Servant Leadership In The Bible
This week I want to continue to investigate the commonly cited biblical examples of “visionary leadership“, and ask the question, “Were these people really demonstrating visionary leadership?“
Abraham did not formulate a grand plan to lead his people out of Haran. When he left his home town he did not even know where he was going:
“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” (Heb. 11: 8)
Abraham did not concoct this plan. He did not dream up a vision of a better life in a new land, and then convince everyone else that it was a great idea. There is absolutely no evidence of visionary leadership here, no evidence of initiative, just simple obedience to the call of God.
Jesus came to earth to implement God’s great rescue plan for mankind. Throughout his ministry, Jesus continually asserted that he was doing his Father’s will, not his own. He did not come of his own accord, did not do his own work, did not choose his own disciples, nor even speak his own words:
“I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but to do the will of Him who sent me” (John 6:38)
“My food is to do the will of Him who sent me” (John 4:34)
“I do exactly what the Father has commanded me” (John 14:31)
“I do not seek my own will, but the will of Him who sent me” (John 5:30)
At every point Jesus wants us to understand that He is not implementing his own plans or speaking His own words; He is simply obeying the will of his Heavenly Father. His entire three years of ministry was one of complete submission and obedience to the Father’s will.
Ken Collins writes, “Like Moses, our Lord was sent into the world to lead a rescue mission. It was not some vague vision with an equally vague strategy that afforded the ideal opportunity for Him to display His leadership skills, but a perfect plan that had been worked out in full and final detail before the foundation of the world and which would succeed only if followed to the letter. If He had chosen to deviate from the path; to ad-lib instead of following the script; to exercise His own initiative instead of simply following instructions, the whole plan would have failed.
Because Jesus chose to obey we can learn nothing about vision and strategy by looking at Him as we could learn nothing from Moses before Him. Vision and strategy are the companions of innovation and self-assertion not of obedience and submission. It is not possible to simultaneously model both obedience and initiative in the things of God.”
Jesus was not a visionary leader, in the modern sense of the term. He was an obedient servant.
THE APOSTLE PAUL
At last we come to a Bible character who was a visionary leader! Saul (as he was initially called) did have a grand plan; one which he had formulated on his own initiative. He was going to rid the world of Christians! His plan was well underway when God stepped in and put a stop to it. Paul was punished and humbled. He was then made to submit to God’s plan, which he spent the rest of his life obediently implementing. As a Christian, Paul was not a visionary, entrepreneurial leader; he, also, was an obedient servant.
Throughout the Bible, what we see is servant leadership, rather than visionary leadership. (John Macarthur’s classic book, “The Book on Leadership”, provides an excellent treatise on the biblical model of servant leadership). The difference between these two styles of leadership is not one of mere semantics; they are diametrically opposed. The kind of biblical leadership exemplified in Moses, Paul and Jesus, is a far cry from the visionary, entrepreneurial leadership that keeps modern pastors ensconced in their offices, consumed with managerial tasks. Modern day visionary leadership involves implementing my will, my plans, my dreams, via cleverly constructed strategies that I have devised, and then convincing others to join with me. Servant leadership, on the other hand, involves laying aside my own schemes and obeying God’s will, putting his plans and purposes into effect.
“But my plan is God’s plan!” says the modern, visionary leader. “He has revealed it to me, and now I am sharing it with you!” I have two brief points to make regarding this kind of claim:
Firstly, I have been a member of churches long enough to see pastors come and go, each of whom has a different “vision from God” for the church. How is it, then, that when a new pastor comes to a church, his vision – his anointed plan – is always different from his predecessor’s? Over the decades I have seen individual churches pulled one way, then another, pushed from pillar to post and back again, by successive pastors who come and go, each with a different vision, apparently from God. Does God keep changing his mind? No. This simply illustrates the fact that each pastor’s vision for the church is his own, not God’s. Although each pastor may well have a sincere desire to serve God and extend His kingdom, he is also deeply influenced by his own inclinations, preferences, biases, personal tastes and individual proclivities. It is unavoidable that any plan or vision for the church which is formulated by a single individual, no matter how prayerfully, is bound to have a lot of “him” or “her” in it.
Secondly, I am convinced that the New Testament model of church leadership is a collaborative one, rather than the “lone ranger” style that is proposed by modern visionary leadership philosophy. In contrast to the Old Testament, where God’s Spirit only rested upon individual anointed leaders, all God’s people are now indwelt by the Holy Spirit and have direct access to God. Leadership, while still important in the New Testament church, is no longer the domain of individual, anointed prophets. Accordingly, the New Testament portrays a gradual evolution in its ecclesiology, culminating in Paul’s pastoral epistles which prescribe the appointment of a collaborative team of leaders in each church, comprised of elders and pastors (Acts 13:1-3; 14:23; Titus 1:5). This is the New Testament model for church leadership. This collaborative model provides protection against any single person’s well-meaning but skewed preferences dominating a church. It also provides ultimate protection against a single “visionary leader” leading a church into error and heresy.
The vital role of elders as leaders of God’s church is the topic of next week’s post.
 John Macarthur, “The Book on Leadership”, 2004, Wolgemuth & Associates