Misconceived Leadership

Target Audience: Evangelical Christians, Conservative Christians

It has been my observation over a number of years that, in a number of churches and denominations, that strong leadership is characterized by the ability of people to control other people and outcomes. That statement is about as judgmental and general as it can get. It isn’t a judgment against any one person or group of people. Perhaps the concept of leadership in churches has always been characterized by strong, dominant, assertive or aggressive individuals who pilot agendas from beginning to end. I offer no evidence to support this claim or to contradict it. I have also never been to the Global Leadership Summit, or Leadercast, as it once was called, albeit a number of leaders in various churches have attempted to coax me into going. 

The fundamental misconception of leadership is that it has to be “strong”, or “assertive”, or “aggressive” and that its ultimate objective, in an ecclesiastical environment, is to “pilot” an agenda from beginning to end. I believe this concept of leadership is completely foreign to the New Testament concept of leaders being equippers of God’s people. 


The Apostle Paul writes:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for the works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-13 NIV

The one thing God asks of the offices listed above is that they equip his people for the works of service. Please note that he didn’t say the well-educated people, or the rich people, or the good looking people, or the successful people, or the experienced people. He just said that those in leadership in churches should equip God’s people for the works of service. I like the fact that “works” is plural and not singular. I have heard it so often used in the singular inferring that there is but one work in the ministry, but there are so many. 

While church leaders today would be loathe to admit it, I believe there is a separation of “sheep and goats” when it comes to selecting leaders in churches. In my own church I have experienced this discrimination. I have been told that I am not “ready to lead”. I find that to be a most curious statement. What does it mean to be “ready to lead”? Does it mean that I still think too independently for the tastes or the comfort of the appointed church leadership? Do they think that I am not mature enough in my faith (after 45 years as a Christian)? Perhaps I am not. Merely being a Christian for decades does not necessarily mean one is mature in the faith. Who, then, is qualified to lead? How do they determine who is qualified and who is not qualified to lead? When I read passages like the one I quoted above, I am led to believe that God feels that all of His people are qualified to lead, otherwise He would not have given those in leadership the perpetual task of equipping His people for the works of ministry. I tend to think that the very word “leadership” or “leader” is so polluted by ungodly imagery that it may no longer be useful within churches.

Those in leadership may assert that I am sucking on sour grapes because I was not “chosen” or “selected” for a leadership position in my church. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I abhor the notion that leadership itself is something to be obtained or a goal, or that if you are in leadership, you have “arrived” at some lofty plateau of Christian excellence. In many, many cases people celebrate their ascension to leadership rather than approach it with a sober humility. In a recent chat with a leader at my church, I asked him why he picked the study questions for our Bible study each week. [Now I want to couch his response with all due respect and humility because he may have fired off a hurried response without taking time to think about it. I have been there many times and have always lived to regret it.] He responded that he selects the questions that he feels are most important and because of time constraints not everyone will be able to discuss questions that are relevant to them. Sadly, his response is very consistent with many other leaders in churches today. 

Picking the study questions in a youth Bible study or a study for young children is entirely appropriate as they may have not yet gained the intuitive abilities necessary to choose their own questions in a group. This leader, though, is leading a Bible study of well-educated and mature Christian adults. The notion that they are not capable of rationally choosing their own questions for discussion is offensive on the surface and leads to yet another question about liberty and legalism.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1 NIV

The Greek word for freedom in this passage is eleutheria (ἐλευθερίᾳ) which can be translated freedom or liberty, in particular, liberty from slavery. That first sentence could accurately be translated, It is for liberty that Christ has set us free. Google defines “liberty” as: the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views, or: the power or scope to act as one pleases. Even within the restrictive context of the Bible, God creates a balance between liberty (the ability to choose) and order (see 1 Corinthians 14). Unfettered liberty is in itself a form of slavery as we become slaves to our own desires that will ultimately lead to fractured communities. Liberty within the context of a structured environment, though, produces freedom when people are offered the ability to make choices that result in growth and greater intimacy with God.

Leaders that seek to manipulate or control people and outcomes deny the liberty that is rightfully given to people by Christ. They are leading, but if their ultimate goal isn’t to equip all of God’s people for works of service, then what is the object of their leadership? If they are not leading in a manner that results in people being equipped to do their jobs, essentially putting them out of work, then how are they truly equipping God’s people? If leaders are selected by criteria that is a clever blend of worldly imagery and Biblical principles, how does that serve to bring people on the margins (and every church has them) into the full fellowship of the church? 

I believe the answers to these problems lie not in the blogosphere but in open and honest discussion within churches, including people who feel as if they are on the margins, those who may not be “ready to lead” or those who others may not see as leaders. I don’t think there is a simple answer because the world we live isn’t a simple place. Blogs such as this one and others can contribute ideas and thoughts to a discussion that needs to be ongoing in progressive churches that have an interest in growing, both numerically and in the sense of intimacy with Jesus.