Lessons from Elite Leaders: A Theology of Power for the Workplace, Part 6 of 8

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

How can powerful leaders be effective and responsible?

In a 2009 Journal of Religious Leadership article, Laity Leadership Senior Fellow D. Michael Lindsay wrote that evangelicals populate halls of power, but generally “have no theological framework for managing the privileges that accompany the mantle of public leadership.” He then outlined a theology of power that can help us consider how to wield power effectively and responsibly.

“Christians in public leadership would be wise to pursue their lives in ways different from the dominant culture, especially in terms of their consumption practices and workplace politics,” he said. Lindsay drew this conclusion after analyzing anecdotal evidence that suggests “whatever suspicions non-religious colleagues may have of these Christians emerge not from hostility toward the teachings of Jesus but from the lifestyles of those who claim to be his followers.”

For example, two business leaders, MCI WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers and Enron Corporation CEO Kenneth Lay, have been depicted as notoriously corrupt. Yet both were active in their churches. Conversely, when Tyco International needed to “renew its commitment to ethics, it hired Eric Pillmore as senior vice president of corporate governance. Obviously, Pillmore’s faith and work is the public witness we want to emulate. But how do we ground such a witness theologically?

From the Hebrew Scriptures, Lindsay mentions Joseph, Esther, Nehemiah, and Solomon as people of faith who used their power for the common good, but these rare examples are eclipsed by the majority of Bible characters who held little, if any, worldly power.

In the interviews Lindsay conducted, leaders quoted Jeremiah 29 more than any other passage when he asked what shapes their thinking about power and influence. Verse seven says, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, told Lindsay, “This is an admonition for the faithful to see themselves as a counter-culture for the common good.” Anabaptists and other theologians argue against enmeshment in secular power structures, but Lindsay writes, “According to just about every measure, evangelicals in this country resemble the dominant culture; they do not contradict it.”

Jesus was ambivalent about worldly power, according to Lindsay. His interactions with Pontius Pilate indicate that he was unimpressed by secular authority, but neither did he condemn it. In Matthew 22:21, Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” but then Romans 13:1 identifies God as the sovereign who establishes all earthly authority. The Romans passage has been used for centuries to “justify everything from the divine right of kings to constitutional republicanism,” Lindsay wrote, while the epistles deal almost exclusively with ecclesial or spiritual authority. No wonder we’re ambivalent.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church and Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society provide ballast for Lindsay’s theology of power.

“Bonhoeffer argues that God’s nature is revealed in extending goodwill toward others and in building relationships with those like and unlike us. … In his formulation, Christ-followers should take the initiative in extending the hand of cooperation with those outside the faith community.” In this way, we can “reflect God’s image and in the process develop brotherly love and orient humanity’s relationship with the ultimate Other, God.” Lindsay concludes that “Bonhoeffer not only legitimates the work of public leadership, but he exorts all Christians to move beyond their enclaves of Christian fellowship.”

Niebuhr, on the other hand, “advocated for a ‘Christian realism,’ one that recognizes the persistence of human failings (sin and self-interest) and the social physics of power relations, but he also holds forth the possibility of social change.” Like Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr refused to “narrow his scope to the action of individuals,” Instead, he grappled with the interplay of individual agency and social structures. He upheld justice “as the collective ideal,” and said that power thus becomes “the principal tool by which justice is meted,” according to Lindsay.

Thus, Lindsay concludes, “It is not simply good that people of faith bring their religious convictions to bear in their roles of public leadership. It is also right and fitting.” However, he warns, “People of faith need to seek out the perspectives of those of different or no particular faith. Public leadership entails bringing different voices into the public conversation. … Recognizing the goodness of the world around us, faithful leaders must work for the ‘peace and prosperity’ of their neighbors, not just their co-religionists.”

For those of us who are ambivalent about wielding power in the workplace, the Scripture, the sociologist, and the theologians help us to see that God has purpose in granting us whatever power we possess. We are responsible to seek his wisdom in how to use it effectively for the benefit of others. When we handle it well, like Pillmore, we glorify God. When we don’t, we run the risk of leaving a scandal ridden legacy behind.

Have you seen power handled poorly in the workplace by a person of faith? If so, what was the impact?

Have you seen it handled exceptionally well? If so, what were the benefits?

D. Michael Lindsay is a Senior Fellow at Laity Leadership Institute. He is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rice University and Director of the Program for the Study of Leadership. He is also author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. For this eight part series of lessons from elite leaders, The High Calling talked to Lindsay about his new PLATINUM Study, for which he has conducted 500 interviews. Image by Elizabeth O. Weller. Used with permission via Flickr.