I have a challenge for you: Go to a bookstore and pick up any book on leadership. Grab yourself a latté; sit down in one of those comfy, oversized armchairs they have; and read through a chapter —whichever looks appealing. I guarantee you’ll gain something valuable for your time. Be it from the Business section or the Christian Life section, just about every leadership book on the shelves or online these days will offer clear, practical guidance on what it takes to succeed in business, public life and even the church.
Maybe you’ll learn a technique for better time management or new ways to deal with difficult people. Perhaps you’ll be encouraged to embrace the power of positive thinking or to maximize your strengths. With every Lee Iacocca, Steve Jobs or John Maxwell comes real-life stories of overcoming obstacles, facing near-impossible challenges head on, and achieving success in a climate of failure. Principles can be gleaned, advice is offered, and most of it will be helpful to someone, somewhere. After all, leadership is something we’re all supposed to be about. Or so I thought…
Leading or Following?
A few years back, I heard a seminary professor say something about leadership I’ve never forgotten. He said that he didn’t think there was such a thing as truly Christian leadership. He claimed that Jesus never called a single person to be a leader. And nowhere in the New Testament is there any guidance remotely like what we find described in the plethora of leadership books being churned out today — from Christian publishers or otherwise.
My professor’s words startled me. I’d never stopped to consider the validity of “Christian leadership” as a concept. The topic is so popular I had taken it for granted the claim that it was biblical. We have leadership conferences, leadership Bible studies, and entire ministries focused on nothing but doling out leadership material. In fact, the seminary I attended offers a degree in Christian leadership.
Immediately, I tried to disprove my professor’s thesis. My mind was filled with biblical examples of people deemed to be Christian leaders. Jesus put Peter in charge of things just prior to His ascension, right? Wait a sec. Jesus’ exact words were “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17, ESV) — not exactly a call to climb the ministry ladder.
OK. So maybe Peter wasn’t called into leadership as we commonly think of it today, but what about Paul? If anyone is considered a leader in the early church, it’s him. Then again, Jesus’ call was something less than an invitation to win friends and influence people: “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16). Ouch. I don’t see that as the tagline for the next book on Christian leadership techniques.
Maybe this professor was onto something after all.
Trajectory Is Everything
I can’t deny that there are leaders in the Bible, and I won’t claim that Jesus didn’t say anything about leadership or authority. It’s just that truly Christian leadership is upside-down. Jesus said this to His disciples when they were arguing over which of them would have the highest position in the kingdom:
You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all (Mark 10:42-44).
On another occasion, when the disciples were again arguing over who among them was the greatest (they apparently did this a lot), Jesus said, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Then He picked up a small child and said this: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (9:37). So, to sum up, true leadership is service, and the kind of service Jesus is looking for is the kind that welcomes toddlers.
Little kids are dependent, needy and messy. They can’t feed themselves, clothe themselves, or provide for themselves in the least. All they can offer in return for having their needs met is love (and they don’t always offer that). So no matter how many toddlers and preschoolers a person helps, there will be no recommendations offered on LinkedIn, no favors returned, and no networking contacts gained.
According to Jesus then, the trajectory of a Christian leader is downward rather than upward, service-oriented rather than promotion-focused. A true leader is a slave, and the one who desires to be first is fit to be last. Throughout the Bible, this inverse leadership philosophy is played out time and time again, bucking the trends of the modern leadership movement. From David who resisted opportunities to seize the throne from Saul; to Daniel, the uncompromising servant of God who wasn’t afraid to alienate royalty; to Jesus, who emptied himself of everything though He is the King of Kings.
A Kingdom of Upside-Down Leaders
Our world does not normally look for leaders in the mailroom; everyone knows they’re in the executive wing on the top floor of the building. Most people expect the president or CEO of a company to be an effective commander, administrator and visionary. And it’s the norm to tie authority to position. No matter how silly the idea or how misguided the concept, few people will openly question a decision made at the top of the org chart; it’s just not wise to critique someone with the power to fire you on the spot.
Because of the close association between leadership and the corner office, people who strive for leadership opportunities often strive for position and power as well. But the Bible is clear that promotion and authority come from the Lord, not from other people. And all the power and authority in the world isn’t enough to make us happy anyway.
To be fair, most Christian ministries know this. I am thankful that much that is labeled “Christian leadership” parts ways with the leadership culture at large, neither promising tips for climbing the corporate ladder, nor disregarding the need for committed Christ-followers to put others first. That’s why it can never be that we dismisss anything and everything with the “Christian leadership” label, as my seminary professor seemed to be suggesting we do. At the same time, we’d be foolish to blindly accept everything that comes under that same label. The third way is narrow and more difficult: We must constantly check everything we hear and read to see if it syncs with what Jesus taught His disciples.
True greatness in Jesus’ terms comes from how far down someone is willing and able to stoop, not from how high they’re able to climb to promote themselves above others. In one sense, we all know this to be true. We admire the person who uses what they have — whatever power, position and personal capital — to help those less fortunate. When not done to be admired by other people but out of true love for another person, these people bring hope to the hopeless and light to the darkness. They are leaders in God’s kingdom because their priorities, their “downward trajectory,” are infused with kingdom values.
Think about some of the things you’ve heard or read about leadership. Even when it’s called “servant leadership,” consider how the implied lessons stack up against what the Bible tells us about the nature of God’s kingdom.
To be effective, leaders need to stay ahead of everyone else.
Leaders serve others (Mark 10:43).
Achieving success will naturally bring with it position, paycheck and power.
God promotes (Psalm 75:7), God provides (Matthew 6:31-32), and all authority comes from Him (John 19:11; Romans 13:1).
It’s best to leave your religious convictions at the door when you head to work.
You are really working for the Lord, no matter your job (Colossians 3:23-24).
Maintain your position at all cost, and take every opportunity for advancement.
Leaders deny themselves and wait for the Lord to move (1 Samuel 24; 26).
Brand and promote yourself.
Consider others better than yourself (Philippians 2:3).
Opportunities for greatness must be seized.
The humble will be exalted and considered great (Luke 14:7-11).
Seek godliness with contentment (1 Timothy 6:6).
Of course, there’s no greater example of a reverse-course servant than Jesus. He is God — there’s no greater power or position than that! Yet He stooped down to serve undeserving people who would eventually murder Him. Even on the night Jesus was betrayed, He was busy washing His disciples’ feet (see John 13:1-11). Not exactly a “power move.” The image of Jesus as corporate CEO simply doesn’t square up with the Gospel accounts. People were drawn to Jesus because He loved them, regardless of their background, baggage or brokenness. The authority He had came from His Father, not from following a set of leadership principles or by pleasing people.
I believe there is much to be gained from most of the authors and speakers claiming to be leadership experts, but let’s be clear: These folks help people climb ladders, get ahead in their careers, and achieve new benchmarks of success — goals which are very useful and very much at home in this world. Jesus calls people to be leaders in His kingdom — the kind of leaders who are servants and disciple-makers first and foremost. This may not be what many of us expect, but the kingdom of God often works in ways that are alien to this world.
So as you stretch out in that oversized armchair in your local bookstore and thumb through the latest breakthrough book on personal improvement, pay attention, chew the meat and spit out the bones, but no matter what you do, listen to what the Bible has to say about true kingdom greatness.
Copyright 2013 John Greco. All rights reserved.