Leadership in the New Testament

I recently completed a study looking for biblical themes of leadership in the Old Testament. I followed that study up with a look at the New Testament. Between the two, I have started to develop a theology of leadership. There are an overwhelming number of books on leadership, but I’ve found it personally satisfying to explore Scripture myself, seeking principles of biblical leadership.

Introduction

The New Testament (NT) provides numerous examples of leadership. It is not a step-by-step instruction manual of modern leadership theory, but it is God’s word that is valuable for “teaching,” “reproof,” and “correction” (2 Tim. 3:16, NIV).[1] As such, Christians can draw a number of themes found within Scripture to develop new leaders and leadership within themselves. It is not as simple as searching for the word “leader” in the NT, as there is no “one-to-one correlation” between the English word “leader” and any NT Greek word.[2] Themes can be found in the example Jesus set during His earthly ministry with the Apostles. A student of the Bible seeking leadership themes should also review Acts as well as Paul’s Pastoral Letters, from which one may build a model of biblical leadership.

Many may argue that leadership themes found in the Bible are outdated. They may believe modern leadership theories based on the insights of cognitive psychology and other academic fields will produce superior results. While useful insights may be found in these studies, there is no better source than seeking guidance from the One who created the human mind and its need for relationships (Gen. 1:27). The principles found in the Bible are timeless and still applicable to leaders in all professions today.

This post does not survey all of the leadership themes found within the Bible but succinctly reviews three major NT leadership themes that can and should be used by leaders today. Christian leaders should be of good character, seek guidance through prayer, and organize others.

Quality of Character

Godly leaders must have good character (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 2:1-2). Leaders set the example for others to follow (Titus 2:6-8). Whether leading as a professional, government official, in the home, or in ministry, the character of the leader will be reflected in their followers. As Lutter and Dodson highlight in their chapter in Biblical Leadership, “it is entirely too possible for a well-meaning disciple” to be “deceived by one who mentors poorly.”[3] Luke outlines three timeless characteristics a leader should reflect. They will be spiritual, wise, and of good reputation. These characteristics appear in Acts 6:3, “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty” (ESV).[4] Mounce also highlights the importance of personal character and outlines leaders must have character “above reproach,” are “able to teach,” and are “competent to lead.”[5] Character is just as important today as it was in the first century. Not only do Judases continue to plague the church for personal gain (John 12:4-6), but far too many men in ministry have fallen short of God’s standards in recent years. Examples are the numerous Catholic Priests and Protestant Pastors that have been convicted of sexually abusing members of their flocks.[6] God entrusts leaders with authority over resources and people (1 Tim 3:4-5). It requires men of good character to properly use that authority to manage resources and lead the people entrusted to their care.

Seek Guidance Through Prayer

Another NT theme is prayer. Not only did Paul exhort Christians to pray without ceasing, but Jesus himself modeled prayer for His followers (1 Thess. 5:17; Matt. 6:5-13; Luke 11:9). Christians in leadership positions must seek God’s will through prayer. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is recorded to have been in prayer regularly. Jesus sought prayer to rest (Matt. 14:23), for strength (Matt. 26:39; Mark 14:38), to bless (Matt. 19:13), to intercede (Luke 22:32; John 17:9), and for guidance (Mark 14:36). An example highlighted by Lopez in “Mission and Ministry of the Early Church” is Jesus praying for guidance before choosing the twelve disciples (Luke 6:12-16).[7] This pattern is followed again by the Apostles when they sought guidance in selecting Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:14-26).[8] Another example set in the NT for leaders is to pray on behalf of the people under them. Before the crucifixion, Jesus prayed for His disciples, and in establishing the early church, Paul prayed for his congregations (John 17:9; 1 Thess. 5:17; 2 Thess. 1:11). Although this is a short survey of prayer, it is clear from these NT examples that Christian leaders should be praying. This is important in a fallen world, where imperfect men are called to leadership. As noted above, godly leaders must pray for themselves to have rest and strength. They must also pray for the needs of those under their care.

Temptation also integrates with the first theme of godly character. Jesus instructed His disciples to pray so they would not be led into temptation. Christ did this when He was in the Garden of Gethsemane and in the example of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 22:46; Luke 11:4). Through prayer, a Christian leader will be following the NT examples of Jesus and the Apostles in seeking God’s will and guidance.

Leaders Organize

In addition to a strong character and prayer, Christian leaders must organize the people and resources under their charge. God made each of us uniquely, and as believers we are all gifted differently (Eph. 4:7). Leaders must understand and recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each of their followers. Christ gave His church “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers” to do “works of service” (Eph. 4:11-12). Just as Jesus sent out the twelve to act on His behalf and in His name, so are Christians today.[9] Christian leaders, whether in ministry or other occupations, must realize that they cannot do everything themselves. NT figures in leadership positions had to prioritize and delegate (Matt. 10:1; Acts 6:1-7). The Apostles understood their need to leverage others and prioritized this in their ministries. Lopez highlights the dangers of not effectively organizing in her essay, warning that “spiritual burnout” leads many pastors to leave ministry because they did intelligently and firmly employ delegation. She highlights that many do not recognize “our limitations as humans.”[10] This example was set by Jesus in the mission narrative (Matt 10:1-4; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 9:1-2), where He commissions his disciples to be his representatives. They were empowered by the Lord to proclaim the gospel to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel,”[11] A leaders need to organize becomes clear in Ephesians when Paul wrote, “From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). Paul described the church as a body, with individual parts working together. Christ is the Head, but He guides and uses human leaders to organize His church and complete His work in the world.

Conclusion

As is clear, the NT is not a step-by-step instruction manual of modern leadership theory, but readers can draw a number of themes found within Scripture to develop leadership. Themes are found in how Jesus lead His earthly ministry and with the Apostles during the Early Church. Some have argued the leadership themes found in the Bible are outdated. Yet, as this paper has laid out, the principles found in the Bible are timeless and still applicable to leaders today. It did not survey all leadership themes found in the Bible but succinctly reviewed how Christian leaders should be of good character, seek guidance through prayer, and organize others.

Character is critical, as the character of the leader will be reflected in their followers. If the leader has a flawed character, he will lead his followers astray. A godly leader will be spiritual, wise, and of good reputation (Acts 6:3). The NT also shows that leaders will be dependent on prayer. The example of prayer is set by Jesus, Paul, and others in the NT. Prayer is important, as leaders are imperfect men in a fallen world and it enables leaders to seek God’s will, find rest (Matt. 14:23), gain strength (Matt. 26:39; Mark 14:38), bless others (Matt. 19:13), intercede (Luke 22:32; John 17:9), seek guidance (Mark 14:36), and avoid temptation (Luke 22:46; Luke 11:4). Lastly, Christian leaders must organize. To do this, they need to recognize and leverage the uniqueness of those under their charge. God did not design people to work alone. Paul describes the church as a body, with each member functioning uniquely based on their individual gifts. Godly leaders will recognize how to organize their people to complete their “works of service” (Eph. 4:12).

Notes


* Featured Image. Jesus Discourses with His Disciples, n.d., public domain, Logos Media Archive.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

[2] Robert Stacy, “Following Jesus in the Kingdom of God: Leadership in the Synoptic Gospels,” in Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday Leader, ed. Benjamin Forrest and Chet Roden (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017), 289.

[3] Boyd Lutter and Nicholas Dodson, “Matured Discipleship: Leadership in the Synoptics and Acts,” in Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday Leader, ed. Benjamin Forrest and Chet Roden (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017), 339.

[4] Rene Lopez, “Mission and Ministry of the Early Church: Leadership in Acts,” in Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday Leader, ed. Benjamin Forrest and Chet Roden (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017), 372.

[5] William Mounce, The Noble Task: Leadership in the Pastoral Epistles,” in Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday Leader, ed. Benjamin Forrest and Chet Roden (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017), 439.

[6] Philip Lawler, “The Crisis Continues,” First Things, May 21, 2019, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/05/the-crisis-continues.

[7] Lopez, “Mission and Ministry of the Early Church,” 372.

[8] Lutter and Dodson, “Matured Discipleship,” 335.

[9] Stacy, “Following Jesus in the Kingdom of God,” 322.

[10] Lopez, “Mission and Ministry of the Early Church,” 372.

[11] Stacy, “Following Jesus in the Kingdom of God,” 329.

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