A biblical picture of leadership

Leadership word cloud

The past few decades have seen a significant increase in interest in the subject of leadership, both generally and within the Church. So much so that it’s tempting to paraphrase Ecclesiastes: ‘Of the making of books (and articles) on leadership, there is no end!’

The range of resources available means that Christians face a challenge in knowing how to navigate the subject. On the one hand, we can become so infatuated with the most recent trend in management or entrepreneurship that we end up unwittingly relegating the Bible to the sidelines, while on the other hand, we might bury our heads in the sand with regard to the challenges of 21st century leadership or the wisdom that might be gleaned from some of the best leadership thinkers. In fact, we might prefer to ignore the subject altogether, perhaps even dismiss it as unspiritual!

It’s the first of those temptations – ignoring the voice of Scripture – that I hope to address in this article, suggesting three biblical themes that might provide a framework for fruitful reflection on leadership.

1 – The Bible and leaders

The importance of human leaders is implied by the array of leaders that God uses across the pages of both Old and New Testaments. Considerable space is given to many of their stories: from Joseph, in ‘secular’ leadership in Egypt, through Moses and the Exodus, Joshua in the Promised Land, judges, like Deborah or Gideon, kings like David or Solomon, governors like Nehemiah, all the way through to the Lord Jesus himself and those who followed him.

Despite the shortcomings of many of these leaders, many of them were agents of significant work among God’s people. How would the Hebrews have left Egypt and negotiated the wilderness without the leadership of Moses? How would post-exile Jerusalem have been rebuilt without the leadership of Nehemiah (even though he could not have achieved it by himself)?

While we need to be careful not to treat some parts of Scripture as little more than leadership handbooks from which we can glean ‘leadership principles’, many of the stories have a great deal to teach us about the challenges and responsibilities of spiritual leadership. We also need to recognise that few of the biblical leaders left legacies of unmitigated success. Moses failed to make it to the Promised Land. Samson’s story was a confusing mix of faith and recklessness. Many of the kings ‘did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord’.

Scripture’s portrayal of these leaders is so honest about their flaws that, even if it’s too much to say that human leadership is a necessary evil, we might be tempted to think of it as a dangerous necessity!

2 – The call to character

Scripture cautions about the traps of leadership. In the Old Testament Deuteronomy 17 warns the king against accumulating horses (a sign of military power), accumulating wives (perhaps as a way of cementing political alliances, but a potential gateway to idolatry), and accumulating silver and gold (material wealth). By any other reckoning, these three things would probably have been markers of success in the ancient world: who wouldn’t admire a leader with great military power, international influence, and personal wealth?

In fact, Israel had one such leader: Solomon. Solomon’s wealth set him at the top of the ‘Rich List’; he had 12000 horsemen (along with horses from Egypt); in his household were 700 wives and 300 concubines. But the trappings of apparent success carried the seeds of the destruction of Solomon’s leadership. He ended his life an idolater and the kingdom was subsequently torn from his family. How many Christian leaders have crashed their leadership on the rocks of money, sex, and power?

It’s no surprise that the New Testament sets so much store on the kind of people who were to lead local congregations. The instructions for appointing elders/overseers in the Pastoral Epistles prioritise personal character over spectacular gifting (though gifting is part of the picture). Similarly Peter (1 Peter 5) challenges the heart motivations of elders, warning them that spiritual leadership is not intended as a path to wealth or personal power.

3 – Biblical pictures

Derek Tidball, in his book Builders and Fools, encourages Christian leaders to think about their role less in terms of the latest leadership trend and more in terms of some of the pictures the Bible itself gives to describe ministerial leadership. When we do this, there is plenty of material!

Among the pictures from which we might draw, there are kings and warriors, prophets and sages, builders and pilots, and there are shepherds and servants.

‘Shepherd’ is perhaps the dominant metaphor for leadership in both Old and New Testaments. In the OT, God (already the Shepherd of his people) delegates the task of shepherding to kings and other leaders. Sadly, they often prove to be unfaithful and are denounced by the prophets who promise that God himself will step in. Messianic prophecy looks ahead to a coming King who will emerge from Bethlehem and shepherd his people. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the welfare of his sheep, and in turn he delegates the task of shepherding his flock to his followers. Elders are told to ‘shepherd’ the flock.

If 21st century Church leadership is to be biblical, it needs to take proper account of the implications of the shepherding motif, with its call for leaders who are marked by both compassion and courage.

Finally, leaders are servants. The term ‘servant leadership’ has become familiar in general discussions of leadership, but it was Jesus who challenged his disciples to look less at the powerful models of contemporary leadership on display in the Roman Empire, and learn the lessons of servanthood. In contrast to the domineering styles of the culture around them, Jesus’ disciples had to understand that the radically different values of the kingdom of God included a radically different vision of what it meant to be number one: whoever would be first would have to be the slave of all.

Christian leadership follows in the footsteps of Jesus. In fact, we do well to remember that the call to follow precedes the call to lead: our leadership is validated when it flows from our followership. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, biblical leadership exists, not for its own advancement, but for the good of those in its care, for the glory of God, and the advancement of his kingdom.

(This is a slightly edited version of an article written for Insight – the magazine of the Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland – part of a special section the magazine is running on leadership.)

It’s not always first come, first served

What are we to make of that strange story Jesus tells (Matthew 20) about the people who worked for different amounts of time but ended up being paid the same wage?

To remind you: the first batch of workers were hired ‘at the third hour’ and were promised the going rate for a day’s work. The next batch were employed three hours later, the next a further three hours later and then there were the 11th hour brigade who had just been standing around all day. When the wages were distributed it was the 11th hour workers who were paid first and they got a day’s wage. Good work if you can get it! Which meant that when the all day workers came to receive their pay, they thought they would get more, and were quite displeased when that did not happen.

Unless you subscribe to some form of egalitarianism that argues everyone should be paid the same, no matter how much work they actually do, you probably have at least a touch of sympathy for the workers who slaved away all day under the hot sun. Fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, and so on.

The story is framed by the double occurrence of Jesus’ teaching that the last will be first and the first will be last: it’s an important theme through the latter part of Matthew 19 and into much of chapter 20. Those who have given up things in this world will be compensated in the next. Those who want to be great have to become the least. In this (to us) upside down kingdom, the King gets to be generous to whomever he chooses in whatever way he wishes.

The landowner had kept his word to the workers who worked all day. He gave them what he promised. There was no way they could sue him for breach of contract. He had not paid them too little; if anything he appeared to have paid the other too much! ‘Do you begrudge my generosity?’ he asked them.

If our relationship with God is based largely on some kind of quid pro quo arrangement, we will struggle when he is kind and generous to those who – in our judgement – don’t deserve it.

Those who truly appreciate God’s generosity to them will not begrudge his generosity to others, even when those others are, apparently, less deserving.

Have you been able to calm any storms recently?

Neither have I.

Nor have I been able to solve problems of drought or disease. Or tame a wild, raging hippopotamus.

Nor – unless you are a scientist and have made an important discovery in the past few weeks – have you.

But should we?

There is a Psalm in the Old Testament (number 8) that talks about the amazing privilege of being human. You have David, perhaps reflecting on a starry night with the flocks, wondering why God should confer such an exalted status on human beings. Why should he bother to think of us? Yet he has given us this special status, just a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour, and all things are under our feet.

Including the beasts of the field.

That ought to include hippos.

But I dare say that if a hippo charged in your direction, you’d be looking to escape rather than attempting to take dominion.

There is some biblical background.

Genesis 1 makes the extraordinary claim that human beings, men and women, have been made in the image of God. There is something of him in us. That’s our dignity and it sets us apart from the rest of what God has made. A galaxy may reflect God’s glory, but does not bear God’s image.

God’s image-bearers were meant to be representatives of God’s rule over his creation. That’s what God said in the beginning. And that’s how David talks in Psalm 8.

But what will we do with that hippo?

A little further on in Genesis (chapter 3) we discover something about our disgrace. Yes, there is the dignity of being image-bearers, but chapter 3 is a story of rebellion. It’s a story of people who were already like God (made in his likeness) wanting to be like him on their own terms.

Their rebellion had a spiritual, a relational and a physical impact, resulting in alienation from God, from each other, and from the creation, and paving the way for pain and decay and a created order that is ready to fight us.

is that why we aren’t so good with hippos?

But that’s not all.

It’s interesting that the anonymous writer of Hebrews quotes from Psalm 8. Hebrews 2 acknowledges that ‘we do not yet see everything in subjection….’

So the weeds and the thorns, and the storms and the pain are not just our imagination playing tricks with us. Things are not (yet) as they should be.

Hebrews 2 goes on:

But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus….

Despite humanity’s attempts to cut themselves loose from God, and despite the ensuing mess, God has not stood back, leaving us to fix it by ourselves.

We see Jesus…

Who, says Hebrews, has become one of us.

There is a Redeemer.

Who walked on water and rebuked the storms.

Moses goes to business school

Professor Shlomo Ben-Hur, of the IMD business school in Lausanne, and his colleague Karsten Jonsen have written a paper on leadership, based on the characteristics of Moses. They believe that there is room within the sphere of business and management for studying leadership through the framework of stories like that of Moses and other spiritual leaders.

Moses is an outstanding leadership figure. They quote from Henry George’s adaptation of the creeds of Maimonides:

To lead into freedom a people long crushed by tyranny; to discipline and order such a mighty host; to harden them into fighting men, before whom warlike tribes quailed and walled cities went down; to repress discontent and jealousy and mutiny […] require some towering character blending in highest expression the qualities of politician, patriot, philosopher, and statesman.

Ben-Hur and Jonsen write about Moses far-from-straightforward leadership journey, noting how he was shaped by various cultural influences: he combined his upbringing as an Egyptian royal and his heritage as a Hebrew slave.

Eventually he became an ‘accidental leader’, combining four distinct styles of leadership:

  • the visionary
  • the shepherd
  • the teacher
  • the servant

Ben-Hur and Jonsen suggest that ‘we should aspire to manage the creative tensions between the roles of a visionary and a shepherd and between those of a teacher and a servant.’

The complete article was published in 2012 in The Journal of Management Development; a shorter reflection from Professor Ben-Hur is available here.

This year, read your Bible – with a plan

January 1 (yesterday) is the day when a lot of Christians probably make a start on some kind of Bible reading journey for the new year.

Such a journey is a good thing!

Some will start at the beginning (as Maria told the Von Trapps, it’s a very good place to start) and some of those may find that once they get a few weeks in, the going gets tough: Numbers is actually about numbers!

Others will opt for some kind of devotional book or notes to help them along the way. Helpful, no doubt, if used wisely, but beware of mistaking the thoughts of the note-writers for the actual word of God. You should generally be aiming for more than a single verse topped off with an anecdote with a moral.

To make the most of your year’s Bible reading, it will probably be a good idea to have a clear plan. Hopping around from one day to the next may allow you to discover some nuggets, but on the downside it’s too easy to skip a day, skimp on reading time, or limit yourself to well-worn paths while large sections of Scripture are neglected.

It’s also worth planning for the whole year and not just the first part of it. If you decide to go for the E100 series, you need to know what you are going to do after day 100. If you decide to go for one of those high-intensity-read-the-whole-Bible-in-40-days programmes, you need to decide what to do for the rest of the year beyond February 9. If you decide you want to camp out on the Psalms for a year (5 a day will get you through them 12 times in a year), make sure you are getting some kind of exposure to other parts of the Bible as well. If your target is, say one chapter a day, to be well chewed over and applied, have some idea of where you are  going.

If you haven’t got started yet, take a look at a list of plans and devotional helps that the ESV Bible people have put together. They even have some options that make use of podcasts if you want to listen to the Bible being read (of course you can follow the reading in your own Bible at the same time). This year I have opted for one that goes through OT and NT at the same time, covering the whole Bible in the year.

Meantime, there is a blog post on the Gospel Coalition site where Matt Smethurst discusses a number of traps to avoid in your Bible reading this year.

Whatever you opt for, keep this advice from Terry Virgo in mind:

You don’t read your Bible to impress God. You read it to meet God. If you forget to read it, don’t feel guilty; thirsty yes.

A question for preachers about counselling

How many pastors pause long enough to consider the potential disjunction between the biblical foundations of their preaching ministry and the temptation either to offer people with problems in living an eclectic mix of homespun wisdom and pop psychology with the added veneer of a few Bible verses, or to refer these people to a professional counsellor, without any attempt to ascertain that counsellor’s presuppositions?