by Ed Stetzer
We church leaders are a fickle bunch. One of our most well-developed practices is that of the pendulum swing, and we’ve instituted one as it pertains to church leadership.
In the ‘80s, a strong emphasis on leadership permeated American culture, including the church. A vast array of books and lectures focused on leadership theories and practices meant to develop good organizational leaders. These ideas began influencing and shaping churches that adopted many of the same practices.
In the late ‘90s, however, the pendulum swung the opposite direction and people began to object to some of the corporate leadership principles being applied in churches. They argued we need fewer leadership principles and more biblical principles.
This unhelpful pendulum swing sometimes placed complementary principles at odds with one another. Instead of being antithetical to biblical principles, sound leadership principles can contribute to the overall health of the church. Furthermore, leadership development is vital for a church to engage in its mission.
Leadership is biblical
Throughout Scripture there is rarely a great move of God without an accompanying leader used by God. With a few exceptions, you’ll find a consistent pattern of God raising up and preparing a leader, and then sending this leader for His particular purposes.
Paul writes to Timothy in affirmation of good pastoral leadership, “This saying is trustworthy: ‘If anyone aspires to be an overseer, he desires a noble work’” (1 Timothy 3:1). The rest of the chapter sets precedent for the noble character and work of pastoral leaders. Much of what is stated there is appropriate for all leaders.
Leadership is not merely conceptual in the Scriptures, such as we see in 1 Timothy 3; it is a biblical practice. There are both prescriptive passages that define what leadership should be and descriptive passages that describe the lives and work of biblical leaders. We are privy to the good, bad, and the ugly of leadership, not to dissuade us from it, but to teach us to employ it rightly.
There are three key things that help us keep us from an unhealthy pendulum swing. In addition to understanding its biblical basis, we must also remember that leadership is both theological and contextual.
Leadership is theological
Leadership isn’t done in a vacuum; it’s theological, and theology is best practiced in context of the local community.
One main reason some have led poorly, historically, is that they have a weak theological basis for leadership that isn’t sturdy enough to support the weighty directions and decisions of leadership. The majority of 1 Timothy 3 is descriptive of the expected life and doctrine of a leader. The prescribed character is unapologetically Scriptural.
Leadership is contextual
In Ephesians 4, we read that God gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers to equip God’s people for the work of ministry. All of their work takes place in a certain time and place, in a context. That place and time requires a particular style and model of leadership that makes sense to the people and the culture as a whole.
The biblical principles presented in 1 Timothy 3 are applicable in all times and all places. They are transcultural. However, the leader needed in a given circumstance will not only display those characteristics, but will also be shaped by contextual factors.
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul argues a case for paying church leaders for their work. He fights hard for the rights of these leaders to be financially supported by those they lead. “The Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should earn their living by the gospel,” (v. 14) he says, “but I have used none of these rights” (v. 15).
He turns down the rights he fought so hard to defend for others. Why? It’s a contextual decision for him. In his situation, he believes it’s better not to receive such support, but he protects the right of others to do so in their own contexts.
Good leaders will think deeply about a solid, biblical foundation for leadership, and contextualize it well in their own contexts. They will be ambidextrous—not trading one for the other, but seeing leadership as both biblical and contextual.
I’m ready for the pendulum to settle back toward the center in a place that encourages a robust biblical foundation for leadership, undergirded by sound theology, and thoughtful translation into our contexts.