First off, let’s clarify that there is such a gift as leadership, both in the OT and NT. The apostle Paul, having expounded the Good News of Christ in all its ramifications in ch. 1-11 of his Roman Letter, goes on in ch. 12 to outline the outworking of that Gospel, one of the things being the diversity of spiritual gifts given to the Church for community and mission (12:3-8). These gifts include the gift of leadership: v. 6ff, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith… if it is leadership, let him govern diligently.” When the same Greek term is used elsewhere by Paul, it is in the context of eldership (mature believers), including managing one’s own family well (1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 3:4-5). To my mind such leadership would be horizontal (pastoral) rather than hierarchical, exemplary rather than controlling, persuasive rather than dictatorial.
Secondly, let’s put Christian leadership into its proper and biblical perspective: while important, it is not nearly so emphatic in the Scriptures as in our day when the Church is largely governed by modern business and administrative models rather than the biblical servant-leadership modelled by Jesus.
Having been involved in the institutional/denominational church for decades, I gave myself wholeheartedly to books and seminars and training courses on church leadership. I attended umpteen Bill Hybels’ Global Leadership Summits, read many books on leadership, etc. I honestly believe that all those courses and books, while led and written by sincere men and women, gave to leadership a position that is not reflected in the Scriptures, the NT especially. I well recall reading some of John Maxwell’s books on leadership and thinking to myself, in my more honest moments, but ‘that’s just not me’: i.o.w. if I led my flock like that I would not be true to the person I was as one created in God’s image and redeemed in Christ. Needless to say, while all the above challenged me in some or way or another, it also led to much false guilt and a sense of resignation, ‘Oh well, maybe it works for others but it doesn’t seem to work for me.’
Thirdly, I submit that true biblical leadership is often ‘reluctant leadership,’ and I am more than comfortable with being known as ‘a reluctant leader.’
I was intrigued recently by a short YouTube presentation by the Northern Irish writer and philosopher/theologian, Peter Rollins [ok, he’s provocative (aren’t the Irish? lol), but so was Jesus]. In the presentation Rollins defines a true leader as ‘one who refuses to lead,’ a true priest as ‘one who refuses priesthood,’ thereby forcing ‘the priesthood of all believers’ in the body. I liked that immensely! Especially when we realise that NT leadership is ‘servant leadership’: think of that profound passage in Jn. 13 in which Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and directs them to do likewise!
I think many of the leaders in the Bible were ‘reluctant leaders.’
- Take Moses. Read Ex. 3 and 4, where Moses tries every trick in the book to avoid leading God’s people Israel: ‘Who am I?’… ‘What shall I tell them?’… ‘What if they don’t believe me or listen to me?’… ‘I have never been eloquent… I am slow of speech and tongue, O LORD, please send someone else to do it…’
- Take Jeremiah. In ch. 1, in response to God’s call to become a prophet to the nations, Jeremiah objects ‘Ah, sovereign LORD… I do not know how to speak; I am only a child…”
- Take Jesus. I have been working through Jesus’ story from the perspective of the evangelist Mark: again and again, when people wanted post haste to make him their messiah-leader, he stalled the process. It was only when there was no other way, as evidenced in Gethsemane, that he rose to the occasion of open leadership, only to be judged and crucified of course.
- Take Paul. While a brilliant and forceful personality, he deliberately refuses to baptise believers (bar one exception) in the early Church so that he might not be the cause of schisms in the body (1 Cor. 1:10-17), and then goes on to relate his weakness, fear, unpersuasive preaching and servanthood to Christ and all people (1 Cor. 2-4). In 2 Cor. 12 he thanks God for a humbling ‘thorn in the flesh’ (a physical affliction of some kind?) to counter the ‘surpassingly great revelations’ given him by God, so that he exclaims in v. 10, ‘For when I am weak, then I am strong.’
Fourthly, I maintain that one of the main reasons for so many mis-conceptions of Christian leadership can be laid at the door of the ‘church system,’ i.e. the institutional, denominational church system we see and experience all around us on a weekly basis. Since the days of Constantine (300 AD), the Church has been institutionalised and professionalised, from which the greater part of the Church has not recovered. From Constantine’s day we have inherited several evils:
- The clergy-laity divide.
- Hierarchical leadership.
- Since the Reformation, the one priest/preacher/pastor/teacher model for local church leadership, with elders and members playing an inferior role. In my own denomination, while we prided ourselves in holding to ‘the priesthood of all believers,’ I was in a way forced into the ‘senior pastor’ mould. If a church member or my assistant pastor visited someone in hospital, it was not considered a proper visit by many. If I was absent from the pulpit and an elder preached, people felt cheated (wasn’t I paid a salary to preach?). When other congregations around us flourished, I felt the pressure to perform and achieve the same results. I remember one of our senior elders saying to me in a leadership meeting, ‘Pastor, you are the chief visionary in this church – go get a vision from the Lord, share it with us and as elders we will support you.’ I complied, but my ‘vision’ was almost immediately rejected by those same elders who, together with their families, held the power in the congregation. I can recall, on leaving that pastorate, saying to a fellow-pastor ‘That’s the system for you, it will use you and spit you out.’ He agreed, but to this day is giving his all to the very same system, which I think is rather sad. At this moment I could name a number of ‘senior pastors’ in my city who are being abused by the same system. As Peter Rollins pointed out in his presentation, church members want you to lead, but will blame you when (according to them) things go wrong – they won’t blame themselves. Here is some handy counsel from Rollins: ‘we have to listen for ourselves and take responsibility for ourselves;’ “we must refuse to ‘colonise God,’ because his name is above every name!”
Personally, while God has graciously gifted me with some of the gifts mentioned in Eph. 4:11, I see my calling as using these gifts in a horizontal (vs hierarchical) servanthood, edifying the body to perform its Christ-ordained function in the world. I wouldn’t exchange my current ministry of ‘facilitating’ organic house churches in our city, under the functional headship of Jesus and constrained by his love alone, for the biggest mega-church or traditional church going. No way, Jose!