No Biblical Leadership? Oh, boy…

A little while back David Fitch was lamenting on his normally excellent blog how corporate America has redefined “Biblical Leadership” for the church. In fact, he suggested the we should invent a new word to describe what leaders do in the church.

So do we throw the word out and invent a new word that will describe only what Christians do when they lead in the church?

Because I do respect Dr. Fitch’s writings, the next couple of posts will look at some of his comments about Biblical Leadership.

1. The word “leader” itself is rarely used in the New Testament. 

Fitch rightly points out  that the word for leader, arche, is rarely used in NT literature. Instead the word for servant or serving, diakonia, is used. He thus concludes, “The NT writers therefore used a word to describe leadership in the church which contrasted violently to the current secular notions of office.” Not so fast.

Today, leadership scholars make a large distinction between positional leadership and other types of leadership (like moral, charismatic, open, situational, adaptive, etc.). Positional leadership is just what it sounds like, leadership based on the position you hold in an organization. The leader appeals to the authority of the group to get people to do things. The Greek word for leader, arche, is this kind of structured leadership. In fact, we get our English word “hierarchy” from it.

So here is one problem. As the New Testament was being written, a structured relationship did not exist in or among the early church, therefore there was no need to use the word arche.  The church existed mostly in small gatherings scattered throughout the Roman empire. Fitch argues that arche was not used because it typified a different kind of leadership. Perhaps, but in fact it never fit the situation of the writers. The hierarchy of the church didn’t come until later.

Fitch continues to argue that “the NT…appears to carefully avoid the models of authority available in surrounding society for defining leadership in the church. All this suggests that using the word ‘leader’ as has been defined by the business culture of the N America is highly dubious for the church and, dare I say, ‘unbiblical.'” That’s just too big a jump for several reasons.

First, there is no consensus on North American leadership in business today; Fitch’s statement is far too broad. See Goethals and Sorenson.

Second, there are a number of secular leadership writers who argue against the traditionally rigid corporations of the 40’s and 50’s. Two great ones are leadership practitioner Peter Block in his great book Stewardship and Charlene Li in her marvelous Open Leadership.

Third, the values of a leader always influence leadership, indeed, values are what leadership is all about, as the classic leadership scholars Burns and Heifetz make clear.

This conversation should focus on the values of individuals, not a faux division between church and business leadership. More to come.

6 thoughts on “No Biblical Leadership? Oh, boy…

  1. Very, very interesting. Here is the first question I have: How does the New Testament refer to it’s own leaders? Paul and Peter, to name a few. It seems to me that there are several passages (ACTS) that refer to what appears a very hierarchical structure, with the 12 apostles kind of running things. Then Paul gets let into the inner circle and kind of builds his own authority (isn’t AUTHORITY equated with leadership in some way?) and pretty much tells the entire church how they are supposed to do things. Isn’t that also a form of structured leadership? I don’t understand how you can look at the early church and say that there were no authoritative leadership structure in place. Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    1. Aha! Leave it to a business guy to ask good questions.

      You bring up a great point about authority. You could also have mentioned choosing the seven in Acts 6. But authority and position are only sometimes linked. Looking at the 12, their authority came from their changed character and intimate knowledge of Jesus. This is also the foundation of authority for the seven in Acts 6 (full of the Spirit and Wisdom) and also of Paul’s instructions which when examined can be seen to be character based. In other words, authority was based on other things besides hierarchical position. Which, by the way, is how the church survived the persecution in Jerusalem and managed to thrive scattered throughout the empire. When leadership is primarily based on character and gifting AND it understands itself in terms of relationships (Paul’s many admonitions on how to treat one another is an example of that) it can survive things that would normally destroy a rigid hierarchical organization.

    2. I’m in the learning process on the subject therefore I dnt read into it as I would had I had a better understanding. I am absorbing, storing, and processing information as it is disbursted. I am very greatful to the insight of all that are a part of this wonderful experience. Thanks a million!!!

  2. There is a vacuum of good leadership at many levels. And you know what? People still gravitate to someone. If the good ones don’t step up, the bad ones get the followers.

    I’m not sure the traditional role is so bad — it sure beats the sheep wandering model we have today!

    1. David,
      I guess that depends on what you see as the traditional role! I think the top down leader steals responsibility from the follower to make changes. Neither the follower nor the leader grow in such a setting. In the church,I think the traditional motif of Moses going to the mountain to get the congregation’s marching orders must be replaced with the reality of the Spirit dwelling in each believer. The leader needs to connect with the people to understand what the Spirit intends for the church.

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