Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Cross and the Towel: Aligning Our Church to His Church

By Tony Baron, Ph.D.


When I was a child, I would dress up as King Arthur bearing the plastic-made Excalibur sword and carrying the sparkling tin shield, pretending to slay the dangerous dragons in my backyard. Hours would go by in youthful exuberance as I would slash and stab, jump away and glide to the side, avoiding the hateful heat of my enemy. Occasionally, I would get wounded. Falling to the ground, holding my ribs in great pain because of the terrible tearing bite from the dragon, I would flay my sword toward the beast, directing my aim at his torso and finally, plunging the double-edged dagger into the very heart of my adversary.

I was a hero. My kingdom was safe. Now, at that pre-adolescent age, I had little interest in Guinevere’s affections. My love was to conquer, not be conquered. My Round Table was a kitchen table. And it only came to life when my mother would place before this weary warrior some cookies and a glass of milk. But at eight years of age, I had the power. All would bow down and acknowledge me as a commanding leader, heroic king, and omnipotent protector.
All would bow down except Ann Berry. The lady with the curly brown hair didn’t really care for my gallantry. Ann thought I let all that power go to my head, and she would tell me that as she watched my fantastic feats of heroism. Well . . .what did she know? I mean, when she lived in her fantasy world all she wanted to be was a horse! In my book, hero beats horse anytime!


As I got older, I put away the plastic sword and the tin shield but not the idea of power. Playing football in high school, I knew that it was the fastest and the strongest that received the most public praise and adoration. Although shy and still a bit awkward with the opposite sex, a Guinevere admiring my athletic skills didn’t sound like a bad deal anymore. If you can make the opponent fear you on the football field simply based on the pre-game observations of your size, skill, and speed, you’ve already won - even before the opening kickoff.


In college, several knee surgeries put an end to my future Hall of Fame NFL career. Yes, I still do have a vivid imagination! So I became a spectator of professional football while always still believing in the power of the sword and the shield. The move away from football propelled me toward a development of my spiritual life, eventually leading to seminary and graduate school. What was fascinating to me was that most of the church leaders were also practitioners of the sword and the shield. Leadership in the Church was defined in the same way as leadership in the world: size, skill, and speed. Whereas today the prime ideological conversation among theologians and clergy practitioners is the relationship of the church to postmodernity, the chief topic in seminary was church growth. Peter Wagner, Win Arn, and the esteemed church growth gurus at Fuller Theological Seminary had a wide audience in the evangelical world convincing future pastors about the importance of “homogeneity” and that “location, location, location” was as significant to the local church growth scene as it was to the business world. Now, don’t think I’m acting superior. I bought in 100%! Success meant size, and size meant souls. So I attended every conference I could afford and heard every church leader I admired so that I too could have the same success for my parish in reaching people for Jesus Christ.


Looking back now, I see that much of my wonderful theological education at three of most significant evangelical seminaries on the American landscape, and my advanced psychological education were inadvertently based upon similar leadership precepts of the sword and the shield. Yet, when I took away the secular symbols of leadership as a template in reading the pages of sacred scripture, and in particular, the life of Jesus Christ and his followers, I found the intentional leadership strategies were about the cross and the towel, not the sword and the shield. To be fair, there were some significant voices in seminary that spoke of the cross and the towel as a model for Christ-like leadership. Unfortunately, what was often modeled by prominent preachers in chapel, demonstrated by lay and ordained leadership in churches, and written about by theologians – topics such as inerrancy/infallibility debates or eschatological timetables in my formative seminary years - were highly combative, easily combustible, and uncomfortably conflicted with the servant leadership style of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ style of leadership seemed liberating and life-giving. The church’ style of leadership seemed eerily similar to the business or political definitions of leadership, except with religious jargon in order to create positional leverage.


Both have power, purpose, and followers. But one will liberate life, and the other will limit life. This book is designed to identify the roadblocks to liberating leadership in the contemporary church, inspire us to see God’s vision for leadership in the church, and instruct us on the key practices of Jesus Christ as a servant leader that we need to incarnate in our lives as pastors within our parish setting.


I need to tell you up front my bias. I love the Church and I love pastors. One cannot study God’s Word without realizing that the Church is significant to God. The Church is called the “bride of Christ.” In another place, the Church is described as the “Body of Christ.” Both words would suggest that the Church’s identity is found in Jesus Christ and her intimacy is deeply enriched by her relationship to Jesus Christ. Whether it is a house church or a mega-church, an emerging church or a traditional church, a denominational church or an independent church, I love these communities that seek to live by faith, endure in hope, and walk in love to the glory of God.

I also love their pastors. It doesn’t matter to me whether they are priests or preachers, male or female, young or old, they are a special breed anointed by God to “shepherd God’s flock” and “equip His saints for the work of ministry.” Several years ago, the noted author and scholar Dallas Willard told me in one of my discouraging times in the ministry that the pastorate “is the greatest calling in life.” I believe him to this day! You can influence more people, without limitation to age, status, or gender, to the Kingdom of God than in any other calling. This book is dedicated to all pastors.

The Rev’d Dr. Tony Baron, President
Servant Leadership Institute

November 24, 2009


  1. I agree with you that the position taken by the church of the last century toward the world was primarily aggressive. Some of our favorite songs back then, "Onward Christian Soldiers," "V is for Victory," "We are more than Conquerors," advanced that stance. Thanks for pointing out what we should have seen a long time ago, that our role as followers of Christ is to be servants.

  2. Hi Judy, The Church has adopted the secular structure for leadership and institutions. It has led to ineffective organizations and impotent leadership. The missing ingredient, of course, is the Holy Spirit. We must not instutionalize what needs to be incarnational. Blessings, Tony+

  3. I like your introduction. Just a few points you may want to consider. In the beginning when you speak of the "lady" with brown curls, you may want to call her the girl next door, or whatever she is... because your relationship to her is not clear.
    Also, the fourth and fifth paragraphs get a little tangled up with "Christianese" and don't drive your point home. It may not be necessary to point out that there were some teachings other than the world model of size and location. I didn't get a clear picture of what the cross and towel represent. I understand the cross reference, but what is the towel ("A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" comes to mind--which is probably not the symbolism you want...)
    Hope this helps!
    --Lori Sellstrom

  4. Lori, thank you so much for your comments. You are absolutely right. Thank you for being such a wonderful book editor. I look forward to many years together. Blessings, Tony+ p.s. The towel is in reference to Jesus washing the feet of his disciples clearly demonstrating servant leadership lovingly acted out on his last night before His death, even for those who betrayed Him.