by Andrew Zirschky
The last thing anyone needs is another article on leadership.
We’re a culture obsessed with the topic as any trip to the local bookstore will reveal. Faced with a declining Christian culture, church leaders in particular have become consumed with the latest and greatest notions of what it means to be a leader, and youth ministry is by no means immune. Nevertheless, it’s easy to listen to the voice of leadership gurus and get sucked into ways of leading that contradict our deepest held Christian beliefs. So, while the last thing anyone needs is yet another article on leadership, let me suggest we need plenty more discussion about sifting the leadership advice that’s out there—especially through a Christian framework. That’s the conversation I’d like to start with a brief look at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, an epistle that provides excellent theological grounding for reflecting on leadership.
When Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Corinth, leadership was clearly on his mind. Throughout the letter, but especially in the first six chapters, he critiques the secular models and images of leadership that have informed the life of this fledgling church. There were several expected qualities of leaders in Greco-Roman society, including attractiveness, social status, eloquence, and wisdom. It seems that Paul did not match up to their expected notions of a leader; church tradition holds that Paul wasn’t the finest physical specimen, and a close reading of the letter reveals that he defied their expectations for eloquence and wisdom. Their dissatisfaction with Paul, along with various leadership issues in the church appears to occasion Paul’s letter, and his specific critique seems to be that they haven’t sifted well the advice of the world around them.
Paul uses his letter to critique the secular notions of leadership that have been imported into the church while at the same time establishing a Christian understanding of leadership by using distinct terminology, definitions, and examples. Among the commonly accepted leadership practices of the day that Paul condemns in the first six chapters of 1 Corinthians are the following: The common practice of loyalty to particular political or social patrons, the clear demarcation of social status, the practice of boasting and self-promotion, and wholesale trust in the popular wisdom of secular leaders. Not much has changed, it would seem.
The various factions in the Corinthian church probably had little to do with theological differences. More likely, these factions were based upon social class and political allegiance. The practice “of aligning oneself with someone of established status and reputation in order to advance one’s own status” was widespread. Thus, we have the famous passage concerning Paul and Apollos from the third chapter of 1 Corinthians. What is going on there? Likely what’s happening is the mimicking of various factions and allegiances that would have occurred in secular society for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. In other words their allegiance wasn’t about being a disciple of Paul or Apollos as much as it was of being a disciple of one who could get them ahead, and increase their reputation in the end.
While flaunting an opulent and indulgent lifestyle was expected of leaders climbing the ladder in Greco-Roman society, Paul chastises those who do such in the church. While secular leadership was largely based on popular conceptions of wisdom, Paul asserts that God has revealed the wisdom of the world to be foolish. By pointing to the “wisdom” of the leaders who crucified Jesus, he exposes popular conceptions of wisdom to be insufficient even bankrupt. While popular leaders dazzled the people with powerful rhetoric and persuasion, Paul relies on the power of God rather than popular rhetoric and persuasion.
Ultimately, Paul paints the reality of apostolic leadership far different than the quarreled-over place of honor that the Corinthians had given it. “Contrary to the secular practices of leadership, Paul argues that the apostles are treated as the scum of the earth: they go hungry, and thirsty, are homeless and poorly clothed, they are cursed, slandered and persecuted.”
Paul turns the Corinthians’ expectations of leadership upside down by asserting that leaders belong to the Corinthians, not the Corinthians to their leaders. “These leaders whom they are exalting should be perceived as household servants of God.” (Clarke, 121. See 1 Cor. 4:1-2.) In fact, Paul refers to himself and Apollos as oikonomos—stewards of the house—and the implication is that they are entrusted with responsibility by the master of the house. Paul further says that the Corinthians should follow the leadership example of Stephanas by working and laboring—exactly what the secular model of leadership based upon honor and privilege was trying to avoid! He tells the Corinthians to labor in the Lord—an affront to their very idea of leadership. While Greco-Roman society focused on status and social rank, Paul names Christian “leaders on the grounds of their function” and their activity in work, service and humility. It’s a picture of leadership that is truly upside down when compared to the Corinthians’ dominant expectations. And it’s a picture that can be used to sift the advice of the surrounding world when it comes to the subject of leadership.
Christian leadership is ministry in motion: sitting on a board, making decisions on a committee, or being given authority and honor is simply not leadership in a Christian framework. Just like elsewhere in scripture, Paul employs servant imagery when speaking of Christian leaders. There are aspects of this we should carefully note. First, such leadership is not grounded in personal significance and social standing. To call oneself a servant is to proclaim that one has no standing, one has no significance in the task at hand.
Second, the work of a servant is not his own. The work belongs to the master of the house. In the midst of being overwhelmed in the work of Christian leadership, we should remember this is the master’s work. Likewise, if we are tempted to feel powerful and possessive in the midst of Christian leadership, we should remember, the ministry is not ours. When we are tempted to take pride and boast in our accomplishments, we should remember, the work is not ours.
Third, our leadership as servants is meant to point to Christ. Servants never point to themselves. This recalls to mind Grunewald’s Crucifixion, the painting that the great theologian Karl Bath had hanging over his desk. The work prominently features John the Baptist pointing to the crucified Christ. As leaders our job is to point to Christ as we say with John, “He must increase. I must decrease.”
It’s worth pointing out that the state of youth ministry leadership—dominated it seems by social media self-promotion and the celebration of minor celebrity—exactly contrasts that kind of attitude. We live by, “He must increase, so that I can increase.” Or, “If I increase, then he’ll increase.” And “If I increase, maybe nobody will notice he decreases.” But when we speak about being a leader or “a voice” in our churches and youth ministries, it would probably be wise to be reminded of John the Baptist, the original “voice of one crying in the desert,” who pointed beyond himself to Christ. Being a leader in Christian youth ministry doesn’t result from self-promotion, personal branding, or developing a tribe—despite what leadership gurus whisper in our ears.
Conclusions From Corinthians: Should we reject everything from secular leadership?
In spite of all that it said above, Paul does not condemn all secular principles of leadership. As I am advocating here, Paul it seems was an advocate for sifting traditions, not rejecting them outright. For example, while bashing the wisdom of the world he uses some of the same rhetorical devices (for example, “covert allusion” in 1 Corinthians 4:6) that would have been commonly used by the Sophists. In other places he refers to Christian leadership using many categories that would have been common to secular leadership. Paul does not recommend that they cut themselves off from the world (1 Cor. 5:9-10)—no, that’s going too far. What can we make of this? Namely, that Paul’s critique was aimed at the non-reflective use of secular leadership principles without careful concern for how they contrasted with the gospel, the example of Christ, and our calling as the body of Christ.
For example, in terms of its structure, the church is a unique institution, though it will evidence features consistent with all institutions. But in other respects, the church is unique as the “called out people of God,” the ecclesia, and we must live as such. For one, the church does not exist for itself. The board of directors and CEOs of corporations are called upon to protect the corporation, but we are called upon to live out the self-giving love of Christ. Our own institutional survival is not our greatest mission. The church is a corpus, a body, but it is not a corporation. It is the body of Christ, and Christ is the head. It exists by token of the grace of Christ, out of love for Christ, and it is sent to the world on behalf of Christ. If we do not recognize the points of incongruity, and where in fact the church is called to contrast society, then we will in fact become merely another corporation.
We must use our theological convictions to ground our practices and sift the advice of the world. On the other hand, we must be careful to not use theology to reject secular principles of leadership merely as an excuse for laziness or an unwillingness to change. It’s easy to reject the principles of business management simply because they’d require of us to develop skills, abilities, and ways of working that we don’t naturally possess.
Ultimately, the key is not for us to look for exactly the same type of leadership errors that Paul pointed out to the Corinthians. Leadership, after all, has changed greatly in 2,000 years. Rather, the model Paul establishes for us is the careful reflection and critique based upon theological reflection on who God is, and who we are as the church of Christ, in order to discern which principles of leadership we may accept, and which we must eschew. In the end, we don’t need another leadership book or article, we need to develop our ability to theologically sift the principles already at work in our ministries.