Learning from Cyprian of Carthage (195–258 AD):
Edward L. Smith in Augustine as Mentor writes that Cyprian of Carthage “involved presbyters and deacons in ministry through seeking their advice” (p. 39). While reflecting on Cyprian’s leadership, it became apparent that leaders today may often neglect to gather input from others as shepherds of God’s bride (Acts 20:28). Admittedly, I am no Cyprian of Carthage scholar, nor do I know all the intricacies of any controversies he was involved in (if any), but by studying the writing of Smith, I think we can all gain a little more appreciation for the merit of seeking advice from others when making decisions.
As leaders, why are we reluctant to seek counsel from others? Here are 3 reasons we should internally reflect upon as we think about answering this question:
Reason 1: The Pride of Power and Prestige.
One of the reasons leaders don’t seek advice from others when making decisions is that their pride gets in the way. Those in senior leadership reveal this truth in one of two behaviors. First, they wrongly believe their position of power means they don’t need the counsel of others because they are, after all, in charge. Second, executive-level leaders sometimes think they know everything, which in their minds, is why they are in their position of authority. One could argue that the motivation for such thinking is rooted in pride.
King Solomon, a man “wiser than all other men” (1 Kgs 4:31), wrote, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed” (Prov 15:22). The point being recorded is that seeking advice helps in making wise decisions. Of course, wrong counsel can wreak havoc on others like in the case of Rehoboam (cf. 1 Kgs 12:13–14), but sometimes leaders don’t ask for counsel because of their pride. They make decisions in isolation because they put too much emphasis on the power and/or prestige of their positions. May this not be so among us in church leadership who are called by our Savior to humble ourselves as Jesus did in his earthly ministry and sacrificial death (cf. John 13:12–17; Phil 2:8–11).
Reason 2: The Propensity to Move Too Quickly.
It may come as no surprise that seeking advice can be time-consuming, and many leaders don’t enjoy the “hurry up and wait” game. Leaders are typically movers, visionaries, and shakers. They like to get things done yesterday and make quick decisions to advance their vision. Many times, leaders believe every decision must be made with urgency, and they know seeking advice can slow down what they have already predetermined to be the right path (see also reason 1).
While seeking advice might slow the decision-making process, receiving wise counsel can often contribute to good decisions. Of course, we should always stop to seek God’s counsel through prayer and his Word (cf. Ps 33:11), but we also need wisdom from our trusted friends, other leaders, and mentors (Prov 20:18). We need as many voices as possible to help us make biblically wise decisions. I think Cyprian of Carthage understood this concept. Throughout his ministry, he sought the advice of others and put together councils to solve problems through collaborative means.
Reason 3: The Peril of Personal Insecurities.
The final reason that many leaders don’t seek the advice of others could be that they are insecure in their leadership identity. Our Protestant church mentality in America sometimes adopts a papacy mindset—i.e., lead pastors should have all the answers and make all the right decisions since they are closest to the Lord. Not only is this mentality unbiblical, but it also creates insecurities for those in these positions because not having an answer can make them feel incompetent, weak, or unqualified for their pastoral role.
For those who have their identity grounded in Christ, we pray to the one with all the answers, lead from a servant mindset, and celebrate the body for all its giftings (cf. Matt 19:30; 1 Cor 12:7). In other words, it is perilous to allow insecurities to overcome willingness to seek the advice of others. Be confident in Christ and welcome the advice of others. Then, celebrate when collaboration enables decision making that brings glory to God and maintains unity within the bride of Christ.
We see this demonstrated in the New Testament church. When a discussion arose about the role of circumcision, a council formed to debate the issue. Apostolic heavyweights were in attendance like Peter, James, and Paul. They discussed the issue, and collectively decided that salvation was by grace—not circumcision—and wrote a letter that their Gentile brothers and sisters should “abstain from things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:11, 20). The point: collaboration was not neglected due to the insecurities of those who formed the Jerusalem Council but rather embraced because the wisdom of the group provided a biblical answer to the issue (cf. Acts 15:6).
A Pastoral Challenge:
This is what we should learn not only from the early church, but also from Cyprian of Carthage. Yet, it seems many of us let our pride, our propensity to move quickly, or our personal insecurities prevent us from seeking the advice of others. May we humble ourselves to serve as leaders who willingly and intentionally seek out the counsel of others as we serve the Lord and glorify him.