Sunday, July 8, 2012

Leadership in Biblical Perspective

Just read a paper in one of my classes at Liberty University that absolutely nailed it! She wrote a paper on Paul as Paradigm for Biblical Leadership. Unlike most of the drivel out there I read on leadership in the church, she did not fall prey to the temptation to smuggle in the notion that leadership in the Kingdom of God is exactly the same as leadership in the world. Rather, she set leadership in the church in biblical perspective and came away with the stunning, but (if you actually read the Bible!) obvious conclusion that leadership in the church is purely about calling, not the possession of certain “leadership skills” etc.

I know that sounds so obvious that one shouldn’t even need to say it, but apparently it isn’t, and I do. Some years ago I was speaking at a Baptist State Convention of North Carolina conference on leadership, doing a presentation of “Leadership in Biblical Perspective” where I made the same case that my student made. When I finished, one of the “leadership gurus” in attendance raised his hand and commented: “I’ve never heard any of this before, and I’ve read all the leadership books out there.” Said I, “I don’t doubt it; I’ve read them too, and they begin with the working assumption that leadership in the church is exactly the same as leadership in the world. With that presupposition clearly in place, they then go about discussing their “leadership lists,” lists of qualities or skills or traits or characteristics which, in their view, are the sole criteria of leadership, irrespective of whether we’re talking about leadership in the board room or leadership in the Body of Christ. With that I couldn’t disagree more.” I could tell by his furrowed brow he wasn’t buying it. I was saddened by the exchange but not surprised.

You see, that kind of perspective can only be maintained by one who spends more time reading leadership books than reading the Bible. Because in the Bible, the issue in biblical leadership, as opposed to leadership in the secular sense, is its source. More precisely, Is “leadership” something I inherently possess or can learn, or is leadership something bestowed on me by Another and, consequently, has nothing to do with what I know or can do or can learn? Many (perhaps most!) of those writing about leadership in the church have taken over a secular model of leadership and applied it uncritically in the church; namely, that “leadership,” whether in church or in world, is purely a matter of possessing the requisite leadership “skills” or “qualities.” Read the books! They’re legion. James MacGregor Burns: “Leadership is a universal human capacity characterized by an identifiable set of principles.” John Maxwell - Developing the Leader Within You. I could name some Baptist books as well, but you already know who they are. As a result, these books invariably take the form of “leadership lists” – if you have such and such skills or qualities – competency, vision, compassion, self-confidence, passion, discipline, an ability to “play well with others,” etc. – then you are a leader, outside the church or in. It’s really all the same. Leadership is leadership, no matter where it is practiced. But what if one possesses the requisite leadership skills but is not called by God? Can they still be a “leader” in the biblical (not “secular”) sense? What if one possesses no leadership skills (that is, they flunked the “list litmus”), but is called by God to lead? Can they still be a leader in the biblical sense? What about Moses who, by his own admission, possessed no leadership skills? What about David who was morally flawed? What about Paul who was mercurial and volatile and even unstable at times; who, according to the Acts of Paul and Thecla, was physically unattractive and who, by his own account, was not a gifted speaker (cf. 1 Cor. 2:1; 2 Cor. 10:10)? How could God call these men to lead when they did not possess the requisite “leadership skills” typically listed on the “leadership lists” of those who are the self-styled “authorities” on leadership? What was God thinking? Did He not read the leadership books?

What we need in the church is something to which, alas, the self-styled leadership gurus out there seem oblivious; namely, a theology of leadership. And the very first aspect of that theology should be the fact that the vision and values of the church are not only different from the world’s, they are competitive with them! In the church, we don’t believe in a sui generis and eternal “Nature;” we believe in creation. In the church we don’t believe in luck or coincidence; we believe in Providence. In the church we don’t believe in mistakes or moral “pathology” or “oops” or “uh oh;” we believe in sin.  In the church we don’t believe in human development or self-actualization or whatever label for “do-it-yourself salvation” the culture is giving it these days; we believe in salvation, and that’s not something you’re going to find within yourself, because God gives it or you don’t get it at all. In the church we don’t believe in “conflict resolution,” we believe in confession and repentance and forgiveness. You get the point? If it “works” in the world, that’s probably the best reason not to try it in the church...if its really the church we’re talking about.

And so, it is important to distinguish between “leadership” in the biblical sense from “leadership” in the secular sense, leadership in the world and leadership in the church. We already have far too much of the world in the church! In the secular sense, leadership is purely about skills and the exercise of those skills; consequently, it can be either salubrious and beneficial, or it can be malicious and Machiavellian (Been to a deacons’ meeting?). However, in the biblical sense, leadership is not about skills at all! It is a matter of calling...period. Even if you possess no leadership “skills,” but God says you’re a leader, you’re a leader! Indeed, most of the time God seems (with intentionality?) to choose those who are deeply deficient or fatally flawed or intensely inadequate through whom to do His work (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “You oughta know!”). “God writes straight with crooked lines” I guess you could say. Perhaps it is God’s way of saying, “It’s really not about you; it’s about Me.”

The first thing we have to do when we’re talking about leadership in the church, the first thing we have to do, the very first thing we have to do, is to be sure that we’re talking about the church! Maybe we should start with my student.


John King said...

A very interesting post. I think you are right. However, could it be that the biblical perspective of leadership, a calling is a call for leadership in a space that is not what we call "the church" today. I wonder if Paul would ever have been approved by a search committee of any of the churches today. Maybe the call is to a particular task, function, or mission and not a call to a "position" within an institution. Maybe when we listen for the word of God today, we are listening to the wrong people. Maybe the ones called are not "in" the church.....hmmmmmm. Just wondering.

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Astute observation, John - that Paul likely would never have been approved by a search committee in today's churches, a testimony to how deeply flawed the whole search process is and how fully assimilated today's churches have become to the world's ways of doing things. The mantra in today's churches seems to be, "If it will work in the board room, it'll work in the church." Yet, when I read the New Testament, one thing is crystal clear - The church of Jesus Christ is a COUNTER-cultural reality. I get uneasy when the best ideas we can come up with in the church always seem to come from whatever is trendy or fashionable in the world.