Does Our Emphasis on “Leadership” Come from the Bible? image

Does Our Emphasis on “Leadership” Come from the Bible?

Recently I was sent a fascinating little book by David Starling called UnCorinthian Leadership: Thematic Reflections on 1 Corinthians, which (as both a church leader and a PhD student in 1 Corinthians) struck me as an intriguing title. I then saw it was endorsed by Don Carson, Peter O'Brien and Brian Rosner, with a foreword by Carl Trueman (all rise), and decided to read it. Most of the chapters take a section of the letter and reflect on its significance for Christian leadership today: direction, wisdom, tradition, edification, motivation, love. But it is the opening chapter that, to my mind, brings the greatest challenge. However enamoured we are with trends, gurus, experts, conferences and models - and I've spend a lot of time with the Leadership Network guys recently, as well as running a Leadership Training course myself - this section is worth considering:

In the world of contemporary Western Christianity, it seems, everyone loves “leadership”. It’s a word that crops up again and again in the language of Christian schools and university groups and conferences and seminaries - we all believe in leadership, we talk at great length about the importance of identifying and training leaders, and it is commonly the first word we reach for in our mission statements and our marketing publications to describe what it is that we exist to foster and to develop.

It is no coincidence, as [Barbara] Kellerman notes, that the words “leader” and “leadership” have found their way into the mission statements of almost every single one of Harvard’s professional schools, including the law school, the medical school, the divinity school, and the school of education. In the publishing marketplace, too, the “leadership industry” has had an enormous impact: “In the early 1980s an average of three books on leadership were published each year; by the end of the decade that number was twenty-three. By now, of course, the number of leadership books (and other related materials) is somewhere in the stratosphere (a Google search of leadership books returns more than 84 million results).

The output of the Christian publishing industry reflects a similar fascination. When I was first invited to prepare the conference talks that became the embryonic version of this book, I did a quick spot of unscientific research on the website of my local Christian bookshop, which reinforced my suspicions about the scale of the contemporary Christian leadership fixation. Type “leader” into the search engine of their catalogue and you get no less than 1,243 results; that compares with 697 for “teacher”, 489 for “pastor”, 285 for “missionary”, 192 for “disciple”, 176 for “minister”, 158 for “servant”, 51 for “evangelist”, 36 for “elder” and 25 for “administrator.” It would be foolish to place too much reliance on the findings of my little three-minute research project. And there are some obvious reasons, too, why the generic, contemporary, secular-sounding word “leadership” might trump the more particular, archaic, religiously-flavoured or denominationally-specific alternatives in the language that we choose to use for the titles of our books and the wording of our mission statements. But it’s striking, nevertheless, that it is this generic word that we instinctively reach for; that it is underneath the concepts of “leaders” and “leadership” that we choose to organise our thinking.

And yet, when you go looking in the Bible, you realise pretty quickly that it’s a word that can hardly be found there at all. The Bible certainly contains a host of concrete instances of individuals, tasks, offices, and images that you might want to connect in some way with the category of leaders and leadership: mothers, fathers, shepherds, sages, prophets, judges, priests, kings, messiahs, apostles, pastors, elders, overseers ... the instances are everywhere. But the abstraction, the umbrella term “leadership”, hardly rates a mention.

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