Leadership. The word itself conjures up martial and business images of take-charge, no-nonsense people who fight their way to the top even if they have to climb over the littered bodies of friends and co-workers. In fact, this mindset seems to epitomize the "American way." Is it possible, however, that we are wrong about the word? Does it really mean what we think it means? Three stories from the life of Jesus challenge our paradigm of leadership; rejecting the world’s model, he made fishermen into world changers, tax collectors into culture shapers, and nobodies into leaders.
“And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you discussing on the way?”
Twelve grown men filled the room. The smell of sweat and dirty feet polluted the air, competing with the noise made by men who were comfortable with each other. Greetings had been exchanged, joyous laughter mixed with tears had welcomed friends and family members back from another tour, and everyone—traveler and welcomer alike—reveled in the fact that their friends traveled with Jesus; how important they were! Like sunlight at dawn, Jesus’ question penetrated the noise and smells demanding an answer—an answer from anyone and everyone, “What were you discussing?” Every time Jesus asked a question (and He asked more than 250 questions in the Gospels) the school bell rang. It was time for a leadership lesson.
His eyes and body language included everyone in the room as a possible candidate for giving the answer, but a strained silence pervaded the space. No one wanted to answer. Not one man in the room wanted to tell the Messiah that they were arguing about who was the greatest among them. Breaking the silence, Jesus called the twelve to him. It was a "come sit down with me" moment. It was time for a leadership lesson.
“And he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and this in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.”
The twelve reclined at the table with Jesus. The Passover meal had been shared, and the post covenant ceremony discussion centered around the quite disturbing fact that one of them was about to betray Jesus. The logical path of the conversation is not difficult to trace. Of course this would lead to a debate over who was the most faithful, who was the most sincere, who was the most necessary, who was the greatest.
How did Jesus break up the argument? He completely turned the issue on its head. He told them that they were to be different from the Gentiles who exercise lordship over one another,(the verb pictures this downward directional aspect). But it would not be that way with followers of Jesus. To punctuate his instruction to them as he washed their feet, he challenged them with his own answer to the question, “Who is greater, one who reclines at the table or the servant who serves those at the table?” "The one who reclines at the table is greater, but I am among you as a servant. Go do the same.”
“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have on instructor, the Christ.”
Jesus actually said this: Don't let anyone call you rabbi (leader), because there is only one Teacher (leader). I’m your Teacher. Don't let anyone call you father, because there is only one Father. It is Yahweh. Don't let anyone call you instructor, because there is only one Instructor. I’m your Instructor.
He continued teaching by stating that the greatest among them would be their servants. He promised that whoever exalted himself would be humbled and whoever humbled himself would be exalted. Jesus said these things in the context of a spiritual leadership vacuum; contemporary spiritual leaders compared and competed for followers, created innumerable rules for those followers, and condemned everyone who did not measure up. Jesus’ words were so radical that they shocked His disciples into silence. We cannot escape the thought that the very same message is just as radical today.
We are not so different from the disciples. We need a lesson in leadership. As followers of Jesus, it should shock us if his words ever seem radical. If Jesus' words ever present a stark contrast to our way of thinking or our way of doing things, it should be a "come sit down with me" moment. With this in mind, let's think about our Western practice of leadership.
When you hear the word greatest is your first thought, last place or servant? What is a leader's main task? Many leadership trainings are centered around the idea that leaders help others buy in to their vision. But throughout the Bible, God appoints stewards who tirelessly give up their lives in an effort to help others submit to the vision God has already cast. Does a leader have the authority to make decisions about other people's lives, or does a leader understand that his only role is to guard the integrity of God's Word at all cost, trembling when he must exercise boldness in the defense of the Gospel?
Perhaps it’s time to evaluate your view of leadership and your leadership practices against the context of a biblical worldview. I was able to make such an assessment because someone LED me.
This man didn't cast a vision he constructed for me, nor did he exercise authority over me like a boss. He did not consider himself more talented or more special than me--although he was and is. He simply looked me in the eye and told me to read the whole book, the Bible. Then he and his wife walked with my wife and me as we did just that, helping us to understand how God reveals himself in the narrative of Scripture. They taught me to THREAD.
Consider the worldview shift for the apostles. Jesus said to them that all authority in heaven and on earth was his to give. Then he commanded them to go into all the world making disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything he commanded.
Jesus did not command them to spend the rest of their lives building great fame for themselves. He did not command them to become great in this life. In fact, Jesus entreated them to give up their life for the sake of his great name, to give up all of their ambitions and tirelessly work so that people would not follow them, but follow Jesus. They were not to spend their lives as great leaders, but surrendered followers—and he wanted them to teach others to do the same.
We have somehow distorted the very concept of biblical leadership. We replaced biblical leadership with a counterfeit model inherited from the great business leaders of our day. The results of this shift should not surprise us. As the church chases after celebrity teaching and faddish growth models, Bible literacy decreases and our ability to communicate the gospel in a relevant way to those who reject Christ grows powerless.
Leadership according to Jesus asks us to lose our life in order to help others submit to the one and only LORD, learn from the one and only TEACHER, and follow the one and only LEADER. Losing our life begins with the process of knowing God’s word, becoming expert communicators of it and sharing it with others.
Jesus said that whoever wants to be first will be last. The greatest among us will be the servants.