Leadership is a hot topic and even hotter recently is what it means to be a gospel-centered leader in the church. Myriads of books dissect it from every angle, universities offer doctoral degrees on it, and leadership gurus debate over the exact combination of personality types and attributes that make the perfect leader.
While much of this conversation is profitable, perhaps the attempt to produce a formula for making the ultimate leader has caused us to lose the wonder of God’s providence in choosing and using leaders. Throughout history, God has raised up men and women, some weak and some strong, some smart and some slow, in certain seasons and certain situations, to accomplish His overarching purposes in the world. A distinctly Christian understanding of leadership must be biblically rooted and theologically formed.
Even a cursory study of the biblical witness provides several prominent elements necessary for our understanding of leadership.
First, our leadership is a derivative leadership sourced in God Himself.
He establishes nations and governments and directs the course of the king’s heart (Rom. 13:1; Prov. 21:1). He dresses the lilies of the field and watches over the sparrow (Matt. 6:26-31; 10:29). This becomes even more explicit when talking about God’s sovereign leadership over His church. Jesus is the Head of the Church and has been given authority over all (Eph. 1:20; 5:23). He is the preeminent One and the “chief Shepherd” of the Church (Col. 1:18; 1 Pet. 5:4 hcsb). Every joint and ligament in the body of Christ is held together and fits together in Him (Eph. 4:16; Col. 2:19). God’s sovereign leadership over all is foundational for understanding human leadership.
In short, because our leadership is ultimately derived from God’s, it is always subservient, always secondary. In no way does this demean the role and responsibility of human leaders; rather, it defines the scope of human leadership. It puts it in its proper place and provides the right limitations. The apostle Paul discusses this in 2 Corinthians 5 when he describes the role and responsibility of the believer in ambassadorial terms (v. 20). We are sent to the world as agents on behalf of another. We are representatives carrying the message of one greater than ourselves.
Second, God raises up gospel-centered leaders.
They are born under His auspices. They are elected under His watch. They rise to the occasion under His reign. They are given a voice by His decree. He builds up platforms and dismantles platforms. He gives some of them long seasons of influence, while others have shorter windows in which to serve.
Yet in all of this, there is mystery. God’s sovereign reign over leaders does not diminish the freedom for humanity to seize opportunities. Consider, for example, Mordecai’s wisdom to Queen Esther: “If you keep silent at this time, liberation and deliverance will come to the Jewish people from another place, but you and your father’s house will be destroyed. Who knows, perhaps you have come to your royal position for such a time as this” (Esth. 4:14 hcsb). In this passage we see that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted (namely, that deliverance will come to His people), but Esther still had the opportunity to act, to lead. God’s sovereignty doesn’t diminish our responsibility or opportunity.
God doesn’t call the qualified; He qualifies the called. How often we see Him in Scripture calling the unexpected and the average into significant roles of leadership. In some sense, there is no concrete mold or predictable pattern for the person God raises up to lead. Consider the calling of Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery. Moses was filled with reluctance and anxiety. He was slow and hesitant in speech. How was he to be God’s mouthpiece?
But Moses replied to the Lord, “Please, Lord, I have never been eloquent — either in the past or recently or since You have been speaking to Your servant — because I am slow and hesitant in speech.”