In our time much has been written about “leadership,” particularly about the different qualities of leadership and various leadership styles. Such interest is a hallmark of our meritocratic and democratic age: former conceptions of hierarchy and nobility carry little weight, and therefore leadership is a trait to be cultivated and leveraged in order to obtain greater influence, power, and thus wealth in our society. A charismatic person who exudes charm and strength will be able to gain many followers and grow in stature and influence, whether for secular or spiritual purposes. We can therefore understand the great anxiety which compels many to pursue a greater understanding of how to be an effective leader; who among us wants to be known or seen as the follower?
Christians do well to enter into such discussions with concern and trepidation; “leadership,” especially as emphasized in modern discourse, is not a major emphasis in the pages of the New Testament. It is not as if Jesus or the Apostles did not prove to be leaders, yet they proved very skeptical about the motivations of those who would become leaders and greatly valued humility and service above self-assertion and aggression (Matthew 20:25-28, 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, James 4:7-10, 1 Peter 5:1-5). Conversations about leadership almost invariably prove tainted by the demonic wisdom of this world, seeking self-advancement and the maintenance of self-interest (cf. James 3:1-16). For Christians to be great in Jesus’ Kingdom, they must become servants, even slaves (Matthew 20:25-28): only those who seek to serve others fully are worthy of shepherding others.
And yet even in Christ there are those in whom authority is vested, and who ought to serve as stewards of that authority to glorify God (Romans 13:1-2, 1 Peter 4:10-11). All of us have some level of authority as citizens, Christians, parents, husbands, or if nothing else, over ourselves. Therefore, we do need to consider different qualities of leadership and leadership styles, but must always do so while fully rooted and established in Jesus Christ the Lord (Colossians 2:1-10).
Sometimes one will hear about a leadership style known as “collaborative leadership.” As the word itself suggests, “collaboration” focuses on laboring together to accomplish a common goal of some form or another. The nature of the “collaboration” will likely depend on its particular context; in general, however, “collaborative” leadership strives to be less hierarchical and more egalitarian, seeking to find ways to jointly participate and accomplish tasks and responsibilities as equals or at least without a heavy-handed, top-down approach.
Many Christians prove immediately skeptical of any concept or strategy which might work toward “egalitarian” and away from “hierarchy”; nevertheless, when the evidence from the New Testament is properly considered, we discover Jesus and the Apostles themselves practiced a type of collaborative leadership, and expected Christians to practice something similar as well.
Throughout His life and ministry Jesus did not deny or doubt His Lordship or authority (John 13:13); at no point were the disciples or anyone on earth His equal in power or standing before the Father. If anyone would have been able to exercise dominion and power in a “top heavy” way, it would be Jesus of Nazareth. And yet He invited the disciples to jointly work in and with Him to accomplish God’s purposes. He promised they would sit on thrones and rule over the Israel of God (Matthew 19:28). He went out of His way to encourage them to go out on their own and proclaim the coming Kingdom of God so they would be able to accomplish the purposes for which God had called them in Christ (e.g. Matthew 10:1-42). Not for nothing did Luke declare the Gospel he wrote as the “beginning” of all Jesus accomplished (Acts 1:1): if one has ears to hear, one can perceive how Jesus continued to work through His Apostles to proclaim the Gospel and advance His Kingdom in the book of Acts and through His people until this day (cf. Ephesians 3:10-11). Jesus is Lord, and the Apostles and all Christians are not; He is the Vine, we are the branches, and apart from Him they or we can do nothing (John 15:1-10, Acts 2:36). But Christians are the branches, and are empowered by Jesus to bear fruit in joint participation in and as His body to accomplish His purposes (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 4:11-16).
The image of the church as the body of Christ underscores the importance of collaboration in Jesus: no believer, be they apostles, prophets, evangelists, elders, or “just members,” are Jesus individually. Christians can only truly embody Jesus collectively. Christians have their individual work they should accomplish in the Lord Jesus, but also work together in interdependent ways to build one another up and thus strengthen the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16). Peter expected Christians to use whatever gifts God gave them to serve one another (1 Peter 4:10-11), and we do well to emphasize his choice of verb: to serve. Service, as Jesus made clear in Matthew 20:25-28, is humble work.
This expectation of collaboration can also be found in every context in which we find some placed in authority over others. Governments have power, but are to be ministers, or servants, for good (Romans 13:1-7). Peter wrote to elders as fellow elders and exhorted them to shepherd the flock by example and not domination (1 Peter 5:1-4); he did expect the younger to be subject to them, but also exhorted all to demonstrate humility toward one another (1 Peter 5:5). Wives may be called upon to submit to their husbands as to the Lord, but Paul expected husbands to sacrificially love their wives and treat them as their own flesh (Ephesians 5:21-33). Ephesians 5:21 is not entirely divorced from that context: the Christian conception of the marriage relationship can only work when both husband and wife prove willing to submit to one another for Jesus’ sake. Thus it also goes with parents and children, employers and employees (Ephesians 6:1-9): all Christians must prove subject to the Lord Jesus, and each will stand or fall before Him, and thus there remains a radical equality of each and every person before God (cf. Romans 14:10-12, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11).
Consider how the Apostles worked with fellow Christians. At times they might bring up the authority they received from God in Christ; at other times they would consider themselves as the servants of their fellow Christians for the Lord’s sake. Consider how Paul would speak to fellow Christians in his greetings at the conclusion of his letters; he valued them as collaborators in the work of God in Christ, effulgently praising them and their efforts. He prayed for all the Christians with whom he had worked, and many with whom he had yet to work, so that God might work through them and be glorified, and they built up and strengthened in Him.
Positions of authority do not inherently demand an authoritarian posture; collaboration does not inherently demand complete equality among fellow laborers. Throughout the New Testament we continually see examples of those whom God has placed in positions of authority relating to those under their authority in ways which emphasize joint participation, value, and growth. Jesus does not need to continually remind us how much greater He is than we are; His goal for all of us is for us to become more like Him, and to share in life with Him (Romans 8:29). The Apostles did not pull rank as an immediate impulse but as a final desperate measure; in general they wished to work together with fellow Christians based on trust, and above all, on the basis of their examples of the suffering Christ (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:1, 2 Thessalonians 3:1-15). If those in authority in Christ must continually refer to said authority, it is already a defeat for them; not one Christian can presume to be greater or more valuable in the sight of God than any other, and all must in humility seek to serve one another and build one another up in their joint participation, or collaboration, in Christ. Christ our Sovereign humbly served us and invites us to jointly participate in the life and work of God and His people (cf. John 17:20-23); thus, we do well to strive toward a more collaborative and a less authoritarian style of leadership in all of our relationships as we live and work. May we humbly serve others as Jesus has served us, and may we all share in the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry