Lately I’ve been thinking about leadership and what submitting to leadership really means. I thought about how I’ve been taught leadership works and comparing that to what I see in the Bible. There seems to be a bit of a disagreement. It seems that the general distrust of leadership is unbiblical, yet so is the leadership style that demands rather than earns veneration (fun fact: when I think of the word “venerable”, I think of the Venerable Bede). I could go into how bad leaders who misuse their position are, but I’m not going into that in this post. Jesus said the greatest is the servant, so I think it’s important to learn what correct service looks like.
In my reading of the New Testament, I’ve come across some passages related to servant/master relationship. I didn’t do an in depth study, so I may have missed some, but a scholar I am not; I’m just a man exploring a topic. One of the first passages was in Matthew:
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Mat 23:8-12 ESV)
This is directly after Jesus excoriates the religious leadership of that day for being hypocrites and showy. What I gather from this passage is to never consider myself above the law. I don’t mean that leaders should have the same restrictions as those under them all the time, that’s ridiculous. What I am saying is that leading by example is the way, not imposing your will and living outside of restrictions. I think of the FLDS group in the American Southwest, where Warren Jeffs imposed restrictions on his followers while he lived comfortably. It’s a common theme among cults. The leader lives above everyone in everything, and if anyone objects they are castigated as rebellious or something. In the passage above, Jesus slams leaders back down on to Earth, reminding them that they are in fact human. This not the only application for this passage of course, it can also be seen as reminder to all of us to avoid deceiving ourselves in believing that we know it all. That would be called exulting ourselves, and that doesn’t end well. Jesus also addresses this in Luke 22:23-27, if you want to look into yourself.
Another passage I found was in Peter’s first letter:
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1Peter 2:18-23 ESV)
I imagine there have been many leaders throughout history that have justified horrible things using this verse. I think of pastors in the American South preaching to slaves and slave owners, twisting this verse to the slave owners benefit. I interpret it in several ways, really.
One is that as a subordinate, lashing back in the face of accusation, however unfair, is never the right response. Rather, calmly speaking the truth and trusting that your supervisor or God will give you justice. Also, one should do their responsibilities to the best of their abilities (that “all respect” is translated in other versions as “fear” and is the same word used when describing how the disciples felt when they first saw Jesus walking on water). That’s what I see in this verse as a subordinate, but as a leader I see other things.
The first thing I see the passage pointing out to a leader is a need for open communication between a them and those under him/her, so that they can be told that their policies, etc., aren’t working without the subject fearing retribution of some sort. A servant-hearted leader will already have this in place, but it would be good to keep in mind that humans forget important things all the time. It seems to me like it could be saying that if the lines of communication are not open, the subordinate has no place to criticize the leader and should let unwise decisions be, results being whatever they are. I don’t know how biblical that attitude is, but right now, that’s what it seems to say. As a leader, I would rather someone points out how bad my idea is before it backfires in my face. So making a place where the subjects can feel safe raising objections and reminding them continually of that is important to me. That being said, I don’t think that place should be anywhere/anytime. That can get messy fast.
Overall, I see a trend (especially in church and ministries) where leaders are venerated (and absolutely destroyed by the slightest misstep) and leaders expect veneration. To be on the platform is the goal, and any objection from those in the seats is seen as rebellion. Being a leader is a treacherous path to walk. To those under you and those who want to be you, it seems like it should be easy. Thus I say leadership is overrated.