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Book Review

The Real Definition of a Gospel-Centered Leader

Posted: 4/23/2013

by Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson and Eric Gieger

A brief biblical theology of leadership by Matt Chandler.

This excerpt is taken from Chapter 9 of Creature of theWord: The Jesus-Centered Church by Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson and Eric Geiger.

Leadership is a hot topic. Myriads of books dissect it from every angle, universities offer doctoral degrees on it, and leadership gurus debate over the exact combination of personality types and attributes that make the perfect leader.

While much of this conversation is profitable, perhaps the attempt to produce a formula for making the ultimate leader has caused us to lose the wonder of God’s providence in choosing and using leaders. Throughout history, God has raised up men and women, some weak and some strong, some smart and some slow, in certain seasons and certain situations, to accomplish His overarching purposes in the world. A distinctly Christian understanding of leadership must be biblically rooted and theologically formed.

Even a cursory study of the biblical witness provides several prominent elements necessary for our understanding of leadership.

First, our leadership is a derivative leadership sourced in God Himself.

He establishes nations and governments and directs the course of the king’s heart (Rom. 13:1; Prov. 21:1). He dresses the lilies of the field and watches over the sparrow (Matt. 6:26–31; 10:29). This becomes even more explicit when talking about God’s sovereign leadership over His church. Jesus is the Head of the Church and has been given authority over all (Eph. 1:20; 5:23). He is the preeminent One and the “chief Shepherd” of the Church (Col. 1:18; 1 Pet. 5:4 hcsb). Every joint and ligament in the body of Christ is held together and fits together in Him (Eph. 4:16; Col. 2:19). God’s sovereign leadership over all is foundational for understanding human leadership.

In short, because our leadership is ultimately derived from God’s, it is always subservient, always secondary. In no way does this demean the role and responsibility of human leaders; rather, it defines the scope of human leadership. It puts it in its proper place and provides the right limitations. The apostle Paul discusses this in 2 Corinthians 5 when he describes the role and responsibility of the believer in ambassadorial terms (v. 20). We are sent to the world as agents on behalf of another. We are representatives carrying the message of one greater than ourselves.

Second, God raises up leaders.

They are born under His auspices. They are elected under His watch. They rise to the occasion under His reign. They are given a voice by His decree. He builds up platforms and dismantles platforms. He gives some of them long seasons of influence, while others have shorter windows in which to serve.

Yet in all of this, there is mystery. God’s sovereign reign over leaders does not diminish the freedom for humanity to seize opportunities. Consider, for example, Mordecai’s wisdom to Queen Esther: “If you keep silent at this time, liberation and deliverance will come to the Jewish people from another place, but you and your father’s house will be destroyed. Who knows, perhaps you have come to your royal position for such a time as this” (Esth. 4:14 hcsb).

In this passage we see that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted (namely, that deliverance will come to His people), but Esther still had the opportunity to act, to lead. God’s sovereignty doesn’t diminish our responsibility or opportunity.

God doesn’t call the qualified; He qualifies the called. How often we see Him in Scripture calling the unexpected and the average into significant roles of leadership. In some sense, there is no concrete mold or predictable pattern for the person God raises up to lead. Consider the calling of Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery. Moses was filled with reluctance and anxiety. He was slow and hesitant in speech. How was he to be God’s mouthpiece?

But Moses replied to the Lord, “Please, Lord, I have never been eloquent — either in the past or recently or since You have been speaking to Your servant — because I am slow and hesitant in speech.”

Yahweh said to him, “Who made the human mouth? Who makes him mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, Yahweh? Now go! I will help you speak and I will teach you what to say” (Exod. 4:10–12 hcsb).

Samuel was called to anoint the new king of Israel, knowing it would be one of Jesse’s sons. However, even this godly judge of Israel forgot that God qualifies those He calls. Samuel was looking for certain outward indicators of who this next king would be, but God shows us through the calling of David that a certain age, appearance, or pecking order is not God’s criteria for leadership:

“In peace,” he replied, “I’ve come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and said, “Certainly the Lord’s anointed one is here before Him.”

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or his stature, because I have rejected him. Man does not see what the Lord sees, for man sees what is visible, but the Lord sees the heart.”

Jesse called Abinadab and presented him to Samuel. “The Lord hasn’t chosen this one either,” Samuel said. Then Jesse presented Shammah, but Samuel said, “The Lord hasn’t chosen this one either.” After Jesse presented seven of his sons to him, Samuel told Jesse, “The Lord hasn’t chosen any of these.” Samuel asked him, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” he answered, “but right now he’s tending the sheep.” Samuel told Jesse, “Send for him. We won’t sit down to eat until he gets here.” So Jesse sent for him. He had beautiful eyes and a healthy, handsome appearance.

Then the Lord said, “Anoint him, for he is the one.” So Samuel took the horn of oil, anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and the Spirit of the Lord took control of David from that day forward. Then Samuel set out and went to Ramah” (1 Sam. 16:5–13 hcsb).

The testimony of God calling the ordinary and unexpected continues in the New Testament. Jesus’ calling of the first disciples is a wonderful example of God choosing the ordinary, uneducated and common to engage in a work that is extraordinary, brilliant and supernatural. The apostle Paul reminds the Corinthian church to consider their calling. They were not wise. They lacked power and influence and a good pedigree (1 Cor. 1:26–31). Yet, He chose them to be His ambassadors to carry the most important message in the world.

Third, leadership is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Old Testament bears the story of how God called and anointed a specific group of people for specific functions. Prophets, priests and kings each fulfilled distinct roles and responsibilities in the leading of God’s people.

In the New Testament, leadership is listed in one of the apostle Paul’s list of spiritual gifts, found in Romans 12:6–8 (hcsb): “According to the grace given to us, we have different gifts . . . if exhorting, in exhortation; giving with generosity; leading, with diligence” (italics added).

Obviously, a common grace of leadership is extended to men and women who are not endowed with the gift of the Holy Spirit and are not believers in Jesus Christ. But the Scriptures make a specific point that there is a unique “gift” of leadership, sovereignly doled out to some for the edification of the Church and the building up of the saints. And it is to be stewarded with diligence.

The primary implication for leaders is that there is no room for boasting. God graciously gives gifts, leaving no room for haughty and prideful leadership.

Finally, godly leaders are concerned with God’s agenda.

Godly leadership is stewardship. It is the recognition that personal agendas, entitlements, vainglory and selfish ambition must be put to death. A leader who is transformed by the gospel seeks not to make a name for himself but to lift high the name of Jesus. His obsession is not with building his own empire, but living for the kingdom of God.

We see this example in Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Caleb, David, Isaiah, Daniel, the apostles and in the Lord Jesus Himself. The primary declaration of the godly leader is, “Yes, Yahweh, we wait for You in the path of Your judgments. Our desire is for Your name and renown” (Isa. 26:8 hcsb).

The Scriptures are replete with examples of leadership, both godly and wicked, giving us several key theological points to extrapolate and ponder when considering leadership — its source, its purpose, its requirements upon those who lead. But what takes us from here to the place where we can view the distinguishing marks of gospel-centered, Jesus-centered leadership?

What Is Gospel-Centered Leadership?

Most Christian approaches to leadership simply find good and bad examples of leaders in the Bible and say, “Be like this,” or “Don’t be like that.” Although the Bible certainly provides great examples of leadership, these approaches often assume the Bible is a book primarily about you and what you are to do, rather than primarily about God and what He has done in Christ.

Gospel-centered leadership does not begin with the command to imitate, but with the good news that God is gracious and has sent His Son to take our sins and give us life.

So, yes, gospel-centered leadership may end up looking like Nehemiah or Moses, but that’s because it’s grounded in being united to the One toward whom they point: Jesus. When you’re united to the One who died on the cross and rose from the grave, then your life (and your leadership) is shaped by dying to self and allowing Christ to live in you.

In light of all of this, how can we best understand and define leadership, specifically gospel-centered leadership?

Jesus-centered leadership is God-focused, Christ-exalting and Spirit-led influence toward a kingdom agenda. Gospel-centered leadership is inextricably linked to the work of the triune God in redemption. The gospel is Trinitarian. The Father sends, the Son accomplishes, and the Spirit applies. Thus, gospel-centered leadership is marked by its redemptive influence and kingdom initiatives.

This definition is in accord with the theological grid distilled from the Scriptures. Gospel-centered leadership focuses on the glory of God and is grounded in God’s reign and rule.

Gospel-centered leadership aims to exalt Christ Jesus in all things and is sourced in His Person and work. He is the Chief Shepherd, the Senior Pastor and Head of the body.

Gospel-centered leadership recognizes that we cannot afford to be self-directed in our influence; rather we must be Spirit-led. All of our influence and inertia is toward advancing the kingdom of God by pushing back the darkness.

This excerpt is taken from Chapter 9 of Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church by Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson and Eric Geiger. Copyright © 2012. Used by permission of B&H Publishing Group.