One of my favorite quotes by Francis Asbury comes from very early in his ministry in America. In 1774 Asbury received a letter telling him that Robert Strawbridge, one of the very first Methodists in America, was administering the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. Asbury’s response was direct:
“Why will he run before Providence?”
Strawbridge was a layperson and not ordained. At that time in Methodism only ordained persons could administer the sacraments. Up until this point (and for a few years following), Methodism was only a renewal group within other denominations, and as such their preachers were not ordained and their meetings did not have the sacraments. They were like other parachurch ministries we have today. Strawbridge was convinced that if God had called him to preach as a Methodist, God had also called him to baptize and offer Communion. This may very well be true, but the problem was that he was a part of a movement that did not have the same opinions on the issue that he did. Asbury himself was convinced that, sooner or later, Methodists would have the sacraments in their own meetings, but not yet.
Because of Strawbridge’s actions, the Methodists in America during the Revolutionary period had to spend an inordinate time debating the sacramental issue and infighting among themselves. This is because some believed, like Strawbridge, they ought to be a completely independent church in their own right and offer the sacraments, and others believed that for the time being they ought to continue as a renewal movement and attend other churches for the sacraments.
The true mark of a leader is to learn how not to “run before Providence.” Leaders in the church, whether ordained or lay, need to remember that it is not our church. Therefore it is not our decision in which direction to lead. We do lead, yes, but it is God’s church. Jesus Christ is the head and we are parts of it. We need to remember that we can only lead where God is calling us to go, because ultimately He leads the church. We have to let “Providence” dictate where, how and when we go.
The difference this makes practically in the life of the church boils down to how we make decisions in focus groups, committee meetings, and the like. Do we make a decision and ask God to bless it or do we pray and seek confirmation for a direction in which we feel God is leading us? Do we jump and pray for God to give us wings, or do where God’s Spirit is already blowing and allow Him to lift us to the heights?
In the church, we can only truly lead insofar as we follow God. This goes for our own fellowship and our stand as Christians in the world around us. May we learn to follow in order to lead.