For many years now, “leadership” has been the buzzword both in the Church and in secular society. But this ubiquitous “L” word has, of late, become reduced to superficial “jump on the bandwagon” jargon-worn and overused.
Christian books and articles on the subject sometimes present rather secular ideas of leadership, garnished here and there with Bible passages and familiar pious clichés. Besides the occasional nod at the Christian writers of antiquity, very few modern works have plumbed the depths of the spiritual tradition of the Church.
Yet theologians like John Chrysostom (349–407) and Augustine (354–430) have so much more to say about spiritual leadership than modern gurus like Peter Drucker and John Maxwell. Their understanding of leadership is saturated with Scripture and shaped by the immensely rich theological, liturgical and spiritual wisdom of the Church.
Following closely the criteria set out by the New Testament (1 Tim 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9), these early theologians and spiritual writers put great emphasis on the character of leaders. The Christian leader is above all a spiritual leader. Spiritual maturity trumps other qualifications—education, social status, skill sets and even spiritual gifts.
Chrysostom, the “golden-mouthed preacher”, puts this arrestingly thus: “We must bring forward those who to a large extent surpass all others, and soar as much above them in excellence of spirit as Saul overtopped the whole Hebrew nation in bodily stature.”
For these early theologians, Christian leadership had to conform to scriptural requirements and ideals. We could say that their understanding of spiritual leadership was profoundly “beatitudinal”. For them, Christian leaders must, by God’s grace, aspire to embody the virtues and qualities presented in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:1–12).
For example, Christian leaders are to be humble, displaying an authentic “poverty of spirit” (Matt 5:3)—a total dependence on God that requires an emptying or denial of one’s self and its ambitions. Pride was what caused God’s most luminous angel, Lucifer, to fall and all the early theologians are unanimous on the supreme importance of humility.
This was the concern especially of Augustine, who writes persuasively that “unless humility precedes, accompanies and follows whatever we do, we will find that we have done little good to rejoice in. Pride will bereft us of everything”.
The Christian leader should also have a genuine concern for those whom God has placed in their care. He must have the capacity to mourn, that is, the ability to penetrate the plight of others—to step into their place, so to speak—and feel the weight of their sorrow and pain.
Only those who truly love can mourn in this sense. Those who love in this way, says Chrysostom, mirror God—for God is love (1 John 4:8)—and will receive “a great and unspeakable reward” in His everlasting kingdom.
Meekness is another quality that the godly leader should strive to cultivate. The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines meekness as “[being] deficient in spirit and courage”, and in the echo chambers of our culture, meekness is often taken as synonymous with weakness or flaccidity.
In the Bible, however, meekness has quite a different connotation. The 18th century Church father John Wesley describes the meek as “zealous for the Lord… guided by knowledge and tempered in every thought, word and work with the love of man and of God… They do not desire to extinguish passion, but employ it for the noblest of purposes”. In the Bible, meekness is power under control.
Godly leaders must always pursue justice and righteousness, and promote peace. But in so doing, they must expect resistance and opposition—sometimes from the very people whose interest they seek to serve.
The early fathers of the Church knew this all too well.
Athanasius (296–373), the Bishop of Alexandria and indefatigable defender of orthodoxy, was exiled no fewer than five times by Roman emperors at the instigation of powerful Christians who opposed him.
But godly leaders, shaped by the words of Jesus at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, must continue to serve their Lord faithfully, despite the opposition they might face.
As Chrysostom puts it, they must remind themselves that although their work is “indeed discharged on earth, it ranks among heavenly ordinances”.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).
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