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Is Leadership Un-Biblical?

There’s been much ranting and raving on the Internet about the inadequacies of leadership in the church. I must admit I recoil whenever I hear people say, “Leadership is Biblical.” For a lot of reasons, I find it erroneous to say, “Leadership is Biblical.” When I say “leadership,” I am talking about the way the term has become adopted into the vernacular of evangelical leadership conferences and books. We might need to find a new word when we are talking about what leaders do in a church if we are ever going to truly “lead” a gathering community into the Kingdom. It simply requires a skill quite a bit different than what many in the church have come to describe as “leadership.” Here are five comments on why I believe “Leadership is not Biblical.”

1.)   The word “leader” itself is generally avoided in the New Testament within the context of the church (with the notable exception of Hebrews 13:17,24). Likewise, the NT writers generally avoid using secular or Old Testament (LXX) titles for authoritative office. Instead, the New Testament uses the term diakonia (servant, service) to label people in leadership far more times than any other term. The NT writers, therefore, used a word to describe leadership in the church that contrasted violently to the current secular notions of office. The NT on this reading appears to carefully avoid the models of authority available in surrounding society for defining leadership in the church. All this suggests that using the word “leader” as has been defined by the business culture of North America is highly dubious for the church and, dare I say, “unbiblical.”

2.)   Whenever the word “leader” is used in the New Testament, it is subverted in the church so that “leadership” takes on the element of leading by character not coercion, by submission not hierarchy, and in reverence for the Lordship of Christ. See for example Heb 13:7, “Remember your leaders…consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” Wisdom, age, maturity, as well as gentleness and self control, not “lording over” someone are the signs that someone is leading. This pattern, I would argue, is present throughout the whole NT in the way the term “elder” and “overseer” are interchangeable. It reveals that for the early communities, age, wisdom, and maturity were the recognizable traits of “leadership” in the community. Even the way “leader” is supposedly translated in Romans 12:8, it is placed within a total communal relationship of the gifts where each person exerts the authority of his/her gift in submission to the others. I would argue then that LEADERSHIP IS NEVER SOMEHOW A POSITION OF AUTHORITY/SKILL PLACED SOMEHOW UNILATAERALLY ABOVE THE CONGREGATION but always in submission to the body. Once again, the word “leadership” as used in the common parlance of business appears to be unbiblical.

3.)   Jesus Himself subverted the term “leadership.” The NT was so careful with its use of the words for leadership because the NT church carried the consciousness of Christ’s words, “If any one wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. Because the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”(Mark 10:42-45 par Luke 22:25-27) The NT church bears the image of Christ modeling servanthood when He washed His disciples’ feet (John 13: 13-17). They remember His words from Matt 23:9-11, “But you are not to be called Rabbi, for you have one teacher and you are all students, And call no one your father on earth, for you have one father, the one in heaven, and do not be called leaders, for One is your leader, the Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant; and whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (NAS) Jesus commands His disciples to refuse any titles of the secular authorities including religious (Rabbi), family (father), or group style leadership (leader). Though we may argue how to implement Jesus’ commands on authority and leadership within the church, we must surely conclude that Jesus instructs the church to resist modeling its own leadership in any way on secular notions of leadership existing outside of the church.

4.)   Christian leadership is defined by the posture of submission. To the world, this is not leadership. All of this does not discount the need for leadership, just a different kind of leadership! I believe we need leaders who lead from below, allowing God in Christ through the Spirit to exalt Himself in the midst, leaders who always act out of the authority of his/her gifts as received from Christ (Eph 4:7), who exercise authority as received only in dependence upon Christ. This is the leadership of Christ. We still need this kind of leadership. In fact, we need theological leadership sufficient to guide doctrine and practice in the church (we need ordination which is recognition by the community for this gift). Yet all of these gifted ones “lead” out of submission to God in Christ by the Spirit, always offering what God is giving to the body IN SUBMISSION TO ONE ANOTHER. Dare I say, any other kind of leadership is unbiblical?

5.)   The business models of leadership will handicap us from leading into mission. This is because business style leadership works top down and often works in only already-established authority structures, because business styles of leadership work to passivize the congregation negating participation, and because business styles of leadership work well with people who already are acclimated to church and its Christendom structures of leadership. My general prejudice is that the kind of leadership most often taught in our evangelical churches/institutions is poorly suited to lead our churches into post-Christendom engagement, i.e., into Mission. It’s another reason to be cautious about traditional “leadership” language.

This will raise more questions than it answers. There are thousands of pages to be written on how the submissive (radically subordinate) leader is actually the revolutionary leader. But for now, I’m ready and willing to hear objections and ways this has played out in your own lives.