A Ministry of Shackles or Empowerment? Professor Donald MacLeod on Evangelism, Spiritual Gifts, and Church Planting

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I have to (ashamedly) confess, I’m new to the works of Professor Donald MacLeod. In fact, I’m relatively new to reformed writers on the whole. I really only started reading reformed theology sometime in 2004 – but even then, it was mostly the more contemporary stuff (Piper, Storms, Driscoll etc.) which technically isn’t really reformed in the historic sense. Most of my reading had been the works of Pentecostals, charismatics and independents. So in many ways I’m playing catch up – which is frustrating because there are so many excellent books and so little time to read them. Anyway, with that being said, I stumbled upon this excellent little book from Professor Donald MacLeod, Priorities for the Church: Rediscovering Leadership and Vision in the Church, which as a compilation of articles which had been previously published elsewhere.

I’ve only started dipping in to Professor MacLeod’s book – but already it has gripped my attention. Donald MacLeod has obviously been something of a trail blazer within the Free Church.  For example, in his section on Leadership in Chapter One, he speaks of the importance of leaders being enablers, in particular, the enablement of ‘body ministry’.

The New Testament insists on body-ministry. Every member has a gift. Every member is baptised in the Spirit. Every member has a ministry. In fact the body will function properly only if every component is working properly.

Professor MacLeod first wrote this sometime in the late 70s or early 80s. The publication of the articles as a book in 2003, by Christian focus, is a testimony to the ongoing relevance of the issues for Presbyterian churches. Having spent time preaching in a number of Presbyterian churches in the highlands for a 6 year period, I can see how radical Professor MacLeod’s thinking must have been. There has been, in many places, a historic pattern of over reliance on the minister to do the work of the ministry. All that, to simply say that Professor MacLeod was clearly something of a forward thinker within his church circles.[1] His vision of the church as a body, is something that many non-presbyterian churches would respond with a hearty ‘Amen!’ to.

Closely related, but even more radical (even for charismatic churches) is his section, in Chapter Three, on ‘The mobility of Preachers’. I’ve just read this section. It’s brilliant. It’s ground breaking and completely relevant for church planting and mission, today. Professor Macleod notes “the astonishing mobility of the preachers of the word.” and cites a number of examples from the New Testament such as Phillip, Paul, Baranabas, Silas, Luke, and John Mark.

Professor MacLeod goes on to argue for ‘evangelists’ to have more freedom to do their work in the current context.

Whenever the idea of setting up such a ministry is mooted among ourselves, our immediate reaction appears to be to take steps to safeguard the rights of sessions and presbyteries. Before we know where we are the evangelistic function is so shackled and fettered that no self-respecting man could take it on. Nor would he be any use if he did. In the New Testament, by contrast, the controls are minimal. . . we are too inclined to define leadership in a restricted sense – exercising control, maintaining order, keeping people in their place. We must learn to see it as something creative and dynamic, inspiring and liberating people to serve, so that no talent and no enthusiasm in the body of Christ goes unused. Only to a very limited extent should one man (or body of men) interfere with another in the spontaneity of his Christian service.

This is an incredibly insightful piece of writing, which is relevant, not only for Presbyterian contexts, but for all denominational (and non-denominational) contexts. Too often, ministry is designed from the top down instead of growing from the bottom up. Ministry becomes programmed by the control centre, rather than being allowed to develop organically. Even in charismatic circles, where there is an emphasis on ‘body-ministry’, we encounter this problem. Ministry is reduced to fulfilling the vision and plans of the pastor, and the pastor is often reticent to allow gifts and vision to develop from the congregation up. Often members with gifts, ideas and a willingness to get things going are viewed with suspicion, and their ability function is shut down. I recall once incident where an elder in a church asked his pastor if he could lead a small group bible study. The pastor said no. But where man shuts a door, God often opens another. A few miles away, several young people started coming to Christ, and the youth worker needed someone with more experience to lead bible studies. The man with the desire to lead a bible study was called upon to do bible studies in the midst of a tiny revival. I’ve seen the same problem happen many times where leadership will shut down ministry rather than facilitate it.

I want to apply Professor MacLeod’s principle to a particular area. Church planting. Church planting is a huge thing today – but it seems to be very resource heavy. The immediate concern is about human resources, money and long-term sustainability. There seems to be a lot of caution surrounding discussions about church planting. If we go to the NT examples that Professor MacLeod cites, and the principle he has just unpacked, we need to conclude something radical – church planting does not need to be so resource intensive. In fact, if you study historical Pentecostal church planting, and contemporary church planting, you will see that the whole thing can happen a lot more smoothly when gifted people are just allowed to get on with it. MacLeod challenges us to take off the shackles, ditch the fear – and just do it. If it fails, so what? You tried. You might just discover that God does something amazing.

[1] This principle can be seen throughout the book, for example his discussion of preparatory services.