To the Ends of the Earth and Beyond in the Spirit

By Robert D. Cornwall

A Spirit-empowered church requires spiritually gifted leaders who take us to the ends of the earth and beyond.

When Jesus’s disciples gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem, they were waiting for the Holy Spirit to come and empower them for a ministry of witness that would take them from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1-2). As 21st century Christians, this remains our calling. We engage in this mission rooted in a community in which, according to Paul, “there are different spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone” (1 Cor. 12:4-5 CEB). Paul speaks of these gifts, ministries, and activities in organic terms. There are many members, but one body of Christ. Each member of this body has their own purpose and calling.

I have written in some depth about spiritual gifts and the role they play in the life and mission of the church, including gifts of leadership. I have suggested, “Leaders are called to equip, guide, and build up the community of faith so that the community or congregation may live out its own calling to love God and the world.”1 While Scripture doesn’t prescribe a particular form of leadership, most of the models we find there are dynamic and relational. These models stand in contrast with the patterns of leadership presented to the church by the business/corporate world, which tend to be institutional and hierarchical. Yes, there is the priesthood and the monarchy, and Paul pulls rank on occasion, but even Paul’s leadership is more relational than institutional.

The models of leadership present in the New Testament depend on the Spirit, whom no one can control. We have tried to bottle up the Holy Spirit with our institutions, but history shows that the Spirit moves as the Spirit desires. If we’re open to the Spirit, then no matter the format the church takes, whether episcopal, presbyterial, or congregational, the Spirit can engage with it. The key is being sensitive to the Spirit’s lead. If we understand the way God works in our midst non-coercively, then to be led by the Spirit requires our cooperation. To lead in the Spirit is to provide a context where the people of God can discern their gifts, and then work together as members of the body, toward the end that is the reign of God.

What might this look like? The analogy that comes to mind is the call and response hymn. The Spirit calls and we respond. It is in the midst of this call and response experience that we discern our gifts, our callings, and our pathways of service, including ministries of leadership.2

As I read about spiritual gifts in Scripture, I have concluded that we can understand that some gifts seem to be innate and others do not. There are gifts that are context-specific and emerge when needed. Other gifts are present from birth and reflect God’s creative presence in our origins. We might think of this as a matter of genetics or DNA. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t make any pronouncements on this matter. It’s just a feeling and an observation. Looking at the question of relational leadership biblically and theologically, I start with the premise that while we’re not robots who are programmed for a particular job, God plays a role in the creation of our identity. Consider the call of Jeremiah. The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah declaring: “Before I created you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart; I made you a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:4-5 CEB). While I don’t want to press this too far, this call story is illuminating.

Looking at myself, I can see aspects of my personality and abilities that seem innate and lend themselves to certain callings. That being said, how we discover them and use them isn’t predetermined. We discover these gifts and their uses as we flow in the Spirit. Jürgen Moltmann puts it this way: “the person who believes becomes a person full of possibilities. People like this do not restrict themselves to the social roles laid down for them, and do not allow themselves to be tied to these roles. They believe they are capable of more.”3

Moltmann’s vision of spiritual potential is helpful in thinking about ministry in the Spirit in an open and relational context. Society or culture can impose barriers, but they do not limit the Spirit. One of the barriers/boundaries that the church has imposed down through the ages concerns the role of women in the church. Even today, the majority of Christians live within religious systems that do not allow women to join in the leadership of the church. This is true despite the fact that women play leadership roles in Scripture. Deborah is a Judge. Mary Magdalene is numbered among the first witnesses of the resurrection. Priscilla was an important teacher, while Phoebe was one of Paul’s most trusted associates. Then there is Junia, who together with Andronicus (likely her husband), was counted among the Apostles. While the institutions of the church have long placed limits on the role of women in leadership, making ministry a male domain, the Spirit has called, and women have responded. Consider Margaret Fell, an early Quaker leader, who heard the call and wrote defenses of women taking up the role of a preacher. As Amanda Benckhuysen writes of Fell’s argument for the inclusion of women, preaching “was the task of all Christians who shared in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, in whom the Inner Light was present. In other words, all on whom the Spirit had been poured out were called to share in the prophetic ministry of announcing the good news of God’s love and grace, including women.”4 I believe we can say the same about the inclusion of LGBTQ Christians, who have sensed the call of the Spirit to lead and have said yes.

While the church plays a role in recognizing and affirming our gifts, as well as equipping and credentialing persons for ministry, ultimately the Spirit gifts and calls. Since I affirm the premise that God does not coerce us, which means God will wait for our response, I believe that it’s the Spirit who first issues the call, and generally does so from within the community. From there, in the company of the Spirit and the other members of the body of Christ, we can exercise our gifts, including gifts of leadership, in ministry within and beyond the body of Christ.

One question has arisen for me since writing Unfettered Spirit (2013). It concerns the way we are called to engage with those outside the church and the broader Christian community. How might the Spirit empower us to engage in conversation with and in ministry with those living outside the Christian context? As I’ve contemplated this question, in the context of my own interfaith engagements, I have been influenced by Amos Yong’s work. Like Yong, I remain strongly rooted in my own Christian faith, but in my cross-religious work, I have discerned the work of the Spirit. Yong has written that when we start our conversations Christologically, we tend to end up at an impasse over the role that Jesus plays in the relationship.

If, however, we start with the Spirit, many of those barriers begin to fall. If we start with Jesus’ commission in Acts 1, which speaks of sending Spirit-empowered persons outward, bearing witness to the gospel, reaching to the ends of the earth, does that mission require conversion as the end game? There was a time when I thought it did. In the course of my own journey, I am no longer certain this is God’s desire. As one who embraces an open and relational understanding of God and God’s people, we can ask the question: where is the Spirit leading? The second question concerns how we might engage in Spirit-led leadership that crosses previously sacrosanct boundaries.

Robert D. Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, Michigan. He holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and edits the journal Sharing the Practice for the Academy of Parish Clergy. He is a blogger and author of nearly twenty books.

1 Robert D. Cornwall, Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, (Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2013), p. 99.

2 Cornwall, Unfettered Spirit, p. 102ff.

3 Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, Margaret Kohl, trans., (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 187.

4 Amanda W. Benckhuysen, The Gospel According to Eve: A History of Women’s Interpretation, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), p. 113.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

UL Leadership Cover