Brief Reflections on Christian Leadership
In many circles, leadership is a common buzzword. Politicians, company executives, social scientists, pastors, teachers, professionals, generals, people who give TED talks, and seemingly everyone else is talking about leadership—what it means and how it works.
I must confess that I too am interested in leadership; from my desk, I count no fewer than six different books with “leader” or “leadership” in their title.1 While I’ve found such books to contain much valuable information, I’ve recently been reminded of my need to revisit the Scriptures in order to learn what it means to be a God-honoring leader.2
In particular, I’ve been reading and reflecting on three passages in the New Testament on the expectations and qualifications for Christian leadership: 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, and 1 Peter 5:1-4.3 Through these reflections, I’ve come to understand Christian leadership as involving four primary characteristics: service, order, holiness, and confession. Let me explain each.
Four Characteristics of Christian Leadership
First, leadership requires service—lots of it. It means first serving others, rather than expecting to be served (1 Peter 4:10). It means being a shepherd (1 Peter 5:2-3) and taking the lead in difficult circumstances: being the first one out of the boat when the shore looks dangerous and the last one out when the boat is sinking. Leading with a servant’s attitude also involves taking responsibility for mistakes, whether your own or your team’s, and having the courage to remove yourself from a position of leadership when necessary. True servant leadership means submitting yourself to principles and practices beyond yourself and your ego. It involves being mission-oriented (Philippians 1:27-30), casting a vision (Proverbs 29:18), remaining firmly grounded in first principles (2 Timothy 1:13), and constantly learning (Matthew 22:37).
Second, leaders should live an ordered life. This means ensuring one’s heart is rightly ordered, mirroring as much as possible the desires of God and seeking to become more like Christ (Philippians 2:1-13). This also involves ensuring one’s mind is rightly ordered, focusing on the truth (2 Timothy 2:15) and rejecting falsehood (James 4:7). Order pervades a leader’s life, extending into family life (1 Timothy 3:4-6), professional relationships (Proverbs 31:10-27), and the nooks and crannies of life. A truly ordered leader makes accountability a key component of his or her leadership, never placing themselves on a pedestal. This means enabling the leader’s spouse, confidants, and teammates as sources of accountability and providing them the access and ability to call out the leader, provoke genuine reflection, and offer correction when needed.
Third, leadership requires a pursuit of holiness. The Apostle Paul says this well in Titus 1:7, where he writes, “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.” Much of contemporary culture elevates the self and our desires above others. In contrast, to follow the way of Christ is to die to self (Ephesians 4:22-24), recklessly pursue holiness (Hebrews 12:14), think soberly (Romans 12:3), and elevate the needs of others above oneself (Philippians 2:3). Pursuit of holiness also requires that leaders abstain from all appearance of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22).4
Finally, leadership means being the first to admit culpability and confess one’s own weaknesses. All have sinned and all will continue to sin this side of heaven (Romans 3:23). The appropriate response to this sin is repentance, a transformational turn away from the distortions of a fallen world and an embrace of God’s wholeness, goodness, and truth (Acts 3:19). Leaders lead by honestly and authentically confessing their shortcomings and sins in a manner that leads to life-change and holiness (2 Samuel 12:13-14). This confession should occur before God (1 John 1.9), before others (James 5.16), and lead to action (1 Corinthians 6.18), including penance and lifestyle change.
These four walls are difficult. I know of no leader who does not need to make repairs to at least one of these walls—myself first and foremost. Leadership requires ongoing attentiveness and commitment to these areas of life, as Scripture calls leaders to be men and women who continually honor God with their lives and lips. May these principles encourage us to lead with courage, wisdom, and humility in all our endeavors.
1 To say nothing of all those other books that are subtler in tackling leadership issues in business or churchworld.
2 Some have argued that godly leadership stands at odds with effective leadership or business leadership. I’ll leave that conversation for another time and place; but suffice it to say that I typically find such arguments uncompelling. Leadership in the Church—which, prima facie, should be focused on godliness—may not always align with the leadership qualities championed in a certain setting. But godly leadership is, has been, and will be effective in fulfilling its telos—the advance of the Kingdom of God—in every time and place.
3 Of course, these are by no means the only biblical passages from which we can learn about leadership; they are, however, three of the most commonly referenced.
4 This, I would argue, refers to matters of theology and ethics, not necessarily matters of conscience or preference, although those in positions of leadership should seek to not make others stumble by their actions or words (see Romans 14:13-23).
Image courtesy of Robbie Sproul.