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Issues Facing Missions Today 17: Six Uses and Misuses of Scripture in Leadership Studies

Issues Facing Missions Today 17: Six Uses and Misuses of Scripture in Leadership Studies


Just how might someone go about using Scripture to discuss leadership?  We have seen an endless stream of publications on ‘leadership’ in the Church since the 1970s.[1]  The Church has, of course, always been concerned with ministers and ministry, but the language of ‘leadership’ is a more recent focus.  A fascinating study of these ‘leadership’ books would be to examine them in light of how they have engaged Scripture and what other authorities (such as the social sciences) they use to make their case for the characteristics and practices of so-called Christian leadership.  This could, actually, be a master’s thesis.  Instead, I would like to tickle out several hermeneutical issues for those who have undertaken or intend to undertake this task. 

Six Ways to Use and Misuse Scripture for Leadership Studies:

First, one might discuss Biblical passages that directly address ‘leadership’—at least in theory.  This will not accomplish much, however, since ‘leadership’ is not a Biblical term of any substance for Christian ministry in the New Testament.  There were no Christian ‘organizations’ in the early Church.  There was some sort of apostolic authority, if we might consider Acts 15 as an example of its function.  Yet churches in Asia, Macedonia, and Achaia, for example, did not set themselves under the authority of Jerusalem leadership.  Any consideration of leadership will have to be focussed on the local church, and in such a case the language of ‘leadership’ was not much employed.

It may be in view in Rom. 13.8, although the function of having care for persons might be more in view than having authority over people in the word the NRSV translates as ‘leader’ (Greek, proistamenos).[2]  ‘Leaders’ (Greek, hēgoumenoi) does appear in Hebrews 13: the believers are exhorted to remember, obey, and submit to them (vv. 7, 17).  These are not absolute statements.  Whatever ‘remember’ means (financially?, honouring them?), believers are to do this because these persons spoke the word of God to them (apparently initial evangelism is in view here).  Obedience has to do with obeying those who have the responsibility of watching over believers’ souls.  For this, the leaders will have to give an account, and they should fulfill their roles with joy and not groaning.  In other words, submission is not to anything such a leader says but is to a leader who is doing what he is supposed to do.  These verses constitute the main passages using the term ‘leader.’  This could be expanded by looking for other terms implying some role of authority in the local church, such as ‘overseer/bishop,’ ‘elder’ (possibly the same role as overseer/bishop), and deacon in the Pastoral epistles.  The point, however, is that this language of leadership is minimal in the New Testament.

One might, second, look at passages that touch on certain types of leadership, such as ‘king’ (as in the selection of David over Saul as king in 1 Sam. 16), ‘prophet’ (as in Jeremiah’s frequent criticism of the false prophets of Israel), ‘apostle’ (as in 1 Cor. 9), ‘teacher’ (as in James 3.1), and ‘elders’ (as in 1 Pt. 5.1-5).  This approach, then, could include a study of specific titles for ‘leaders’.  The challenge in using such texts is in taking what is said about these roles and applying them to any leader.  Does what is said of a king really apply to a pastor or leader of a Christian ministry?

A third approach might be to study certain persons in Scripture who could be said to have exercised leadership—Abraham, David, Jesus, Paul, etc.[3]  Such an approach is a more narrative and character approach to the question of leadership.  It proceeds by exploring analogies between the story and characters in it to some other situation.  The problem with this approach lies in whether these texts are meant to teach something about what we call leadership at all.  What happens in such a case is that the particularities of certain characters and their roles are abstracted into something more generic called ‘leadership’ and then recontextualized for particular types of leadership—pastor, director, administrator, dean, etc.  One has to present an argument why the lives of great Biblical persons are to be taken as examples for someone else’s life or a different role.  We might assume that, to some extent, they are, but we might equally assume that there are some aspects of their lives that are not analogous to the lives of others.  All too often, however, some writer willy-nilly grasps some aspect of King David’s life and applies it to some leadership role in Christian organizations or the church today.

A fourth approach might be to study metaphors for leaders in Scripture.  Paul’s metaphors include ‘father,’ ‘mother,’ and ‘nurse.’  Peter speaks of elders as ‘shepherds’ 1 Pt. 5.1-5—a long-standing image for leaders in antiquity.  One potential error in an approach focussed on metaphors would be in using metaphors beyond the limits of their use in Scripture.  One might, for example, note that Peter uses the image of shepherd for elders in the sense of their tending the flock (pastoral care), leading by example and not authoritatively, and remembering that shepherds are hired hands of the Chief Shepherd (Jesus).  That shepherds might break the leg of a lamb and kill sheep is not part of the analogy carried over to a positive description of the role of elders!  Indeed, all metaphors eventually break down, and those using Biblical metaphors in ways beyond their use in Scriptures have ceased to use Scripture as a divinely authoritative Word and are guilty of inserting their own notions into a Biblical metaphor.  Moreover, any focus on a single metaphor to the exclusion of both other metaphors and other texts could result in a skewed discussion of the subject.   Blaine McCormick and David Davenport have even taken a single text, Psalm 23—not a psalm about leadership!—as the basis for a book on ‘Shepherd Leadership.’[4]

A fifth approach that one often sees in the literature on leadership involves proof-texting Scripture.  In such a case, a general view of leadership is presented and Scriptural texts are muscled into support of this or that idea.  The framework or theory derives from something other than Scripture, but Biblical passages are used to support various points within the overall theory.  This is the same as approaching Scripture with a systematic theology.  Individual texts are used to support the overall system, but no text actually teaches the whole system of theology.  Some parts of the system are presented because they are logical, and no Scripture is put forward to support it.  The problem, then, is that Scripture might support some of the pieces of the theory, but it does not support the theory itself.  Another problem is that often the Scripture that is used does not, in fact, say what it is claimed to say.  Books on pastoral theology, such as leadership studies, do not happily entertain a detailed exegesis of these texts.  Any question as to their meaning is side-lined; if the words sound as though they somehow address the point, this is sufficient for most readers.  Often, the points are drawn from some leadership principles derived from the social sciences, and Scripture actually only functions illustratively, not authoritatively, even though readers simply and wrongly often assume that a reference to Scripture entails an authoritative use of it.  A further problem with such an approach is that it does not properly attend to Biblical authors’ views.  Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel offers a strong critique of any notion of leadership at all (Mt. 20.25-28; ch. 23).  Indeed, his metaphors for discipleship are child, little one, servant, etc  (especially in Mt. 17.24-20.28).[5]  A proper use of Scripture will attend to what various authors in Scripture say, not how verses from various authors might be strung together in some theory of leadership to which none of them would likely subscribe.  Finally, some passages that do apply to the subject may no longer apply to present readers.  Not all Old Testament texts still apply to the New Testament era.  ‘Leadership’ texts about kings, priests, the nation, and so forth in the Old Testament likely do not apply directly to the Church, if at all. 

Sixth, one might use Scripture to draw out certain values, virtues, and principles that may be applicable to ministry and community life.  The interpreter might be on more solid ground in describing these; the challenge arises in applying these in some way that is not explicit in the text.  That is, the exegesis of the text might be sound; if any dispute arises, it will be more in the area of hermeneutics (our use of the text).  John Stott, for example, wrote a book entitled Basic Christian Leadership: Biblical Models of Church, Gospel and Ministry.[6] The argument he presents is based on a study of 1 Corinthians 1-4.  Paul was not, of course, writing about ‘basic Christian leadership’ in 1 Corinthians.  Yet he says things about the church and ministry, to be sure.  The challenge, then, is not to assume some notion such as ‘leadership’ that might not be a very New Testament concept, apply virtues and values from 1 Corinthians 1-4 to this notion, and then claim that one has described Biblical leadership for Christian ministry.  A parallel might be to assume that Christians should engage in holy war, exegete some text or texts describing Christian values and virtues, and then claim that, when these are applied to holy war one has a Biblical view of holy war.


My own view is that the language of ‘leadership’ for Christian ministry is misguided—a point I have argued elsewhere.  Here, I have argued that much use of Scripture in an attempt to describe Christian or Biblical leadership is fraught with hermeneutical challenges.  The six approaches to the use of Scripture for practical theology may or may not be appropriate to certain topics in pastoral or applied theology.  In the case of leadership studies, authors regularly fall into bad habits of Biblical interpretation.  The major problem, however, is the uncritical acceptance of the notion of leadership at all when speaking of Christian ministry.

[1] Robert Munge, Leading from the Heart (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1975).  Leroy Eims, Be the Leader You Were Meant to Be (Wheaton: Victor, 1975).
[2] The NRSV adds the term ‘leaders’ in its translation of Gal. 2.2.  The ESV translates the phrase more literally as ‘those who were of reputation’—an awkward translation.  The same is true of Gal. 2.6—no term for ‘leader’ appears in the Greek.
[3] An example of this is Leroy Eimes, Be the Leader You Were Meant to Be.  Eimes begins by describing Moses in his leadership role.
[4] Blaine McCormick and David Davenport, Spiritual Leadership: Wisdom for Leaders from Psalm 23 (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003).  A more Biblically contextual and sociological study of Shepherd Leadership is offered by Tim Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).  See also Timothy Witmer, The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church (P&R Publishing, 2010).
[5] Rollin G. Grams, 'Not 'Leaders' but 'Little Ones' in the Father's Kingdom: The character of discipleship in Matthew's Gospel,' Transformation 2004 (21.2): 114-125.
[6] John Stott, Basic Christian Leadership: Biblical Models of Church, Gospel and Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).