Christianity 201

January 2, 2011

The Biblical Concept of Leadership

Jamie Arpin-Ricci is founding co-director of YWAM Urban Ministries in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada; a vocation which combined with his writing on the Missional Church would never catch you guessing that he’s also a third order Franciscan.

I really like the way he has come to understand what we can — and can’t — infer from leadership models in scripture.    This appeared just before his Christmas on his blog, A Living Alternative: Our Missional Pilgrimage, under the title Godly Leadership.

When I consider leadership in the Church I am deeply convinced that God calls His people to a politic of communal and absolute submission to the Lordship of Christ alone.  So what does that mean about leadership?  That word, “leadership”, comes loaded with baggage from the wider culture (for better and for worse).  In response to the worst aspects of leadership models that come from the world into the church- namely the pastor as CEO- some have pushed back against the very concept of leadership, questioning whether it is even biblical.  A few (and I believe a very few) reject leadership in toto.  Sadly, when legitimate concerns about leadership are raised, some respond by citing the dangers of this minority perspective, thus failing to recognize the more immediate and prevalent problems that were being addressed.

In considering “biblical leadership” I must always begin with Jesus, the perfect example of human leadership.  Jesus is the King of Kings, the leader of leaders.  So much can be gleaned from Him that we can only barely brush the surface here.  However, a few aspects emerge centrally for me.  Interestingly, Jesus does adopt the title “king”, drawing from the surrounding culture in respect to the nature of His leadership.  However, Jesus leads like no other king in human history- from His birth through to His resurrection and ascension- modeling a humble, servant posture that subverted the very system He draw the name from.  From this we can then recognize that when Scripture borrows from other examples in the world (such as “presbyters”, which translated as “elder”, etc., used widely outside of the Church), we cannot presume that the function of those roles are in anyway similar to their namesakes.

Jesus modeled a leadership that was absolutely submitted to the Father (”Not my will, but Yours be done”).  If the King of Kings functions in complete submission to the Father, then we too must only embody leadership that is in complete submission to Christ.  And when we submit to leadership in the Church (and I believe there are times where such leadership is right and godly), we are practicing leadership in that very act of submission.  Too often we read reference to submission in Scripture as an affirmation of specific authority when in fact God is teaching us that submission is the greater good, the ultimate point, not the leadership it is submitting to.  Any role and opportunity of leadership must, in itself, be an act of submission to God, making humility the primary condition for all leadership.

The New Testament talks about those to whom we are meant to submit to, such as in 1 Timothy 5:17.  The word “rule”- “proistēmi” in the Greek- share the same root as the word “first”- “prōtos”- from Matthew 20:16, when Jesus promised that the last shall be first.  In other words, those who might be in positions of leadership are not the point in and of themselves, despite how our culture celebrates and especially honors such leaders.  They exist for the purpose of those they are serving.  Leadership, while essential, is ultimately meant to serve the community of Christ in the same way a buttress supports a cathedral.  The buttress/leadership is designed to lend support, stability and even boundaries for the cathedral/community.  They have a specific and essential role, but no more important than the whole.  In fact, they are to be “the least”.

A more powerful image for how the community of faith is meant to function is the Church as the Body of Christ.  In the function of any body, there are parts that function in more apparent prominence, such as the mouth or hands.  It is easy for some to view such roles as more important, more valuable.  Few Christians would deny this truth, yet functionally we continue to treat those roles with greater honor.  Yet the truth is that the most critical parts and functions of the body (and the Body) are unseen, hidden, even intentionally covered.  This truth has to move beyond a conceptual, espoused conviction and shape the very nature of our communities, relationships and leadership.  Further, like any body, certain circumstances require different aspects of the body to take leadership.  Thus, leadership should be more situational, circumstantial and mutual, as the dynamic realities of life and service to God require genuine and intentional submission to others in some situations, while requiring initiative and sacrificial service in others.

We must also recognize that all communities, like all the individuals in those communities, are moving towards wholeness in and through Christ.  Therefore, the role and the nature of leadership in communities are shaped by the circumstances.  In my inner city context, there is a greater need for my more intentional, directive pastoral leadership.  However, my commitment in that role is to work myself out of such centrality- not completely out of leadership, but rather as one of many uniquely gifted leaders in a community of submitted disciples of Christ, equally submitted to His servant Kingship.

Jamie Arpin-Ricci