“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” From the sonnet “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelly. Photo by Jon Bodsworth, at The British Museum
What makes a leader a good leader in the Christian community? Cary Nieuwhof writes “In a conflicted, divided, cynical world, the evils that pass for good are qualities that Christians sometimes celebrate in leaders. And qualities that get celebrated also get emulated.” The Evil That Passes for Good in Christian Leadership – CareyNieuwhof.com
This is not a new phenomenon. People gravitate toward people who seem to get it, who hold power and confidence in tough circumstances, leaders who rise above the rest to show the way. It’s natural to seek out people like that when you’re concerned about what’s next, about what’s ominously looming on the horizon. If we just had better leaders, the thinking goes, we could fix this situation. Stories like Israel’s demand for an earthly King in 1st Samuel is one example: Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 1 Samuel 8:4-7 These folks wanted a human being they could lay all their fears and hopes on to rectify what needed rectifying. Follow the historical breadcrumb trail through time and watch the story repeat over and over again – The Old Testament Kings, who were, to be quite charitable, abject failures nearly to a man using their brand of power and coercion and popularity. Or what about the ups and downs in the Romanist Papacy in scale and authority? What about the Corinthian church leaders, excoriated by Paul because of their own (per)versions of morality? Could we appeal to any recent examples where powerful people, using popularity and strength and power made things better for Christ’s people? Of course not. But we keep trying to do that. Of course there are plenty of wonderful examples of leaders who get the biblical model of leadership, and do marvelously well developing followers of Christ. But that’s not the norm.
In the American myth what constitutes a leader? The independent and self-aggrandized West thinks having crowds, popularity and institutional branding is success. And we seek out leaders who emulate those traits. After all, if the tribes we don’t like have power, then we want it too. The big voices and arguments on MSNBC and Fox are soothing to our fears, so we want that in a leader. Hubris is nice – it makes the other guys sound funny and look small. That kind of leadership gets laughs and grinds down the other side’s will to live, maybe. Or at least it makes us feel good. And of course, credentials matter. Or to say it another way, without credentials you don’t matter – you cannot lead. After all, it took professionals to build the Titanic. Credentialed people don’t mess up like us commoners, right? And since they are not prone to mess up, leaders in the West can be free to run on their own. They’re at the top after all. Who can question them? Nobody needs to talk into THEIR lives. They’ll be fine. They have God on their side. Just like King David. He never screwed up, right?
In reality, much of this makes sense to a fearful and harassed people. Go big, go powerful and make a splash. But the leadership we just described above? That’s not biblical leadership. That’s not who 99.9% of leaders are to be in Christ.
Christ himself was none of this. “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, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so 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 2:5-11
The reality is that the greatest leader ever washed feet and served others, unto a lowly death. This brings us to you. You, a leader in your Christian community – whether professional or laity – you are a follower of Christ – and a leader. You are a bondservant – a doulos. Literally you are serving God in your role as a leader like Joseph. You did not deserve to get there. No matter your title on earth, you have 1) no right to any standing or significance any longer in your resume or title; 2) no right to privileges or perks above others; 3) no waiver to live without someone walking alongside you – to speak truth and Nathan-like clarity into your life; 4) a standing obligation to take the railings and frets of other believers, and the railings and frets of non-believers without thinking yourself better or larger or superior to such shrewish people – after all, as a bondservant you are equivalently low. 5) an obligation to be out among your people, organizing your people, helping your people draw nearer to God’s ways because they are near to your ways. All that is the foundation of a biblical leader.
In being a bondservant, you are rescued from a debtor’s chains and entropy, rescued into the estate of the Father, rescued so you can go back out as a bondservant to serve others to meet your Master. But what you can never be is a Hollywood knock-off using power and gravitas to show your people a better way. You are a broken sinner shown grace, and now called to confess your reality and encourage the journey – the journey of leaders who make disciples who make disciples. You cannot be a leader unless you qualify at this moment, and every moment as a doulos of the Lord Jesus Christ.
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