Basil of Caesarea, also known as St. Basil the Great, was a Christian leader in the third century who played a crucial role in both the theological and moral formation of the church. He worked to preserve the historic understanding of Jesus as God, laid the foundation for Eastern monasticism, and was tireless in his care for the underprivileged. Basil grew up in a privileged family, was incredibly intelligent, received the finest education of his time, and moved among the cultural elites. Early in life he wandered from the Christian faith of his parents, enticed by political, social, academic, and financial success, until the unexpected death of one of his brothers. God used this loss, along with the counsel of his sister Macrina, to reorient his life towards Christ and set him on a radically different path. As Basil’s life changed and he eventually lived in a community of Christian men which was focused on devotion and service, one of his practices was to insist on doing the lowest jobs among this Christian community. Having lived with a bunch of guys at different points, I would assume this would involve cleaning the bathrooms (whatever bathrooms were in those days). When his Christian brothers would object to their leader serving them in such “menial” ways he refused to change his practices. (Read more about Basil.)
I think of Basil as I consider my role within the church and the shape that leadership will take going forward. In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus he writes
But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift… And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…
Rather than putting myself at the top, I’m near the bottom (“elected officer” in the diagram), equipping others for the work of ministry. I believe that it is appropriate to flip this pyramid the other way to reflect Jesus’ authority over the church and the authority which he has given to godly leaders, but the upside down pyramid is more helpful for three reasons.
First, the upside down pyramid helps us remember that God does not act as we expect or lead in the way the world does. Jesus says to his disciples in the Gospel according to Mark,
You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
The way forward in God’s economy is to lay down our lives and serve others. If we have the usual corporate organizational chart it is so easy to forget how Jesus leads. The way forward is to lift others up, pass on whatever power we hold, and reject the need for recognition. All of these behaviors are deeply challenging and I need to truly look at the pyramid so that I remember who is at the bottom – Jesus, God himself. When I look at this upside down pyramid I am reminded that God has come underneath to serve me. His radical commitment to me enables me to put myself underneath others.
Second, the upside down pyramid helps us prioritize. In a church there are always a thousand things to do and the temptation is to grease the squeakiest wheel, which is usually not a leader. It can be tempting to let the people who are “doing well” slide off the radar and focus on those who are deeply needy. While the church must always care for the needy there is biblical precedent, both in the life of Jesus and the leadership of the early church of investing deeply in the growth and development of leaders. There must be multiplication and decentralization of ministry otherwise our capacity to love and serve will be hampered by the natural limitations of leaning too heavily on any one person. The various layers in the pyramid will develop over time but the mindset needs to be in place from the start. Eph 4 says that grace is given to all in the church and this pyramid reflects that reality and helps us pass along whatever we have so that others may serve more effectively.
Third, the upside down pyramid isn’t a gimmick. This isn’t the Sunday where the pastor “serves” in the nursery to teach people that they should do so as well. This isn’t the church, skipping a worship service to help with community service. Both of these examples are well intentioned but in my estimation not thought through. I love kids and at Grace Pres are committed to their spiritual development, but shouldn’t people serve along their strengths, gifts, and God appointed roles? We are deeply committed to service within the community which demonstrates the mercy of God, but if our love for others comes after our love for God then what about the priority of the worship we give to God? The upside down pyramid is a model that we must wisely use and not turn into a scheme or stunt in our application of the principles.