Cult of Leadership | The Voice 12.27: July 03, 2022

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The Voice

The Cult of Leadership

It seems to be everywhere you look: “leadership.”

Western society in late capitalism, having mostly shorn itself of the pretenses of inherited nobility, has become obsessed with the cult of leadership. Previous generations were led to believe leaders were bred that way: certain people, on the basis of their ancestry, should be given authority, power, and responsibility. The vast majority of the people, proving more deficient in their pedigree, were only fit to be subjects, to serve, and to support their leaders. Belief in nobility based on pedigree persists in certain parts of the world and in certain archaic institutions; most of us, however, no longer believe a person will be a good leader because of their ancestry.

Most people today believe leaders become such because they have developed abilities and skills in leadership. Such is consistent with our confidence in “meritocracy,” which maintains confidence those who have reached positions of authority, influence, and power have done so on the basis of what they have been able to accomplish and achieve. Therefore, according to this perspective, leaders are made, not born; theoretically anyone could thus become a leader if they sufficiently cultivated leadership skills.

We have good reason to question the legitimacy of the meritocratic premise; many of those who maintain great authority, power, and influence descend from those who had such power in previous times, and no matter how charismatic and skillful a person might be, without sufficient resources, they remain unlikely to become leaders.

But the premise of meritocracy remains potent and salient in society. People want to believe they can advance in life and society by cultivating appropriate abilities and skills. Thus we can understand the appeal of the cult of leadership: anyone and everyone should develop and grow in their leadership skills. There remains no lack of books, podcasts, and videos from those who would consider themselves motivational speakers, thought leaders, and leadership guides and gurus which promise to help you unlock your leadership potential. Everybody wants to be seen as a leader: job titles which reflect executive and management experience abound; you can even find resources about how to lead when you are not in charge, otherwise known as using leadership skills while not actually having authority.

We can understand why Western society today would be so enraptured with the cult of leadership; its enthusiastic embrace by many who would claim to follow Jesus proves more troublesome. Many have made a name for themselves by incorporating American corporate leadership premises into church environments as part of the general trend of treating churches like religious businesses. There is no end of “Christian leadership” books which attempt to provide a religious veneer on these corporate business trends. Biblical characters are mined to provide real life (and presumably divinely approved) examples of various aspects of leadership. Above all, they elevate the concept of “servant leadership” which they claim is embodied by Jesus. To this end many parts of modern day “Christian” belief and practice remain firmly in the grip of the cult of leadership.

Based upon what one might find spoken and written in many conservative Christian/Evangelical spaces, one would expect the New Testament to have much to say about leadership. And yet when we turn to the pages of Scripture we do not find leadership emphasized or spoken about much. We do not see continual exhortation for Christians to cultivate leadership skills. One searches the New Testament in vain for the phrase “servant leadership.”

Instead, Jesus bore witness in Matthew 20:25-28:

But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Through the lens of the cult of leadership Jesus would exhort people to lead by serving, but Jesus did not actually say any such thing. Jesus instead casts aspersion on the entire endeavor of desiring to obtain a position of leadership. If one is a servant, by definition, one is not great; and certainly “the first slave” is a contradiction in terms! Jesus expected the Gentiles to seek power to rule over others and leverage that authority for their own purposes, and then He explicitly told His followers not to do the same (Matthew 20:25).

In Christ we must be skeptical of anyone who would seek positions of authority, influence, and power. As creatures made in God’s image, humans can desire authority, influence, and power in order to serve as good stewards of God’s creation and their fellow man; yet in their corruption, anxieties, and fears, humans leverage authority, influence, and power to benefit themselves and their associates to the harm of the creation and/or of other people. No matter how altruistic and principled a person might sound in their quest for leadership, in practice he or she will invariably fall prey to the powers and principalities over this present darkness and leverage their authority to benefit their own.

And yet is there not authority, influence, and power among the people of God? Certainly; and Jesus remains its ultimate embodiment and expression. He lived as a servant; He did all things by the authority of His Father (Matthew 20:28). God exalted Him after He humbled Himself; He did not exalt Himself (Philippians 2:5-11). His Apostles also reflected His purposes regarding authority, influence, and power. While Jesus lived His disciples viewed authority, influence, and power according to the ways of the world; Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 20:25-28 was precipitated by the disciples jockeying for positions of prominence in Matthew 20:20-24. Yet in the book of Acts and afterward we see how the Apostles received authority, influence, and power by the power of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, and they leveraged that authority, influence, and power according to God’s purposes in the Spirit, not for their own aggrandization or benefit. Throughout his letters Paul testified to his apostleship through God’s calling and his influence based on his sufferings and weakness (e.g. 2 Corinthians 10:1-12:21).

Thus, in Christ, positions of authority, influence, and leadership are not based on birth or ancestry, nor can they be gained through a course or program of developing leadership skills. Instead, Christians should live to glorify and honor God in Christ in all things, and through the trials of discipleship God qualifies them to manage and uphold authority, influence, and leadership to glorify Him and advance His purposes. Faithful Christians model themselves in the various positions and roles in which they find themselves in life according to the ways of the Suffering Servant (e.g. Ephesians 5:21-6:9). They do not strive to be greatest or first; instead, they encourage, model, and serve.

Wherever people seek to gain leadership and prominence we will find the demonic ways of worldly wisdom, striving to obtain benefit for oneself and/or one’s associates. Those seeking righteousness will encourage and serve in humility, love, grace, peace, and patience, thus manifesting the wisdom from above, and demonstrating how God has qualified them for authority, influence, and power. May God’s faithful servants in Christ resist the siren song of the modern American capitalist cult of leadership, and seek to model life in faith according to Jesus and His Apostles in order to obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Cult of Leadership | The Voice 12.27: July 03, 2022

Collaborative Leadership | The Voice 12.23: June 05, 2022

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The Voice

Collaborative Leadership

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

Collaborative Leadership | The Voice 12.23: June 05, 2022

Authoritarian Leadership | The Voice 12.18: May 01, 2022

posted in: The Voice | 0

The Voice

Authoritarian Leadership

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).

One form of leadership frequently seen in society can be called “authoritarian leadership.” In an authoritarian leadership matrix, there is one who has the authority to make decisions, and it is for those under that authority to comply with those decisions. We can see authoritarian leadership fully embodied in the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his injured slave in Matthew 8:9:

“For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave ‘Do this!’ and he does it.”

The Roman centurion can be seen as the “middle manager” of the Roman army: he was in charge of a group of between 80 and 100 soldiers, and himself would take direction from the leader of the cohort who himself would be directed by the head of the legion, all of whom were subject to the general leading the military expedition. The Roman army proved more successful than not in the ancient world precisely because of its discipline: desertion or disobedience would lead to execution of many soldiers. The Philippian jailor was preparing to kill himself in Acts 16:27 because the consequence for losing control of the prisoners under his charge was death, and it was seen as more honorable and noble for him to do the deed himself.

The Roman army is the embodiment of the style of authoritarian leadership. To this day most militaries still operate with an authoritarian style of leadership in which it is expected that the soldiers directly and fully obey whatever commands they are given by their superior officers. Some countries still attempt to operate as authoritarian societies in which the citizens may have relative freedom in a few domains but are expected to fully comply with the particular concerns and dictates imposed by the tyrant, oligarchy, or junta ruling over the nation. Some companies and individuals also operate under a similarly authoritarian style of leadership; to many people, authoritarian leadership is precisely and only what comes to mind when “leadership” is mentioned.

There are certain contexts, times, and places in which an authoritarian style of leadership may be required. In an emergency setting, the most qualified and trained individual should be in charge, and everyone else should listen to that person and follow the instructions they provide so many lives might be preserved. We can understand why the military would operate under a generally authoritarian model: it would be very difficult to accomplish a military objective if everyone’s opinion had to be heard and decisions made more collaboratively. In many situations, the people who live under authority do not have enough knowledge, insight, or wisdom to be able to participate in a fully collaborative environment, and may do well to be expected to obey rather than question.

Jesus commended the Roman centurion for his faith in Matthew 8:10, but we should not assume Jesus was also commending the authoritarian system in which the Roman centurion lived. Jesus would go on to warn His disciples how the Gentiles lorded their power over others, and that it should not be so among them (Matthew 20:25-26)! Instead Jesus offered Himself as the model for leadership: the greatest among them would be their servant, just as Jesus did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:26-28).

The Scriptures do not explicitly speak of “authoritarian leadership” for good or ill; nevertheless, many have gone beyond what is written and justified ungodly attitudes, practices, and wisdom by commending or justifying authoritarian forms of leadership in ways which run contrary to what has been explicitly revealed about various relationships we maintain in Christ. Children should obey their parents in the Lord, as Paul decreed in Ephesians 6:1; yet parents should not exasperate and provoke their children, but should raise them in the discipline and admonition of the Lord, the same Lord who commanded Christians to live humbly as servants (Ephesians 6:2-4; cf. Matthew 20:26-28). Wives should submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22), but husbands must also submit to their wives as to all others in reverence to Christ in Ephesians 5:21, and to love sacrificially, not abusing but cherishing their wives as their own flesh, as the Lord does for His body the church (Ephesians 5:25-30). Workers should follow the guidelines of their employers (Ephesians 6:5-8), but employers should treat their employees well since they all serve the same Lord in heaven (Ephesians 6:9). Elders in the church should be obeyed and their work should be made enjoyable (Hebrews 13:7, 13), yet elders have no right to lord dominion over the flock, but are called to shepherd by example (1 Peter 5:1-4). Older men should be honored like fathers, older women like mothers, younger men as brothers and younger women as sisters in all purity (1 Timothy 5:1-2), yet all should clothe themselves with humility toward one another (1 Peter 5:5). There is very little room to commend or justify an authoritarian posture in any of these relationships!

If anyone had the right to expect blind obedience and to establish Himself as an authoritarian despot, it would be Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords (cf. Acts 2:36, Revelation 19:15-16). Certainly Christians should obey Jesus as Lord (Romans 1:5, 6:14-21, 1 Peter 1:22); yet Jesus rules as the Chief Shepherd who gave His life for His sheep, continues to intercede for them, and welcomes them to jointly participate with Him in His Kingdom, and even will ultimately share His reign with them (John 10:1-18, 15:1-9, Romans 8:30-35, 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 6:3, 12:12-28, 1 Peter 5:4, Revelation 2:26-28, 3:21). Yes, Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, and we are to submit to His authority; but He has not used that authority to demand uncritical or unthinking obedience, but welcomes those who would follow Him to participate in His life and work to glorify Him.

In the world we should expect to find many despots and tyrants seeking to impose authoritarian rule on others; among the people of God in Christ this should not be so. Jesus our Lord, who had every right to impose authoritarian rule on the creation, nevertheless loves us and invites our joint participation in His life and work; we love and serve Him because He loved and served us and gave His life to ransom us. None of us has sufficient authority and standing before God to act as authoritarian despots in any domain of our lives; we will all be held accountable for how we have loved and served others, and rare is the occasion in which an authoritarian style of leadership will provide effective love and service. May we all seek to use the authority God has given us in ways that display the love and service of Jesus to His glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Authoritarian Leadership | The Voice 12.18: May 01, 2022