Against Leadership

Leadership is a useless concept and we should stop talking about it.

Ok, so that was a confirmed clickbait opener. I don’t really think that. I’ve designed and run award-winning worldwide leadership programmes for a household brand. I don’t think that was pointless. I’ve run leadership development programmes for a church too. I don’t think that was pointless either, they were valuable and did a lot of good. The title is in the vein of Peter Leithart’s book Against Christianity, something that he is not, in the most common sense of the term, against.

I think the obsession that charismatic and evangelical churches have with the concept of leadership is chasing after the wind (Ecclesiastes 2) though. Which is not to say that we don’t need people to lead, or that churches that aren’t led slowly die. My problem is more to do with how we talk about these realities.

You can see it in the sorts of books our pastors and church staff read, in the way we badge our conferences, in the things we’re concerned by. You notice, perhaps, that using ‘leadership’ as a concept in the church is terrifyingly new and not really found before the twentieth century. You notice that the more we’ve talked about it the more we’ve made the role of elders or pastors, especially those that are paid by churches, into a sort of spiritual CEO. Which, to put it bluntly, is not what the New Testament envisioned for us. 

I think we can learn from the business world. I think we should even, all truth is God’s truth. To do so requires a careful recalibration of those concepts remembering what it means to be an office holder in the church and how the Christian faith radically subverts some of the underlying assumptions of the world we’re learning from.

My biggest concern is a language problem, but the language we use slowly creates the concepts we believe. It acts as a liturgy to change what we think. Not as quickly as doing things does, but as inexorably.

There are two angles to explain this from. Firstly, the word leader is slippery. It’s a catchall term that covers everyone from the paid pastor of the church to the person who arranges the tea and coffee rota. Which is not to devalue either or those, but the ways in which they lead—while having some similarities—are different enough that I’m not sure calling them both “leaders” is particularly descriptive. It’s similar to referring to both Pixie, my surprising vicious pet cat, and a ravening Lion as ‘cats.’ It is true that they are both felids. It doesn’t tell you much about them or the differences between them. Though if you’ve met Pixie that might undermine my argument, she doesn’t see any differences as far as I can tell.

The closest word to ‘leader’ in Greek (hodēgos) is used to describe the Pharisees and Judas. I’m not sure that’s the company we want. If only the New Testament gave us other words to use! We’ll circle back there in a minute. Though, to note the passages which run against my thesis, we do find the word leader in most translations of Hebrews 13 (the word is hēgeomai, a verb meaning to govern).

Secondly, leadership as we talk about it is not a concept found in the New Testament. I can see that you can find some references in Hebrews 13 and perhaps 1 Timothy 5. I completely understand that we can draw a whole bunch of leadership lessons from the New Testament’s pages—we must do this! Those who lead in a variety of ways need to learn to lead like the Bible tells us too. The problem is when our leadership talk, and our use of the word leader, elides the concepts the New Testament puts front and centre.

What concepts does it use? Serving (1 Timothy 3, 1 Peter 4, 2 Corinthians 8). Shepherding (1 Peter 5). Fathering (1 Corinthians 4, 2 Corinthians 12, 1 John 2). Teaching (Acts 13, 1 Corinthians 12, James 3). Guarding (2 Timothy 1). Preaching (2 Timothy 4). There are more. I’m not convinced that ‘leadership’ is the primary way that the Bible talks about elders, for example.

Does that make leadership innately bad? Not at all, and I think the lessons from much leadership training (my own included!) are invaluable and should be sort out. You appreciate by now that my title and first sentence were the hook for a nuanced bait and switch. The thing is, it might help us out more with some of the messes we find ourselves in if we put the sorts of concepts that the Bible uses front and centre.

We have bad leaders, at times. It happens. We remove them, hopefully swiftly, and consider how to avoid the same thing again. Sadly, it’s often slowly and then in the name of grace we reappoint clearly disqualified people. We perhaps reemphasise that the New Testament speaks primarily of ‘servant leaders’ and remember that people who want to lord it over others are not good fits for pastoral roles. Except I wonder if that’s a slight misstep. The Bible does not speak of servant leaders, but servants (e.g. Colossians 1). ‘Leaders’ are servants. Elders are servants.

For the sake of clarity, I am not against the idea that some people in the church are given authority over others. Shocking though it may be to our modern sensibilities, authority is an intrinsic good and hierarchies are both natural and divinely instituted for human well-being. And the abuse of authority is a particularly terrible sin, worthy of censure by the church. What I’m suggesting is that ‘leadership’ is not the only way of getting at these realities, and—in the New Testament at least, the Old Testament finds more time for this in the King’s role—is not the way Bible chooses to explain them.

There’s a lot more to say on this important topic, and you could unpick some of my assertions by weaving in themes from the Old Testament, but I think if we don’t start here we go quickly off track.

When it comes to language I might point out that the New Testament has a host of great words we can use to describe people. I’d rather you gave me apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Ephesians 4) than an amorphous group of leaders any day of the week.

So, should we ban the word leader?

Even if I thought that was a good idea, that’s not going to get us anywhere. Someone still needs to head-up your set-up team or your home group or whatever it may be. Coming up with another name for them would be forced. Just imagine it: the Sound Desk Commandant and the Home Group King.

But when someone is an officeholder in the church—by which I mean an elder or a deacon—we should use that term for them. I get the push to make things explicable for people, but strange words help define strange concepts, comparable words that don’t mean the same thing lead to more confusion in the long run. Also, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of weird in our intensely weird “God wrote this book oh and eat this bread it’s God” religion.

Similarly, if someone is fulfilling one of the Ephesians 4 ministries (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers) then feel free to use that word to describe them. The usual caution about the first two is reasonable, but we can use them when appropriate. We should certainly talk about the fact that the church needs them.

I’m all for leadership development courses. I could design you an excellent one if you want. When we do, let’s be clear about what we’re actually developing, and be even clearer that those who hold office in the church are not primarily leaders, but servants. If we, and I speak now as an office holder in a church, think we’re leaders then we’ll hold on to our power and use it for ourselves even unwittingly. That’s how I was first taught to do this. It does not end well. If we think we’re servants, we’ll give up our power for the benefit of others. Which is what Jesus did. I am learning this the long way round.

This, dear friends, is the Way.

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

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