Is leadership a biblical virtue?

In the first of a series of articles on ‘Leadership’, Matt Merriam challenges the church on its view of leadership and servanthood.

A poster by Alan Ashley-Pitt once said, “The one who follows the crowd will usually get no further than the crowd. The one who walks alone, is likely to find himself in places no one has ever been.” Although we may not word it quite the same, this mantra of individuality, independence, and leadership drives a lot of our culture. We teach our children to not just do what everyone else is doing, but to be themselves, warning them of the perilous dangers of “peer pressure” and modelling their lives after a YouTuber. A quick search for books about “leadership” on Amazon.co.uk will return to you with over 60,000 responses – which does not even begin to touch the blogs, articles, podcasts, conferences, apprenticeships, training colleges, and degrees all focusing on enabling us to be better leaders.

Our church communities are no exception to this obsession with leadership, after all our models of church depend on leadership like a fish depends on water. The church trains people in leadership with more frequency and intent than pretty much everything else (an argument could be made for biblical literacy, but perhaps without the same degree of intent). Not to mention the plethora of church leaders who spend countless hours before bed thinking, “If only I had a few more leaders, then everything would be better.” Or maybe that is just me.

Oxforddictionaries.com defines “virtue” as, “behaviour showing high moral standards”. In other words, a virtue is a behaviour or characteristic that is desirable and sought after because of how “good” society deems it to be. In 2012, the Queen highlighted the three virtues of resilience, ingenuity, and tolerance in her Diamond Jubilee address. We could probably add to that list things like generosity, honesty, self-sufficiency, and yes, leadership. But is that biblical? Is the level of significance and the amount of resources we attribute to leadership training in the Church reflective of what God intends His Kingdom to look like?

There is no doubt that the Bible deeply values leadership. Whether it is Paul’s instructions to Timothy, Peter’s encouragement to elders, Jesus’ training of his disciples, or God’s developing of Moses – Scripture sees the significant challenges of leadership and seeks to equip leaders to lead well. But a virtue is a characteristic that we are meant to actively pursue and develop; is leadership a biblical virtue?

I believe that would be allowing our cultural perspectives to change our interpretation and understanding of scripture, which is always dangerous. Yes, Paul says to Timothy that “whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1 NIV). But we have to remember that in Paul’s Jewish context, eldership was something that was attained by simply living long enough. Paul, as far as we can tell, also carried that model into early Christianity. Which is why in 1 Timothy 3 Paul goes on to set some character traits that are important for leaders, because the church needed a higher standard than the culture around it.

Leadership is noted as a spiritual gift in Romans 12, but Paul suggests that it is something one has, rather than something one can learn. The New Testament contains extensive lists of characteristics and virtues that Christians should pursue, in passages like Galatians 5, Colossians 3, Ephesians 4, 1 Thessalonians 5, 1 Timothy 6, 2 Timothy 2, Titus 3, and 1 Peter 3; just to name a few. In none of those passages is leadership mentioned as a quality that Christians should pursue, and it is most definitely not spoken about as something that Christians and the Church should pour so many resources and so much time into.

In “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes” E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien suggest a different virtue that the Bible repeatedly exhorts Christians to pursue – servanthood. Time and again it is the way Jesus laid down His life and the way He served that we are invited to imitate: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:5-7 NIV).

As Christians we are called to put others before ourselves, to love sacrificially, to live selflessly. The problem is, this massively conflicts with our cultural gods of individualism, independence, and self-preservation. We get around this by trying to suggest that we are called to “servant leadership”; so our desire to be at the front (being followed) is maintained, whilst placating the biblical invitation to imitate Christ in serving. But the Bible does not call us to “servant leadership”; it calls us to serve.

It seems to me that in the early church leadership was something respected and valued, but also seen as a burden, a heavy weight that some are called to carry in their service to Christ. We tend to see servanthood in this way, something that is respected and valued, but that only a few people (hopefully not us) are called to and burdened with. So we create discipleship programmes, write books, and teach degrees all about becoming leaders. Have you ever heard of a bachelor’s degree in Christian theology and servanthood? We hold prayer meetings asking God to send us more leaders or for our young people to grow up into leaders. Has your church ever fasted and prayed because you did not have enough servants?

Maybe in the midst of a culture full of people clamouring to be the most influential, we have allowed our churches to adopt the same attitude. Maybe we have got it wrong, and the flourishing of God’s Kingdom here on earth is dependant more on our production of servants, than it is our multiplication of leaders. Maybe it is time for those of us carrying the weight of leadership to lend our influence into helping our flocks grow in their ability, skill, and desire to serve.

Header photography by Paul Drabble

Matt Merriam lives in Yeovil with his wife Claire and three children. He has over 10 years’ experience of church planting in a deprived housing estate and is passionate about churches engaging with their communities, making disciples and living in the reality of God’s Kingdom.

As Christians we are called to put others before ourselves, to love sacrificially, to live selflessly. The problem is, this massively conflicts with our cultural gods of individualism, independence, and self-preservation.

Foundations Autumn 2018