5 Distinctives of Biblical Leadership

Possibly the saddest occurrence coinciding with the rise of the study of leadership in the twentieth century was the drift of God’s people away from the Bible as the standard of truth. The church, like the world, bought into the “whatever works” paradigm. Thus, the widespread, secular notions about leadership became pervasive and difficult for God’s people to withstand. This eventually led to the people of God accepting the wholesale assumptions of worldly leadership, and the church began to take its leadership cues from a secular culture.

The problem still exists today. The business sector in particular is celebrated as the ultimate source of truth about leadership—as opposed to God’s Word.

The trouble is, we are borrowing concepts from an upside-down world. Since what was practiced in business seemed to work (“work” equaling more profits, more followers and larger organizations), the church co-opted leadership principles from corporate America. The evangelical church in particular began to believe that businesspeople did it better. Those in the church who possessed great business acumen, but who possibly had very little understanding of what God intended for the church, populated church boards. Churches became corporations. Pastors became CEOs. Christian authors borrowed rather worldly concepts, slapped a Scripture verse or two on them, and called it “Christian leadership”—when in actuality they were promoting fleshly principles cloaked in spiritual language. This left the church with little distinction in our culture, an anemic entity copying the world and struggling at best to survive.

Yet, in this context God has provided a vast mission field of opportunity. Biblical leadership is needed now more than ever! As believers, we have a unique and wonderful calling to address the leadership crisis—and we have solid ground on which to stand. If we will recommit ourselves to the standard of God’s Word as opposed to taking our beliefs from the culture, we may catch a glimpse of the brilliant possibilities for biblical leadership and the stark, colorful difference this kind of leadership will make in the middle of a world full of shades of gray.

Distinctives of Biblical Leadership

Biblical leadership involves at least five distinctives that set it in sharp contrast to the leadership theories and definitions of the modern world

1. Character

Character is that set of moral qualities that distinguishes one person from others. These qualities include things such as honesty, courage, integrity, humility, perseverance, and decisiveness. Yet it’s important to understand that these traits do not just happen. They actually flow from a deeper structure within the individual. In order to be authentic, these qualities must be connected to a person’s identity—i.e., how that person sees and defines him or herself. As the Scripture says, it is from the heart of a person that proper attitudes and actions flow (Proverbs 4:23).

But this identity or sense of self should not be the result of our own invention. It’s not ultimately important who we say we are, nor is it important who others say we are. What is vitally important is who God says we are. This is true especially for leaders, because in time, our true selves will show through to those we lead.

In the life of Jesus, we see ways he viewed and defined himself that have particular relevance to leadership. As leaders seeking to lead like Jesus, we must also desire to assimilate his character and self-definition into our lives.

The character of the biblical leader may be summarized by three images directly connected to who Jesus was and how he led. These images are the ways that Jesus defined himself in his leadership (influence) toward others. They are the images of the servant, the steward, and the shepherd. These dimensions provide the Christian leader with metaphors by which to grasp the Bible’s teaching about how leaders should see themselves. Leaders who seek to walk in integrity and assimilate Jesus’s character into their being will more naturally express traits of moral character as well as be more naturally empowered to know what to do in practice as they go about leading others.

Additionally, we must be careful to apply these images to the idea of character first and not to conduct—lest we fall into the mind-set that so often typifies the world’s approach— namely, that leadership is merely something we do on the outside. The Bible student will make a big error if he or she only seeks to act as a servant, a steward, and a shepherd without becoming those things—that is, without taking on the character of each. Can a person serve others without a servant’s heart? Well, possibly and temporarily. But that equates to acting a part rather than developing a disposition of servanthood in their person. In time, without full integration and character development, the leader is not able to continue to prop up the character traits necessary for biblical leadership. They are simply too difficult to pretend.

Christlike character, then, is the first distinctive of biblical influence. This is true because it is the primary work of the Holy Spirit after salvation to build that character in the believer. Without it, leaders are merely empty shells, actors who play a part, void of substance and lasting spiritual impact. Leaders like this might impress people with their skills and thus gain a following. But they have the potential to enduringly transform others only through character.

When manifested, character creates the credibility for a leader to be respected and trusted and to earn the right to influence others.

2. Calling

Biblical leaders must not only concern themselves with how to lead, but they must also address why they are leading—for what purpose. They must find their why before they know their what. Most authors use the term vision to describe a leader’s purpose and the future state for which they influence others. While the idea of vision is at the heart of leading others, to comprehend biblical leadership we must realize that in a biblical paradigm, vision flows first from God’s call to the leader.

Why is this an important distinction? Well, if we’re not careful, vision will turn out to be something we invent rather than something we discover from God. The term “calling” possesses the inherent idea that purpose comes from God to us—not the other way around. With a calling, after all, there must be a Caller. (See Genesis 12:1–4, Exodus 3:1–6, 1 Samuel 16:12, Isaiah 6:1–13, Jeremiah 1:4–7, Mark 3:14–15, John 15:16, Acts 9:1–16, Romans 15:15–18).

Often, a leader’s plans get confused with God’s plan. We have a dream, an aspiration, or a goal, and it becomes what we believe is God’s vision. We then go to God to convince him to get on board with what we want to see happen in the world. In essence we say, “God, please bless and resource MY plans.” This leads to failure, frustration, and misguided achievements, since God did not author the vision in the first place. Here, leaders achieve only to realize the achievements were not of God. As Howard Hendricks profoundly said, “The fear is not for leaders to fail, but to succeed at doing the wrong thing.”

The fact is, God has not committed himself to finance our dreams. He’s not a genie in the bottle who exists to grant our wishes. He wants us to get involved in his plans. Calling therefore communicates something received from God (the One calling) to us (the ones called)—and God is always faithful to supply and sustain that which he initiates. The great promise to leaders who follow God’s call is that he will be faithful to resource it.

Additionally, calling is an inherent biblical concept, as compared to the modern idea of “vision.” The actual word vision in the Bible almost always refers to prophetic visions. This is different from the way vision is described in modern leadership. The term today, mostly used in business and corporate settings, blurs the lines between the purposes of a business and that of the church. Calling, on the other hand, is unique to people of faith. While vision (a mental idea of a preferable future) certainly flows from calling, leaders should first process and possess a strong sense of God’s compelling call to join him in the work he is doing. After their response of faith to God’s call, vision will begin to develop within the hearts and minds of the leaders—and most importantly, that vision will be rooted in a call from God, not in self-centered ambition.

Calling, therefore, is the force that drives and inspires biblical leaders to influence. It keeps them focused, provides accountability to act consistently, inspires them to endure hardships, and ensures that one’s leadership results only in what God wants.

3. Competence

Psalm 78:72 states, “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.” Just as integrity of heart (i.e. character) is vital to biblical leadership, so are skillful hands (i.e. competence). Yet in the Scripture, skills are not mere cosmetics to be put on and taken off, nor are they disconnected from the leader’s character. Rather, they are congruent complements to his or her inner person, and as such, they allow the leader to manifest God’s calling in the world. Imagine Moses without the skill of delegating to others (Exodus 18:13–27), Nehemiah without the ability to manage projects and people (Nehemiah 4:13–23), or Paul without the skill of communicating spiritual truth to his readers (Colossians 1:28–29). These competencies provided for the success of their God-given callings and were used mightily by the Lord in their particular leadership contexts. In this sense, outer competence is related to inner character.

Not every leader has every skill. Students of leadership must come to understand both the skills common to effective, Christlike leadership and the skills unique to who they are. To do the former, students must discover from God’s Word common competencies of effective leaders. To do the latter, one must give attention to discovering his or her spiritual gifts, natural competencies, unique personality, and God-given passions.

4. Community

While secular leaders might concern themselves with profits and material productivity, biblical leadership is seen in terms of impact upon and relationship to people. The idea of community applies in two ways.

First, the outcome of biblical leadership is always about transforming the lives of human beings. Always. In the Scripture, every time God called a leader to a leadership task, God’s purpose was to redeem and restore his people through the instrument of the leader. Therefore, biblical leadership does not ever exist in a vacuum. A biblical leader is an individual called of God to interact with and impact people. Biblical leadership is not primarily about developing a ministry program, sitting behind a computer, or constructing a building. It is not about profits, widgets, or organization size. Those may be a means toward a people-transforming end, but they are never the end in themselves—and if we are not careful, leaders can easily lose our way as to the real goal of leadership. People are of immense value to God, more important than anything numeric or material, and our leadership should have the development and transformation of people as its object.

Second, biblical leadership takes place in the context of Christian community. Jesus didn’t simply tell the disciples to show up at the temple once a week, and there he would lecture them on principles of leadership. Jesus did life with those he led. He chose to impart himself, not just his teaching. It was out of the context of that community between him and his disciples, with failures and victories alike, that they grew to achieve something of great value together.

Consequently, biblical leaders seek to develop open, authentic relationships with those they lead. Biblical leaders love the people they lead—they don’t just use them. In the closest of relationships that a leader can possess with his or her followers, there is deep connection, vulnerability, understanding, and personal investment. Paul described his relationship to the Thessalonians just so: “Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Community breathes life into leadership and grounds it in the supreme moral virtue that must accompany all truly biblical leaders—namely, agape love.

5. Christ

Finally, worldly leaders may operate in their own strength and in their own wisdom, and they might be able to accomplish good and even noble things. But biblical leadership produces eternal results because it comes from a different source. It’s not based upon the world’s wisdom or the meager human resources of the leader. These sources can only accomplish what can be explained in natural and human ways and through the limited skills of the leader. By contrast, the inner fuel, guide, and force at work for the biblical leader is the very power of Christ!

Since this is so, biblical leadership must always be a walk of faith. Leadership acted upon with trust in God is then fueled by a supernatural force—Jesus himself! Christ accomplishes through the humble and obedient leader that which can only be ascribed to God’s ability. In the end, the leader sees limitless possibilities for what can be achieved. When the task is complete it is God, not the leader, who receives the credit.

A Definition of Biblical Leadership

Biblical leadership is distinctly different from that described and defined by the world. The distinctives above help Christian leaders understand the unique way the Bible describes one person’s influence upon another, the motivation behind that influence, the eventual outcome of that influence, and the source of power to guide and sustain that influence. This is biblical leadership!

A biblical leader is a person of character and competence who influences a community of people to achieve a God-honoring calling by means of the power of Christ.

*The above is an excerpt from Mike’s book, Power to Lead: Five Essentials for the Practice of Biblical Leadership.