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Issues Facing Missions Today 9: A 'Biblical Theology of Leadership'?

Issues Facing Missions Today 9: A 'Biblical Theology of Leadership'?

What is ‘a Biblical theology of leadership?’  The phrase is found everywhere, even as the title of courses of study.  It is accepted uncritically as a meaningful concept and coherent idea, something that carries the authority of Scripture, and something that we should pursue as a matter of first importance in churches and ministries today.  Some would even describe the missionary task as the training of leaders, and the grist for grinding out such a product would, we are told, be found in the Bible.

Serious problems—I will note only two here—arise for such an undertaking, however.  First, more serious reflection is needed on what is meant by ‘a Biblical theology’ of anything.  The second point noted here will be given a more careful look through comments made by John Howard Yoder before the focus on ‘Christian leadership’ became so popular.  One reason for focusing on Yoder’s work is that he wrote well before all the language of ‘leadership’ for Christian ministry came into vogue, and his warnings are as apropos as ever.

1. ‘Biblical theology of …’ Projects.

The first problem to consider is the very concept of sticking a noun at the end of a phrase that begins with ‘A Biblical Theology of….’  Biblical theology needs to address what the Bible addresses, and if the Bible does not address the subject, we are not likely to come up with a Biblical theology for it.  We hear, for example, of ‘Biblical counselling,’ as though the Bible actually teaches believers how to counsel others.  Some advice from Proverbs might be listed, a passage here and there regarding restoring someone who has sinned to fellowship or passing judgment on recalcitrant sinners in the church might be discussed, but this piece-meal collection of texts does not amount to a ‘Biblical theology’ for the subject.  A similar issue might be raised for ‘leadership’—just where does Scripture offer a robust teaching on leadership as we might find about Christ or the church?

The contours of a critique of this approach to the Bible, to ‘Biblical theology of …’ projects, might be listed in a few points.  (The subject begs for  greater attention.)  First, Biblical theology needs to establish what the subject matter is, what the correct terminology is, what accounts for synthesis and where the diversity is, and so forth.  Our curricula must begin with Biblical theology per se, not with our topic of interest and then some Biblical reflection on it.  We must not show up with our own project derived from a social science and expect to extract a theology from the Bible to nuance it slightly in this or that direction.  Second, Biblical theology needs to be explored in terms of diversity and unity within the canon.  We may well find that there is no unified view in Scripture on a given topic, such as church governance.  There may be significant differences between the Old and New Testaments on our subject matter: King David is hardly an example of ‘leadership’ for New Testament times, let alone for a pastor or political leader in our day.  Third, we must avoid assuming that the narration of story actually offers Biblical authority on a certain topic.  In all the Biblical narratives where people take some leadership role, how many of them are actually offered as teaching on the subject at all?  Fourth, metaphors for leadership that arise in the Bible have limited use and must not be pressed into service beyond how they might be used in specific passages.  Nor should we latch onto a single metaphor—metaphors help balance each other, and every metaphor at some point breaks down.

2. ‘Leadership’ Studies?

Go back to the 1970s and the word to use would not have been ‘leadership’ but ‘ministry.’  The language of ‘leadership’ appears to have shown up in Christian circles from a non-theological field of study altogether—business.  As such, the study of leadership is a social science and can be studied through sociological, anthropological, and psychological lenses and applied to various contexts, such as business—or the church.  Academic textbooks used to study leadership, like counselling textbooks, come from non-theological fields of study.  One should not assume that Scripture will dove-tail neatly with such studies, and one should not even assume that Scripture can do much more than critique such studies.

As things played out in the 1980s, Scripture was used to qualify these social scientific studies on leadership by adding the term ‘servant’—‘servant leadership.’  The classic passage for this is Mark 10:43-45, when Jesus says to his disciples,

43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,  44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

‘Servant leadership’ has come to mean learning from the social sciences how to gain and exercise power for others, and then to alter this slightly along Christian lines as we reflect on being a servant to others as we lead.  Thus ‘leadership’ language allows people to continue to talk about power and explain it from a social scientific perspective, and ‘servant’ language is brought in as the Christian element to curtail any abuses.  Yet, well before we found ourselves in this situation, John Howard Yoder offered a helpful criticism of power in Christian understanding.[1]  Consider some of his comments in his The Priestly Kingdom:  Social Ethics as Gospel, originally published in 1972.

First, Yoder criticized a natural ethic, an ethic that was non-confessional.  He spoke of a ‘hermeneutic of peoplehood’ to emphasise that ethics stems from the confession of a particular community (pp. 15-45).  By application, the notion of something that we might speak of as ‘leadership’ in itself and then add on some ideas from Christianity would be wrong-headed from the start.  A Christian understanding of community, with its confessional starting-point, would sit uncomfortably with, if not actually be incommensurable with, a non-Christian understanding of communal relationships.

Second, the language of the New Testament for the believer is that of ‘discipleship’ and ‘imitation.’  This involves servanthood instead of dominion and forgiveness instead of hostility (p. 134).  The very definition of Christian existence is sharing this understanding of the divine nature (Col. 3.9; cf. Eph. 4.24).  Forgiveness is based on God’s forgiveness of us (Eph. 4.32; Col. 3.13).  Love (not a ‘leadership’ virtue) sums up the essence of what it means to imitate God’s character and actions.  This is concretely understood in our dying with Christ and sharing in his risen life (life (Rom. 6.6‑11; 8.11; Gal. 2.20; cf. 5.24; Eph. 4.20‑24; Col. 2.12‑3.1).  We are to imitate Jesus’ serving of others (Rom. 15.1‑7; 2 Cor. 5.14ff; 8.7‑9; Eph. 5.25‑28).  Even more intense than an imitation of Jesus’ service of others is Paul’s understanding of apostolic existence in terms of suffering with Christ (Phl. 3.10f; 2 C. 4.10; Col. 1.24; 1 Th. 1.6).

Such a calling is exemplary for all believers.  Yoder spells this out with a number of examples and some Pauline texts:

*Sharing in divine condescension (Phl. 2.3‑14)
*Give your life as he did (Eph. 5.1f)
*Suffering servanthood in place of dominion
*Accept innocent suffering without complaint, as Jesus did
*Suffer the hostility of the world with or like Christ, as bearers of the kingdom cause (2 Tim. 3.12; Phl. 1.29)

An alternative understanding of power faces death as the ultimate challenge to success.  Yet Paul understands death in a remarkably different way.  Death is liberation from the power of sin (Gal. 5.24).  Jesus’ death was also the fate of heroes of the faith, the prophets (1 Th. 2.15ff).  Far from being defeat, death could be understood as victory (Col. 2.15; 1 Cor. 1.22‑24).

Yoder interprets 1 Cor. 7 as, to some extent, a discourse on revolutionary subordination.  He says,

[Paul’s] motto of revolutionary subordination, of willing servanthood in the place of domination, enables the person in a subordinate position in society to accept and live within that status without resentment, at the same time that it calls upon the person in the superordinate position to forsake or renounce all domineering use of his status.  This call is then precisely not a simple ratification of the stratified society into which the gospel has come.  The subordinate person becomes a free ethical agent when he voluntarily accedes to his subordina­tion in the power of Christ instead of bowing to it either fatalisti­cally or resentfully.  The claim is not that there is immediately a new world regime which violently replaces the old:  but rather the old and the new order exist concurrently on different levels.  It is because she knows that in Christ there is no male or female that the Christian wife can freely accept that subordination to her unbelie­ving husband which is her present lot.  It is because Christ has made all men free and the freed man is on the same level with his slave, that their relationship may continue as a humane and honest one within the framework of the present economy, the structure of which is passing away (1 Cor. 7.31) (190f).

There is, here, a deeper theology than the choice between complementarianism and egalitarianism in marriage or other relationships.  Both of these are negotiations of power: either an understanding of how one person exercises authority over another (no matter how benevolently) and the other submits, or an understanding of how power is shared.  Yet, in my own view and perhaps Yoder’s as well, Paul is rather concerned about how to extract the evil from relationships that arises over power.  Christ’s example for believers offers just the alternative needed: a foregoing of power through submission and love.

To take another example—a very common one in our day—when we try to balance a college faculty with a collection of genders and ethnicities in the spirit of our times, our approach entails addressing our real and imagined inequalities through the balance of power among interested groups.  ‘If only we could have a diverse faculty, with their power and status in the community….’  At best, this is a middle axiom, as ethicists might call it—a half-measure on the way to what is needed.  It is more likely merely tokenism, a pretense at addressing weightier matters.  Yet, what is really needed is a progression beyond the balance of power to a foregoing of power politics altogether.  What is needed is a vision of service, sacrifice, and suffering that can be transformative for Christian community.  Believers related to one another in community as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters,’ not as a balance of Jews, Gentiles, males, females, slaves, free, Scythians, Greeks, and Romans.

While Yoder explores his concerns with power on a number of other issues, his study of Revelation in particular identifies the problem with a ‘leadership’ approach to the Christian life.  He notes that the message of the book is that the slain Lamb, not brute power, moves history towards its goal.  Jesus

renounced...the untrammeled sovereign exercise of power in the affairs of that humanity amid which he came to dwell.  His emptying of himself, his accepting the form of servanthood and obedience unto death, is precisely his renunciation of lordship, his apparent abandonment of any obligation to be effective in making history move down the right track.

However we might want to nuance this last quotation—for Jesus’ Lordship does need to be explained—Yoder is certainly correct that Jesus chose a path that was faithful to divine, self-giving character instead of an exercise of power for the sake of political effectiveness.  Therein lies one of the great problems with ‘servant leadership,’ for it seeks power in order to be effective for righteousness, justice, or some other great virtue.
Take the pastor, president of an organization, leader of a Christian community, chief executive office—whatever we call him or her—who sees the problem to overcome the need to gain a greater freedom in the exercise of authority.  If that can be accomplished, one imagines, then great things could be done for the Kingdom, for others, for God.  Some have even spoken of the need not only of a theology of leadership but also a theology of followership—how to be good followers.  This frames the entire discussion in terms of power, who has it, who is to submit to it, and how it can be exercised for great good.

The cross of Jesus Christ is an expression of the very character of God.  Because of his divine identity, not despite it, Jesus emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, and humbled himself to the point of death (Phl. 2.6-8).  We cannot call this ‘servant leadership.’  It is, moreover, the way God works in us so that we might be enabled to will and work for His good pleasure (v. 13).




[1] John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom:  Social Ethics as Gospel.  Notre Dame:  Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1984.