Stacy Rinehart’s Upside Down: The Paradox of Servant Leadership

I found myself walking away from this book with something of a love/hate relationship. I loved it because his overall premise is absolutely correct: the church has abandoned a model of servant leadership, as exemplified by Christ Himself, for a model based on power. This abandonment has resulted in hierarchical structures of leadership and an almost wholesale acceptance of business tactics and strategies in the church. Most tragically, Christian leaders and churches are now looking to secular business principles instead of the power and presence of Christ to lead them.

Who could disagree with this diagnosis of the modern church scene? I can’t. In this regard, Rinehart’s call for a return to servant leadership stands as a call that must be heard today if the church is going to speak with power in a dark world.

Yet, I found this book frustrating for the following reasons:

1. In his reaction against excessive hierarchical structures in the church, Rinehart almost seems to lapse into an anti-structuralism. At the very least, he should have guarded against this by speaking of the proper uses of leadership structuring in the church.

2. In his attempt to argue that the modern church has abandoned the model of the early church, he rather frequently lapses into historical glosses and romanticization. He pictures the early church as having almost no formal leadership structures. He does not, for instance, discuss how the Council of Jerusalem fits into his view of the early church, or how Paul’s and Acts’ seeming allusions to leadership structures and offices within the early church fit either.

3. He has rightly called for a return to the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer but has not mentioned the potential abuses of this doctrine on the other end of the spectrum: church members who sluff off any pastoral leadership on the basis that they too are priests. Bonhoeffer has addressed this problem elsewhere, and it is certainly as real an issue as the neglect of this doctrine which Rinehart admirably bemoans.

4. He does not discuss the office and function of the pastor.

5. He gives a too-pristine picture of the early church as a sort of utopian community of people who made decisions together and who recognized no earthly authority in the church.

6. His synopsis of church history and the decline of a functioning laity is too simplistic and categorized.

7. He laments The Didache as being the product of a church which had abandoned the model of the early community of believers and does not discuss in any real detail the possible positive reasons why the early Christian community might have needed to formulate such a manual.

8. He almost seems to suggest that the drawing up of confessions of faith and church polity manuals is inherently wrongheaded. I do not think he really believes this, but one would wish that he would discussed how we might rightly articulate doctrine and polity without relapsing into a cold adherence to extra-biblical formulations.

There is much to like about this book. The overall point is right on the mark. I was, in fact, deeply convicted by his proposal that we return to a model of servant leadership. However, Rinehart paints with too broad a brush, and a closer look at some of the details would have been nice.

3 thoughts on “Stacy Rinehart’s Upside Down: The Paradox of Servant Leadership

  1. Very helpful
    Under point 3 you state: “Bonhoeffer has addressed this problem elsewhere…”
    Can you possibly point me to where exactly?

    • Hey Michael! Thank you for the comment. I will quote from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics in the 6th volume of Fortress Press’s 2005 Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, page 397 from the chapter, “The Concrete Commandment and the Divine Mandates”: “The congregation that awakes under the proclamation of the preaching of the word of God will prove the authenticity of its faith by honoring the preaching office in its matchless glory and by serving it with all its might, rather than by appealing to its own faith and the priesthood of all believers, thereby showing disrespect for the office, hindering it, or even seeking to make it dependent on the congregation.” It’s not a long section, but it is a reference to an abuse of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.

      • I had to go back and look to find out what I was referring to when I typed this. I had read Bonhoeffer’s Ethics around this time and so I imagine this was the reference on my mind when I made that comment. Hope that helps.

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