptation.
Some expressions of this delusion are obvious. There’s the dictatorial pastor who’s driven to rage when people don’t measure up to his expectations; the bullying elder who silences dissent by abusing the gift of church discipline; the unaccountable leader who demands control over the church’s finances. A leader may rack up expenses on the church’s credit card that don’t clearly contribute to church purposes. In each instance, the people and their resources are being treated as if they’re the leader’s property instead of God’s.
But this delusion also manifests itself in subtle ways—ways that may be hidden or even accepted among church leaders.
Sometimes the delusion is revealed through our complaining and impatience when the church doesn’t immediately applaud our best-laid plans. In other cases, it’s seen when a church becomes a pastor’s platform to promote his own personal brand—to gain book deals and multiplied popularity in the social media world. As Barnabas Piper pointed out:
“With the internet being what it is, local church ministry is no longer local church ministry. Pride is an occupational hazard for all of us: if you have a byline, if your name is on a book, or you have a podcast, it comes with pride.”
It’s treating a small congregation or an associate ministry role as a passing inconvenience until a more prominent position becomes available. It’s any action or attitude that treats the church as a tool to be manipulated for our benefit, instead of a holy communion where we share a sacred stewardship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the despairing results of this delusion well:
“The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community … enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. … He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”
The church is not a platform to send a pastor’s visionary ideals into orbit around his own wishful dreams. Neither is the church meant to serve as the source of our social stature or emotional wellbeing. The church is the blood-bought property of God. For a pastor to treat the people as his platform is an act of treasonous theft, stealing for himself that which Christ purchased at the cost of his own blood.
Delusion 2: The Leader Is Property of the People
“Let me tell you something, Dr. T.” The deacon leaned over the lunch table to make certain I didn’t miss a single word he had to say. “If your wife ever has to phone me about this again, I will personally take over your calendar so that you’re home when you need to be.”
More than a decade later, I realize this threat from a deacon who loved me probably saved my ministry.
I had served four years as this church’s associate pastor when the senior pastor left to lead a church plant. The congregation eventually asked me to take his place, and I accepted the call. But there was a problem: Even after calling an additional staff member, I wasn’t letting go of the roles I had as associate pastor. In addition to leading the staff and preparing multiple messages each week, I was still overseeing monthly training sessions for Sunday school teachers, attending every youth and children’s ministry committee meeting, playing guitar in the youth worship band and helping with the logistics for three upcoming mission trips. My wife was spending far too many evenings at home alone with our first daughter.
She tried to talk to me about releasing some of my previous responsibilities, but I didn’t see the same problems. So Rayann phoned a faithful deacon named Mark and described what was happening in our household. And that’s how I ended up being interrogated over lunch at Applebee’s about why I was spending so many evenings enmeshed in church meetings instead of heading home.
That afternoon, I began delegating and reassigning a long list of responsibilities. But I found the release to be more of a struggle than I ever imagined. After an hour or so of wrestling with the list, I came to a painful recognition: I was living under the delusion that the church could not accomplish these tasks without my direct involvement. One result was that I was living as if I belonged to the people and programs of the church, instead of living first and foremost as an adopted child of God.
In some ways, the notion of living this way seemed noble and sacrificial. I recalled older pastors boasting about spending all their evenings at church and even admonishing younger pastors, “You take care of the church, and God will take care of your family.” But Scripture doesn’t support such a split in responsibilities. Our integrity as leaders in the church, Paul says, is grounded in our habits of leadership in our homes (1 Tim. 3:4–5). A pastor who neglects his family and acts as if he is the church’s property isn’t demonstrating sacrificial love for the church. He’s revealing his unwillingness to develop and deploy the people of God for the work of God (Eph. 4:12).
In many cases, leaders who live as if the church depends on them are forced to live behind a mask of strength, never revealing their weakness. They cannot afford to disappoint or disillusion anyone, since they are the essential property without which the church cannot function—or so they believe. The problem, of course, is that none of us can successfully isolate our interior life from our exterior life. Whenever we neglect the unseen aspects of ministry, we eventually become unable to engage in the visible practices of ministry in the power of Christ. Too many churches celebrate leaders who are overly busy and fail to delegate responsibilities. When congregations treat their leaders as indispensable property, members miss opportunities to use gifts the Spirit has given them.
Locate Your Identity in Christ
So what’s the answer to this struggle?
The pastor must learn to see his central identity not as a property of God’s people or even as a leader of God’s people but, first and foremost, as a child of God and a follower of Christ. The pastor is the church’s servant, but the church is never the pastor’s master. Leaders and laity alike are not the property of each other; together, they are the devoted property of God and God alone.