Note: This article is adapted from Leadership in Christian Perspective: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Perspectives for Servant Leader by Justin A. Irving and Mark L. Strauss (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019).
In his 1978 book simply titled Leadership, James MacGregor Burns notes that leadership is “one of the most observed and the least understood phenomena on earth” (p. 2). Leadership affects all of us. For better or worse, our lives are and will be impacted by leadership done well or leadership done poorly.
Some books on leadership focus exclusively on contemporary research and leadership theory. Others are based primarily on the Bible and theological reflection. We believe that the best approach is one that is integrative—drawing on the best of contemporary research but viewing all things through the lens of biblical truth and a Christian worldview.
Some cautions are in order as we consider such an integrative approach. For example, it can be dangerous to use the Bible as a “proof text” to support your pet theory. We groan when we see the latest self-help fad supported with a Bible verse taken out of context. Suddenly we have the “biblical view” of dieting, or dating, or exercise, or parenting, or financial investment. But the Bible was not written to be a handbook on Christian leadership. It is a record of God’s dealings with human beings: the story of their creation, their fall, and their redemption through the coming of Jesus the Savior. It is an invitation to find our place in the story and to come into a relationship with our Creator God.
So the Bible is not, first and foremost, a guide to leadership. Nor is every leader – whether in Israel or in the early church – a model to be imitated. There are some terrible examples of leaders and terrible models of leadership found in the Bible. We must also recognize that examples of leadership found in the Bible are deeply embedded in culture and so are not necessarily always “God’s way to lead.” For example, much of the Bible is set in highly authoritarian and hierarchical cultural contexts, where kings, emperors, governors and masters exercised absolute authority and dominance over their subordinates. Slavery was pervasive both in the ancient Near East and in the Greco-Roman world. Yet no one (we hope) would propose that this is a model for biblical leadership. So, again, caution must be used when drawing “biblical truth” about leadership from a cursory reading of the text.
With these caveats in mind, however, we can also assert that the Bible speaks a great deal about leadership. There are certainly positive models of leadership in the Bible worth emulating. We see leaders acting with discernment, wisdom, godliness, and compassion. We see courage in the face of adversity and perseverance in the face of trials. These leadership models appear in both the Old and New Testaments.
Yet the real revolution in leadership came in the teaching and example of Jesus. In the context of an authoritarian world – where power, dominance, and oppression were the order of the day – Jesus introduced a radical new model of leadership. This model has often been called “servant leadership.” But it is anything but subservient leadership. A better description might be empowering leadership. It is a leadership that is other-centered, the goal of which is to enable others to fulfill their calling before God, to be all that God wants them to be. It is therefore also equipping leadership, with a focus on training up the next generation of leaders.
The radical premise behind this model is that the goal of leadership is not to promote the position, power, status, influence – or even the agenda – of the human leader. It is to accomplish God’s purpose in the world. The leader is therefore more concerned with doing what is right than with personal success. He or she is focused more on the growth and success of those being led than on personal power or prestige.
Paul perhaps sums up best this equipping model when he describes the reason Christ raises up leaders in his church: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13).
The leader’s role is to equip God’s people for works of service, with the goal of spiritual maturity and a deeper relationship with Christ. We would assert that this should be the ultimate goal of all Christian leadership, whether of those in full-time pastoral leadership or those serving as Christian leaders in other sectors. The aim of empowering and equipping others to effectively engage God’s purpose in the world, in diverse sectors, is vital for all seeking to lead in Christian perspective.
It is significant that recent leadership studies have been confirming and complementing these biblical insights (see Leadership in Christian Perspective, p. 5-10). While most examples of “great” leadership from the ancient world were hierarchical and leader-centric – to lead meant to convince, cajole, coerce, or compel others to do your bidding – the latter part of the twentieth and early part of the twenty-first century has seen a significant shift among many researchers to more follower-focused approaches.
We invite you to take a look at our soon-to-be released volume, Leadership in Christian Perspective, where we offer biblical reflection on these shifts in contemporary leadership research and theory. Organizing the book around nine empowering practices, we argue based on biblical and research-based sources that the most productive and healthiest approaches to leadership begin with authentic and purposeful leaders who both understand the priority of people and navigate their team or organization toward effectiveness. We hope the resource will be an encouragement to many of our peers in the Oikonomia Network.