Ivy had a question. It was not about whether she was a leader or not; like many international students she had already successfully led in various contexts. Neither was her question about whether her Christian faith should influence her leadership; her relationship with God affected all parts her life, and this included how she led. Ivy’s question was regarding the type of leadership principles she wanted to take home with her when she returned to Kenya. She asked, ‘What biblical leadership principles are there that apply in every culture?’
Ivy’s question highlighted to me an important issue for all those involved in international student ministry. International students are ‘tomorrow’s world changers,’ the next generation of ‘nation builders.’ Each year, thousands of Christian international students either return to their home countries or move to a third country. Many long to serve God in a biblical and culturally relevant way, not just copying Western models. However, to do this they need to know what biblical leadership principles can be applied in any culture. In this article, firstly I will explain the common weaknesses that many Christian leadership books have as they try to answer this question. Secondly, I will lay foundations for biblical leadership principles, providing some groundwork in the highly contested areas of leadership and biblical interpretation. Finally, I will propose three biblical leadership principles which I believe can be applied in any culture, helping develop godly leaders around the world.
Common Weaknesses in Christian Leadership Books
Many Christian leadership books are not actually based on the Bible despite their authors’ claims. On closer inspection there are a surprising number that are built upon the author’s opinion and experience. Some repackage their own secular leadership books by adding a few bible verses, whilst others merely use the Bible as a proof text to support their experience. Although experience is a helpful guide it cannot be infallible. For example, what works in a megachurch in America might not work in rural Kenya.
Another common weakness is that many Christian leadership books do not acknowledge the role that culture plays. International students need to be aware that the majority of leadership literature is American and British in authorship. This leads authors to emphasize leadership characteristics and ideas which are valued in their own Western culture, such as self-actualization, even when this is contrary to the Bible’s teaching.
Additionally, numerous Christian leadership books only view leadership from an individualistic and leader-centric perspective. This Western viewpoint places great responsibility upon the individual, assigned leader and does not even consider distributed or group leadership. This is restrictive because a collaborative approach, which has echoes of the ‘body of Christ’ (1 Cor 12:12-31), would potentially be a more effective model, particularly in group orientated cultures.
Finally, many Christian leadership books present leaders as ‘great men’. They unquestioningly accept Carlyle’s ‘Great Man Theory’ as it still underpins most Western thinking about leadership today. Authors such as John Maxwell write that ‘great leaders rise up and find a way for the team to win . . . possess unlimited belief, commitment, resourcefulness, and perseverance.’ However, this view of leadership is antithetical to the Christian faith. It presents leaders as being so confident and capable that they become ‘heroes’ who do not need God. It is akin to ‘functional atheism’. The ‘great man’ view leads to idolatry both of the leader and of leadership. It ignores the Bible’s warning: ‘Don’t put your trust in human leaders. Don’t trust in people who can’t save you’ (Ps 146:3-4; NIRV). This view also distorts the Bible’s message as it holds up characters such as Abraham, Moses, David as ‘great men’ from Scripture, when actually they are fallen men, who sin, but by God’s grace are still used by him.
Foundations for Biblical Leadership Principles
These common weaknesses indicate that before proposing biblical leadership principles, foundations need to be set in the following areas:
How the Bible is used in the leadership arena
Whilst the Bible is the ultimate authority for Christians, it is simplistic and anachronistic to assume that specific leadership behaviours can be easily taken from the Bible. Huizing states that Scripture is ‘not written or designed to be a leadership textbook.’ The Bible does not explicitly or directly explore leadership as we use the term. Any leadership models derived from Scripture are in fact ‘second-order formulations’ as the text is ‘actually focused upon a different matter entirely.’ Therefore it is a more faithful use of the biblical text to identify accepted beliefs or doctrines which can then be applied to leadership, just as they can be applied in any area of life.
How leadership principles can be applied in any culture
To avoid leadership teaching being unhelpfully influenced by culture, it needs to, as Huizing states, contain ‘enough truth to make it relevant in any context and yet enough flexibility to use the inherent truths to build upon any context.’ All general biblical leadership principles can and should be contextualized, just like the rest of the Christian message, to enable them to be relevant in any culture.
What type of leadership principles would benefit Christians
The type of leadership principles which are biblical are those which are more pertinent to purpose rather than effectiveness. This is because for Christians, the most important leadership questions are ‘why am I doing this?’ and ‘how will it further God’s kingdom?’ Contrastingly, the mainstream leadership literature mostly focuses upon effectiveness and asks the question ‘how do we attain certain outcomes?’ Having established these foundations I shall now propose three biblical leadership principles
Three Biblical Leadership Principles
First, Christian leaders are called to follow more than they are to lead.
This might seem like such an obvious principle that it appears superfluous. However Christian leaders following God, who is the ultimate leader in whom faith ought to be placed, is often completely ignored by many popular Christian authors. Following Jesus may be mentioned for some in terms of personal salvation, but it rarely impacts their authors understanding of leadership.
The most helpful description I can offer international students of ‘following more than leading’ is Wells’ description of believers. He says Christians are ‘not called to be heroes. They are called to be saints.’ He contrasts the ‘heroic’ and the ‘saintly’ leader in five ways:
- The hero is at the centre of the story, making everything right; whereas the saint is at the periphery of a story, centred on God.
- The story of the hero celebrates strength, courage, and wisdom, whilst the story of the saint merely celebrates faith, as the saint may not possess any other virtues.
- Hero stories assume fighting and that great courage will prevail. While saint stories rejoice that Christ has already fought and won, resulting in saints practising love, joy, peace, rather than violence.
- As the hero’s actions are central to the story ending positively, any admission of a mistake or a serious flaw is a disaster, potentially fatal for heroes and those that rely upon them. Instead, for the saint, failures are expected, and mistakes open up a cycle of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration.
- The ‘great’ hero stands alone, apart from the community, against the world. In contrast, saints depend not only on God but also upon the community of saints to sustain faithful lives.
Second, Christian leaders need to be power giving.
Power-giving is a clear principle for all Christians in Scripture. Jesus instructed his followers to wash each other’s feet (John 13:1-17), become like a child (Matt 18:4), take on servanthood (Mark 9:35), and become a slave of all (Mark 10:45).
Power-giving is particularly important for leaders because power is inextricably linked with leadership. As Lidstone states, the lust for power can easily become deeply ingrained in humans’ hearts and minds. To counteract this lust, Christian leaders must make Jesus ‘the centre of who we are . . . replac[ing] our quest for power.’ The key indicator that Jesus has replaced our quest for power is that we can give power away. This crucial topic is often ignored by many authors or merely turned into a ‘technique’.
The principle of power-giving is well illustrated by Lidstone’s description from the 3rd century. For a believer to be baptized at that time, they were required to give up wearing purple as this was the ‘ultimate symbol of worldly power’ and seen as incompatible with the Christian faith. It was this requirement to give up wearing purple that stopped Constantine being baptized for 25 years after his conversion. Lidstone challenges Christian leaders today not to use their position to gain honour and power, instead he exhorts them to give power away and be ‘countercultural agents of the Kingdom of God.’
Third, Christian leaders need to use the Bible to critique and shape their leadership frameworks and assumptions.
Christian leaders must have, as Huizing states, ‘a theology that defines leadership rather than a leadership theory that defines theology.’ Many Christian leadership authors write books that are ‘based more on the leaders’ subjective experiences or anecdotal observations than on Scripture or good research.’ They disregard cultural assumptions which means that leadership teaching is ‘squeezed’ into the world’s mould (Rom 12:2; JB Phillips). Their leadership conceptualizations are used to support an author’s bias and their leadership theories ‘which have nothing to do with the gospel’ can appear in books for Christians. All the above scenarios can occur because the authors have not subjected their frameworks and assumptions to a critique by Scripture.
For international students to become godly leaders they need to follow truly biblical leadership principles that can be applied in any culture. To assist them, they need to be aware of the common weaknesses that occur in Christian leadership books and understand the foundations for biblical leadership principles. I have highlighted three such principles which are: to follow more than to lead, to be power giving, and to use the Bible to critique and shape the leadership frameworks and assumptions used.
Following these principles will result in a very different type of leadership practice to that which the world uses. This is because, as Dykstra’s states,
Christian practices are different and that is because their story is different. . . . [our story is] that the everlasting arms of a gracious and loving God sustain the universe. So our basic task is not mastery and control. It is instead trust and grateful receptivity. Our exemplars are not heroes. They are saints. Our epitome is not excellence; our honor is in faithfulness.
- ‘International Student ministry,’ Lausanne Movement, accessed 11 March 11 2023, https://lausanne.org/networks/issues/international-students.
- Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012).
- John Maxwell, 21 Laws of Leadership in the Bible: Learning to Lead from the Men and Women of Scripture (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2018), is a reworking of: John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998).
- Richard Bolden, Jonathan Gosling, Beverley Hawkins, and Scott Taylor, Exploring Leadership: Individual, Organizational, and Societal Perspectives (Oxford: OUP, 2011), 20, 26.
- For example see: Ken Blanchard, Phil Hodges, and Phyllis Hendry, Lead Like Jesus Revisited (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2016), xi. 2.
- Such as: Hybels, Courageous Leadership, and Blanchard, Hodges, and Hendry, Lead Like Jesus Revisited.
- Justin Lewis-Anthony, You are the Messiah and I Should Know: Why Leadership is a Myth (and Probably a Heresy) (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013).
- Maxwell, 21 Laws of Leadership in the Bible, 163-164.
- L. Roger Owens, ‘Staying with God: Eugene Peterson and John Chapman on Contemplation’, in Pastoral Work: Engagements with the Vision of Eugene Peterson, eds. Jason Byassee and L. Roger Owens (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014), 132.
- Joel Rainey, ‘Great Man Theory’ and the Myth of Christian Heroism’, accessed 29 January 2022, http://joelrainey.blogspot.com/2015/09/great-man-theory-and-myth-of-christian.html.
- Russell Huizing, ‘Bringing Christ to the table of leadership: Moving towards a theology of leadership’, Journal of Applied Christian Leadership, 5(2), (2011): 69.
- Arthur Boers, Servants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 41.
- Lewis-Anthony, You are the Messiah and I Should Know, 235.
- Huizing, ‘Bringing Christ to the table of leadership’, 69
- Christopher A. Beeley and Joseph H. Britton, ‘Introduction: Toward a theology of leadership’, Anglican Theological Review, 91(1), (2009): 3-10.
- Blanchard, Hodges, and Hendry, Lead Like Jesus Revisited, 25-26.
- [Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Baker Academic, 2018), accessed 2 February 2022, https://www.perlego.com/book/2063126/improvisation-pdf.
- Juylan Lidstone, Give up the Purple: A Call for Servant Leadership in Hierarchical cultures (London: Langham Global Library, 2019), 72.
- Sherwood Lingenfelter, Leading Cross-Culturally (Baker Academic, 2008), accessed 12 February 2022, https://www.perlego.com/book/2039639/leading-crossculturally-pdf.
- Juylan Lidstone, Give up the Purple, 7-8.
- Juylan Lidstone, Give up the Purple, 87.
- Huizing, ‘Bringing Christ to the table of leadership,’ 62.
- Aubrey Malphurs, Being Leaders: The Nature of Authentic Christian Leadership (Grand Rapids, Baker Publishing Group, 2003), 10.
- Lewis-Anthony, You are the Messiah and I Should Know, chap.1.
- Craig Dykstra, Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices, 2nd ed. (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 76.
Phil Thomas is the founder and director of Transformations Leeds, a mission organization which trains students in leadership so that they can bring God’s transformation to their nations. He has a Masters in ‘Leadership in a Complex World’ from Redcliffe College, UK. He has created and leads the God's Apprenticeship Programme which equips Christian leaders around the world through online training and mentoring. He has also started the annual hybrid 'Transforming your World' 'Transforming your World' conference which inspires students and graduates to bring transformation through their work and in their cultures.