At Work

The Radicalness of Leadership Counsel in the New Testament

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I often enjoy starting a conversation by asking, “What makes a leader a good leader?”  I usually hear responses like:

  • Competent in sharing ideas and persuading people
  • Focused on helping others
  • Vision to improve the world

I also find a consensus that good character is foundational to good leadership. We want leaders who are trustworthy, tell the truth, and make the right choices even when difficult.

Then I like to ask, “Where do you think these ideas about leadership come from?” Nearly everyone I ask thinks people have always thought about leadership this way. That’s simply incorrect. All these ideas are rooted in the New Testament, and they are radically different from leadership ideas in the centuries before Christ.

Global Teachings on Leadership Before Christ

If you were to go back to 200 B.C. and say things like “Leaders should be servants of the people,” “Everyone can be a leader,” or “That man doesn’t have the character to be a good leader,” you might be diagnosed as mentally ill. Government leaders might regard you as a threat to social order. Leadership was normally inherited through royalty or merited by social class.

The oldest surviving “leadership” texts come from Asia. Laozi, known as the founder of Taoism, captured his philosophical views in the Tao Te Ching in the 5th century B.C. There is no systematic advice in this text about how leadership should function, but there are observations about leadership like this one:

Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, “We did this ourselves.”

Chinese General Sun Tzu’s military strategy text The Art of War was written in the 5th century B.C. for generals, who were always drawn from nobility and upper classes. Self-control is emphasized, but there is nothing about putting others first or serving others.

Next, we have documents preserved through Greek and Roman history. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all discussed leadership as an obligation of the superior classes to promote the good of society.

Julius Caesar’s The Gallic Wars, written shortly after the decisive Battle of Alesia in 52 B.C., was a self-promoting political document. Caesar affirmed class ideas about leaders coming from superior families. There are several statements about serving Rome, but none regarding leadership as a service to individual people.

The leadership counsel given to leaders in the Old Testament was largely moral in nature and centered on obedience to God. Joshua is repeatedly told, “Be strong and courageous” (Deut. 31). Moses is given management advice about distributing work among trustworthy men (Exod. 18). Leaders were counseled to study the law of God and see it done (Josh. 1:8).

Jesus Introduces Servant Leadership

Most of the attributes of leaders that we take for granted today originated not in antiquity, but with Jesus and in the New Testament church. Jesus modeled something new and countercultural: servant leadership. And he commanded his disciples to follow his lead in two key passages:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matt. 20:25-28)

Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. (John 13:12-17)

The apostles Paul and Peter built on the radical example of Jesus in their letters to the early churches. They outlined a model of leadership in the church that stood in stark contrast to the political, military, and business leadership of their day:

  1. Any individual, as a member of the Body of Christ, could become a leader in the church. Leaders did not always originate in the “right” families or noble classes. (1 Tim. 3:1)
  2. The role of leaders is to serve, not to command and be served. (1 Pet. 5:1-3)
  3. The character of a leader and his relationships are more important than his strategy, intellect, or specific skills. A leader must sensitively obey the Holy Spirit in the church, community, and family.  (Titus 1:6-9)
  4. The ultimate authority structure in the church is moral rather than political. (1 Tim. 4:12-16)

Robert Greenleaf’s 1997 book, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, translated the New Testament principles of leadership into a secular age of business thinking. People saw the evidence that these principles are effective in a wide range of settings. The language of servant leadership continues to appear in many leadership articles.

We have an opportunity to remind the current and next generations that these servant leader principles originate with Jesus and are sustained by the Holy Spirit.


Editor’s note: Strong leadership flows from a biblical understanding of work. Read more in How Then Should We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work.

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