Leadership in the Gospels: LOL 3

As an ongoing series, you can find LOL: part 1 and part 2, here.

As a young Christian, I remember my captivation with leadership.  As para-church ministers we raised funds selling the idea that the problem with the world was a lack of Christian leadership.  You hear that a lot these days and could be forgiven for thinking our problem isn’t sin, it’s a deprivation of leaders.  But it doesn’t sound right to say the antidote to sin is leadership so we naturally explained that the antidote to sin is faithfulness, unaware we had conflated faithfulness and leadership.  The antidote to sin is Jesus the Love of God but that kind of thinking just looked like it wouldn’t get enough done.

Seeking to better myself and increase my value to the kingdom, experience the good life of faith, I dedicated myself to the pursuit of leadership and ministry.   I read a lot of Hybels, “The local church is the hope of the world and its future rests primarily in the hands of its leaders,” John C. Maxwell and Robert K. Greenleaf’s classic, The Servant as Leader.   Drucker and DePree are still favorites.  In fact, I think DePree’s book, Leading Without Power, should be required reading for pastors.   Soon enough, I stumbled on Laurie Beth Jones book, Jesus; CEO.

In one sense, Beth’s book is an easy target; it’s emblematic and full of the worst kind of exegesis- eisegesis.  Under a pretext of “finding” biblical principles of leadership in the gospels, Beth clearly reads her assumptions about leadership into the text in a blatant fashion.  Take a look.  It’s bad.  But I don’t want to be too harsh as it at least puts forth a popular description of leadership that isn’t drenched in alpha-male gobbled-gook.  It contains helpful, practical insights here and there, and it’s encouraging to see a book on leadership written by a woman highly read.  Unfortunately, the book does not contribute anything Christian to the examination of leadership.  It makes the terrible American mistake of believing something and then proof texting it in a distorted way.  We end up worshipping our culture in the text instead of the God it points to.  20th century business leadership is not the same as faithfulness to God.

It is shocking, educated as we are, that we rarely question so much talk about leadership as biblical when the word itself is barely there at all.  That’s particularly true in the Gospels where we see Jesus as a kind of charismatic old west hero not endorsed in any structural way.  He challenges authority and the powers with personal power.  Because of this, examinations of Jesus’ leadership in the gospels tend to focus on “characteristics” of leadership making the gospels a “book of virtues” for leaders.  We see Christ’s leadership in his actions and character able to produce the Kingdom of God for us…  But let’s be clear: Jesus was not a servant leader.  He was a servant.  The text is clear on this point- we should interpret Christ as servant, not leader, and we should be very careful not to make his servanthood somehow just a different description of leadership ignoring the central thrust of His sayings.

I believe that our attempts to define leadership as an individual’s virtues hide the fact that the way we evaluate and describe leadership is really through power relationships.  We define leadership by its effectiveness.  This is true in both structural/organizational descriptions of leadership and psychological descriptions, even in respectable definitions, such as J. Robert Clintons; “"A leader is one who influences a specific group of people to move in a God-given direction.”  The leadership emphasis transitions from role to effect.  Jesus is a leader in the gospels because he was effective, essentially able to produce the results he desired.  But despite our disclaimers, this ignores how failed he looked and ignores the faith required of him.  It establishes the efficacy of his leadership in the domain of humanly achievable effects, not God given.  This is manpower.  (really.  Women still aren’t allowed much…) 

The Gospels, however, testify that Jesus’ use of power is profoundly different from the worlds. Even as business schools discover a new style of management that revolves around people and empowerment, profound differences remain if only because businesses labor under the tyranny of the bottom line.  Effectiveness is the ultimate judge of leadership and this means power is central to its definition. 

But really, it is the faithfulness of Christ that judges our faithfulness and His resurrection abolishes the tyranny of the bottom line, doesn’t it.  The resurrection abolishes the end; destruction; death; failure; hunger; lack; void.  In this light, there is a fundamental flaw to our definitions of leadership.  Were the prophets of the Old Testament good leaders?  Though faithful to their call, they rarely seemed to move people?  According to the bottom line, they failed.  According to God, they seem not to have.  Is “expansion of ministry” a Godly goal?  Is the Christian task to produce something?  Our answers to these questions reveal what we think about power.

We see it in our blind spots to passages like Matthew 23 and the command not to call people “leaders”.  It’s the kind of passage we get around instead of ground our theologies of leadership on.  Or consider Matthew 20: 
25 But Jesus summoned them, and said, "“You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you, but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. 27 Whoever desires to be first among you shall be your bondservant, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”"
The point: don’t lead people; die for them.  Serve them.  The assumptions of power in our understanding of leadership are exposed in this passage and Matthew 20 stands in judgment over a lot of our leadership. It is precisely the exercise of power that is addressed here.  The eager student of leadership in me protests, “Yes that’s right!  And we lead by laboring for vision and organization; suffering when people persecute us for the righteousness of our vision, doing the hard work of pushing us where we need to go; burning out to achieve the things we are called to, applying discipline to people who thwart our goals.”  But in this protest that wells up in me, I am increasingly aware that I subtly concatenate faithfulness and leadership in ways our culture dictates, not the gospels. 

A basic statement of my thesis is that is leadership is our rubric, not service or love, and “Leader” is not neutral.  There are some particular cultural assumptions and expectations around what a leader is, and often enough they hint at middle class white management values.   We make the same mistake the apostles do in Acts: feeling it too important for our leaders to wait on tables, we divide labor up to be more effective,  only the story the Holy Spirit is writing is gathering up those table waiters and using them to send the Gospel of Jesus Christ forth.


Popular Posts