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

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