Modern Christians talk a lot about leadership. We use the Bible to teach leadership principles and leadership skills. Books, podcasts, websites, and conferences are all devoted to Christian leadership. So, it might surprise you to find out the Bible (especially the New Testament) has very little to say about leadership. In fact, some of our modern assumptions about leadership make it very difficult to understand and embrace what the Bible actually teaches.

Christian Leadership

Our Assumptions on Leadership

Rather than “leadership,” the biblical authors are far more concerned with “authority.” This distinction goes far beyond semantics. Ancient Christians thought very differently about power, authority, governing, and overseeing than American Christians do today. 

As modern people, we tend to assume authority is bestowed upward, but ancient people thought authority was bestowed downward. In other words, as followers, we think we should be the ones to give select individuals the privilege of leading us. Ancient people, however, tended to believe the authority to lead was bestowed by those above, those with even greater authority. 

Consider what the Roman centurion said to Jesus in Matthew 8:8-9. The centurion recognized that he had received authority from his superiors. His authority did not come from the submission of his subordinates, but from the will of his superiors. The centurion also confessed that Jesus ranked even higher because Jesus’ authority came directly from God. 

My point is not to argue about which idea is better. I simply wish to caution us against imposing our democratic ideology on Scripture. The biblical authors did not think authority came “from the consent of the governed,” but from higher and greater power and authority. 

Leadership in Earthly Governments

The average first-century Christian had countless rulers and authorities over him: the Roman emperor, a regional governor, a territorial king, a local magistrate, military commanders, and perhaps a master. As you can imagine, life was often not pleasant under the authority of pagan rulers.

The apostles taught Christians to see all of these rulers as ultimately deriving their authority from God (Romans 13:1-7). Which may sound as if God condoned oppression by giving authority to tyrants. However, it actually meant every ruler would answer to God for how he exercised the authority delegated to him. These “rulers” were actually God’s “servants.” This doesn’t mean they always served God’s purposes. It means they will answer to God for their justice or their injustice.

The apostles strictly warned Christians not to rebel against those in authority (1 Peter 2:13-25). Christians were told to submit, pay taxes, and even show honor and respect to their rulers, “not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust” (1 Peter 2:18). Those in authority were to be held accountable not by the people at the bottom, but by God at the top.

This is also why the voice of the prophets has always been so important. Throughout history, God sent prophets to speak on his behalf. These prophets, as God’s mouthpieces, boldly commanded rulers to do justice and warned of God’s wrath if they did not. And since the ascension of Christ, the Gospel has been the prophetic proclamation that Jesus has ultimate authority in heaven and earth. All other rulers, authorities, and powers will answer to Jesus. Their time is coming to an end and God’s kingdom is here to stay.

Leadership in the Church

It is only within this larger context of authority that we can think correctly about leaders in the church. Those who hold positions of authority in the church do not hold them by the consent of the people in the pews, but by the will and the purpose of God (Acts 20:28). This is why it might be more helpful to talk about “authority in the church,” rather than “church leadership.”

In Ephesians 4:9-16, Paul explains that when Jesus ascended to the throne, he delegated authority to certain people as a gift to the collective body of Christ, “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (vs. 11-12). An earthly king deputizes people to serve under him in order to bring his entire territory under his rule. Likewise, Jesus has deputized apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherds and teachers.

Unfortunately, the authority structure in the church today is in utter shambles for multiple reasons. First, we have plenty of leaders who abuse the authority delegated to them. But we also have plenty of Christians who, when they don’t agree with those in authority, just find or start another church. In order to bring the church back under the rule and reign of Jesus, we have to address both problems. 

Pursue Servanthood, Not Leadership

I believe one of the keys to addressing our rebellion—against governing authorities, against church authorities, and against the authority entrusted to us by Christ—is for us to stop pursuing and promoting leadership so much. I realize this suggestion is radically counter-cultural. Our modern culture encourages everyone to be a leader. But when everyone leads, no one follows.

Jesus doesn’t encourage people to become leaders, but to become servants. Not “servant leaders.” Just servants. When Jesus tells people to be servants, he is not simply telling them to do the work of serving people. He is telling them to embrace the social position of a servant. Jesus commands all of us to move to the lowest, most humble, seat at the table:

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Mattthew 23:8-12

Only when we humble ourselves will Jesus exalt us. Jesus appoints a few of his humble servants to have delegated authority in the church. We could rightly call those with authority, “leaders” (see Hebrews 13:7-17). These leaders are to exercise their authority in a way that:

  • sets an example of meek and humble service
  • protects the lives of those entrusted to them
  • honors the Lord to whom they will give account

And those under their authority are to:

  • submit to
  • obey
  • honor them

This picture of authority and submission is very different than the picture we often get when we talk about church leadership, Christian leadership, or even servant leadership. But this is what Jesus teaches. And it only works when our ambition is to be servants, rather than leaders.

I love you and God loves you,

Wes McAdams

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