On Leadership

The January 2020 edition of VOX is out. As usual the team of Ruth Garvey-Williams, Jonny Lindsay and others have done an excellent job.

There is a range of articles on leadership, mission, homelessness (see http://www.irishchurches.org/homeless for small groups study resources), restfulness, music, winter and personal stories. If you are in a church in Ireland that does not receive VOX why not get in touch with them and help widen the circulation.

Irish Bible Institute is one of VOX’s partners and it’s a privilege to be involved personally. My ‘Musings’ column is on leadership in the New Testament and I’ve clipped it in below.

On Leadership

I feel ambivalent about the word ‘leadership’. I’ve been involved in leadership for a long time in Christian organisations and in church. I’m no expert, have made plenty of mistakes and am continuously wrestling with the unique character of Christian leadership. Unlike any other form of leadership, Christian leadership is shaped by life in the kingdom of God.

Modern Leadership

In our culture the word ‘leadership’ often carries with it images of a courageous individual forging a path for others to follow. Leaders discern priorities and set vision for the direction an organisation should go. They decide how it is going to get there and so the ability to evaluate, plan and make things happen is seen as intrinsic. This understanding of leadership requires the leader to be a particular type of person: a charismatic personality; a skilled manager who can co-ordinate resources and people to achieve strategic objectives; a creative communicator; and decisiveness in determining the way forward.

In other words, this sort of ‘take-charge’ leadership is all about exceptional people who have superior ability to achieve organisational goals. Such leaders are given significant power and are trusted to use it for the benefit of the business.

The trouble is that pretty well none of this describes leadership in the New Testament. My ambivalence comes from the feeling that much Christian leadership practice is shaped more by modern leadership’s preoccupation with the unique individual getting results than it is by the Bible.

What Christian Leadership Is Not

Jesus warns against leadership within the kingdom of God aping the Gentile world’s leaders who use their power and status to ‘lord it’ over others (Mark 10:42-43). Instead he deliberately inverts any hierarchy of importance, ‘the greatest among you should be like the youngest’ (who had least status, Luke 22:26). While Paul has plenty to say about leadership, he is also deeply counter-cultural and fully in line with Jesus. It’s remarkable how Paul consistently does not address leaders of the churches to which he writes, even when the church has serious problems. Rather he talks to the whole community, teaching them to act with one mind together as disciples of the Lord (e.g. Romans, Corinthians, Philippians, Ephesians, Galatians, Colossians). In these churches Paul never tells church members to fall in behind the vision of their leaders nor does he ever exhort leaders to take charge and sort things out. In fact, like Jesus, he deliberately rejects controlling leadership, valuing significant achievements of individuals or trusting in the power of a magnetic personality (1 Cor. 1:18- 2:5).

What Christian Leadership Is

It is surprising just how little detail the New Testament has in relation to what leaders actually do. They are to be able to teach (2 Timothy 2:24-25) and provide oversight (1 Peter 5:2; Hebrews 13:17). Most detail comes in Ephesians and even there the emphasis is not on any natural talent of the leader but on Christ’s gifting of specific people to ‘prepare God’s people for works of service’ in order to build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16).

Rather than modern leadership’s obsession with the unique ability of an outstanding individual to get things done, the New Testament is far more concerned about who leaders are as examples of mature Christian character (Hebrews 13:7; 1 Peter 5:3) living out kingdom-life in their homes, work and community. They are to be trusted, composed, hospitable, gentle, free from greed and ambition (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1).

There is nothing unique about Christian leaders – they are simply to display kingdom qualities. Paul commands all believers to ‘submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (Ephesians 5:21). His overriding concern in his letters is that believers unite as one in Christ under his lordship – it is Jesus they follow not their leaders. Every Christian is first and foremost a follower – and that includes leaders. The New Testament authors are of one voice – there are no levels of superiority and status within the body of Christ. [And all of this means that there is absolutely no logical reason why leadership should be gender-specific. Women, just as much as men, are called to display exactly the same kingdom characteristics].

What does ‘Success’ in Christian Leadership Look Like?

Such leadership is simply unparalleled in the world. Rather than ‘success’ being measured by achievements such as the size of our churches or whatever other quantitative metric we use to measure ‘progress’, the job of Christian leaders is to use their God-given gifts to help the church to grow and ‘build itself up in love as each part does its work’ (Ephesians 4:16). Love is the church’s most fundamental purpose and calling and is therefore what Christian leadership is all about.

That’s a vision of Christian leadership I’m not ambivalent about!

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