The Art of Followership

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If you’re a churchgoer, you’ve undoubtedly found yourself in the middle of a swirling controversy at some point.

Perhaps you disagree with the direction of the high school youth group or your church’s worship style or the building project. Maybe a decision of the council, classis, or synod has torn your church in two. Maybe your congregation debated an issue and agreed on a direction—but it’s a direction you vehemently oppose.

How do you respond, in light of your vow before God to “do all I can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to strengthen my life and commitment to Christ by sharing faithfully in the life of the church, honoring and submitting to its authority, and by joining with the people of God in doing the work of the Lord everywhere?”

The Priority of Unity

One of the highest priorities on the apostle Paul’s list is the unity of the local congregation. In Romans 1:4-5, for example, we read, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul’s call for unity, as Richard John Neuhaus notes in his book Freedom for Ministry, is not a choice between “schism for the sake of truth or superficiality for the sake of unity.” Neuhaus rightly observes that a church member serves his or her community poorly “if one does not contribute to it the most vigorous advocacy of what one believes to be right.”

But say you’ve done that—you’ve stated your position clearly and in a spirit of love. You’ve participated in congregational meetings and debated the issue through all other appropriate avenues. What next?

Clearly some options have no place in the church of Jesus Christ. We should not, for example, withhold our financial support in protest. That only mimics the ways of the world and breaks our promise to God. Nor should we choose to undercut those in authority with gossip or half-truths.

So what’s left? How should we respond to that inevitable moment in our life as a member of a local congregation when we disagree with the decision of those who exercise the authority—original or delegated—of Jesus Christ? Assuming we have honorably participated in the deliberative process, we have no other option but to follow.

Honing Your Followership Skills

If you want to become a better leader, you could attend a different conference each week and read a different book every day and still not exhaust the resources out there. But there are surprisingly few resources to help us become better followers of Christ. So how can we improve our followership skills?

In order to follow, we need three gifts from the Holy Spirit.

First, we need humility. Paul wrote, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus [who] humbled himself and became obedient” (Phil. 2:5-8). Like Jesus, we may choose to humble ourselves and become obedient when faced with a decision that doesn’t go our way.

To make that step, we must subdue our pride, which, like a wild horse, insists on its own way. Temptations, led by power, pride, prestige, and possessions, seduce us and encourage our hearts to lead, not follow. We need humility, that gift by which we see ourselves as God sees us, that gift by which we honor the contributions of others in our community.

The heart graced with humility is more concerned about the welfare of others than that of self. The heart graced with humility refuses to push itself ahead of others, especially when, as a result, the community experiences strife and division.

Second, we need submissive hearts. Paul wrote, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). We don’t like that “s” word. We prefer words like self-assertion, self-fulfillment, and self-actualization. We embrace concepts such as sovereignty and independence. We like to do our own thing. But God calls us to submit to one another in the body of Christ.

The word submit means to subordinate yourself, to renounce your own will for the sake of others, to grant priority to others, and to treat another person as more important than yourself. When we submit to another person we willingly lay down the burden of always needing to have life go our way. Then the plans, dreams, and needs of the other take priority over our own.

Some may consider submission an act of weakness, but those who choose to submit know that subduing our pride and sacrificing our own desires requires tremendous strength.

Third, we need trusting hearts. Paul teaches us that Christ is Head of the church (Eph. 4:15-16). When frail leaders disappoint or fail us, we may doubt that truth. When human vessels reveal their fractures, we may wonder how such a group of broken people claims Christ as King. But our confidence in the church does not rise from competence. It rises from the truth that, in spite of our failures, Christ remains Head of the church. We trust in that truth, even when it may appear otherwise.

Not at All Natural

By choosing to follow we do not affirm an inerrant congregation; nor do we affirm that every decision is right. But we confess that pride may cloud our judgment, that everything doesn’t have to go our way, that we don’t have all the answers, and that Christ is Head of the church.

Following, however, does not come naturally for people born in sin. It requires gifts from above. The Holy Spirit must transform our hearts with the gifts of humility, submissiveness, and trust.

Having written that, I must confess that I struggle with followership. Peers confirm that I have gifts as a leader. Personally, I would much rather lead than follow. Perhaps I bear the imprint of the turbulent 1960s and, like many of my peers, constantly question those in authority. More likely, I’m just a sinner who, like Adam and Eve, enjoys declaring my independence.

Yet my identity as a Christian is that of follower. How can I become a better follower of those entrusted by Christ with authority in his church?

I don’t know about you, but to accomplish that goal I need the grace of the Holy Spirit.

About the Author

Rev. Sam Hamstra Jr. is pastor of Palos Heights (Ill.) Christian Reformed Church.
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