The Myth of Christian Leadership

Tomorrow I plan to review Al Mohler’s new book, The Conviction to Lead.

But before I do, I wanted to share my own view of Christian leadership, which some have described as paradigm-shifting.

In Reimagining Church, I argue that there is no special position or office called “leader” in the New Testament.

Some who haven’t read my work have misconstrued my position to suggest that I believe there are “no leaders” in the church . . . or that there shouldn’t be any.

Not true.

My position is the opposite. I believe that the New Testament envisions all Christians as leaders in their own sphere of ministry and gifting.

To put it another way, according to the New Testament, there is no clergy/laity distinction. Instead, all Christians are kleros (clergy) and all Christians are laos (laity).

The clergy/laity dichotomy is a tragic fault line that runs throughout the history of Christendom. Yet despite the fact that multitudes have taken the low road of dogmatism to defend it, this dichotomy is without biblical warrant.

The word “laity” is derived from the Greek word laos. It simply means “the people.” Laos includes all Christians—including elders.

The word appears three times in 1 Peter 2:9–10, where Peter refers to “the people [laos] of God.” Never in the New Testament does it refer to only a portion of the assembly. It didn’t take on this meaning until the third century. (I trace the historical roots in Pagan Christianity.)

The term “clergy” finds its roots in the Greek word kleros. It means “a lot or an inheritance.” The word is used in 1 Peter 5:3, where Peter instructs the elders against being “lords over God’s heritage [kleros]” (kjv).

Significantly, kleros is never used to refer to church “leaders.” Like laos, it refers to God’s people—for they are His heritage. According to the New Testament, then, all Christians are “clergy” (kleros) and all are “laity” (laos). We are the Lord’s heritage and the Lord’s people.

To frame it differently, the New Testament doesn’t dispose of clergy. It makes all believers clergy.

Therefore, the clergy/laity dichotomy is a postbiblical concept that’s devoid of any scriptural warrant. It’s also a bothersome menace to what God has called the church to be—a functioning body.

There’s no hint of the clergy/laity or minister/layman schema in the history, teaching, or vocabulary of the New  Testament. This schema is a religious artifact that stems from the postapostolic disjunction of secular and spiritual.

In the secular/spiritual dichotomy, faith, prayer, and ministry are deemed the exclusive properties of an inner, sacrosanct world. A world that is detached from the whole fabric of life. But this disjunction is completely foreign to the New Testament ethos where all things are to bring glory to God—even the stuff of everyday life (1 Cor. 10:31).

I’m not alone in taking this view.

The term ‘laity’ is one of the worst in the vocabulary of religion and ought to be banished from the Christian conversation.

~ Karl Barth

The clergy-laity tradition has done more to undermine New Testament authority than most heresies.

~ James D.G. Dunn

The clergy-laity dichotomy is a direct carry-over from pre-Reformation Roman Catholicism and a throwback to the Old Testament priesthood. It is one of the principal obstacles to the church effectively being God’s agent of the kingdom today because it creates a false idea that only ‘holy men,’ namely, ordained ministers, are really qualified and responsible for leadership and significant ministry. In the New Testament there are functional distinctions between various kinds of ministries but no hierarchical division between clergy and laity.

~ Howard Snyder

So what is the myth of Christian leadership?

The myth is that some are leaders and others aren’t . . . that some are part of the “clergy” class and others are part of the poor, miserable “laity.”

Now if all Christians are leaders, as I’m suggesting, then what is leadership? That’s an important question.

For years, I’ve held that leadership contains four elements:

  1. Persuasion. I recently discovered that Stanley Hauerwas defines leadership this way also.
  2. Influence. I recently learned that John Maxwell, the leadership guru, said, “Leadership is really nothing more than influence.” I’ve never read a book by Maxwell, but I stumbled across this quote last year on Twitter and found it interesting.
  3. Giving direction – leadership is showing others “the next step,” which goes along with persuasion and influence.
  4. Leadership “leads” or “points” to something/someone – for the Christian, it always points to Christ. Either in faith or action. As believers we lead/point/guide/direct people (both Christian and non-Christian) to the ultimate Leader, Jesus.

All four aspects of leadership are accomplished by precept and/or example.

For instance . . .

If you have a Facebook page and you recommend a book to someone, and only one person is persuaded or influenced to buy that book, then you just led them by your FB update.

If you decide to leave Facebook, stating your reasons why, and one person is persuaded by what you wrote to also leave Facebook, then you just led them by your example.

In both cases, you were leading.

If you’ve ever given direction to someone and they’ve heeded it, you were leading.

If you’ve ever corrected someone, and they received it, you were leading.

If you’ve ever led (brought) someone to Jesus Christ, you were leading.

If you’ve ever written a blog post, article, or book, and you influenced someone to take an action or adopt a viewpoint, then you were leading them.

If you’ve ever persuaded another human being to do anything, be it your spouse, child, parent, friend, co-worker, employee, etc., then you were leading them.

This makes all Christians leaders.

I lead every time I post a blog post, write a book, counsel someone, speak in front of an audience, or release a podcast message. And so do you (if you write or speak).

Leadership can be good or it can be bad. It can be helpful or harmful. It can be effective or weak. And, of course, some people influence more people than others based on the size of their “platform.”

“Great leaders” are people who by virtue of their lifestyle and wisdom have many followers who safely trust their guidance.

But the fact that they have large followings doesn’t entitle them to wield the special title of “leader” at the exclusion of everyone else. Unfortunately, many Christians obsess over being a “leader” today. Some to the point of frenzy.

Leadership exists, period.

And we all lead in various and sundry ways and arenas. We just differ in the kinds of things into which we lead others.

(I’ve heard some retort to this idea saying, “If all are leaders, then none are leaders.” But that doesn’t follow. It’s like saying, “If all are members of the body, then none are members of the body.” Or “if all are part of the priesthood of believers, then none are part of the priesthood.” This logic doesn’t work.)

That said, here are 10 things to consider about “leadership” and why the common idea that some Christians are leaders and others aren’t is a myth in my view (note that an entire book can be written to expand each point):

1. The New Testament never uses the term “leader.” In some translations, you’ll find the word “leader” only in a few texts. Hebrews 13:17, 14 and Romans 12:8, namely. But these are questionable translations of the Greek words. Those words are better translated as “guard,” “give care,” or “guide.” It’s the verb, not the noun. These texts almost certainly have in view the more spiritually mature overseers and elders. Overseers/elders are not “the” leaders of a local church. They simply lead in a specific capacity that’s different from the other members of the church. For details, see Reimagining Church, Chapter 9-10.

2. Overseers (also called elders and shepherds in the New Testament) are part of the DNA of the church, but we have misunderstood these functions as “offices” that have inherent authority over other believers. Overseers/elders/shepherds certainly lead, but so do prophets, apostles, evangelists, teachers, exhorters, those who have gifts of mercy, helps, and every other function in the body of Christ. Christians have authority only in so far as they are revealing the mind of Christ is the authority. Again, all Christians lead according to their specific gifting. That’s the argument of 1 Corinthians 12.

3. Jesus Christ turned the common idea of leadership on its head. He did this in two ways. He took dead aim at the positional/titular view of leadership that was common among the Jews (Matt. 23:8-13). And He took dead aim at the hierarchical/top-down view of leadership that was common among the Gentiles (Matt. 20:25-28; Luke 22:25-26). For details, see Reimagining Church, Chapter 8.

4. Many Christians and churches have adopted and baptized the business model of leadership over/against the New Testament vision of leadership. Properly conceived and functioning, the ekklesia is a spiritual organism whose source is divine life. It’s not a human-constructed institution. Once this is fully understood, our understanding of leadership changes dramatically.

5. The New Testament doesn’t emphasize leadership. It emphasizes following Jesus (who is now in the Spirit) and living as a servant of Christ and a servant to others. According to the New Testament, all are gifted, all are servants (“ministers”), all are priests, and all have ministry as members of the body. In addition, all are called to be examples of Jesus.

6. None of the many words used for “office” in the Greek language are ever employed to describe a function or role in the church. New Testament scholar Robert Banks makes an indisputable case for this in his seminal book, Paul’s Idea of Community.

7. The doctrine of “covering” was invented in the post-apostolic period, and it has no biblical merit. See Reimagining Church, Chapters 11-13 (entitled “Who is Your Covering?”) for details.

8. The modern obsession over leadership isn’t helpful. If Christians spent their time focusing on following Jesus Christ and sharing whatever He has given them with others (= functioning as a member of the body), opposed to obsessing over how to be a “leader,” the Kingdom of God would be better off. So it seems to me anyway. (My friend Len Sweet has written a book emphasizing followership over leadership. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard good things about it.)

9. Hebrews 13:17 confirms the idea that leadership is linked to persuasion. In that text, some translations have, “Obey them that are over you.” The Greek word for “obey” in this passage is not hupakuo, the garden-variety word for obedience used elsewhere in Scripture. It’s peitho (middle-passive form), which means to yield to persuasion. The author of Hebrews was simply saying, “Allow yourselves to be persuaded by those who are more mature in Christ than you are.” The word “over” and “rule” in some translations is a horrible reflection of the Greek. And according to Peter and Luke, elders/overseers aren’t over the flock, they are among it (1 Pet. 5:1, NIV; Acts 20:28, NASB). See Reimagining Church, the lengthy Appendix for details.

10. Throughout the New Testament, only Jesus Christ is said to be the “head” of the church, which implies both source and rule. All leadership flows from His headship organically when a member of His body reveals His mind and will in a given situation. Christ has the power of speech, and He speaks through His body (this is the argument of 1 Corinthians 12:1ff.). And we all share the mind of Christ. His mind is not the exclusive property of a few.

Point: you don’t have to be an author, a pastor, or an elder of a local church to be a leader. In fact, some of the greatest Christian leaders I’ve known were neither.

Focus on following Jesus and you will be leading others naturally by your example, let alone by the things you say.

No doubt, someone reading this post may object to some of these points. And that’s fine. None of us can claim perfect insight. However, I address every objection to them I’ve heard (and more) in detail in Reimagining Church, which is a 320-page book. This is merely a preface to the subject.

For whatever it’s worth . . .

Is it possible that much of Christianity today is focused on being a leader when it should rather be focused on how to follow Jesus Christ?

Check back tomorrow to see my opinion of Mohler’s new book on leadership.

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  • Jim Lewis

    Perhaps the word we should be striving for is “Steward” which is repeatedly referred to in the NT. I feel author Scott Rodin covers this is The Steward Leader.

  • Laurie King

    There is a term, ‘brain plasticity’. Look it up. It really explains how people can get trapped in their thinking. The longer we stay in an institution, the more entrenched we become in our thinking according to that institutions rules. Jesus had the same trouble, asking his hearers to open up their eyes, listen with their ears and understand with their hearts. The pity was, most could not.

  • Laurie King

    I like to think that if a person is led by the Holy Spirit, that person is a leader. Plain and simple.

  • anewcreation

    Hi Frank,

    To me this is one of the many lies, misunderstandings, misinterpreations of whatever one chooses to call it, that man has ever allowed to come into the simplicity and the sanctity of what it means to follow Christ and to be his hands and feet on this earth. Even today I struggle to comprehend and to not hurt deeply inside from the fact that Christians by the thousands are deceived to believe that the point of “doing church” or being a member of one is to train as a Leader to in turn have authority and control over others. Many so called Christian Leaders may not admit to seeing their role and purpose as such, but I have seen this personally and I know this is a cancer that is eating the life of the Spirit in Western churches primarily. How can intelligent, gifted, and essentially good men turn a blind eye to this basic truth you speak off here, is beyond my own understanding and comprehension. I tried to fight the system and became a casualty like so many thousands out there, and I am now happily “leading” far, far from it. It is clear to me the Devil is behind this massive deception and so many others, but I will continue to proclaim through my blog as you do the truth in Scripture so that many more can come to know freedom in Christ and the purpose for which they were called.

    God bless you


  • Stephen J. Higgins

    Thank you… I will look forward to the discovery of your “now what” in your books. It is a process that takes patience to be sure. Between you and N.T. Wright there seems to be encouragement in the process of transformation of not only of one’s self but of the local body of Jesus. In the blogs of Bonhoeffer’s day (radio and newspaper) and other like him, they sought to bring light and transformation, in times of struggle. We are living in a unique time of our own historical journey of faith. The Church is in need of the priesthood of believers to express the wonder of the Gospel and Father’s Kingdom because, there are those who believe in a utopian world and it is desired and wanted by them. There isn’t such a world of utopian possibilities it always leads to dystopian evil, the facts of history scream with the billions terrorized by such desire for utopian dreams. “Unless we have the courage to fight for a revival of wholesome reserve between man and man, we shall perish in an anarchy of human values…. Socially it means the renunciation of all place-hunting (positional power!), a break with the cult of the “star,”… (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Prison Letters).
    Modern evangelicalism gives stage to the “star” worship leader or band, pastoral pundits, even book writers (thankful not like you and others!), it is “human” nature, that is why we need christianly thinking to dominate. Harry Blamires’ “The Christian Mind,” which to me is a modern classic on Christian thought, remains an amazingly relevant and profound work today. In fact when my dad gave me a copy in 1970 (it only took me two years to finally read it, well I was 14) it started me up a path into where I am today, thankfully my family also. Frank, keep hammering – I will too as with my giftings, it is what makes up the symphony of the Kingdom. Peace and Joy always. Stephen

  • Frank Viola

    Thx. for the comment. I answer the “now what” in “Reimagining Church” and “Finding Organic Church” (which is all about early apostolic ministry and how it’s fleshed out today). Given the prevailing paradigmns that exist about church and ministry today, it takes some work to unfold it all and a lot of answering objections. Blog posts are just too limited for it.

    Also, those books aren’t arm-chair philosophy; they were hammered out on the anvil of my experience of watching the principles worked out in Christian communities over the last 20+ years.

  • Stephen J. Higgins

    What you have shared is true, the priesthood of believers with our giftings released and functioning has to happen! After a number of years serving in churches and growing up in “low” end of the theological spectrum and now blending in the ancient modes of worship more “high”, I am beginning to hear again the release of the community to serve one another. This is refreshing to me and a concern.
    My concern is “It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Chapter 1 “Community”, p. 20. Taken from us because we are ashamed (in general) of the gospel or have made it something it is not. Costly grace is not taught, speaking up for Jesus isn’t taught and life-giving is thought of as prosperity not purity of life. Even purity is thought of as one who follows rules “goody-goody church lady” to be made fun of and not a transforming of one’s mind “to know the good and perfect pleasing will of the Father.” We have to be counter culture in the face of any governmential heresy. State and Church relationship is the question of the hour in our country, the church full of leaders need to stand and speak and be willing to sacrifice – that is why we need the priesthood of believers – Christianly Thinking people (priesthood)!! First off, I would simply assert that the concept of the state is pagan in origin and is alien to the New Testament is wrong. Government is a New Testament idea that does not imply any particular form of state or society. Government is ordained by God. I would reject those bases for government which project the state arising out of the character of man: i.e., Aristotle, medieval Catholicism, Hegelianism; as well as those theories based in man’s sin and need of government for restraint in a chaotic world: i.e., the Reformation tradition. My christianly thinking is a second view is which is more not less biblical, affirming that government is “from above” rather than organized “from below.” I would also affirm Christ as the basis for government because He is the facilitator of all creation, the goal of government, its Lord, and its source of authority and power. Sorry just had to explain a bit it is a hot button I push sometimes when it comes to priesthood issues!!
    Back to subject: The releasing of the priesthood of believers along with those that are guides, encouragers, knowledgeable, seasoned by life and buffetings (as Paul would say), those who see fellowship as a gift of grace…then the transformation of the modern this broken “evangelicalisms” can take place and the ancient restored. To be missional is to be Kingdom centristic but also local koinonia rich. That as you have rightly said takes biblical leadership, from all.
    The question to you is “Now What” you have answered the “So What” …the “now what” is harder, when you have colleges and universities that are in the business centristic mode (I was a College president and it is why I am not one now – just teaching at one it is easier to influence) but not biblically centristic. What is your “now what” leadership going to do to get the church back to thinking christianly?
    Practical steps….Cheers!! Stephen

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  • Frank Viola

    Good points. There are good leaders and not-so good leaders. So some influence better than others and toward better goals than others. But leadership “is,” as it were.

  • Christine Sine

    I have always thought that the true purpose of leadership is to enable others to become all that God intends them to be. It is not a position of privilege but rather of function. Not so much giving answers but helping others to discern the questions that will enable them, with the help of the Spirit of God to discern the answer that is right for them. I like your comments about influencing, though I also struggle because often, we as leaders try in influence others to become like we are or to make decisions like we would rather than equipping them to make the decisions that the Spirit of God places on their hearts.

  • Kelly J Youngblood

    Why is it that you often post stuff that has to do with exactly what I am working on at the time I see it? I have 2 projects that I am working on that I will be able to use this as a resource for. One is to find some stuff I wrote to a friend a few years ago about the priesthood of all believers and update it and post it to my blog, and the other is some curriculum I’m writing for a class at church about women leaders in the Bible.

  • Brian Eubanks

    I’m reminded of something that happened to me back when I was a college student working towards a “secular” degree. I was having a one-on-one lunch with a pastor at the local church. I was sharing with him my desire to take some Bible courses, and do ministry work in the church. He flat out told me that I couldn’t do both, that I would have to choose between being a layman in the church or doing ministry in the church. Being 20 years old at that time, I believed what he said.

  • Fitzy

    Fantastic Frank, hale the day when the body can function they way YHWH intended.