the problem of Christian leadership

sheepI’m preaching this Sunday on 1 Peter 5.1-5

It’s a passage aimed squarely at the ‘elders’ of the congregations to which Peter writes.

Apart from the slightly terrifying demand that elders do their work of shepherding ‘willingly’, ‘eagerly’ and as ‘examples for the flock’ (each of which can make me wince as I cast my mind back over the ‘eldership’ roles I’ve had), I’ve been grappling with the problem of Christian leadership that passages like this raise.

Leadership in our culture’s terms is all about power and influence. Even when strategies like consensus-building, team-building exercises, getting in amongst your team in an open plan setting, etc so often serve the self-interested purposes of the leaders.

It’s all about finding ways to get people to do what you want. To drag them along with you on your mission.

All this is on a collision course with lives lived after the cross-shaped pattern of service left for us by Jesus:

Jesus called them and said to them, ‘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. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10.42-45)

Leadership in the community of the Crucified and Risen Messiah will be profoundly unnatural. Counter-cultural. It will run against the grain. (I think this is why Ben lays his finger on something when he tells us he’s uncomfortable about things like this.)

Yet, although Christian leadership is unnatural in an important sense, the context in 1 Peter 5.1-5 points to an even deeper truth…

The backbone of this passage — the ultimate context in which its teaching makes sense — is fact that ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’ (1 Peter 5.5b).

This means that servant-leadership on the one hand, and willing submission on the other, are natural in the deepest possible sense. Lives lived after this pattern, shaped by this template, may well run against the grain of our culture. But — much more significantly — they follow the grain of the universe…

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5 comments

  1. Chris,

    Thank you for publishing this. I am getting impressions and feelings of inappropriate decisions by our elders, and am torn between submitting to the authority bestowed upon them by God, and worried about the enemy infiltrating and sending the Church in a bad direction. Your words helping my meditation during prayer.

  2. Jesus came to introduce what is totally different from human opinion. ONly the spiritual ones would understand what it takes to be a spiritual leader. When it comes to the things that are divine there is no enough argument that can prevail over it. Christian leadership is about service and exemplary living.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Festus!

      I agree with you that the passages I’ve picked out portray Christian leadership as fundamentally different from worldly/natural leadership. It’s about service and leading by example, like you say.

      I have been wondering about this though:

      When Jesus came, he didn’t speak a secret special language that only the spiritual could understand. He spoke the ordinary language of the masses. But what he did was to sanctify it, taking it up and filling it with spiritual content that could only be fully grasped by those in whom the Spirit was working.

      So why do we think it’d be any different with leadership?

      Even with Christian leadership we’re still talking about ‘ordinary’ things like influence, leading, following, and (I would argue) vision and collaboration. To be sure, these things will have a different — spiritual — character. They’ll be patterned on Christ. But they’ll still be recognisable as leadership etc to ordinary people. (In fact, in Western cultures, lots of the particularly Christ-like dimensions of Christian leadership — service, self-sacrifice, humility, leading by example — are actually applauded as good in secular leadership textbooks!

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