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By Caleb Simonyi-Gindele / December 2, 2017
Reading Time: 13 minutes

How to Model Vulnerability and Authenticity in Your Assembly

Vulnerability and authenticity. These are buzzwords of modern culture. But do they actually have any place in God’s assembly? How about in our lives as overseers? As it turns out, these are much more than just modern buzzwords.

Allow me to explain the concepts behind these two terms before making a case for integrating them into your service as an overseer, shepherd or teacher of the Lord’s people.

What Are Vulnerability and Authenticity?

Vulnerability is the willingness to open yourself up so that others can see into your heart and life.

Scary, right?

Well, that is the point: to show up at meeting and be seen. And by “be seen”, I mean revealing the reality of what you are experiencing and have experienced in your life: the good, the bad and the ugly. It means owning and acknowledging your failures, taking responsibility for your public and private decisions, and normalizing your struggles in front of others.

For most of us, showing up and being seen is just about washing the car Saturday evening and looking the part at meeting.

Why is Vulnerability Frightening?

There are two reasons why this may be scary. First, it may new for you. That is fine. To be forthright, I am still learning to do this myself. I believe it is a lifelong journey: there’s always more to be seen.

It is culturally a very unmanly attribute: in our world, we menfolk are supposed to mute our softer feelings, stick to harsh feelings, and be the bold, conquering, problem-solving warriors that Hollywood portrays in their blockbusters.

However, this cultural expectation is not Christlike. You and I need to be countercultural by following His example of vulnerability. Our Lord Jesus Christ? Vulnerable? Consider the Garden of Gethsemane. That is just one example.

The second reason why this vulnerability concept may be scary is if your assembly is not a safe place. If the interactions between believers in your assembly is characterized by gossip, blaming, favouritism, and harshness then vulnerability is not yet a safe option. Further, if there is an emphasis on compliance to legalistic terms rather than an open awareness of your common humanity and your collective and individual need for redemption and sanctification, your assembly will not be safe enough for vulnerability. Yet.

Indeed, if this describes the culture of your assembly, you have some work to do to lead the flock of God towards attitudes and behaviour that foster a sense of safety so that vulnerability can be expressed. If you are looking for a place to start this work, I would suggest you consider starting at your oversight meetings and expand from there.

Why Hasn’t Authenticity Been a Normal Part of Oversight Work?

For too many years, assemblies have functioned on the premise that overseers are the people who have it all together, guiding a flock of people who are mostly not there yet.

I do not think anyone has said this out loud — I certainly hope they have not — but this is an impossible scenario. Overseers are called to a high standard of character and conduct as seen in the list of requirements in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1 and 1 Peter 5. However, I believe it is the word “blameless” in 1 Timothy 3 that has been the obstacle.

If you take the word “blameless” to mean that an overseer is a person who never has done anything wrong and never will, then you are in trouble! This is an impossible standard. Frankly, it is contrary to the truth of the Gospel and to the teaching of John which says that “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:10, NKJV).

Too many good shepherds have been prevented from being overseers by the misinterpretation of what it means to be blameless. Perhaps there was a moral fall as a young man and that shepherd has been blacklisted from oversight work because he is not “blameless”. Or perhaps he was swayed by wrong doctrine at one point in his life: consequently the overseers have prevented the brother from ever serving in that capacity, despite the fact that he has long repented of the error and been restored.

Of course, one exception to this is the sex offender. A person who has offended once must be chaperoned constantly around children or vulnerable populations. But that is another article for another day.

So what does “blameless” mean?

It means there is no basis or blame upon which to base an accusation so the overseer is above criticism (WSNTDICT). Let us be clear: no person, other than our Saviour, has lived a life down here that is above criticism. So what does the text mean? Are we to water it down?

I take it to mean there are no unacknowledged or unaddressed issues, concerns, sins or problems in the overseer’s life. The fact that assembly leaders sin is not nearly as significant a problem as when they sin and refuse to deal with it. Whether that be a refusal to acknowledge the wrong done or to make amends or confront their own flesh. For example, an overseer with an unacknowledged food addiction could not legitimately confront a believer with a smoking addiction. Or, an overseer who refuses to forgive a member of the assembly could not legitimately confront another pair of people who were in need of reconciliation.

However, if the overseer with the food addiction was openly acknowledging of his struggles with food and working on seeking sanctification in that area of his life, he would be an ideal candidate to draw alongside a nicotine addict and offer to journey together. Likewise, the overseer who has struggled to forgive and been open and authentic about the difficulty of doing so becomes a relatable shepherd to the pair of saints who are in conflict.

A person is blameless when they can non-defensively acknowledge the struggles that are present in their own life. On the other hand, they are not blameless if they are in denial of these issues and will not confront them. Accusations are valid when problems are not being dealt with. There is no accusation to level when a problem is being, or has already been, addressed.

So blameless does not mean perfect. Really, it just comes back to underscoring the need for vulnerability and authenticity.

Authenticity Follows from Vulnerability

Once your assembly is a safe place where Christ-like love and acceptance in Christ are the norms, it is much easier to be authentic.

Authenticity happens when you consistently show the saints (and the world around) your true identity rather than a masquerade or false persona.

In other words, while vulnerability is about showing others where you are at, authenticity is about showing others who you really are.

Frightening, isn’t it?

As soon as I think of being authentic my shame kicks in and tells me, “You do not want people to see who you truly are.”

And so I go back into hiding, alone, and unable to experience the sanctifying power of the love of Christ shown through others.

Leaders are particularly vulnerable to this, by the way. Especially since the latent or active narcissism in every leader’s flesh is drawn to the masquerade of success as an attempt to cover for a diminished view of one’s self.

And yet, at its core, this is a failure grasp and believe the truth of the Gospel: that worth is vested in us first by being created in the image of God, and second, through the redemption that has made us accepted in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:6).

How ironic: that I should serve as an overseer in a Gospel Hall and am failing to live out of the truth of the gospel! May the Lord have mercy…I only wish I knew the extent of this sin in my heart.

Why Do We Need These Features in our Leadership?

By now you are probably asking, “Do we really need to do this?”

I am going to show you that these are truly Biblical values in just a moment, but allow me to first make the connection between vulnerability and authenticity and the servant leadership overseers are called to.

Both authenticity and vulnerability are fundamental to shepherding. Shepherding is about helping God’s people live out who they are in Christ. It’s about taking positional realities and learning to implement those as practical realities. This is the essence of authenticity. So how do you propose to help others to do what you are afraid to do yourself?

As for vulnerability, another core feature of oversight and shepherding work is being an example to the flock (1 Peter 5:3) in a non-domineering way. If you are not willing to put aside the mask and allow yourself to be seen, how do you propose to serve as an example? Or maybe I should ask, what example are you choosing to show?

“Here everybody, fake it like I do!”

That hardly sounds like an effective (never mind Christlike) strategy.

No, it should be more like: “Here everybody, I am struggling to figure this out, too!”

I See Your Point, But Are They Biblical Values?

To me, the incarnation of the Son of God is an expression of complete vulnerability and perfect authenticity. He was willing to show up and be seen in this world in the “likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3, KJV). In the gospels, we see Him tired, hungry, angry, gentle, meek, afraid, compassionate, upset, and more. He never pretended to be one thing when He felt another. That is vulnerability.

He was the Servant and the Son: there was no word that He spoke nor action that He did which was incongruent with His nature. He never hid what He believed. That is authenticity.

Further, you find these attributes implicit in the stories of godly men and women in the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament is full of the difficult realities of God’s leaders living imperfect lives. All four gospels and the book of the Acts record failures of great men of God. In Romans, Paul discloses his personal struggle with sin in chapter 7. He talks about his weakness and suffering in letters to Corinth, in Galatians he talks about his trial in the flesh, in Ephesians his tribulations, in Philippians his chains, in Colossians his afflictions in Christ, in Thessalonians the hindering of Satan, in Timothy he’s the chief of sinners, to Titus he reveals that he himself was once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving diverse lusts and pleasures. How about his peers? James exhorts us to confess our faults to one another: I am assuming he practiced what he preached. Peter was willing to admit that he found some of Paul’s letters hard to understand. John said that if we say we have not sinned, we are lying! He was certainly being real.

These are all examples of vulnerability and authenticity. Men of God being open, real and honest before others.

Now, here is the question: do you and I ever talk about ourselves in the same terms?

Ways to Model Vulnerability

Many of us will have to let go of perfectionism before we can model vulnerability. I dove into this subject in some detail on my marriage podcast (link in the article if you are listening) (http://oyf.link/148). In researching perfectionism I learned there are really four kinds:

  • Self-oriented perfectionism: requiring yourself to be perfect.
  • Other-oriented perfectionism: requiring other people to be perfect.
  • Socially prescribed perfectionism: belief that others hold unrealistic expectations about you: believing that others require you to be perfect.
  • Perfectionistic self-presentation, which is the desire to be seen as perfect by others.

All of these are contrary to the gospel. The gospel asserts that we are anything but perfect: we are sinful and in need of salvation. Next, for those who are saved, the gospel teaches that we are accepted in Christ Jesus and that perfection comes only with glorification. We cannot be perfect here on earth—but at the same time, we are forgiven and are able to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bering fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10, ESV).

So we need to let go of perfectionism whether we are putting that burden on ourselves or on others, and stand in our acceptance in Christ Jesus instead.

When we are grounded in the truth of the gospel, especially as it relates to our standing in Christ, then we can begin to show up and be seen. We can be open about our struggles because our identity is secure in Christ rather than based on the approval of others.

Practically, this looks like openly discussing our struggles in a ministry meeting message, or in a Bible reading, or in a one-on-one conversation with another believer. When we show them that we are on the same journey and we do not have it all together nor do we have all figured out, this normalizes their experience too. Then they can identify with you and they can see that you relate to them. This forms a sense of belonging and togetherness that is absent in perfectionistic relationships.

As a quick aside, the open discussion of your struggles should be appropriate to the context. I am not backing away from vulnerability here, but what you share must be for building others up. Not for the purpose of seeking attention or eliciting pity or as a way to manipulate the sympathy of others. Vulnerability is best expressed out of your fulness in Christ and weakness in self.

Vulnerability also looks like you or I being willing to say, “I don’t know” when asked a difficult question in a Bible reading. It may look like an overseer addressing a complicated matter in an announcement and saying, “We are not sure how to proceed. But we believe in God, and we trust that He will guide us through this difficulty.”

It may look like a willingness to accept feedback non-defensively. If your identity is secure in Christ, then you can even bear the brunt of an attack and while it is happening you can reflect on how to best shepherd the heart of the dear believer who is attacking you. Why? Because you are so secure in Christ. You already know your sanctification is incomplete so there is no need to defend yourself. Thus, you can take the valid part of their mostly unhelpful feedback and accept and acknowledge what is valid while letting go of the rest of the carnal words sent your way. Tough, but possible.

Vulnerability looks like a willingness to weep in front of others, as our Lord did. To weep over the unreachable and lost as He did over Jerusalem.. To weep over the lost. And to weep over the losses of others, as at the tomb of Lazarus. And to be seen weeping for your own distress, as in the Garden of Gethsemane. When was the last time the saints saw a tear on your cheek?

I know, I find that hard too.

By the way, I just modelled one more example of vulnerability: being willing to identify with, and relate to, the struggles of others. It is another great way of letting the saints know we are human, too.

Ways to Model Authenticity

When I stop and think about it, I wonder if we have a pretty significant problem with authenticity in our assemblies. In fairness, I think this is not necessarily particular to assemblies, but is reflective of worldly culture that impacts our gatherings.

When we hold back from expressing what we really believe in our hearts, we are being inauthentic. Whether that is my fault or whether that is a reflection of not being in a safe enough place to share openly will vary from person to person and place to place

Anything that I do that is incongruent with an inner conviction is an expression of inauthenticity. This is very convicting.

We model authenticity as overseers when our actions are congruent with our values. It is a willingness to use our God-given gifts and abilities to serve others. It is a willingness to be open about our values and forthright about where we would like to see the assembly go, in terms of direction and growth. Authenticity is also a willingness to gently confront others and to deal with problems that need to be addressed.

Authenticity with vulnerability means I am willing to let others see that I do not have it all together, but that I trust in a God who does. Authenticity means that I do not masquerade different versions of myself in different social or spiritual contexts. I must act the same at home and at work and at the Hall. Further, I never place pressure on my children to act a certain way at the Hall because I am an overseer.

Truly, if I am an overseer, then how I act at the Hall is already based on how I act at home. We see that in the requirement list of 1 Timothy 3 where an overseer is one who manages his own household well. The same emotional, relational and spiritual skill set applies in both places.

What About All Things to All Men?

This passage appears to present an interesting conundrum to the concept of authenticity:

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23, NKJV)

Was Paul acting congruently with his values when he was willing to be all things to all men?

I believe he was. An overarching value for Paul was to identify with the culture he was trying to reach in order to save some.

Allow me to give you a contemporary Gospel Hall example. As you would have seen in my article on The Use of Thee and Thou in Prayer, I am clearly not a proponent of using special language in prayer.

However, in assemblies requiring or expecting compliance I am content to pray this way at the moment. Is this being authentic or inauthentic? In my article, I suggest that there is no Biblical basis for praying with Thee and Thou. According to my convictions and my values, God wants to hear from me in language unfettered by formalism.

So I have at least four different values at play here:

  • I value authenticity and wish to be consistent in every sphere of my life
  • I value using my native tongue in prayer
  • I value the convictions of other believers
  • I value the opportunity to help assembly believers live according to the gospel

Now: some of my brothers will only ever pray with “You” and “Your”, regardless of context. In their value system, being authentic and using their native tongue takes priority for them. I have no judgement for that: there is no Biblical basis for me to criticize how they rank these different values.

For myself, I value the opportunity to help assembly believers live according to the gospel above these other values. I value the ability to teach them over the need to pray in a way that is more wholesome for me. Does it follow that I am then being inauthentic when I use different prayer language in different assemblies? So I pray with “Thee” and “Thou” in one place and “You” and “Your” where I know this is accepted. No. Not for me. I can see how that would appear to be inauthentic. But it is actually authentic in the sense that I am remaining true to my convictions about the priority of these values. As I said, I would rather have the opportunity to lead believers towards a more-gospel based life even if that means for the moment that I will suspend one of my Christian liberties.

In this way, the idea of being all things to all men is itself a value. And prioritizing that, if to do so is your personal conviction, is living authentically while leaving you a great deal of flexibility as you move from context to context.

Summary

Vulnerability and authenticity are really predicated on two very important things. One is the gospel. The other is making sure our assemblies are a safe place: they cannot be marked by backbiting, criticism, gossiping and bitterness.

Once we have a clear understanding of the gospel and we know our assembly is safe, we can be who God has created us to be. Openly, and unashamedly, and without the need for perfectionism.

In this context, the people of God will feel that they can relate to one another. There will be room to bear one another’s burdens. People will be able to confess their faults to one another. Prayer meetings will be more relevant and powerful. Kindness and gentleness will prevail. The saints will experience the love of Christ through one another.

I do not want to make this sound like a utopia: no, this is just the kingdom of God on earth. This is the simple fulfillment of the instruction of Peter: “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8, ESV).

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About the author

Caleb Simonyi-Gindele

An overseer himself, Caleb's mission is to help other elders lead their local assembly through some of the unique challenges of the 21st century: both doctrinal and shepherding. More about Caleb.