What Makes Christian Leadership Different

In the previous blog I reviewed the major words for leadership in ancient government and society. We noticed that such words could be used in the New Testament for secular leaders, God, Christ and even demons. But they are never used for human leadership in the church, except for proistēmi, which had a strong extended meaning of service and caring concern. Most of these words focused more on dominance, superior rank, authority over and heirarchy, which are not appropriate in the church.

In this blog I will share the three most important leadership passages in the NT (in my opinion) and briefly comment on their significance. The first is the “poster child” for Christian leadership: the footwashing example of Jesus in John 13. After washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus said the following (John 13:13-17, ESV): “You call me Teacher and Lord [one of those dominance terms in ancient Rome], and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master [lord again in the original], nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” While Jesus is willing to apply a dominance term like “lord” to Himself (as Creator He has that right), He here transforms the meaning of this term. The one who leads in the church is to be the chief servant. Real greatness is measured not in power, fame or position, but in willingness to serve.

The second major passage is 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15 (ESV): “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you [this is proistemi, the one secular leadership word used in the church] in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” The first two verses express how members are to treat their leaders. They are to esteem them highly and to seek peace among themselves rather than strife and rebellion. Paul doesn’t address here what to do when leadership roles are abused, but offers a basic attitude that will shield us from the pride of thinking we know better than those who are over us. The last two verses express the style of leadership that is appropriate for the church. Admonition can include “knocking sense into” for those who need that, but centers in encouragement, help and patience. There is no place in the church for leaders who retaliate on account of criticism. Their role is to seek what is best for those they are leading.

The final passage is the best of all, in my opinion: Matthew 10:20-28 (ESV): Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The behavior of Jesus is the measure of Christian leadership. We are not to lead the way secular rulers and bosses lead, we are to move among followers like a servant or even a slave, whose sole interest is in assisting those under him or her to be the best that they can be in Christ. The interesting thing is that “servant leadership” is catching on in the corporate world, just as many leaders in the church forget their original mandate.

I have chosen to use the English Standard Version because it has the same kind of clarity as the NIV, but stays a lot closer to the original structure of the Greek text. It is not perfect, no version is, but seems to cut the middle of many issues as well as any translation in the English language.