Biblical Leadership a Myth?

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Biblical leadership is a myth? Well, kind of . . . at least the way it's popularly portrayed. When people write about biblical leadership, they often say, "Let's do leadership like Moses, or David, or Jesus, or Paul." That is not a study of leadership but of leaderships.

Let me be academic here for just a minute.

Leadership History

Leadership studies from the 1950s to the 1970s went through a period of time when "Great Man Theories" were the dominant model of leadership. The search was all about identifying the traits or abilities or characteristics of leadership (looking almost exclusively at male leaders). By 1977, the verdict was in. Research failed to find a set of traits that leaders must posses in order to be leaders (see chapter 2 in Couto's Reflections on Leadership.

Today's popular presentation of biblical leadership harkens back to this failed way of studying leadership, frequently identifying biblical leadership as a compilation of different traits/abilities/characteristics. This leader is strong, this one sensitive, this one wise, this one decisive, etc. Predictably, these books and articles and blog posts have different lists—some longer, some shorter. Rarely do they say a certain characteristic is more important than another, how a particular characteristic should be applied in leadership, and rarer still, how the different characteristics ought to interact with one another.

Leadership and Culture

In addition, the Bible spans many diverse cultures and customs. Yet leadership decisions and actions vary widely from culture to culture. For example, I led a group of congregations in Miami for 10 years. Our time-conscious, English-speaking congregation met at 11:30 a.m. Sunday while our not-so-time-conscious, Haitian-speaking group met at 10:00 a.m. in the same sanctuary. When the Haitians ran late, some people charged, "If the Haitians were good stewards of God's time, they'd finish on time." The Haitians responded, "We cannot set a time limit on the movement of God's Spirit." Without a doubt, God moved people greatly, and the Haitians seldom finished on time.

So how shall we interpret the words/actions/decisions of these leaders? Culture is a prime factor in leadership decisions. We cannot render a judgment on a certain leadership action until we appreciate the culture of the people involved. In books and articles listing "biblical traits of leadership," culture is rarely mentioned at all.

One-Sided Leadership

Finally, popular biblical leadership tends to look at the leader and not the follower. By examining only one part of the equation, the reader sees only one part of the leadership relationship. Leadership becomes a property or power to be used to get someone else to do what you want. This is a dangerous way to think because it reduces leadership to a tool for controlling others.

Christian Leadership Analysis

So how should Christians analyze leadership? Studying the lives of biblical leaders is a worthwhile task, but we must also examine what Scripture says about community purpose and behavior. We study how the leaders interacted with the people as well as the values the people themselves espoused.

The results of modern leadership research must also be considered. For example, there is a large amount of literature on the different, yet at times overlapping, characteristics of a nonprofit group like a church and for-profit businesses. Leaders unwittingly borrowing characteristics from for-profit leadership books are likely to watch their initiatives go down in flames. Conversely, there is a large body of research on organizational change that is quite apropos to church leadership.

Finally, beware of articles and blog posts like "20 Essential Traits of a Biblical Leader." They tell wonderful, even inspirational, stories about compassion, integrity, courage, etc. However, like fine and tasty leadership McNuggets, they are not particularly satisfying or healthy.

Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups:

  • How does your culture affect the leadership decisions you make?
  • What are the differences between a church organization or a nonprofit and a business? What are the similarities?
  • How would you analyze a biblical leader? What questions would you ask as you read?