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

Authoritarian Leadership | The Voice 12.18: May 01, 2022

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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

It Shall Not Be So Among You | The Voice 12.10: March 06, 2022

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The Voice

It Shall Not Be So Among You

There were many things Jesus taught that the disciples did not fully understand until all things had been accomplished. Most of the time Jesus humored them; He understood from whence they had come, what they were expecting, and how things were not going to work out as they were expecting, and knew they would come to a better understanding when they would see everything play out and the Spirit came upon them. But when it came to their jockeying for position in His Kingdom, He refused to humor them.

The Evangelists narrate the event in Matthew 20:20-28 and Mark 10:35-45; Luke records a similar conversation in Luke 22:24-30. In Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, James and John–or their mother on their behalf–asked Jesus to stand at His left and right hand when He entered into His Kingdom; the other ten were indignant at them for making such a request (Matthew 20:20-24, Mark 10:35-41). According to Luke, at Jesus’ final supper before He was betrayed, the disciples again disputed among themselves regarding who was the greatest (Luke 22:24).

Jesus rebuked them very sharply: they knew that the rulers of the Gentiles lorded their power over others. He definitively affirmed that it shall not be so among them (Matthew 20:25-26, Mark 10:42-43, Luke 22:25-26). Instead, the one who would be great among them must be their servant; the one who would be first among them must become their slave (Matthew 20:26-27, Mark 10:43-44, Luke 22:26). He appealed to His own example: He, the Son of Man, came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45, Luke 22:27).

Jesus presented us with a paradox, not a quest. He powerfully rebuked the very impulse which drove the disciples, and by extension, all sorts of people in their lives and efforts: the desire to be first and greatest, or at least among the great. In the Western world we delude ourselves into thinking that we do not make as much about social hierarchies and standing, and pretend we believe that everyone is equal; to this end, some might want to suggest something less: did not Jesus say that we must serve or become a slave to become great or the first? All of those who have ever lived under clear social hierarchies know better. What does it mean to serve? What does it demand to become a slave? Slaves cannot be the “greatest” by definition; to serve is to take on what is generally deemed a socially inferior position for the benefit of one who generally has a socially superior position. Such is why the disciples found Jesus washing their feet so scandalous: they confessed Him as Lord and Christ, and yet He was “denigrating” Himself by providing the service which should be done by the most socially inferior person present (John 13:1-15). Sociologically, to become as a servant or slave is to abandon all pretense of social uplift and increase; it represents a voluntary humiliation and debasement in terms of social standing and structure.

Therefore Christians do well to sit in the paradox of “servant leadership,” which has become the great fad in the cult of leadership which pervades the Western world but rarely produces the fruit Jesus would have it bear. Jesus is Lord, Christ, and Master, and yet He lived as a Servant to all. The New Testament does not make much of “leadership,” and for good reason: not that there should not be forms of leadership maintained among the people of God, but because any focus on leadership will invariably lead to the kind of power games and manipulation which abounds in the world. Elders are exhorted to live as shepherds, always remembering how they serve the Good Shepherd, not lording their power over others, and demonstrating the life in faith by example (1 Peter 5:1-5). Consider how Paul, in his work of ministry, would exhort and declare all forms of persuasive rhetoric in attempts to encourage Christians to live faithfully according to the Gospel; and yet when he would speak of himself he would boast in his weakness and in the power of Christ (e.g. 2 Corinthians 12:1-11). Those who would be considered “great” among God’s people, Paul, Peter, and James, wrote letters in which they identified themselves as slaves of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1, James 1:1, 2 Peter 1:1): in a world saturated with slavery, in which no one wanted to become a slave and all who were slaves greatly desired to be free, who would say such a thing?

We do well to return to Jesus’ temptation of the devil in the wilderness. The devil offered Him dominion over all the nations of the earth if He would bow down and worship him (Luke 4:5-7). Jesus never suggested he did not have the power to do so; instead He declared that only God should be worshipped (Luke 4:8). John vividly described the power of the Roman emperors and Roman religion as coming from Satan (Revelation 13:1-15); thus it was then, so it is to this day. We do not glorify God in Christ if we slide into Satan’s direct messages and ask if his offer is still on the table; we cannot imagine that we can serve Jesus according to the power dynamics which advance Satan’s purposes.

Jesus did not deny the existence of power dynamics among people; in truth, wherever there are people, there are power dynamics, however consciously or unconsciously maintained. All authority comes from God, and God gives authority to the powers and principalities, the rulers of this world, elders over churches, husbands and fathers in the home, parents over children, and each individual person in terms of their autonomy and individual choices (cf. Romans 13:1).

The question, in the end, is whether we will exercise the authority God has given us according to the ways of the world by lording it over people, manipulating them into doing what we desire, rooted in our anxieties and fears, in ways that lead to the self-aggrandizement of some and the suffering and deprivation of many; or whether we in humility will seek to serve others as Jesus has served us, and leverage our power to the advantage of others. Will the rulers of the world use their power to benefit themselves or to establish justice and righteousness in the land? Will elders lord their power over the flock in order to protect the institution and their power base, or will they uphold what is right and good, serving others, and seeking to protect the weak and afflicted? Will husbands and fathers love as Jesus loves the church, proving willing to humble themselves and subject themselves to the needs of their families, sacrificing as Jesus sacrificed, or will they seek to dominate their families and coerce and compel obedience in their anxieties and fear? Will parents seek to raise their children in Jesus’ love and discipline and prove willing to cultivate the people their children are, or will they demand compliance to the form of child the parent expects to have? Will we choose to use whatever authority, influence, and power we have to benefit ourselves at the expense of others, to maintain or obtain lest we find ourselves diminished, or will we use the authority, influence, and power we have to benefit others and to share in the blessings of life God has given to all of us?

Do we, as Christians, truly recognize how radical, countercultural, and definitive Jesus’ instruction regarding power dynamics among His people proves to be? Or would we rather maintain the warped, perverted power dynamics of the world in a futile attempt to wield power and control in ways which do not honor and glorify God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ? The way power is used in the world must not be so among the people of God. Let us confess and lament where we have fallen short, and may we exercise the authority given us in humble service as the Lord has commanded us to His honor and glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

It Shall Not Be So Among You | The Voice 12.10: March 06, 2022

The Voice 4.49: December 07, 2014

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The Voice

Gods of This World: Efficiency

One of the prized values in commerce since at least the Industrial Revolution is efficiency. The drive toward efficiency, in fact, often powered the Industrial Revolution, leading to the assembly line among other innovations that has led to quicker production with fewer costs. Companies are willing to spend a lot of money to find ways to become more efficient, reducing waste and increasing productivity.

Efficiency is also a prized value when it comes to energy consumption. We have seen significant movement toward making homes, offices, and automobiles more energy-efficient. Energy efficiency is seen as a “win-win” situation: the consumer saves money by cutting down on waste, and there is correspondingly less demand for oil, gas, and electricity.

Thus there is no doubt that efficiency is valuable and has its place. In many senses, efficiency is an indication of good stewardship since it cuts down on waste (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:2).

Yet there can be a darker side to efficiency, as everyone who has ever attempted to call customer service for many products and services knows. It is more efficient for the company to have automated systems answer the call; it is hardly efficient for the consumer. The consumer is often left to feel flustered by the circumstances and more like a number than a person.

While efficiency may work wonders for processes and in mechanical terms, it poses more challenges in the realm of interpersonal relationships. Efficiency tends to be a cold, heartless master, often leading to lost jobs, inhumane conditions, and a contributor to the loss of community in many places.

Nevertheless, efficiency has become a “god of this world,” a self-evident standard that is to be accepted as good in every circumstance. Since it has worked so well, by all appearances, for industry, commerce, and business since the Industrial Revolution, it must therefore be a higher good in any situation. Few will come out and say such things; their actions and reasoning behind various actions demonstrate its fruit.

In the spiritual realm, the quest for efficiency is most evident in how assemblies are turned more into performances, the popularity of fellowship halls, and the practice of churches giving its financial resources to benevolent organizations.

Many churches want to keep to a set schedule and frown upon anything that may take longer than is expected. While it is true that everything done in the assembly should be accomplished decently and in order (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:40), there is no indication that this means that everything must be timed precisely and given the feel of a performance. The assembly is designed for the encouragement and edification of its constituents, not their entertainment or display (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:26, Hebrews 10:25).

Giving church resources to benevolent organizations and the building and use of fellowship halls became strongly popular in waves in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the heyday of the Industrial Revolution. Such practices are often justified either by an appeal to the ability to do so, or, more often, because that way more people can be fed with fewer resources.

Now, if efficiency were the standard for feeding saints and non-saints, then perhaps that would be commendable. But the point has never been to just feed as many people as possible with as few resources as necessary. It also has to do with showing love and compassion and reflecting Christ to others (cf. Romans 8:29), and systems and organizations cannot do such things.

Christians sharing meals has never been just about food. It represents an opportunity for Christians to associate with one another and be strengthened in their relationships, and God has charged individuals with the task of being hospitable (1 Peter 4:9). It is not as efficient but it will lead to stronger relationships, just as God intended!

James 1:27 is a justly famous passage regarding the need to help others. But notice what it says: pure and undefiled religion involves visiting widows and orphans in distress. It does not say to create an organization charged with the care of widows and/or orphans and for the church to fund such organizations. Instead, God intends for Christians themselves to sacrifice their time, resources, and energy to assist those in need!

There can be value in efficiency in terms of energy consumption, time management, and business practices, among other things. But the Bible never enshrines efficiency as the ultimate standard for anything, and we should never overrule what God has commanded us to do in the way God showed us to do it because, in our estimation, it is “inefficient.” It may very well be inefficient: and perhaps that is how God wants it to be. Let us not be coldly efficient in all things but willing to expend time and money to love and show care for one another and for all!

Ethan R. Longhenry

 

The Voice 4.49: December 07, 2014