What’s “Christian” in Christian Leadership

What makes Christian leadership distinctly “Christian” and what makes Christian leadership distinctly “leadership?”. In this post I give you four ways that Christian leadership is “Christian.” 

Photo Credit: Art4TheGlryofGod

Christian leadership is a topic that has been studied and researched in depth for many years. This blog series explores the question, What makes Christian leadership distinctly “Christian” and what makes Christian leadership distinctly “leadership?” I will explore this question theologically, socially, and personally as it relates outside research and my personal experience. The Greek word for leader often used in the New Testament is “ἡγέομαι / hegeomai” which can mean “I lead, guide, think, consider, regard (BDAG, 434). In an effort to learn about Christian leadership we must look to the Bible because “the leadership about which Jesus speaks is of a radically different kind from the leadership offered by the world.”[ref]Henri J.M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus (New York, Crossroads Publishing, 1989), 62.[/ref] That different view of Christian leadership is what will be explored and discussed in this paper.


The first distinction of Christian leadership starts with Jesus Christ.

A. Leaders’ Identity in the World

In the world, men often get their self identity from their work while women often base it on their relationships. However, with Christians “our identity in Christ is that we were created in the image of Christ,” according to Dr. Quentin P. Kinnison, professor at Fresno Pacific University. The idea that Christian leaders’ identity is based on Christ is a challenge to “come to the point where we recognize that our value is not dependent on our performance, position, titles, achievements, or the power we wield.”[ref]Gary L. McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima, Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2007), 213.[/ref]

B. Leaders’ Identity in Christ

Christian leaders must remember “that our greatest source of worth as leaders should come from the knowledge that we are known by God and declared righteous in Christ.”[ref]Ibid., 214[/ref] When a leader’s view of himself is based on the position he holds or the job he has, this places him at risk for tremendous downfalls in ministry and leadership. What happens when the leader loses his job, is fired, or is demoted to a lower position with less power and prestige? Christian leaders are so much more than what they do. In fact, because of the great gift that God has given to his people by sacrificing himself for their sins, it is an insult to God for a Christian leader to think of himself as someone who is defined by what he does.

For a Christian leader to have an identity in Christ also means distinguishing himself from the role he has at work. No job here on earth is big enough or important enough to completely consume a person. A Christian leader’s identity should be fully and solely founded on Christ.


The second distinction of Christian leadership is that Christian leaders are part of the flock.[ref]Most of the insights and comments on the “shepherd” language derives from Quentin P. Kinnison’s book, Transforming Pastoral Leadership.[/ref]

A. American Culture and the Leader

Contrary to that, American culture has “come to believe that good leadership requires a safe distance from those we are called to lead.”[ref]Henri J.M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, 61.[/ref] Often it is said, “It’s lonely at the top,” or “Leadership is lonely,” or “Don’t get too close to those you lead.” That is the view American culture has about leadership, but it is very different than Christian leadership.

B. Christianity and the Leader

In his article, “Distinctives of Christian Leadership,” William D. Lawrence comments, “Christian leadership is different from other kinds of leadership because no Christian leader can assume the position of being ‘number one,’ that is, the leader. This is true because those who believe in Christ know there is only one ‘Number One,’ namely, the Lord Jesus Christ.”[ref]William D. Lawrence, “Distinctives of Christian Leadership,” Bibliotheca Sacra July—September (1987), 317.[/ref] It is interesting to note that the Apostle Paul, who is well known for his leadership in the young Christian church, “never describes pastors as leaders of congregations, presiding over church activities and services and as being the head of a complex organization.”[ref]Derek Tidball, “Leaders as Servants: a Resolution of the Tension,” Evangelical Review of Theology 36, no. 1 (2012), 33.[/ref] Instead, the imagery of a shepherd is a much more biblical representation of what a Christian leader should be. In an article titled, “Shepherd or One of the Sheep: Revisiting the Biblical Metaphor of the Pastorate,” through careful exegesis Quentin P. Kinnison, Ph.D. shows that Christian leadership it is not being a shepherd over a flock of people; it is being a shepherd within the flock.

C. The Leader as a Shepherd

There are several important implications for our understanding of the [shepherd] metaphor and its practical application to the life of God’s people.

First, God reserves sole claim as shepherd of God’s people. . . . Second, the OT and NT both emphasize the Spirit’s presence in the lives of leaders. . . . Third, for pastoral leaders, this means empowering others to hear and respond to God’s promptings as they move onto God’s agenda and become witnesses of God’s missional activity in the world. . . . Finally, pastoral leaders must be embedded participants in the congregation. These primarily lead by example. Shepherd elders are sheep in the flock helping others follow the shepherd.[ref]Quentin P. Kinnison, Ph.D., “Shepherd or One of the Sheep: Revisiting the Biblical Metaphor of the Pastorate,” Journal of Religious Leadership 9, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 90.[/ref]

Kinnison’s definition shows a way of Christian leaders being part of the flock while leading the flock.

D. God as Shepherd

God talks about himself as the primary shepherd throughout the Bible and Christian leaders simply as part of his flock. This changes the traditional worldly view of leadership. But how does a Christian leader lead the flock while being part of the flock? Research into the physical practice of shepherding reveals, that shepherds often placed bells on specific sheep who reliably followed the shepherd.[ref]Ibid., 68, 89.[/ref] According to Kinnison, God is the true shepherd and Christian leaders are undershepherds—those sheep within the flock wearing bells to help guide the other sheep the direction the shepherd (which is God) wants to go.

E. Helping Others Follow God

Having acknowledged oneself as a sheep and part of God’s flock, the Christian leader’s job is to help the other sheep be on God’s plan and move in the direction of God. Since “spiritual leaders understand that God is their leader”[ref]Henry Blackaby and Richard Blackaby, Spiritual Leadership (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2001), 28-29.[/ref] they are “someone who knows where the Lord is going and can get others to follow him as he follows the Lord.”[ref]William D. Lawrence, “Distinctives of Christian Leadership,” Bibliotheca Sacra July—September (1987), 319.[/ref] This means Christian leaders “don’t get to create the vision, we just get to follow it”[ref]Quentin P. Kinnison, Ph.D., “When is the leader not ‘in front of’, but ‘in the midst of’?” (lecture, Fresno Pacific University North Center, Fresno, CA, May 31, 2012).[/ref] because “God’s purposes are the key to spiritual leadership—the dreams and visions of leaders are not.”[ref]Henry Blackaby and Richard Blackaby, Spiritual Leadership, 2001), 19.[/ref] Henri Nouwen defines this as, “Leadership . . . means to be led.”[ref]Henri J.M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus. 75.[/ref] While being part of the flock as bell wearing undershepherds it is imperative that Christian leaders relinquish their vision for God’s vision in an effort to follow him. Being a Christian leader as part of the flock is leading the way as an example the entire time following God with the hopes that others will see, hear and follow the way.

F. Examples from the Bible

1. Joshua

Joshua is a biblical leader who modeled this. Several times throughout the book of Joshua he makes a specific commitment to follow God. The verse often quoted is “Chose today whom you will serve. . . . But as for me and my family, we will serve the LORD” (Josh 24:15, NLT). With that personal commitment to follow the Lord, Joshua also calls others to serve and follow the Lord primarily out of his own example (as an undershepherd wearing a bell) “me and my family, we will serve the LORD” (Josh 24:15, NLT). Joshua is not saying, “I am your leader, follow me.” Instead, Joshua is saying, “God’s our leader, let’s follow him.” Another great example of a Christian leader being committed to God and undershepherding God’s people is the Judah king, Hezekiah.

2. Hezekiah

In the very first month of the first year of his reign, Hezekiah reopened the doors of the Temple of the Lord and repaired them. He summoned the priests and Levites to meet him at the courtyard east of the Temple. He said to them, “Listen to me, you Levites! Purify yourselves, and purify the Temple of the Lord, the God of your ancestors. Remove all the defiled things from the sanctuary. . . . But, now I will make a covenant with the LORD, the God of Israel, so that his fierce anger will turn away from us. My sons, do not neglect your duties any longer! The LORD has chosen you to stand in his presence, to minister to him, and to lead the people in worship and present offerings to him” (2 Chron 29:3-5, 10-11).

King Hezekiah was not perfect and made mistakes like most Christian leaders. But the important thing to note is that King Hezekiah was committed to being part of the flock and leading God’s people. With part of the flock faithfully following God, he pointed the people he ruled over back to following God.


Perhaps the strongest distinctions of Christian leadership are service and sacrifice.

A. Jesus was a Servant

The concepts of service and sacrifice go back to Jesus who served and sacrificed for the people he led. In his article, “Leaders as Servants: a Resolution of the Tension,” Derek Tiball writes, “Christian leadership is meant to be different from other forms of leadership because Christian leaders are called to be servants.”[ref]Derek Tidball, “Leaders as Servants: a Resolution of the Tension,” Evangelical Review of Theology 36, no. 1 (2012), 31.[/ref] Serving others while in leadership is definitely different than the world where power and influence are held closely by those who have it and desired and envied by those who do not have it. This concept of serving others is difficult because “our fallen human instincts seek power, wealth, status, and influence. Servant leadership is thus quite unnatural for fallen human beings. Thinking like a servant-leader requires a new mindset; acting as a servant-leader requires empowerment by the Holy Spirit.”[ref]Joseph Maciariello, “Lessons in Leadership and Management from Nehemiah,” Theology Today 60 (2003), 399.[/ref] One of the most controversial and countercultural things Jesus said while on earth was as he responded to his disciples’ question of which of the 12 of them was the greatest and most important. Jesus responded,

In this world the kings and great men lord it [power] over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ But among you [the 12 disciples] it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27, NLT)

B. Leadership in Jesus’s Time

Much like American culture, the leaders and rulers of Jesus’ time lorded power over others. They used their power to dominate others and maintain control over them. However, Jesus calls his disciples out of the culture they are living in and announces a new order for Christian leaders to follow. He instructs these 12 men, who will lead the new Christian religion, to be different than the world by saying, “Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant.” Christian leaders can only “teach out of what they know and live,”[ref]Steven Elliott, “The Local Church – Part 3” (Bible study, Enclave Community Church, Turlock, CA, June 3, 2012).[/ref] and Jesus definitely knew personally what he was teaching when he says, “I am among you as the one who serves.” Jesus is saying to his Christian leaders that he has come to serve.

C. To Lead Is to Serve

The Greek word used in Jesus’ statement above and used throughout the New Testament is the word, “διακονέω / diakoneo” which means “act as go-between/agent, be at one’s service, help, serve, minister” (BDAG, 229). With Jesus’ statements and use of this word, “Leadership was not to be a matter of privilege and special status, but of service. All social status is leveled out by these remarks. Jesus himself is the prime example of the servant leader.”[ref]“Luke 22 ‘NET Notes’” The NET Bible (accessed June 14, 2012).[/ref] Jesus shows this principle of a leader being a servant by strategically saying after washing his disciples’ feet:

And since I, your LORD and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have unto you. I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them. (John 13:14-17, NLT)

D. Jesus’s Followers Followed His Example of Service

The good news is that this message was successfully passed on and practiced by Jesus’ disciples and others within the early church. Just as “Jesus presents himself consistently as a model of service”[ref]Derek Tidball, “Leaders as Servants: a Resolution of the Tension,” Evangelical Review of Theology 36, no. 1 (2012), 36.[/ref] the apostle Paul “describes himself in a number of ways (‘apostle’, ‘teacher’ etc.) but most persistently as a servant. . . . Paul describes several of his fellow workers as servants. . . . Paul describes himself and Apollos as ‘only servants (diadonoi).”[ref]Ibid., 36.[/ref] The message is clear: Christian leadership is about service. But with that also comes sacrifice.

E. It Won’t Always Be Easy

Along with service in Christian ministry comes pain and sacrifice. The Apostle Paul endured tremendous sacrifice during his ministry as a Christian leader of the early church. Paul was ship wrecked, snake bitten, physically disabled, imprisoned, and eventually killed because of his service as a Christian leader. Jesus also endured tremendous pain in his ministry for his followers. Henri Nouwen comments on the relevance of sacrifice in ministry stating, “The most important quality of Christian leadership in the future . . . is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest.”[ref]Henri J.M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, 82.[/ref] With this understanding that Christian leaders are to be servants who sacrifice, it is important to note “Christ’s approach to leadership and the approach he commended to his disciples is one that glorifies God and serves the welfare of others. It does not seek personal glory for acts of service or manipulate subordinates to achieve the leader’s self-interest.”[ref]Joseph Maciariello, “Lessons in Leadership and Management from Nehemiah,” Theology Today 60 (2003), 397.[/ref]


The fourth distinction of Christian leadership is acknowledgement of the dark side.

A. Dark Side? 

What is a dark side? “The dark side . . . is actually a natural result of human development. It is the inner urges, compulsions, and dysfunctions of our personality that often go unexamined or remain unknown to us until we experience an emotional explosion.”[ref]Gary L. McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima, Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2007), 28.[/ref] Downfalls and pitfalls of a dark side can provide a stumbling block for any leader regardless of her faith. However, because much of Christian leadership rests on a leader’s moral character, the negative impact of the dark side of a Christian leader is greater. Christian leaders are not perfect (and they should not be expected to be), but the simple fact of acknowledging the dark side and working to combat it will help to prevent a leader from the potential downfall and failure a dark side might bring.

B. Why You Need to Know Your Dark Side

Because the dark side is a natural result of our human development (mostly during childhood when we had to navigate experiences we had no control over), Christian leaders must actively acknowledge the dark side and combat it. Knowing about the dark side is extremely important for biblical Christian leaders because much of their influence comes from strength of moral character. If they lose that moral character and the influence that comes with it, they lose all ability to lead. Part of acknowledging the dark side of Christian leadership is to know “the chief characteristic of a Christian leader must be submission to Christ, and only those who have learned that submission is the key to power can be effective Christian leaders.”[ref]William D. Lawrence, “Distinctives of Christian Leadership,” Bibliotheca Sacra July—September (1987), 318.[/ref] Submission to Christ and identity based on him help to shed the dark side because “when the leader learns to submit to Christ as the Leader, that is, when he learns to fly ‘the white flag of victory,’ that he becomes an authoritative Christian leader.”[ref]Ibid., 318.[/ref] Once a Christian leader has learned to submit to Christ, overcoming the dark side is easier.

C. How To Overcome  Your Dark Side

Thankfully there are several things Christian leaders can do to actively combat their dark side in addition to submitting to Christ. Two practical steps taught by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky are “Transitional Rituals” and “Rekindle the Sparks.”[ref]Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review, 2002), 184-186.[/ref]

1. Transitional Rituals

Transitional rituals are practical things Christian leaders can do to separate themselves and their identity from the professional work they do. This goes back maintaining one’s identity in Christ. Christian leaders are able to keep their identity based on God and not wrapped into their job when they have a transitional ritual such as a drive from work to home, intentionally changing clothes when they arrive at home, or exercising after work. All of these are intentional “transitional rituals” that allow a Christian leader to transition from mission focused work to resting into the person she is.

2. Rekindle Sparks

“Rekindle the Sparks” keeps the relationship at home with a spouse strong. The best way for a Christian leader to guard his heart is to keep it close to his wife. Too many times a Christian leader has led himself into destructive habits of adultery, pornography, or money laundering because he allowed his heart to drift way from his wife.

D. Steps to Redeem Your Dark Side

McIntosh and Sima also provide some great steps for Christian leaders to practice to “redeem their dark side.” Those steps are: acknowledge your dark side, examine the past, resist the poison of expectations, practice progressive self-knowledge, and understand your identity in Christ.[ref]Gary L. McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima, Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership, 170-218.[/ref] When Christian leaders know their dark side they are able to positively work on it. Even if they do not actively work to combat their dark side, the knowledge of it will help them prevent it from taking over their life and causing moral failure in the future.


With these four distinctions about what makes Christian leadership distinctly “Christian” and what makes Christian leadership distinctly “leadership,” the key is for Christian leaders to live it out.

Due to the fact that leaders are often out in front, everyone has a clear view of them. That means leaders are often judged more harshly and more strictly. Thus, when they fall, it is more severe. While engaging others on Twitter and Facebook about the topic of this paper I felt a tension from others that Christian leadership does not exist because it is not practiced.[ref]One person on Facebook said he believes only 9 percent of the Christian population actually pursue living a life as Jesus did while another individual said that Christian leaders do not exist.[/ref]

This is an issue that must be addressed.

Often people’s only interaction (that they realize) with Jesus is in the observation or interaction with the lives of leaders whom they may or may not personally know. This means Christian leaders must make sure they live out the four distinctions. Christian leaders do not have to be perfect, but they do need to make a conscious effort to live out what Christian leadership is: an identity in Christ, part of the flock, serve and sacrifice, and knowing the dark side.