If ‘all the Christian life is repentance and faith’ (Luther) then how should leaders typically repent? And if our hearts are deceitful above all things, if the psalmist can pray ‘Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’ (Ps 139:23-24) – how can we be as self-aware as possible about possible fault-lines in our leadership? What texts would it be appropriate for leaders to meditate on regularly to guide them in leadership and in potential areas of temptation and repentance?
As soon as you ask that question, numerous texts begin to surface. The first text, and perhaps the most foundational is Mark 10:42-45. Jesus is being hassled by James and John so that he would give them positions of power and authority in his Kingdom. The other disciples are irritated by this, not because it signals the wrong type of attitude towards leadership, but because they want the same thing and would have wanted to get their request in first. Jesus defines in a few devastating verses what he means by leadership.
He starts by reminding the disciples how leadership is understood and lived out in the world. The key word is translated by the phrase ‘lord it over them’ – it is the exercise of a crushing, domineering leadership or rule that is all about the leader and not about the ones being led. The ones being led are a means to an end for the leader. His vision or project (be it ever so exalted or glorious) is achieved at the expense of those who are led. Jesus turns this on his head first through teaching and then by example. Ruling in Jesus’ Kingdom looks like serving, being first looks like being last. That is the teaching. Jesus then illustrates his point through his example: he left his glory in heaven and he took on flesh, he served every one in every way, and ultimately he gave his life for us. Ruling in Jesus’ kingdom looks like Jesus, it looks like dying for the ones you lead. That means it feels like that for the leader (as they die) and it feels like that for the ones being led (he’s giving his life for me!). Philippians 2:6-10 is a meditation on Mark 10:45. This is leadership in Jesus’ kingdom.
So here is the first question we ask ourselves as leaders: Have I lorded it over anyone?
As we lead, we are automatically involved in relationships of authority and submission. But there is no such thing in Christ’s kingdom as the unsubmitted leader. 1 Peter 2:13 is one passage among many that make this clear. If we lead without being led, we are a danger to ourselves, to our communities and to our organisations. And we cannot spiritualize this by saying we are submitted to God because, for fallible human beings, there are always human checks and balances that protect us and others from ourselves. Elihu in his first speech to Job, reassures the sufferer:
Behold, I am toward God as you are;
I too was pinched off from a piece of clay.
Behold, no fear of me need terrify you;
my pressure will not be heavy upon you (Job 33:6-7)
That encapsulates the point we are making – people pinched off from bits of clay need other people pinched off from bits of clay to be overseeing them without pressure.
So here is the second question we ask ourselves as leaders: Am I submitted to the appropriate authorities – my local elders, my Board, my peers and friends – especially when I don’t agree with them?
Nothing is more elusive than identifying our motives in leadership. What is really driving us? If only we could know for sure. It is not for nothing that the Psalmist asks God to search him. We are incapable of knowing ourselves by ourselves. In 1 Peter 5:1-4, Peter addresses this question head-on.
Firstly, he identifies himself as a fellow-elder. This is an astonishing appellation given Peter’s apostleship. Second, he reminds all leaders about the suffering that precedes glory (Peter was present Mark 10:42-45). Third, he reminds us that it is God’s flock (not ours) and that they are first and foremost under our care, for us to watch over. Why should we do this? Not out of compulsion, not for money, not for power. Suffering now. The crown and the glory later. Would you love these people, and serve them, and lead them even if you didn’t get paid for it? Even if you didn’t get a platform? Even if you didn’t have a title? Even if you didn’t have to? Even if you don’t have a legacy? Even if your name was never mentioned? Even if you never got invited to speak at that big conference?
So here is the third question we ask ourselves as leaders: Am I motivated by money, ambition, power, or position?
In 1 Timothy 4:12, Paul sets out the responsibilities of leaders in the church. They are to set an example in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity. Five areas of life which are particularly sensitive for those in leadership. Does my speech reflect the kindness and honesty of Jesus such that people could imitate my way of speaking? Is my speech harsh, demeaning, flippant, manipulative, crude, controlling, untruthful, flattering…? As James says in James 3:2, if a man does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man. We should expect to be vulnerable in our speech, we should pray that God would watch over it, and we should repent quickly of our sins in this area. Our conduct should be considerate, gentle, servant-hearted and loving, missional and other-centred. Our faith should be vibrant and faithful, doctrinally orthodox and theologically applied. Our purity should be exemplary in matters sexual.
So here is the fourth question we ask ourselves as leaders: Would I be happy to be the example others followed in these areas?
Hebrews 13:7 & 17 are a pair of verses that church-leaders love to read, because they address the themes of remembering leaders, submitting to them, having confidence in them and not being a burden to them. These verses also present a high standard for leaders who would so much like to have their followers behave in these ways. The author invites his readers to consider the outcome of their way of life. This is sobering. It has in view the concrete results of the choices and relationships of the leader. It is like a boat travelling over a body of water, leaving a wake behind it. If the outcome of the way of life is a broken family, or broken relationships, or chaos, or isolation, or financial ruin, or bitterness and anger – then there is a strong possibility that this life is not a life to be imitated, and that it has not been well lived.
So here is the fifth question we ask ourselves as leaders: What are the outcomes of my life? Do they signify that my life is worthy of imitation?
Philippians is unique amongst Paul’s letters because it is addressed not only to the church, but also to elders and deacons. Therefore, we must pay particular attention to Paul’s plea to us in 4:4-5: “Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”
Leaders are to be joyful, gentle and conscious that the Lord is near; both in that he sees all and that he is coming soon. This joyful gentleness in the Lord is the opposite of a domineering attitude that lords it over people – because when we are conscious that the Lord is near, we stop trying to usurp his place. Instead, we start looking to the one who wouldn’t break a bruised reed, and who wouldn’t snuff out a smouldering wick.
So here is the sixth question we ask ourselves as leaders: Am I gentle and joyful, full of the presence of the Lord?
Paul spends much of 2 Corinthians defending his ministry. In 2 Corinthians 4:1-2, he acknowledges that his ministry is from God, and from God alone. So, he refuses to give up despite opposition, persecution and trouble. However, he also refuses to compromise or to seek to win through by any means other than the grace of the gospel. He has ‘renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways’. This means he is refusing to manipulate. He is refusing to play politics. He is refusing to divide and conquer. He is refusing to scheme and plot and be cunning. He is transparent and open.
So here is the seventh question we ask ourselves as leaders: Do I manipulate, scheme, coerce, or act underhandedly?
If we were to add the lists in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, as well as Acts 20 to the verses that apply here, we would never get to the end of appropriate questions the leader should be asking himself regularly to awaken repentance in his heart. All of the leader’s life is repentance…
And so, having started with Luther, let’s finish with him:
«In Matthew 13:33 (the parable of the leaven) the woman mixes in three measures of meal until it is leavened through and through. The new leaven is the faith and grace of the Spirit, who does not leaven the whole lump through at once, but gently and slowly makes us all together like Himself, new bread of God. This life, therefore, is not righteousness but growth in righteousness, not health but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise; we are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it; the process is not yet finished, but it is going on; this is not the end, but it is the road; all does not yet gleam with glory, but all is being purified.» – Martin Luther, Defence and explanation of the Articles 2.
For flawed leaders like me, this is an encouraging word as I prepare to repent.
1. Have I lorded it over anyone?
2. Am I myself submitted to the appropriate authorities?
3. Am I laying down my life so others can flourish?
4. Am I motivated by money, reputation, position?
5. Am I above reproach in my relationships with those I lead?
6. Am I setting an example to those I lead in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity?
7. Is the outcome of my way of life an obvious testimony to my godly leadership?
8. Is my faith as I lead exemplary and to be imitated?
9. Am I joyful and gentle in the exercise of my leadership?
10. Do I manipulate, scheme, coerce, or act underhandedly?