Show me anywhere in the Bible that says the ultimate goal of human existence is to be a leader. It’s not there. Instead, everything rises or falls on Jesus the Christ. It’s not about greater intimacy and contact with a leader. It’s about greater intimacy and contact with Christ. It’s about a heart that beats in sync with the heart of God. Leonard Sweet, I Am a Follower.
If you’ve just joined my blog series, here’s my premise.
Over the last 50 years, the Americanized Church seems enamored with developing successful ‘leadership’ in our churches. The line of thought is this. If the church is to be successful in our mission to bring the Gospel to a lost and dying world, we must have top-quality ‘leaders’ who are able to ‘lead’ the cause of Christ. ‘How-to’ books and seminars abound for pastors who desire to become vibrant leaders themselves while training up an army of leaders who can build and lead a vibrant church. A church which can stand strong on its own two feet. A church that will be a driving force in our darkened society, leading lost sinners into lives as saved saints. A church that’s new and improved. A church that knows clearly its mission, and leads our nation back to God. Strong, proud, and free.
My former co-worker in Promise Keepers, Glenn Wagner, states in his excellent book, Escape from Church Inc., that the church has, unfortunately, taken most of our cues on ‘leadership’ from the corporate world of America, replicating the successful leadership formulas that have worked well in our consumer-driven society.
As I see it, we’ve forgotten that true, biblical Christianity runs counter-culture to the society in which it finds itself. In the first century, when Christianity was just in its’ earliest forms of development, there were two powers at work in the culture surrounding the earliest Christians. The first ‘leadership’ power was the existing religious system of the day. For many early Christians, the Jewish synagogue and the system of rabbis and high priests provided the leadership model for the society in which first-century Jewish-Christians lived. As the gospel spread outside of Jerusalem, impacting non-Jews across the Roman Empire, the other widely-accepted leadership model at hand was the Roman government. The civic leaders of the day were powerful people. Like most big government systems, a good-old-boy network developed under the headship of Rome. And if you were one who wanted to achieve success in either the Jewish synagogue system of power or the civic realm of influence, one needed to become a strong-armed, ambition-driven leader who was not afraid to step on toes as needed.
It’s in this world of religion, power and politics, Jesus turns to His disciples and tells them that the Kingdom of God will run counter-culture to the systems of power they were so familiar with in their every-day world.
I mentioned earlier in this blog series that the NIV has only 7 positive references using the root word ‘lead’; while on 35 other occasions; the NIV has negative connotations associated with concept of ‘leadership’. Basically, the NAS version has very similar numbers, but interestingly enough, the NAS does have two unique passages (found in the Gospels) using the word ‘leader’ that I must bring forward now to make my point clear.
These two passages are found in Matthew 23: 10 and Luke 22: 26.
Matthew 23:10 (NAS):
“Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.” The NIV uses the word ‘teacher’ here where the NAS uses ‘leaders’ and ‘leader’.
Luke 22:26 (NAS):
“But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant.” The NIV inserts the phrase, ‘the one who rules’ for the NAS word, ‘leader’.
Both of these passages are written by New Testament authors who desire to paint a picture of Jesus, standing in the midst His disciples-and-soon-to-be-apostles, talking seriously to them about ‘leadership’ as viewed through the lense of the Kingdom of God.
In the Matthew passage (see 23: 1-12), Jesus is talking about the scribes and Pharisees and how their style of ‘leadership’ is overbearing, self-centered and driven by fleshly ambition. In verse 8, Jesus plainly states to His friends, who will one day become overseers in the newly-founded Christian church, that ‘leadership’ found in the Kingdom of God is only found in God, our Teacher, our Father, and in His Christ or Messiah.
8 “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. 11 But the greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”
Keep in mind that Matthew’s gospel is written primarily to Jews, thus Jesus’ references to earthly ‘leadership’ refers to rabbis and the high priests. In Luke’s gospel (22: 24-27), which is written primarily to non-Jews, Jesus is found talking to His disciples, answering their gut-honest questions about ‘successful leadership’ in the Kingdom of God by referencing Roman authorities and other civic leaders. In other words, Luke takes Matthew’s story about Jesus reprimanding His disciples for wanting to be like the strong leaders found in the religious systems of the day, and paints the same lesson using the ‘kings of the Gentiles’ as the role model for ungodly ‘leadership’.
Whether it is the civic leaders in the Roman government system or the religious powers found in the Temple of Jerusalem, both systems of ‘leadership’ are modeling a style of leadership that the earliest disciples are assuming that they should copy as they come into their ‘leadership’ roles with Jesus. But as we see here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus will have nothing to do with this style of leadership being modeled by civic leaders. So when Jesus’ friends begin squabbling over which of them will be the greatest ‘leader’, (i.e. the most powerful and successful man amongst them who will be accredited with glory because of his leadership prowess), Jesus silences their fleshly talk by saying:
“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves?”
So, what are we to do with these two passages on ‘leadership’ found in the New American Standard? Can we just ignore them, going on our merry way, calling for strong, successful church leadership using the corporate words of leader, CEO, business manager, operations director, rancher, entrepreneur, goal setter, motivator, problem-solver, risk-taker, team-builder, or visionary? Leadership concepts that, quite honestly, reflect more of our corporate world than the biblical texts themselves?
I pray not.
On the other hand, am I calling us to stop ‘leading’ the church? Am I suggesting that we do away with all positions of ‘leadership’ and disband the organized church, as some are suggesting? No. But what I am suggesting is that we stop for a moment, reflect on the facts, and begin talking to God again about where we just might have taken a faulty turn, leaning on earthly definitions of leadership, while God (and His Word) takes a completely different direction!
Are you with me?
Next time, let’s begin a healthy discussion on some of the New Testament alternatives to words associated with ‘leadership’. Let’s return to the Bible and look again at some of the wonderfully descriptive words given us by the New Testament writers. Words based more from the heart of Jesus, and formulated through the heart and soul of those New Testament ‘leaders’ who left a legacy for us to follow. For His Name’s sake.
(For those of you who are wanting to look under the hood on the “word” statistics I’m presenting in this blog series, click here for all of the biblical references we refer to in this post)
My prayer: Jesus, without a doubt, You were very clear with Your disciples. There was no room in Your vocabulary for “leadership” that usurped the authority of God as our primary leader and/or teacher. Holy Spirit, give me wisdom and discernment to hear these words of warning from the Master and make certain I never assume a level of leadership that Jesus describes here. For Your name’s sake. Amen.
My questions to ponder: So, if no one but God is to be my leader/teacher, what should “leadership” in the Church of Jesus Christ look like? How can men and women “lead” yet not fall into tragic error like Jesus speaks of here?
So, what is God speaking to you today as we ask the question, To Lead Or Not To Lead?
As I see it, something needs to change in the way we define ‘successful’ Christian leadership. And the question today should not be, ‘Do we need leadership?’ but rather, ‘What kind of leaders is God asking men and women to be? Over a four-week period, you and I will take a deeper look at this question. In order to keep all the blog sessions organized, we suggest you bookmark our To Lead Or Not To Lead? home page for ease of use. ENJOY!