Where Culture and Theology Intersect

Stan Patterson once asked a group of church leaders assembled in Russia, “Which takes precedence in determining our leadership practices, our theology or our culture?” The answer unequivocally came back, “culture.” Patterson was shocked. “I asked myself, how could mature Adventist people make a statement like that, especially when we have such a strong history of making the Bible our standard?”

But then he kept listening. The issue was highly emotional for the respondents, many of whom had grown up during the Soviet era. “Being Seventh-day Adventist in the Soviet Union generally meant you were from a minority group,” Patterson says. Students of history will recall the widespread marginalization of minority groups in favor of a unified Soviet state. “Their cultures were attacked by both the Soviet Union and the Orthodox Church to a degree where there was an attempt to obliterate their culture. The pain they experienced made it difficult for them to agree with the abstract statement, ‘My theology will determine my culture,’ because their culture was precious to them.”

Case studies like these have been the basis for the second phase of a global study conducted by Erich Baumgartner, professor of leadership and international communication, and Stan Patterson, associate professor of church ministry. Baumgartner and Patterson are interested in understanding how denominational leaders around the world view the responsibilities of leadership and how to meet the most pressing needs in church leadership development. 

Recently, they have conducted two interrelated studies in global leadership needs. The first study was an ethnographic survey of power distance and servant leadership concepts in worldwide denominations. Their findings surprised them: they found that across the globe, the culture a denomination was situated in had an “enormous impact on local practice,” says Baumgartner. For example, high power-distance cultures—defined as those that manifest greater distance between those in power and those farther down the ladder—also tend to reflect this separation and hierarchy within their church leadership styles. “Many countries have a top-down hierarchical mentality,” says Patterson, citing a few examples of South American and African nations, “and they don’t even think about the fact that dominating leadership is a violation of the standard established by Jesus Christ for his church. A lot of those things are innocently violated, I believe, because the expectation [of leaders in that country] is that you lead as atop-down leader.”

For example, leadership will be different in Peru, whose history includes a long tradition of more rigidly hierarchical leadership— the Incan culture, then the Spaniards and the Roman Catholic Church—than in northern European or North American countries. The way a leader is expected to lead in the culture at large, then, often trickles down into church leadership.

“Philosophically, we would say that leadership should be primarily determined by our theology,” says Patterson. “I’m committed to the idea that the Bible should be our primary standard in everything. But the reality is that culture is a factor in the ways leadership is manifested in different regions across the world.” 

Baumgartner and Patterson then took the results of their first study to a second one, now in its second phase. “Essentially, we’re asking how that enormous impact of culture affects our present leadership development needs,” says Baumgartner. The first phase of the study was a statistical analysis of pastor-membership ratios throughout the General Conference to determine the current leadership situation of the church. The second phase involved field research in those areas determined to have the highest need of leaders. Next, Baumgartner and Patterson plan to administer a survey to leaders around the world correlating the leadership needs found in the first phase of their study with the extant roles of pastors and administrators as well as church growth patterns. While the study is at this point descriptive, both Patterson and Baumgartner see its results having an immediate effect on how Adventists train their leaders. 

Right now, Baumgartner says, many higherlevel leaders across the globe are trained in the United States, many of them at Andrews University, or trained by teachers who have been trained in the United States. However, the American concept of a leader is often very different from, say, the Peruvian concept of a leader. “The question becomes, how do we develop leaders so that they use their authority in appropriate ways for their culture yet also reflect principles of biblical leadership?”

Leadership is a social construction, says Baumgartner. “That means that what it means to be a leader is to a large degree already determined by the society in which a people live.” With over 20 million Adventists distributedacross all the livable continents, that’s a lot of different leadership styles. “We want to be aware of the whole spectrum [of leadership styles],” says Baumgartner, “so we can then go back to our leaders who are responsible for leadership development.” Then, the church and its institutions can begin training leaders who can incorporate principles of biblical leadership into their own cultures.

However, the Bible also advocates a specifically counter-cultural approach to church leadership. The example most commonly cited is found in Matthew 20:25–26, “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them…not so with you.” When should church leadershipincorporate cultural influences, and when should it stand in opposition to cultural leadership styles? It’s a fine line to walk. “There is nothing wrong with some cultures being more oriented towards a hierarchical leadership,” says Baumgartner. Mandating animmediate switch to a more egalitarian and biblical leadership style “not necessarily in harmony with the culture’s approach to leadership creates confusion,” he says. “On the other hand, you have certain principles in Scripture; one of them is that God created us with the power to choose, and no one should dominate over another. If there’s a gap between leadership in culture and leadership in the church, should the church say something about that and be counter-cultural to those kinds of things? I think so.”

Their study may help determine appropriate areas for cultural influence in church leadership, and lead to improved training for church leaders. “How the principles of servant leadership are expressed [worldwide] is exactly the object of our study,” says Baumgartner. “We want to steer away from imposing a predominantly Western view on other cultures. Can biblical leadership be enacted in other ways, and can it be legitimate? I have a hunch Jesus would say yes.” While the study cannot as yet make recommendations to the world church, it has the potential to usher in a new era of diverse and crosscultural leadership practices.


Photo: Erich Baumgartner (seated) and Stan Patterson discuss the data compiled from studies of global church leadership.

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