Biblical leadership is the step above in the Christian life. Paul highlights the necessity of outstanding personal character for pastoral leadership in his first letter to Timothy. If a person thoughtfully examines themselves in the light of Paul’s comments, they can very quickly become discouraged at their adequacy for the task of leadership. There are many leadership images in scripture. In the Old Testament (OT), two images of leadership would be shepherd and conflict mitigator. In the New Testament (NT), servant and overseer are two good examples. These images can leave a person feeling inadequate. Reassurance comes from viewing the examples of leadership in scripture. There are negative examples of leadership in scripture, like Solomon, a man gifted with the best of everything by God, yet he still worshiped idols. A positive example would be Peter, who, though a man with faults, God used to powerful purpose in the early church. Examining the images and examples helps the leader understand God’s principles for leadership. When all the leadership principles are examined, they show Christ to be the perfect example of leadership. When followed, these biblical principles make a successful leader; more than making a successful leader, the principles define what success looks like for a Christian leader: leadership in Christianity is not glamor, not notoriety; instead, it is always fidelity to Christ and his character.
All images of leadership point to Christ because he is the perfect leader. In order to draw out correct biblical principles for leadership from the images, they must be viewed through the life of Christ.
Shepherd is probably the most well-known image of leadership in all the Bible. Psalm 23 salutes the good shepherd as he tenderly and sternly cares for the sheep. The idea of the rod that the shepherd caries is for the defense and the correction of the sheep. God often took shepherds, like Moses and David, and made them leaders of his people. A shepherd is one that will care for and defend the sheep.
Conflict Mitigator (OT)
Solomon started his leadership with gusto as he resolved a conflict between two mothers over a baby (1 Kings 3:16-28). Indeed, one of the great images of leadership is the conflict resolver. Moses appointed leaders to help him in this role (Numbers 11:16-30). Every leader in the Bible had to resolve conflict at one time or another. This job of conflict resolution tests the leader’s fidelity to justice and fairness.
The dominant image of leadership throughout scripture, and certainly in the NT, is servant leadership. Jesus exemplified this kind of leadership by washing the disciple’s feet (John 13:1-17). The servant-leader finds joy in serving and using the service to point people to Christ. John wrote, “we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1:4, ESV). John’s joy was to serve his readers by pointing them to Christ.
The word overseer shows up six times in the ESV translation. It is the Greek word ἐπισκόπους which means, according to Louw and Nida, “one who serves as a leader in a church … it is important to try to combine the concepts of both service and leadership.” The overseer is someone that embodies all the good traits of leadership. Where the overseer fails, it often leads to ruin for many.
Solomon is not the most negative example of leadership in the OT. For instance, Ahaz murdered his sons by burning them alive to a false god (2 Chronicles 28:3). Nevertheless, though Solomon did many outstanding things as a leader, he failed to transfer that leadership because he took his eyes of God. Dockery published a story by Tommy Thomas about Steve Hayner transferring leadership at the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In short, it took ten months for Hayner to transfer leadership to the new leader. Solomon did not leave a legacy of leadership. He is an example of the ruin that can happen when the overseer fails. Solomon had run afoul of the problem, “his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God” (1 Kings 11:4, ESV). A leader today can learn from Solomon and understand the centrality of true worship in leadership.
Peter is a leader that gives other leaders hope. Peter was not perfect; he denied Christ (Mark 14:68), he was rebuked by Paul for being hypocritical (Galatians 2:11), and yet the Lord used him decisively leadership in the early church and as an author in the NT. Why is Peter a success story and Solomon a negative one? One single thing, Peter, even in his failings, never turned his heart away from God. When Peter failed, he admitted it and kept moving forward. Peter lead by trusting God with the outcome. Where Solomon got distracted with women (1 Kings 11:1–8), Peter turned to deeper study, prayer, and exposition of the word of God (Acts 6:4). Today, leaders can be led away by TV, sports, food, ETC. Comparing Solomon and Peter clarifies the need for a heart of true worship for God and God alone.
The images and examples already briefly discussed point to the necessity of fidelity to Christ and his character in the leader’s life. Gangel sheds light on the idea of fidelity to Christ, saying, “[l]eadership requires deep conviction in God’s will for both leaders and followers” John Calvin sums up Paul’s leadership instructions to Timothy with these words, “only those are to be chosen who are of sound doctrine and of holy life, not notorious in any fault which might both deprive them of authority and disgrace the ministry.” Indeed these three can be said to sum up all the principles for leadership. Sound doctrine means a pure pursuit of the word of God to know the truth. A holy life is a life informed by the word of God. Avoiding being “notorious,” as Calvin put it, is a natural outpouring of a leader who desires to live a life of example and avoid allowing the enemy to hurt the sheep. Again, the difference between Solomon and Peter highlights the need for these elements in a leader’s life. Through his faults, Peter pursued sound doctrine, lived a life desiccated to God, and was not “notorious.” While on the other hand, Solomon started right, but wealth, women, and celebrity lead him from a holy life to evil things.
The leader is a shepherd; he makes it his business to know God’s will and guild people to that end. The leader is a conflict resolver, like Christ, who ended the conflict between the elect and God. The leader is a servant; they lead by caring for others, like Christ, who died for those that are his. The leader is an overseer; they take responsibility for moving forward within the will of God. Solomon and Peter are good examples of leaders that lead for better and for worse. The critical difference between them was their fidelity to Christ/God and his character. Solomon can warn leaders that having a heart that steers away from God will only lead to disaster. At the same time, by seeing Peter’s life, leaders can be encouraged that God can and does use imperfect people to lead. The measure is a leader is not perfection but rather his heart of worship for the true God that overflows into the pursuit of sound doctrine, holy living, and keeping his character clean.
. Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Ac 20:28.
. Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 541.
. David S. Dockery, ed. Christian Leadership Essentials: A Handbook for Managing Christian Organizations. (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2011), 321
. Kenneth O. Gangel, 1991. “Biblical Theology of Leadership.” Christian Education Journal 12 (1). 20.
. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1063.
Aland, Kurt, Barbara Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, and Bruce M. Metzger. Novum Testamentum Graece. 28th Edition. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Vol. 1. The Library of Christian Classics. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
Dockery, David S., ed. Christian Leadership Essentials: A Handbook for Managing Christian Organizations. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2011.
Gangel, Kenneth O. 1991. “Biblical Theology of Leadership.” Christian Education Journal 12 (1): 13–31. https://search-ebscohost-com.lopes.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000842419&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. New York: United Bible Societies, 1996.