The Generations Project is an endeavour that Graceworks embarked on which seeks to improve the unity within our churches by increasing the empathy that the different generations have for one another. Having concluded our research into both Millennial and Baby Boomer Christians in Singapore, our team compared the findings and identified some potential areas of conflict and convergence in the way that the two generations experience and view church. We explored the relevance of physical church services previously and this is the second in the series where we will present our insights and provide a biblical critique on each issue.

In our conversations with the Baby Boomers, it seemed difficult for them to imagine how a church could function without a hierarchical structure. It was not that they wanted it for its own sake but, rather, they felt it was necessary for the flourishing of the church. This trend was due to a few reasons:

  1. Growing up, Baby Boomers usually had strict parents who demanded obedience, so deference to authority was a legitimate and valid expectation during their formative years. Personal passions and idealistic views on life were not deemed to be as important as being obedient or respectful to the authority figures in one’s life.
  2. The bulk of most Baby Boomers’ careers were spent in organisations where hierarchical structures were the norm and perceived as the scaffolding to success. This resulted in a “pay your dues” schema at work which was transposed to the church — one was expected to be loyal and patiently “climb the ladder” before earning the right to speak or make changes.
  3. Lastly, the majority of Baby Boomers lived through the independence of Singapore and witnessed the eventual meteoric rise of the country. Much of this success was attributed to the system of outstanding governance put in place by our forefathers, a governance that was democratic but with an authoritarian slant.

Millennials, on the other hand, while not totally opposed to the idea, did not think it was necessary in all contexts, especially in a church setting where they felt that a hierarchical structure could potentially be detrimental to the building of relationships as well as the furtherance of God’s kingdom:

  1. Unlike Baby Boomers, Millennials grew up in a social and cultural setting where authenticity and individualism were celebrated. The focus was for them to achieve their fullest potential and be true to their own passions. Thus, an over-emphasis on hierarchical structures was often perceived as pressure to conform and seen as counterproductive.
  2. Under the current system present in most churches, many of them feel that they are simply a “cog in the machinery”, with their worth determined by the function they fulfil in the church. This, they feel, results in relationships between church leaders/clergy and members/laity that tend to be very transactional.
  3. While the working life of most Millennials may still be in the early stages, their worldview is that competency and results are more important than loyalty and perseverance. With the disruption brought about by the pandemic, traditional structures of work, such as work hours and locations, may no longer be relevant as well. This results in a clash with the “pay your dues” schema of the Baby Boomers. 

With an understanding of how each generation feels, it is important then to explore biblical principles that may give us some handles on how we can approach this important issue.

Some Biblical Reflections on Church Hierarchy and Structure

[We will not be entering into the debate of which ecclesiastical approach to church governance is more biblical. There is a lot of material explaining and comparing the episcopalian, the presbyterian, and the congregational approaches to church governance. There is biblical basis for all three approaches and each one has its strengths and weaknesses. In practice, most churches normally use some elements from two or three of the systems in their actual practice.]

  1. God has appointed leaders to oversee and guide church congregations (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13). Perhaps the inclination to reject authority is an echo of the heart of sin, which is a rejection of the rightful authority of God over us. In any case, situations like the church in Corinth, and probably in Thessalonica, shows the chaos that results with sub groups all going their own way. So in these verses in 1 Thessalonians Paul reminds Christians that they must give proper recognition to the place of the leaders in the church. Indeed the call is to  love our leaders. But we hold our leaders in the highest regard not because they are inherently different or superior to the other members, but because of their work.

    Elsewhere, in 1 Peter, we are told that elders are God-appointed shepherds tasked to protect, care, and lead the flock under the leadership of God, the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1–5). Indeed, younger members of the congregation are told to submit to their elders though leader and members are reminded of the primacy of humility, something that believers of all generations must bear in mind.
  2. However, the fact that church leaders are under the authority of the Chief Shepherd is also a reminder that church leaders do not have absolute power. Their authority does not rest in themselves or in their office but in their faithfulness to God’s Word. In Galatians 1:8, Paul makes a startling statement. If he or even an angel from heaven were to preach a gospel other than the one he first preached to them, let that person be under God’s curse. In other words, Paul, though an apostle, does not function under his personal independent authority. His authority comes from his fidelity to the gospel. Note how in letters like Galatians and Romans, Paul supports his positions by appealing to Scripture.

    The Jerusalem Council that was recorded in Acts 15 convened to discuss whether Gentiles needed to become Jews first before they could be saved. The discussion ended with an appeal to Scripture, Acts 15:15–18 — “as it is written”. In 2 Timothy 2:2, we note that Paul asks Timothy to pass on to future generations, not some personal authority but authoritative teaching.

    So while we recognise the place for leaders over us in the church, we also need to say that members will expect leaders to lead them in accordance with the Word of God.
  3. Therefore we also need to encourage and train our people to discern whether what has been taught to them is truly biblical or not. In Acts 17:10–12, we note that the Berean Jews received Paul’s message with eagerness. We are not calling for cynical suspicion of what our leaders tell us. Yet the Berean Jews also examined the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was true. I fear that many Christians are lazy and content to just follow what they have been told without discerning if what they hear is truly biblical. Sometimes it is leaders themselves who expect unquestioning obedience. Sometimes this expectation is based on some misreading of the Old Testament where God’s people functioned as a monarchy, and ignores the fact that in the New Testament, the Spirit and the Word have been given to all of God’s people and they are invited to participate in discerning God’s leading. Therefore leaders must be secure enough to encourage their members to examine if things proposed are biblical, and to train folks on how to interpret the bible so that they can do so.
  4. Perhaps the issue is not so much one of a hierarchical structure. There is biblical support for some degree of that. Maybe the issue is maturity in character. It is interesting that when Paul lays down the criteria for leadership in 1 Timothy 3:1–13 and Titus 1:5–9, he lays down a criteria of maturity in character. This is not because he is not concerned for gifting. He has already talked about the gift of leadership (Romans 12:8). He is aware that a leader needs more than competence. He needs Christ-like maturity. Indeed Jesus Himself models for us foot-washing leadership (John 13:1–17). Most people would have little trouble submitting to a humble leader who leads by the Word and who genuinely cares for others.

    Similarly, all followers of Jesus are to manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). And of course there is the call for all believers to love one another (John 15:12,17 ). For example, what would the relationships be like between leaders and members if all gave each other the gift of empathetic listening?

Closing Thoughts

We live in an age where, for the first time, the young know more than the old because of the internet. It is very easy for pride to come in and, with it, a possible disdain or disrespect for leaders. What does it mean to honour them as people better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3)? What does it mean to love and support our leaders?

As for leaders, will we embrace the time we are in as a time to relook at our leadership? To what degree are we first followers of Jesus before we are leaders of God’s people? To what degree are we committed  to love God’s people and help them fulfil their full potential in Christ (Ephesians 4:11–13)?