Within the past thirty years, the idea of leadership has been pushed to the forefront of our thinking like it never has before. Andrew Wilson recently noted the enormity of the leadership phenomenon. Long story short, leadership is everywhere right now, and it is selling big. The Christian world is no different as numerous leadership groups and conferences have sprung up all over the world. This is both a positive and a negative trend, I believe. It is positive because good leadership is needed and should not be undervalued. For that reason, the church should do everything it can to train and equip the next generation of Christian leaders (2 Tim 2:1-2). I am not just talking about pastors, deacons, and full-time ministry workers, but the church has an obligation to equip every Christian to lead in the sphere that God has called them. This is something that the millennial generation understands well. They do not want simply to be taught and sit on the bleachers. They want to be equipped for ministry, and we must have good leaders to train them!
On the other hand, I am fearful that one of the major driving factors of the leadership craze in general and the “Christian leadership” craze in particular is the celebrity culture of America and American Christianity. With the rise of “platform,” “followers,” and “likes,” the universality of social media has given us new outlets for power and influence that no other generation has had. My fear, then, is not that so many of us are pursuing increased leadership influence, but why we are pursuing increased influence. Is it our desire for Christ’s glory or our own? Is it because we are dissatisfied with our current station in life? Is it because we would rather have followers than focus on being a follower of Christ?
In this confusing world of Christian leadership, I think there is a worldview that will keep us grounded as we utilize the leadership abilities and influence that God has given us. After all, influence is not a bad thing, it is a good thing when it is exercised under the Lordship of Christ. And that’s where I’ll begin as I attempt to unpack several pillars of the worldview of Christian leadership.
1) Leading in the Shadow of the Cross
As Christians, we must remember that we are called to serve Christ in the shadow of the cross. As believers, nothing should be more foundational to us than this. This means that our leadership is framed within the context of the sin, brokenness, and suffering that is in the world.
This means that we must strive to avoid any “great leader” mentality in our influence. The “great leader” mentality of leadership might acknowledge the cross, but moves quickly past it to “glory,” “prominence,” and “greatness.” It views the cross as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. It prizes accomplishment, results, and numerics as the endgame barometers of success and not the degree to which we have served and shown others our Savior. This type of leadership might achieve results, but it cannot be called Christian leadership, because by definition, Christian leadership cannot emphasize our greatness, but our brokenness before God and our need for a great Savior.
It is at the cross that we see our own brokenness and leadership deficiencies, and it is there that we see Christ in his infinite goodness and wisdom. For that reason, the cross should not only be the framework of our leadership, it should also be our destination. In other words, our primary goal must be to continually influence others towards Christ and the kingdom of God.
Of course this mindset is not new. Martin Luther referred to it as a “theology of the cross,” which is in direct opposition to a “theology of glory.” In an excerpt of Glorious Ruin in The Christian Post, Tullian Tchividjian remarks about these two perspectives of leadership:
Theologies of glory” are approaches to Christianity (and to life) that try in various ways to minimize difficult and painful things, or to move past them rather than looking them square in the face and accepting them. Theologies of glory acknowledge the cross, but view it primarily as a means to an end-an unpleasant but necessary step on the way to personal improvement, the transformation of human potential. As Luther puts it, the theologian of glory “does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.” The theology of glory is the natural default setting for human beings addicted to control and measurement. This perspective puts us squarely in the driver’s seat, after all.
A theology of the cross, in contrast, understands the cross to be the ultimate statement of God’s involvement in the world on this side of heaven. A theology of the cross accepts the difficult thing rather than immediately trying to change it or use it. It looks directly into pain, and “calls a thing what it is” instead of calling evil good and good evil. It identifies God as “hidden in [the] suffering.” Luther actually took things one key step further. He said that God was not only hidden in suffering, but He was at work in our anxiety and doubt. When you are at the end of your rope-when you no longer have hope within yourself-that is when you run to God for mercy. It’s admittedly difficult to accept the claim that God is somehow hidden amid all of the wreckage of our lives. But those who are willing to struggle and despair may in actuality be those among us who best understand the realities of the Christian life. 1
When the cross stays central in how we lead, it changes everything, for it shapes both the sphere and destination of our influence.
2) Leadership as a Calling
Along with leading by keeping the cross of Christ as our focal point, we must lead in the realm and station that God has called us. This means that we must seek to fulfill the Creation Mandate in the specific place and occupation that God has placed us (Gen 1:28).
Another idea that Martin Luther rediscovered in the Reformation is the idea of personal vocation. As Luther pointed out, it is not just the minister that is called to serve, but every Christian is called to a particular service. God calls men and women to be husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, bakers, architects, engineers, doctors, lawyers, business owners, and government leaders and this calling on their lives is just as real as the call on the minister. In a recent article in Christian History entitled “Doing Much Good in the World,” Jordan Ballor remarks on Luther’s view of vocation:
Luther questioned a system that seemingly segregated those seeking to live holy and chase lives into small enclaves, separate from the larger world. He argued that all Christians are called to follow God; there are not two distinct classes of callings, one for the more spiritually focused and the other for profane, worldly pursuits. Instead Christians live and work in family, church, and government. 2
Luther and later John Calvin’s emphasis on vocation was not meant to minimize the different responsibilities and hierarchies that went with certain vocations (certainly a king was called to something quite different from a street sweeper), but to emphasize the redeeming value of the vocation that God calls men and women to. This mindset was largely defined by the doctrine of justification that emphasized the righteousness of a saint in Christ in the current context God had placed them in. Those that fly to a monastery are no more spiritual (and in fact may be less spiritual) than those serving nobly in the “secular” task that God had called them to engage in. For in Calvin’s thinking, you were no more spiritual than your justification before God in Christ. When those that have been justified engage in work that God has placed before them, fulfilling the Creation Mandate of Genesis 1:28, their work is sacred, regardless of how seemingly ordinary and mundane it is.
When we know how God has called us to work and to lead, it transforms our efforts. It gives us the confidence and the courage to continue to push forward in the sphere God has placed us. Although, speaking primarily of the minister’s call, Charles Bridges is very helpful here and I think this statement is applicable to every Christian:
To labour in the dark, without an assured commission, greatly obscures the warrant of faith in the Divine engagements; and the Minister, unable to avail himself of heavenly support, feels his “hands hang down, and his knees feeble” in his work. On the other hand, the confidence that he is acting in obedience to the call of God—that he is in his work, and in his way—nerves him in the midst of all difficulty, and under a sense of his responsible obligations, with almighty strength. 3
3) Leadership as Service
When you look at leadership from the framework of the cross and as a calling from God, it is transformed into an act of service to God and others. Jesus, himself, said, “I did not come to be served, but to serve and give my life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This overall mindset helps us avoid the danger of looking at our influence as something that will ultimately serve our own desires. If we desire to serve Christ through our leadership and our pursuing His call on our lives, we are now influencing others out of a desire to steward well.
When leadership is seen as a service to God, there is a desire to lead in the best way possible. Our motivation is not for our own fame, but flows from a desire to serve God. In the recent biography of John Stott, Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement, Alister Chapman writes about how John Stott thought through the issue of his service to God and his increasing influence:
He was both a Christian seeking to honor God and a very talented man who believed he had key roles to play in God’s work in the world and wanted to play them. In short, he combined two things that might seem incongruous: godliness and ambition. Stott believed that Christians could and should be “ambitious for the spread of God’s kingdom,” and that once that fundamental ambition was in place they were then free to have “secondary ambitions,” to “develop their gifts, widen their opportunities, extend their influence and be given promotion in their work—not to boost their own ego or build their own empire, but rather through everything they do to bring glory to God.” This is how Stott lived. Stott longed to see the church grow in numbers and depth. At the same time, he was determined to use his abilities to the full and believed that would mean leadership and prominence. The difficulty in practice, of course, was that godly ambition and selfish ambition were sometimes hard to tell apart. As Stott preached and taught, God was not the only one who got glory, Stott enjoined humility, but pride remained a struggle. Being ambitious for Christ’s sake was a heady mix. 4
Leadership Grounded in the Cross, Calling, and Service
Of course, increased leadership and influence will always bring the temptation of pride. But that is why we must continue to go back to the cross, our calling, and our service. These are quite simple principles, but they will certainly help give us an interpretive worldview as we seek to navigate the confusing grid of Christian leadership in the days ahead.
1. Tullian Tchividjian, “Theology of Glory vs. Theology of the Cross” in The Christian Post. 12 July 2012. http://www.christianpost.com/news/theology-of-glory-vs-theology-of-the-cross-78119/↩
2. Jordan J. Ballor, “Doing much good in the world” in Christian History Issue 110 ed. by Jennifer Woodruff Tait (Christian History Institute: Worcester, 2014), 26-27.↩
3. Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry (Banner of Truth: Edinburgh, 1959), 101.↩
4. Alister Chapman, Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement (Oxford: New York, 2012), 8.↩
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Grant is also a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Captain in the Marine Corps. He and his wife, GraceAnna, reside in Louisville, Kentucky with their two daughters.
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