There have been many books written about leadership, and there are many approaches that could be taken to write an article for Christian leaders. For example, you could first consider the leaders of the Old Testament and consider their character traits, etc. Then you could consider the New Testament leaders. You could compare them and search for common leadership traits.
In this short article on Christian leadership, I chose simply to present certain aspects of Christian leaders and the biblical revelations of God’s design for Christian leaders.
Aspects of Christian Leadership
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded.John 13:3-5
When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”John 13:12-15
Jesus is clearly emphasizing the servant nature of leadership. This scripture takes it a step further: leadership teams are to serve one another and to “love one another as I have loved you.
This is a natural place to consider one danger of leadership: pride. Both the apostles and Jesus know that he is master and Lord. Yet he washes their feet, the most humble task of service.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.Matthew 18:1-4
The Son of Man came not to be served but to be a servant to all.
Humility lays the groundwork for unity in leadership teams, and leadership teams will crumble and fail if the members are not humble servants. One individual’s opinion is sub-servient to the teams working in unity.
The glory which you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and has loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which you have given me in your love for me before the foundation of the world.John 17:22-24
Unity, love, and servanthood: crucial elements of leadership teams. So crucial that Jesus addresses them in his final days.
His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’Matthew 25:23
Faithfulness over small things suggests humility, and humility is a key aspect of leadership. It is common for some leaders to want to move too quickly, or even to skip over some steps of development. This is more common among the young, since older people are more likely to see that leadership is service, work, and responsibility. A proud Christian leader is not a Christian leader, and he or she is deadly to unity. A productive team member is able to embrace the team’s vision and mission.
As he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion answered him, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith.”Matthew 8:5-10
“…Such great faith.” This centurion was so impressive to Jesus! To this day his words are repeated in Catholic Masses: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof!” It is very unusual to find a leader who knows how to be over and to be under.
It’s worth mentioning here that honoring and respecting those over us protects our credibility with those under us. Also, more importantly, it models for them how to respond to leadership. Conversely, if we constantly resist and grumble about those over us, why should anyone follow us? Also, if a pastor or leader minimizes the truth of the Bible… is that not the very book that gives authority to his leadership?
A Biblical Test
The saying is sure: If anyone aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way, for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church?1 Timothy 3:1-5
One of the first tests of an overseer, a bishop, or a deacon for that matter, is the issue of family order: does he manage his household well? Are his children obedient and respectful? If your family does not function as a Christian family, how can you expect to manage the household of God? As the Christian family devolves into secular approaches, Christian leadership declines as well.
In this section of Timothy, we can tie the teaching of Paul to the teaching of Jesus: “If you are faithful in small things, I can put you over big things.” If you cannot be a head for your own family, you cannot be a head over things in the body of Christ. One of the first biblical tests for leadership is how you handle the small things.
Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give an account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you.Hebrews 13:17
This Scripture was used earlier in Part II, but it’s worth repeating here. In the western world this verse is quite shocking, even to many Christians. “Obey?” “Submit?” These words are as scary as “global pandemic.” But, as a Christian leader, the part that always got me is verse 17b, “…for they are keeping watch over your souls as men who will have to give an account.” The flesh does not want to obey; nor does it want to be held responsible.
I have always been amused or puzzled by the call of Samuel in 1 Samuel 3:10 when it is read in church or written as a poem. It seems so romantic or artistic to repeat, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” We want to hear the Lord and to have a posture of receptive listening. But this is a terrible story! It’s a story about Eli failing as a father and failing as a high priest. His sons treated the offering of the Lord with contempt (2:17) and they were defiling themselves at the entrance to the tent of meeting (2:22). It’s a story of failed responsibility that ended with both the sons and the father dead. What he may not have been able to control as an aged father of adults, he definitely could have corrected as a high priest. When we fail in our responsibility as fathers and Christian leaders, lives are literally at risk. A father who allows his family to drift in a secular direction allows them to wander out from under the umbrella of the Lord’s protection and all sorts of chaos will ensue, both spiritual and physical.
Let’s face it: unless we have some sort of unusual authority, most of us cannot force any adult to do anything… but we can warn them (See Ezekial 3:17-19 and 33:7-9).
“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you will have saved your life.Ezekiel 3:17-19
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.James 3:1
There is a notable thread in the Scriptures cautioning those who would lead and those who would teach. As with the centurion: those who would teach should also be teachable; and those who lead should also be able and willing to be led.
In the lounge of my flying club there is a motto pasted: “A good pilot is always learning.” How much more should a Christin leader be “always learning”?
But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.Romans 8:25
…with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love…Ephesians 4:2
No worthwhile activity requires more patience than Christian leadership. Some of the flock may be several steps behind, and some may be many steps behind. If you are a person of great energy, maybe those you are leading cannot match your pace. There are always different levels in a group of Christians: levels of energy, levels of faith, levels of intelligence, levels of understanding, development, and commitment. Experience, life’s circumstances, and physical health can be issues. Wise leaders are patient.
If you are thin-skinned, do not get into Christian leadership. Everyone has strong opinions as to how things should go and many of them may think that it is the role of Christian leaders to carry those same opinions. This often leads to a crisis of unmet expectations. “I thought the group would be this or that by now.”
In addition to “expectations”, it is a common human characteristic to grumble, and Christian leaders are often the focus of those complaints. It’s always easier to criticize than to “do.” It’s also easier to watch than to “do.” In the military, we had a saying, “Never volunteer for anything!” It’s easier to watch.
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.Hebrews 13:7-8
A Christian leader is faithful to his commitments. His word is iron clad. He will be there.
…and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.Hebrews 10:24-25
Apparently, the early church had its own problem of people not keeping their commitment. “Neglecting to meet together” is no small character flaw. When it shows up in a leader, it is destructive to the life of the body. If it’s widespread or common, it’s deadly. I have heard people say, “Showing up is half of the battle.” For me, it’s most of the battle since the Lord promises to be present when we gather.
When a body has both small group and corporate expressions, some folks, and some leaders, can think it’s fine to pick and choose which to attend. If a leader of a small group “neglects to attend” the corporate gatherings, he is modeling lackluster commitment. A leader who fails to model the agreed upon schedule is not a Christian leader. God is faithful. We are to model faithfulness as Christian leaders. (There may be special agreed-upon pastoral exceptions, but there should be serious reasons to deviate from the agreed upon approach).
So far, we have approached Christian leadership from the male example of a bishop or overseer.
Similar criteria are listed for deacons. Many of the aspects listed are easily allied or adjusted for women’s leadership.
A quick summary might be: if you are to be considered for Christian leadership, you should be living according to your place or state in life, whether it be husband, father, wife, mother, or single.
In several places Paul gives some extra instruction particular to women in leadership positions.
The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.1 Timothy 3:11
Paul expects the overseer (the man) to be not addicted to much wine and the women leaders to be dignified and not gossips. There is another section dealing with the order of widows that provides some instruction for women’s leaders.
…and she must be well attested for her good deeds, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, relieved the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way.1 Timothy 5:10
Bid the older women likewise to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited.Titus 2:3-5
Paul’s letters include many greetings to women leaders. It is clear that he not only worked with women, but also held them in high regard, acknowledging their contributions. One example follows:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well.Romans 16:1-2
To summarize, older Christian men can help younger Christian men to live the Christian life well. And older, experienced Christian women can help younger Christian women to live our way of life well. The overseers, then, can lead the entire body in unity in service to the Lord.
Some Christian bodies are led by teams of men. In those cases, it is wise to have a corresponding group of women leaders. They play a key role in women’s development and formation, and also in children’s programs.
Bid the older women likewise to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children…Titus 2:3-4
As with family life, there is a complementary role for women leaders. They will especially understand how decisions affect women, children, and family life. Therefore, they are a valued resource to a men’s leadership team, serving in a consultative, supportive role, especially with major decisions. They provide an added resource of extra creativity and a corresponding women’s perspective that can often be quite helpful in community planning sessions.
Some of the real treasure troves of biblical leadership instruction are Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. I recommend that leadership groups study those letters together as a formation activity. There are many statements or instructions that could be extracted and formed into a leadership handbook. For example:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching.2 Timothy 4:1-2
And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, and teachers…Ephesians 4:11
While Paul provides criteria for the appointment of Christian leaders, he also identifies Christian leadership as a gift of Jesus. Meeting all of the criteria does not mean that you are a leader. Also, the fact that people follow you does not necessarily mean that you are a leader. Too often, gifted people rise to positions of Christian leadership while falling far short of God’s design for Christian leaders. Natural leadership or business leadership does not automatically qualify as Christian leadership.
Beyond the gift of Christian leadership, there is leadership by God’s design. The father of a family is, by God’s design, the head of his family. He may not seem or be as gifted as his wife; he may not seem spiritual or religious, but by God’s design, he is the head of his family. He will have a special grace for this role which goes even beyond giftedness. Notice again how influential Joseph was in leading Mary and Jesus.
I cannot emphasize this enough: you cannot have well-functioning Christian community without Christian families of God’s design. You can have single communities or religious orders, but communities that are made of families and singles, need the families to be functioning according to God’s design.
I am raising these issues here because I see less and less good Christian family order… especially among the young. I see too many young men getting married and the young bride seems to set the course for the family: where they will live or how their spiritual lives will be expressed, etc.
I would say to the young men, “Be a man. Set the course for your family. Give it vision, purpose, and direction.” I would say to the father’s, “Teach and train God’s design in your children. Prepare them for a Christian way of life.”
God’s kingdom needs the men to step up at the family level, to lay the groundwork for future Christian leadership.
- A Christian leader is a servant.
- A Christian leader serves and protects a common vision as part of a team.
- Humility and patience are key character traits or virtues of a Christian leader.
- Fatherhood and motherhood are the first steps in leadership for most Christians.
- A Christian leader is a responsible leader.
God’s design for Christian leadership is perfectly modeled by Jesus, and most of the leadership aspects raised can easily be seen in Scripture.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name, which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.Philippians 2:1-11
- God’s Design: Part One – Basic Principles of “Living by Design” in Scripture
- God’s Design: Part Two – Embracing the Wisdom of the Divine Architect
- God’s Design: Part Three – Christian Leaders
- God’s Design: Part Four – A People
See previous articles by Bob Tedesco in Living Bulwark Archives
Top photo credit: Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, painting by Ford Madox Brown, 1852-56, Tate Gallery London, UK, image in the public domain. Source: wikiart.org
Bob Tedesco is the founder of the People of God, a Sword of the Spirit community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA where he served as Senior Coordinator for 26 years. He has been involved in lay ministry for over forty-five years, and has served as Regional President of the North American region in the Sword of the Spirit.