To Lead or Not To Lead? Session 5: Words. Words. Words.

“In the past decade (or more), I bet you’ve attended your share of leadership conferences. Ever attend a followership conference? In the past decade (or more), I bet you’ve put your arm around more than one person and complimented his or her leadership abilities. Ever encourage someone with, ‘You’ve got great followership skills’? Ever read the Bible and focus not on leadership skills and lessons but on relational skills and followership lessons?’” Leonard Sweet from I Am a Follower.

As I said earlier in this blog series, I don’t write as a self-proclaimed expert in theology, a master of historical languages, or even as a biblical scholar. I write simply as a pastor of thirty-plus years who recently has discovered that I’ve been spending much of my time over the years doing my job in pastoral ministry by using a set of faulty assumptions and believing a bunch of questionable truths.

Here’s the facts. One quick look at my list of Top Twenty Qualifiers for Successful Christian Leadership (see below); assembled from the bounty of ‘how to’ leadership books written by and for Christian leaders in recent years, and you find a pretty impressive, if not intimating, list.







Effective Communicator


Excellent Character

Excellent Listener

Excellent Negotiator

Goal Setter

Helps Others Succeed

Inspiring Motivator

Life-Long Learner

Positive Attitude

Problem Solver

Risk Taker


Team Builder


Great words. But are all these words scriptural? In other words, while our generation quickly identifies these twenty qualifiers when talking about ‘successful’ Christian leadership, the question is this? Would a New Testament writer/author of 2,000 years ago, when Christ’s church was first forming, take any or all of these twenty qualifiers and assign them to the working definition of those who are called by God to serve His people?

Let’s face it, folks. While we toss the words, ‘leader’, ‘leadership’, and ‘lead’ around with ease in the twenty-first century church, I was shocked in a recent study I undertook with a NT Greek Lexicon, discovering how very foreign these same words are to New Testament Greek. In truth, the Greek words used in the New Testament for our English words ‘lead’, ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ are not only foreign to the text but are, interestingly enough, used in such a way that one might suggest that the New Testament concept of a Christian ‘leader’, using the twenty qualifiers I’ve listed above, does not compute either in the words of Jesus, Himself, or the words recorded by other 1st century writers of the New Testament!

Let me begin by just giving you the numerical facts. My study was done using both the NIV (New International Version) and the NASV (New American Standard Version). Most scholars would agree that the NIV is the most commonly referenced ‘English-friendly’ translation we have today while the NAS is a reliable English translation that holds most readily in agreement with the actual word-for-word translations taken from the original New Testament Greek.

In the NIV New Testament, there are 101 word references for the nouns: LEADERS (12), LEADER (0); the verbs: LEAD (18), LEADS (17), and LED (39); the verb or adjective: LEADING (13); or the noun LEADERSHIP (2). When broken into sections of the New Testament, these 101 words are distributed this way. In the Gospels (40), in Acts (21), the remainder of the NT (40).

The NASV has a very similar pattern to the NIV: LEADER (4), LEADERS (5), LEAD (14), LEADS (14), LEADING (19), LED (41), LEADERSHIP (0).  A word total of 97 occurrences.  While I will focus primarily on the NIV in my discussions, the NASV does have two uses of the word ‘LEADER’ that is not found in the NIV, and both of these references do have big significance in our study. So more on that specific point later in session 9.

But, that’s enough interesting word facts for today.

101 words in the NIV, 97 in the NASV. Greek words that translate best into our English words of LEADER, LEADERS, LEAD, LEADS, LEADING, LED, and LEADERSHIP. The New Testament contains 27 separate books, 260 chapters, 7,959 verses, and depending on what translation you read, approximately 181,000 words.

The 101 ‘leadership’ words (in the NIV) represent .000558 per cent of the word content of the New Testament. And just in case you wondered what the most common English words used in the New Testament are, let me list the top six for you, based on a recent report using the English Standard Version. According to the ESV (another fairly accurate word for word translation like the NAS), of the 5,393 different words used in the New Testament, the number #1 entry is ‘say’ with 1,946 instances. #2 is ‘God’ with 1,343 entries. #3 is ‘come’ with 1,120; #4 is ‘all’ with 1,006; #5 is ‘Jesus’ with 964 entries; and #6 is ‘go’ with 749 occurrences.

Now for those of you who are not impressed by numbers, the facts I just laid out for you might seem like boring trivia or useless information. But wait. Before you quickly dismiss my facts, let me end today’s session with this little tickler. For such an important word in our twenty-first century church life, this small number of 101 occurrences, using all 7 forms of the word ‘lead’ (LEADER, LEADERS, LEAD, LEADS, LEADING, LED, and LEADERSHIP), just might be one early sign to us that our ancient friends in New Testament times didn’t think too highly of the word.

Hmm. Maybe there’s more here than first meets the eye? Stay with me and I’m guessing before long, you just might start wondering a bit on this ‘LEADING’ thing yourself.

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4 thoughts on “To Lead or Not To Lead? Session 5: Words. Words. Words.

  1. so, out of curiosity, how many times does the word “follower” show up in the NT?

    Also, I’m wondering about the meanings of the words you listed… as in, while the words themselves may not appear in the NT, does the essence of the words appear? Going from Greek to English causes some problems in how we read things as there really is no ‘perfect’ literal translation due to the linguistic constructs created humanity in the communication circle.


  2. Hey Josh. a study of the word FOLLOW and other associated words would be a neat study indeed. I’ll let you tackle that assignment! :0)
    As far as the GREEK words go, I’ll get together the Greek details for you and send you what I found. I decided to not get that detailed in the blog, but the research is there. Like you said, the actual Greek words don’t always coordinate apples to apples to English. I used the broadest definitions I could so that all the Greek words for ‘lead’, etc are included in the 101 listings.


  3. Pingback: Leading From Within The Herd « Requisite Danger

  4. Reblogged this on As I See It. and commented:

    October 29th-November 23rd, join us for this re-blog of our twelve-session series entitled: TO LEAD OR NOT TO LEAD? Join us in this challenging journey into the New Testament, re-examining the ‘job titles’ used in the 1st century, comparing NT words used to describe those who oversee ministry in the first century versus the ‘leadership’ titles we so commonly use in the Americanized church today.


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