Stephen Crosby’s blog post earlier today To Lead or Not to Lead? That is the Question not only blessed me (How much longer before we “get” this?), but inspired me to dig into some old files for a research paper I delivered over a decade ago at a theological seminary in Cape Town. I found it, and thought I’ll add my voice to Stephen’s.
The Difference Between Christian and Secular Leadership
I know of few Christians who would question the implied proposition above. The church of Jesus Christ is generally in agreement that there is a marked difference between Christian and non-Christian methods of leadership. Yet, when questioned, many believers struggle to explain what these differences are. Christian leaders themselves don’t fare much better, a fact which becomes especially evident when we survey much of the so-called Christian leadership literature doing the rounds in evangelical circles today. Oftentimes these are little more than a rehash of conventional secular wisdom, sprinkled with Bible verses so as to sanctify and legitimise their use.
If there is a difference between secular and Christian leadership styles, then what is it? Furthermore, how big is this difference? Is Christian leadership complimentary to secular leadership, or does it present an alternative to secular leadership? To put it in picture form: Is it the roofrack of the vehicle, or is it another vehicle altogether?
It is my conviction, and the thesis of this paper, that the difference between secular and Christian leadership is the very difference separating the Kingdom of God from the fallen empires of this world. It is, in other words, that difference that contrasts light and darkness, life and death, Christ and Satan. To put the two together as though they are variants of the same species won’t do. They stand unalterably antithetical, and so they will remain until the day of the Lord.
The Worldliness of Secular Leadership
If the above sounds like an unnecessary harsh assessment, let us consider for a moment the adjective we employ to describe the type of leadership that is not ‘Christian’. The word ‘secular’ is derived from the Latin saeculum, which is one of the Latin words for world. It refers to our existence as material beings in the material cosmos. Secular leadership is really nothing but worldly leadership. As such it is not merely practiced by ‘worldly’ people, but it has the world as both its beginning and end. Its philosophical premises and presuppositions are thoroughly worldly and so also their logical conclusions. Ideas have consequences, or ‘legs’ as Francis Schaeffer used to say, which means that ideas go places. And the places they go are more often than not determined by the places they come from. Ideas that begin with the world are doomed to end with the world, both in the philosophical and eschatological sense.
Christian leadership, on the other hand, is a leadership away from the world. It is not utopian, has no business with social engineering, and certainly does not believe that politics presents the answer to the ailments of society, the worldview expressed in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s maxim ‘the state is the agency of emancipation’ (Cited in Colson 1999: 171). Rather, it longs for a better country – a heavenly one, and it does so in true Hebrews 11 fashion. This type of non-secular leadership is best exemplified by the image of Moses leading the Israelites away from Egypt in search of a land promised and ruled by God.
The Influence Leadership Vision has on Leadership Style
One might wonder what this has to with the actual how-to of leading. Do the different visions of the church and the world influence their leadership methodology, ultimately necessitating different leadership styles? In other words, has leadership anything to do with the particular policies of the leader, or is it purely neutral? And if it has, to what extent?
We have all heard it said that Hitler was an excellent leader. By this it is usually meant that he had great charisma and even greater powers of conviction. He managed to lead thousands, and so we conclude that he was a great leader. The fact that he led them to destruction is besides the point. It makes him a poor theorist, perhaps, but not a poor leader. He could get people to follow him, and this is the litmus test of leadership. As I once heard a Christian leadership guru put it: “If no one is following, you are not leading, but merely taking a walk.” We could turn that around to mean that as long as people are following, you are definitely leading.
Of course not everyone is comfortable with such a pragmatic view of leadership. Stephen Covey’s ‘Principle Centered Leadership’ (1992) is a case in point. According to this school leadership is more than the sum of certain morally neutral traits that are both inborn and acquired, and have produced military and political leaders stretching from before Alexander the Great through Napoleon and Hitler to modern leaders like Bill Clinton. “We need to place character back in leadership”, its proponents say; “we need to live by the compass rather than the map.” In spite of the inward focus and oftentimes spiritual emphasis of this school (Covey is a Mormon), we are not offered any insight into the difference between Christian and secular leadership, due to a lack of any religious homogeneity amongst its advocates. Furthermore, we are offered no answer to the question of whether the different visions of the church and the world have any bearing on their leadership methodology and style.
In order to answer this question, we need to turn to the communication sciences, and to one person in particular: Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian professor who became famous for his aphorism, “the medium is the message”. According to McLuhan, any chosen medium selected for the purposes of communication serves not only as a carrier for such communication, but actually dictates the content of the communication. Neil Postman illustrates this by his story of American Indians communicating via smoke signals, yet finding it impossible to discuss deep philosophy this way. ‘Its form excludes the content’, Postman points out. (Postman 1985: 7).
In the same way styles of leadership, which are forms of discourse, regulate the content issuing from such styles. The leadership style of Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace made it possible for him to convey a message to the masses that many of his contemporaries could not convey. It is no coincidence that the Hollywood version of his life was dubbed Braveheart, for in this title we find the reason behind his uncanny ability to call his people to bravery. Perhaps the best shorthand summary of this principle is to be found in a statement attributed to Oscar Wilde: “Who you are speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.”
Particular forms of leadership, in other words, favour particular kinds of content, or, to change McCluhan’s adage slightly: The leader is the message. This is true in any context, even where the message is of such a nature that it makes little demands on the medium of leadership, for instance in the case of the Senior Bookkeeper whose expertise is limited to the world of accountancy. Her subordinates expect no bravery from her, knowing full well that even great cowards can make great bookkeepers. Her authority is derived from what is called ‘expert power’ (Lund & Henderson 1994: 12), and rightly so, for this is what her particular environment demands. However, in the political arena expert power is not sufficient to rise to a position of leadership. Here ‘personal power’ becomes a requirement, namely that ‘mystical combination of attributes that marks some people as born leaders’. (Lund & Henderson 1994: 13). Different settings demand different forms of communication, which in turn demand different leadership styles.
With this in mind, it becomes clear that the radically different message of Christianity demands and necessitates a radically different leadership style in order to be conveyed. Where we are heading will therefore determine how we lead, and it is this truism that disengages Christian from secular leadership.
The Strangeness of Christian Leadership
When we turn to Scripture we find that the God of the Bible assumed a connection between the medium and the message long before McCluhan did. This is evident from the gospel of John, where we read that a particular message from God, simply called “the Word”, demanded a particular medium for its effective conveyance, simply called “the flesh”. The “Word became flesh” means that the message became the medium, and that the two are inseparably linked. Reading further into the gospels we are struck by God’s condemnation of people who ignored this principle by preaching the gospel without living it (Matt 23:1-4). Believers are referred to as living epistles, and one can only wonder why John wrote “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink.” Did the spiritual nature of his message perhaps demand a different medium of discourse, namely talking ‘face to face’? (3 John 13-14).
Christianity, in other words, is to be lived in order to be proclaimed. The word must become flesh, and the formation of that flesh must be determined by the content of the word. This is especially true in the case of Christian leadership, which is nothing but an extension and disclosure of the Christian message. True Christian leadership can only be so if it embodies and exemplifies the profound gap between the Christian and secular worldviews.
With this in mind, it becomes apparent that Christianity turns the worldly concept of leadership upside down. The stark contrast between Christian and secular leadership is drawn by Christ himself in Matt. 20:25-28, in response to his followers who seemingly noted no distinction between the two: “You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave…” It cannot be stated clearer than this. Christian leadership is not an exercise of authority, but an abdication of it. In this it stands opposed to ‘gentile’ forms of leadership and authority.
Yet not only secular, but also religious forms of authority are challenged by the Christian paradigm of leadership. The era of the Spirit, according to Jeremiah, signifies not only the end of the law but also the end of human mediation: “No longer will a man teach his neighbour…”, the prophet says, “because they will all know me, from the least to the greatest.” (Jer 31:34). In 1John 2:27 we read: “…the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you.” (1 John 2: 27). The Christian message implies that with the advent of the Holy Spirit came a subjective authority hitherto unknown to humanity, resulting in an independence from traditional forms of authority, both secular and religious.
Christian leadership, therefore, is in reality a form of anti-leadership. It’s aim is not to gather a following, but to challenge the herd mentality so basic to human nature. Christian leadership is never the emperor parading before the masses, but always the little boy crying out “The emperor is naked!” It is strangely subversive and radically countercultural. It is a leadership of liberation, freeing the captives and prisoners from their enslavement to the ideologies of this world, and setting them on a narrow road where no one has gone before, for which no maps are available, and where progress is only possible by following the guidance of God’s Spirit.
This means that Christian leadership is ultimately self destructive. Once it has challenged the status quo, it points to another power and authority altogether and removes itself from the platform. Nowhere is this strange type of leadership better illustrated than in the ministry of John the Baptist, and nowhere better put than in his own words: ‘He must become greater; I must become less.’ (John 3:30) Ministers and Christian leaders would do well to look in the mirror from time to time and say out loud with the prophet: ‘I am not the Christ but am send ahead of him.’ (John 3:27). Indeed, preparing the way for Christ is what Christian leadership is all about.
Some Practical Considerations
How does the above work itself out in practice? Much can be said about this, but for the purposes of this paper I will restrict myself to a few remarks made by Christ and Paul, and some more recent comments of Eugene Peterson.
Christ washed feet (John 13:1-17) and spoke about children (Matt 18:15) and servants (Matt 20:26, Matt 23:11) in order to illustrate what greatness means in the Kingdom of God. Like Jeremiah he challenged the notion of human mediation (See Matt 23:8-10), which is in reality nothing but a worldly model of leadership that subjects and enslaves the masses to an elite inner circle of spiritually enlightened pundits. As Os Guinness has noted: “…the dominance of the expert means the dependency of the client.” (Guinness 1993: 71). Indeed, religious punditocracy came to an end the day that the new covenant came into effect and all believers were made kings and priests. Titles reserved for traditional religious leaders were now bestowed on the laity, and for no other reason than the fact that external forms of authority were internalised through the indwelling of God’s Spirit.
The apostle Paul calls the Christian church to humility, and instructs them to have the same attitude as Christ, who “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.”(Phil 2:-7). His famous statement “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am Of Christ.” (1 Cor 11:1 in the KJV), can easily be interpreted as “Do not follow me, but follow Christ”, an interpretation that seems to be confirmed by his earlier rebuke of the Corinthians for their “I follow Paul…I follow Apollos.” (1 Cor 3:4). This particular rebuke he concludes with the assertion that both he and Apollos are mere “servants through whom you came to believe.” (v5). Indeed, his argument reminds strongly of John the Baptist’s. It is a leadership that says: “I am only here to point you to Christ.” In his second letter to the Corinthians he actually states this conviction: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Cor 4:5).
In line with this thinking, Paul presents the Christian church with a list of leadership traits that totally contradicts conventional secular wisdom. In the place of intelligence, initiative, self-assurance, determination, visionary capacity, ability to influence, ability to see the big picture and so on, he lists traits like humility, holiness, hospitality, and being free from the love of money, as conditions for Christian leadership (See 1 Tim 3 and Tit 1).
Eugene Peterson has pointed out that Paul’s list is “clearly more a matter of character than of skill” (Dawn & Peterson 2000: 202), and anyone would be foolish to disagree. He quotes Henri Nouwen in this regard: “I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love.” (p 190). Peterson goes on to say: “What we call the ability to lead has almost nothing to do with it. If we want to develop community in Christ, we have to scrap most of what we are told today about leadership.” (p 203). He concludes his remarks by saying that we should recognise the sphere of leadership among the “poor in Spirit” (p 203), and that it is “almost always a mistake to recruit exceptional people for leadership” (p 204).
I could not agree more. CEO leadership is the worst imaginable model of leadership that the Christian church can choose to follow.
The thesis of this paper is that a spiritual message cannot be conveyed by an unspiritual medium anymore than deep philosophical ideas can be conveyed by smoke signals. The form of secular leadership excludes the spiritual content of the gospel message, and is therefore an unfit medium of conveyance. True spiritual leadership is the servant leadership of Jesus Christ and Paul. It has as its source not expert power or personal power, nor resource power or positional power (See Lund & Henderson 1994: 6), but spiritual power. This power favours no particular personality types and more often than not displays itself in weakness, leaving no doubt as to where it comes from. (We are offered a vast array of testimonies throughout both Bible and church history of highly unlikely characters who were greatly used of God in leading capacities.)
With the above in mind it is clear that the church would do well to rethink the issue of Christian leadership. Ours is a situation not unlike that of Israel who demanded a king at a time where God was to be their King, and perhaps we should ask ourselves if we have not fallen into the same trap through our over-reliance on human leadership.
Colson, C & Pearcy, N 1999. How Now Shall We Live? Wheaton: Tyndale
Covey, S R 1992. Principle Centered Leadership. London: Simon & Schuster
Dawn, M & Peterson, E 2000. The Unnecessary Pastor. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing
Guinness, O 1994. Dining with the Devil. Grand Rapids: Baker
Lund, B & Henderson, E 1994. Leading Your Team, Book 10 of Managing Health Services. The Open University
Postman, N 1985. Amusing Ourselves to Death. London: Methuen.
Picture of Christ & Hitler: http://abstract.desktopnexus.com/wallpaper/871800/