A friend recently asked me about my views on child discipline in light of the Bible. She already had some opinions based on her background in marriage and family therapy, but she wanted to know what to make of a few particular verses. My response: The Bible isn’t a child discipline handbook, so it doesn’t really matter very much. Its point isn’t to teach us what God thinks about spanking, so we shouldn’t treat the Bible as if it has much to say on the matter. Instead we should let psychological research, basic Christian theology, and Christian ethical perspectives guide the discussion.
This reminded me of a similar matter I’ve been feeling soapboxy about lately: using the Bible as a leadership handbook.
Jesus is not a leadership guru. I repeat: Jesus is not a leadership guru.
We often treat leaders from the Bible—Moses, Joshua, Peter, Paul, sometimes even Deborah or Esther—as examples to follow. And at the very least, we consider Jesus to be the “ultimately example” of a great leader. We often take leadership principles (whether or not they really originated in Scripture) and try to teach them to others through books, seminars, and Sunday morning lessons using Bible stories, especially stories about Jesus.
There are a number of reasons why I think this is foolish:
1) There is no reason why discussing leadership principles of secular origin should be off-limits. Yes, there are some evil, ruthless leaders out there, but there are also really gracious leaders whose styles (and visions) fit very well within a Christian framework. We should feel free to borrow from these sources.
2) There is no reason to think that the leadership techniques of Jesus apply to your situation. This is because part of being a leader is being sensitive to the task at hand, the people you’re trying to lead, etc. What works in one scenario might not be the best approach in another. Plus, what worked in Jesus’s time and culture might be completely counterintuitive and ineffectual in ours. Of course, sometimes it might work well. But sometimes it won’t.
3) There is no reason to think the stories of Jesus even give us relevant (or accurate) information about his leadership style. Because let’s face it: Teaching us about Jesus’s leadership style is not the point of the Gospels. We’re probably lacking a comprehensive picture of how Jesus led. Some of the information we do have about his “leadership style” might even just reflect the theological and literary aims of the Gospel writers more than anything. Communicating information about Jesus’s teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection is the focus of the Gospels, not teaching us “how to be leaders.”
4) “Leadership,” as popularly understood is ultimately not the point of Christianity, anyway. Yes, most Christians think they should be spreading Christian teachings, and yes, this means that “leadership” of people and organizations can be useful. However, “leadership” is often just shorthand for “charisma” or “getting people to do what you say.”
God can use charisma, but charisma is not part of Paul’s list of the “fruit of the Spirit.” There are plenty of Christians throughout history who have served God in wonderful ways but lacked charm. Not everyone has a magnetic personality, and that’s ok. Particularly because the most “charismatic” people are typically extroverts, and it would be ridiculous to pretend there is no place for introverts in the church!
Similarly, getting people to do what you say is a ho-hum goal. I don’t think our faithfulness can be measured in terms of how many people respond the way we want. Plenty of people use emotional manipulation to “encourage” conversion or lifestyle changes or greater generosity towards the church or whatever else their aims may be. I’m not saying we shouldn’t encourage any of these things, but it’s quite possible that when we are patient with others, reliant on the Holy Spirit to work in the world around us (and therefore not trying to do the Spirit’s job ourselves), and sensitive to the ethical issues surrounding ministry, we may see rather undramatic results.
“Leadership” is often about enthusiasm and numbers. It may be well-intentioned, but it’s not necessarily the most Christian way of approaching ministry. And since the Bible seems to set other goals much higher than “being an effective leader,” even if we take an interest in leadership, it should not surpass those other values we hold, such as love of God and neighbor.
5) Leadership style is probably one of those things we project onto Jesus more than we learn from him, anyway. Eisegesis anyone? I think we are all prone to seeing our personalities and leadership styles in Jesus. As Harnack says, “There is something touching in the anxiety which everyone shows to rediscover himself, together with his own point of view and his own circle of interest, in this Jesus Christ, or at least to get a share in him.” As it is true of the historical Jesus movement, so is it true of Christian leadership books. Everyone wants to make Jesus into a leadership guru in his or her own image, which is really just a little sad and amusing.