Visionary Or Servant Leader?
God has always led His people by raising up human leaders. The church is not a democracy; it is a theocracy, with God as the ultimate authority, guiding and governing His people through wise and godly human leaders. This was certainly the case throughout the Old Testament, and continued to be the case within the burgeoning New Testament church, initially through the wise oversight of the Apostles and, subsequently, through the eventual establishment of groups of elders within individual churches. The biblical antecedent and practical necessity of wise, godly leadership within the church is not in question. What is in question, however, is the style of leadership.
Last week in “The Pastor As Visionary Entrepreneur?”, I outlined the radical change in the perceived role of the professional pastor in recent decades, from shepherd leader to entrepreneurial, visionary, managerial leader. This change was precipitated by the influx of leadership books in the 1980’s which adapted secular managerial and leadership strategies from the business world and incorporated them into church life. Clergy are now expected to be the main “vision castors” and to excel in a wide range of managerial and entrepreneurial skills, the effectiveness of which is thought to significantly impact the growth and success of the church as a whole.
Visionary, entrepreneurial leadership refers to the ability of an individual to envisage a different future, together with the ability to formulate and implement a plan to bring about the required change. In essence, visionary leadership says, “This is how I would like things to be different in the future. This is what I would like the church to look like in “x” years’ time”.
But how valid is this view of leadership? Is this truly the biblical model of leadership?
ASSESSING THE SCRIPTURAL VALIDITY OF VISIONARY LEADERSHIP
The scriptural justification for this philosophy of visionary, entrepreneurial leadership is shaky at best. The most commonly cited Bible verse is Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people perish”. Proponents of this leadership philosophy also cite Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jesus and Paul as biblical examples of visionary leaders. So, let us examine the scriptural justification of this pervasive philosophy.
The King James version of this particular verse is the most commonly cited, because it uses the word “vision”: “Where there is no vision, the people perish”. There are two problems with the way this verse is often quoted.
Firstly, according to the most recent textual scholarship, the word “vision” is not considered to be the best translation of the Hebrew (chazon; חָזוֹן). The NIV and TNIV provide us with a more accurate rendering:
“Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint”
Secondly, the second half of the verse is usually ignored. The complete verse is:
“Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint,
but blessed are those who heed wisdom’s instruction”
This proverb is written using classic Hebrew parallelism. In parallelism, the two halves of a proverb describe the same truth, either by similarity or by contrast. In this case, the conjunction “but” indicates that contrast is intended. This verse is stating that when God’s “revelation” is absent or not heeded, people’s behaviour degenerates, but when “wisdom’s instruction” is heeded, people are blessed. In this parallelism, therefore, we are meant to understand that “revelation” and “wisdom’s instruction” are one and the same thing. What is being described here is not some esoteric vision of the future, not some conjured up imagining by an individual of what they would like to see happen one day, but the publicly revealed words of God, declared to His people to guide their behaviour. This verse is proclaiming the importance of sound biblical teaching that provides moral and theological guidance for God’s people.
To quote this verse as a justification for the contemporary philosophy of “visionary leadership” is lifting the verse out of context and completely ignoring many of the basic principles of hermeneutics (principles of biblical interpretation).
SUPPOSED VISIONARY LEADERS IN THE BIBLE
Let us now turn our attention to the Bible characters who are often cited as examples of people who embodied visionary leadership. As we do so, let me reiterate our working definition: Visionary leadership refers to the ability of an individual to envisage a different future, together with the ability to formulate and implement a plan to bring about the required change. Do any of the commonly cited Bible characters demonstrate this ability?
God appeared to Moses (a physical manifestation of God, known as a theophany) and outlined his plan to rescue the Israelites. He commanded Moses to go to Pharaoh and ask for Israel’s release. Moses tried to wriggle out of it! He gave several excuses as to why he wasn’t suited and why it wasn’t a good plan, but, in the end, he reluctantly agreed. When the rescue mission was well underway, and things began to turn sour, Moses took his complaint to God, reminding Him that the people and the plan were His and that he (Moses) was being left to ‘carry the can’.
Moses said to the LORD, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favour with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favour with you. Remember that this nation is your people.” (Ex 33:12-13)
This is not the language of a visionary leader who is implementing his own grand plan, but of a servant leader on an errand, who has found himself in difficulties. Indeed, it was always God’s plan, never Moses’. This is indicated by the frequent occurrence in the narrative of the phrase “The LORD said to Moses”. This phrase occurs 137 times in the Exodus account and each time it is followed by a command such as “go”, “tell”, “return”, “say”, “take”, “build”, “strike”, “get” etc. – commands of the kind a master would give his servant. Indeed, God refers to Moses as “my servant” on several occasions.
Moses was not a visionary leader. He was an obedient servant. The writer to the Hebrews acknowledges this when he writes, “Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house” (Heb 3:5).
A good friend, Ken Collins, recently wrote, “Moses was no utopian dreamer fired with revolutionary zeal to ‘Free the People.’ He wasn’t the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Goshen like some ancient Yassa Arafat. Much less was he the C.E.O. of ‘Israel Incorporated’ with a vision and strategy to move their operation ‘off-shore’ to Canaan. He was God’s faithful servant.” It is servant leadership that Moses embodies, not visionary, entrepreneurial leadership. While this distinction might appear subtle to some, it is anything but! More about this in future weeks.
I will continue reviewing the examples of Biblical leadership next week.
 Ken Collins, “The Biblical Model of Leadership”, paper published in 2017.