Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Leaders and the Led

What does biblical leadership look like?

The answer in many quarters these days is “servanthood”. The term “servant leadership” is said to have been coined by Robert Greenleaf in a 1970 essay, allegedly after reading a story by Hermann Hesse. Greenleaf’s concept has since been promoted by numerous evangelicals, including John Piper and the Acts 29 network of churches, of which ubiquitous YouTube presence Matt Chandler is president.

At one level, who can argue? “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

Pretty unambiguous, really.

So I take no issue with the term “servant leader”, whether applied in church or in the home, so long as we are willing to examine carefully not just what the Lord taught about leadership and service but how he lived out what he taught. If we fail to do the latter, we risk importing into our concept of servant leadership ideas that are incoherent, unbiblical and unworkable.

As any quick Google search will demonstrate, many have taken the time to spell out the more important qualities of a servant leader, and it would be redundant to explore them all here. Most of these are at least quasi-accurate representations of the Lord’s relationship to his disciples. Others, however, might provoke a question or two.

Servant Leadership and Opinion-Gathering

Skip Prichard says:
“A servant leader … regularly seeks out opinions.”
If by this we mean that a servant leader allows his subordinates full freedom to express their thoughts even when those ideas are entirely wrong-headed, then Prichard is correct — though we must add that servant leadership does not preclude the occasional abrupt correction:
“Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Hey, don’t kid yourself, that’s a servant leader speaking.

Like Prichard, modern Christian commentators retain the servant bit while de-emphasizing decision-making in marriages and church leadership. For example, Dr. Raymond Force, pastor and life coach, claims the Christian husband is a servant leader and that his headship means “99% service and 1% decision making”. In that case, Force would be well advised to find a different model for servant leadership than Jesus Christ. I count 25 separate occasions in the Gospel records in which the Lord’s disciples took the initiative without consulting him, made suggestions to him about how to proceed, contradicted or corrected him. You will not find it surprising that their record in such situations was a not-so-sparkling 0-25. On all available evidence, their opinions were not worth seeking out.

Still, there were plenty of times the Lord asked his disciples for their opinions anyway: “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax?”, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and so on. One significant way the Lord engaged with his followers and taught them was by allowing and even provoking them to express themselves.

That said, you will search the Gospels in vain for an example of the Lord looking for direction from his disciples, inquiring about which area of Judea they’d like to visit next in their itinerant ministry, or asking for a show of hands about the answer to a doctrinal question. For that matter, you will search Acts and the Epistles in vain for examples of Paul asking Timothy, Titus or his other co-workers what they thought he should do next.

In short, in the relationship of the disciples to their Master, there is a complete absence of useful opinionated involvement and the sort of quasi-egalitarian consultation process that advocates of the servant-leadership model would like to make normative in marriage.

Don’t get me wrong: leaders make better decisions when they take into account all relevant factors, and that often means getting substantial input from those being led: data, experience, relevant expertise, needs and potential concerns. A husband who doesn’t listen to his wife or an elder who doesn’t listen to the flock when that sort of input is being offered is a fool.

What leaders don’t need from the led is a barrage of often-conflicting opinions about what they ought to do with the information they receive. If they need that, they’re not leaders.

Servant Leadership and Transparency and Testing

Doug Flanders on being transparent:
“A servant-leader is transparent. Transparency implies there are no hidden agendas. Everyone is on the same team, working toward the same goals, and those goals are clearly defined and understood.”
Kent Keith on a servant leader’s willingness to be tested:
“A servant-leader encourages enhanced moral reasoning among his or her followers, who can therefore test the moral basis of the servant-leader’s visions and organizational goals.”
Should a leader’s decisions stand up to an examination of their moral soundness? Well, sure. Should a leader set himself the goal of teaching his followers to work through the necessary process of examining motives, praying for direction in decision-making and looking to scripture for principles which may apply to it? Absolutely.

But are all followers at every moment in their experience capable of grasping and agreeing with everything that goes into making a hard decision? Should they be privy at every moment to every consideration that a leader has to weigh? These are different questions. Leaders will certainly give an account. I’m not sure, however, that their followers have a right to demand a full and timely explanation from them whenever they deem it convenient. That sounds an awful lot like the Israelites busting Moses’ chops in the wilderness, an activity in which they engaged regularly and for which they paid dearly.

I’ve often wondered what Simon, James and John thought when the Lord said to them, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” That’s a fairly obscure way to characterize his vision for them and his organizational goals. Yet that lack of full disclosure didn’t seem to put them off, nor should it have.

We have no evidence from the Gospels that the Lord initially told his disciples everything he had in mind when he began training them, or that they understood the details of his agenda very well at all. The first chapter of Acts seems awfully late in the game for them to be asking “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?

Further, as fathers all know, even if a leader is well aware of what the future may hold, there are times you can’t tell someone whose welfare is your immediate responsibility every single detail about what lies in store for them if they follow your proposed course of action. (The details of necessary cancer treatment come to mind.) If you did, they would be paralyzed by fear and unable to move forward.

Servant Leadership and Persuasion

Prichard again:
“A servant leader is the opposite of a dictator. It’s a style all about persuading, not commanding.”
Sometimes the Lord persuaded. Often he did not. Jesus gave an awful lot of commands (over 300 are listed here). The reasons for many of these were not instantly obvious. Should the servants at the wedding in Cana have balked at taking water to the master of the feast until they had confirmed for themselves that it had miraculously become wine? It would have been very human to hesitate, and quite faithless. Was the Lord’s instruction to his disciples on the subject of divorce faulty if some still could not comprehend how marriage made any sense as a lifestyle option when he had finished?

Sometimes, rather than try to persuade, the Lord actually gave directions he knew perfectly well would not be followed. “Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor” falls into that category. Was the young man right to go away sorrowful because he just couldn’t imagine how the Lord’s instructions would work out better than the alternative?

Sometimes persuasion is impossible. One’s partner, children or fellow believers may be too immature, too sinful, too discouraged, too afraid, too hurt or too selfish to see things clearly. Waiting to obey until you agree with everything your leaders tell you to do is a recipe for disaster. Peter had the right idea when flummoxed by the command to eat the Lord’s flesh and drink his blood. When asked “Do you want to go away as well?” He wisely responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Obedience that only occurs when one is in full agreement with one’s leader is not obedience at all.

In Summary

A servant leader may listen and give due consideration to all kinds of input, but in the end, he actually leads. In God’s order, neither church nor home is a democracy.

The term “servant leader” can be useful shorthand, provided we understand what its proponents mean when they use it. Some mean nothing unbiblical by it, while to others it is code for a relationship in which being led is always optional and the directions one receives come in the form of suggestions rather than commands.

Which is not exactly leadership, is it?

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