Leadership, Heidelberg-Style

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Organic foods are all the rage these days. And organic is the latest fad in church leadership as well.

Springing from the emerging church movement, organic leadership is an inductive style that tends to be free-flowing, flexible, and intentionally unpredictable, on the verge of a Holy-Spirited chaos. In the organic model of leadership, leaders are recognized naturally as their giftedness bears fruit. Leadership is considered freshest when homegrown. Programs are not imposed upon the congregation by some authoritative structure directing traffic “from above.”

This style of leadership sprouted in reaction to perceived weaknesses in “corporate” leadership. While organic leadership is a postmodern phenomenon, corporate leadership is fueled by the Enlightenment. Reason rules. Leaders begin with the great idea of an organization. They then deduce what programs to develop and what sort of people are needed to fill the slots. It is a top-down leadership style with preconceived notions carefully reasoned and thoughtfully implemented.
Corporate leadership styles tend toward bureaucracy, are change-resistant, are intentionally predictable, and maintain good order. The laity takes its cue from ministry professionals.

Déjà Vu
The Heidelberg Catechism provides insight into leadership styles in its teaching that Christ leads his church by his Spirit and Word (Lord’s Day 21). The Reformers faced a similar debate about whether to pursue organic or corporate leadership, though the debate was shaped by the times in which they lived.

The medieval church had developed a strong, corporate, top-down model, starting with God’s Word through the pope, and then passed down to a complex bureaucracy that dispatched programs. The laity watched the professional officebearers do their work.

In reaction, sects on the fringes of Christianity developed what we would recognize as a more organic model—bottom-up, free-flowing, Spirit-led. Everyone was a priest with a word from God, so formal education was unnecessary, even undesirable.

The Reformers saw truth in both extremes. For them, church leadership was not about the Spirit or the Word but the Spirit and the Word.

Spirit and Word
The church is alive when it is inductive and deductive, organic and corporate, Spirit and Word. Keeping both poles in tension and informing each other, the catechism says, produces “living members” rather than a church that is chaotic or rigid.

The order of the Heidelberg’s Spirit and Word appears at first to contradict the Canons of Dort and the Belhar Confession, which use the phrase “Word and Spirit.” In fact, the catechism is geared toward the practical outworking of doctrine. So the Canons of Dort and the Belhar are following a logical order, while Heidelberg follows a practical order.

What was this practical concern that caused the authors of Heidelberg to list the Spirit first?

Was it challenging the “Spirit through the Word” formula that some churches in Germany had adopted? Did they fear that the churches might minimize the Spirit’s everyday work in the church without a special emphasis?

Heidelberg author Ursinus maintains in his commentary a distinction between the Spirit (the “immediate executor”) and the Word (the “instrumental cause”) in salvation as found in the church. That church is led by Christ, who has entrusted the keys to leaders, so broader implications for leadership become readily evident. Though the Spirit and Word usually work together, it’s vital that one doesn’t swallow the other for maintaining a healthy church.

Throughout history, the church has had the tendency to drift toward one end of the spectrum or the other. The corporate style can get so rigid that committee meetings are mistaken for ministry accomplished. The organic model can become chaotic to the point of people getting hurt when so many claim to have a direct line to God.

The time-tested Heidelberg style of leadership—keeping a healthy balance between Spirit and Word—can take advantage of the strengths of new leadership models while avoiding the weaknesses that inevitably become apparent.

About the Author


H. David Schuringa is the president of Crossroad Bible Institute, Grand Rapids, Mich., an international discipleship and advocacy agency for people in prison and their families.

See comments (1)


Thanks David for your article on being led by the Word and Spirit, or is it the Spirit and the Word.  You left me quite confused.  Organic versus corporate.  Inductive versus deductive. Top-down versus bottom-up.  Postmodern versus Enlightenment fueled.  Medieval church versus post medieval.

In the end you seem to fall on the side of “both and.”  “Spirit and Word” if your looking at the Catechism and “Word and Spirit” if your looking at the Canons of Dort or the Belhar.  But I really don’t know what that means for our churches today.  Are churches, and especially our denomination leaning too heavily today in the direction of organic or corporate, Spirit or Word?  Are you leaving us to choose?  Are you opting for a free-flowing, flexible, intentionally unpredictable, on the verge of a Holy Spirit chaotic church or are you opting for the more corporate medieval model led by the denominational corporate headquarters?  I think you are saying a balance is needed, but what is that balance?  Does it depend on whether the church is an inner city black church or a Dutch Reformed traditional church?  Or does it depend on whether the church leans toward being a country rural congregation or a downtown urban congregation?  And do churches get to choose or does the denomination lead?  I’m still confused.

You mentioned the Enlightenment and the rule of reason.  But I’m not sure that you got the significance of the Enlightenment right, even for the church.  It may be true that the Enlightenment gave credibility to “reason and logic.”

The Bible teaches that human kind has been created in God’s image.  As opposed to the animal world, what makes people the image bearers of God?  What makes us different from animals and more like God?  It is our capacity to reason and use logic rather than to be driven by animal instinct (strong emotion). Humans can weigh their choices logically.  We might say, “my first instinct (strong emotion) was to do such and such but after some serious thought, I decided to do this instead.”  We are most like God when we use logic and reason rather than being driven by emotion.  When you mention leadership that is free-flowing, and verging on Holy Spirit chaos, this is leadership and churches that are being driven by emotion and border on silliness.  It is engaging in practices that have little practical significance and discredit the reputation and witness of the church.  Much of what is happening in our churches in recent years only serves to provide an emotional high.  This is not a matter of Spirit versus Word, but rather emotion versus reason.  If we want to be God like, we should know logically when enough is enough.  Thanks David for the opportunity to add our input.