In the Bible, leaders are characterised not by what they do but on how and why they lead. Photo by Artak Petrosyan on Unsplash.

A friend quit recently because of his boss. The boss would criticise him for doing things she herself did. She would gaslight him as incompetent when it was an issue of style and not competence. Not wanting to suffer further mental and emotional distress, he left.

On the other hand, another friend shared how she was grateful for her boss, who was caring and supportive, stood up for her and reflected Christ to her.

What is the essential work of leadership? What do the Scriptures reveal about it?

As a manager in my professional work, a church ministry leader, and a father and husband, I have been reflecting a lot on what it means to be a good leader.

In these roles, I have had to counsel people, delegate tasks, organise teams, conduct investigations and discipline, among other things. What is the essential work of leadership? What do the Scriptures reveal to me about this?

These reflections I’ve penned are not based on what I have achieved, but are guidance given which I am learning to apply daily. Nor is it a comprehensive theological treatise (best left for another time).

It applies to leadership in any context, whether it is work in a secular organisation or leading in a Christian environment. 

Leadership is exercising authority to lead people for a purpose. Three ideas stand out: Authority, Leading and Purpose.

Authority conferred for a purpose

Authority is that which people obey. It comes in different forms, for instance legal, moral, spiritual, social. Legitimate authority is what people should submit to (1 Peter 2:13). Authority and power may be illegitimate, for instance violence or psychological control. We will focus here only on legitimate authority. 

Legitimate authority is always conferred. Whether by calling, commission or consensus. 

Leaders are not owners but trustees.

Authority was first conferred by God on humankind through the cultural mandate (Genesis 1:26-28; Genesis 2:15). The cultural mandate follows from God creating humankind in His image. 

It is the mandate to exercise authority over God’s creation to make it flourish. To work and keep the garden. 

To “keep” is to tend to and to protect. Humankind was to keep the garden as much as to keep the Word of God. Tending to our charge cannot be apart from keeping the Word of God. The Creator thus delegated His authority to His image-bearers to make His creation flourish according to His purposes. 

Given that authority is conferred or delegated, our responsibility is as stewards or guardians over the charges entrusted to us. We are not owners but trustees. 

We infer that, at the most generic level, leaders are conferred authority to make their charge flourish for a purpose. 

Leading as shepherds who serve

What then does it mean to lead? 

In the Old Testament, rulers and leaders were referred to as shepherds. In Ezekiel 34, God chastised Israel’s leaders as shepherds who fed only themselves and ignored the scattered sheep. Accordingly, God declared that He as the shepherd would gather and feed His sheep in justice.

To lead is to gather and to tend to the people entrusted to us. 

In Ezekiel 34:16, God said: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.”

This was fulfilled in Jesus, who declared Himself the Good Shepherd (John 10). Yet, Jesus conferred delegated authority of shepherding to His disciples. Before His ascension, He commissioned the apostle Peter to feed His sheep (John 21). The New Testament thus refers to church leaders as God’s under-shepherds (1 Peter 5).

We see that to lead is to gather and to tend to the people entrusted to us. 

Gathering entails proactively seeking out people; bringing them together and bringing them back into community. Part of gathering may include protecting the team, even to discipline and remove those who should not be part of the team. Tending to entails nursing wounds, encouraging, and feeding. 

This is necessarily the result of living in a fallen world. People will stray, scatter, and lose sight of shared purpose. People will have needs, get hurt, and become discouraged. Some will be so dangerous to the group that they must be removed. 

In the Bible, leaders are characterised not by what they do but by how and why they lead.

In both the Old and New Testaments, positive depictions of shepherd leaders are characterised not by what they do. Instead, the focus is on how and why they lead. Character and convictions matter more than methods and outcomes. 

The Bible says that leaders are:

  • To be servants not overlords (Matthew 20:25-28); 
  • To lead by example (1 Peter 5:2-3, 1 Timothy 4:12);
  • To lead voluntarily with eagerness and pure intentions (1 Peter 5:2-3);
  • To lead with humility considering others’ interests (Philippians 2:3-4); 
  • To build others up (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

It makes sense that character and convictions matter most in the leadership task of gathering and tending to. It is because leading is done not by coercion but influence, not by domination but service.

Character establishes moral authority and convictions sustain service. 

Purposed towards a God-given destination

Leaders gather people to bring them towards a destination. That means a shared purpose and vision. 

In non-Christian contexts, the destination is usually a corporate mission and vision to pursue the organisation’s purpose. These may be determined by the organisation’s shareholders or founders.

Leaders gather people to bring them towards a destination. That means a shared purpose and vision. 

In a Christian context, these should not principally be determined by any organisation’s founders or stakeholders.

Instead, Christians believe that it is God’s purposes that determine the destination in any season. This is a matter of spiritual discernment based on the will of God revealed from His Word.

Even so, in both contexts, discernment is needed to determine the destination. 

In sum, leadership is shepherding, exercising one’s conferred authority to gather and tend to their charges in order to help them flourish for a discerned purpose.

May our character and convictions as Christian leaders reflect the image of God — His character and His heart. 

Practising good leadership

The Bible also provides practical guidance on what leaders should be and do.

Here are two general characteristics of a Christian leader: 

  • A leader must lead with integrity of heart (Titus 2:7, Psalms 78:72). Integrity means that a person’s conduct, speech and beliefs are all aligned. What they preach, they practise. A leader who has integrity is secure. Security brings stability to those being led. 
  • A Christian leader should exhibit the fruit of the Spirit and the character of Christ in the workplace (Colossians 3:12-14; Ephesians 4:1-2.). It is neither weakness nor denying authority to exercise leadership in such a manner. It does not mean that a leader will never reprimand, discipline or fire a team member. In fact, upholding justice requires reprimand, discipline or even firing certain team members when appropriate. But this can all be done in a manner that is compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient, loving. He must not be quarrelsome but kind, patient and gentle in correction (2 Timothy 2:24-25)

Some expressions of  good Christian leadership:

  • Uses authority to serve, not dominate (Matthew 20:25-28).
  • Does justice, bringing stability to those under them (Proverbs 29:4). Leadership is about enabling the team to flourish. Stability and justice are needed for them to flourish. They need to be able to rest assured that they will be treated fairly. They need to know that they will not be treated based on the leader’s whim and fancy. A leader who is emotionally and cognitively unstable will not be able to discern rightly and do what is right. Conversely, a leader who is calm, stable and makes rightly discerned decisions notwithstanding other people’s confusion or reactions will bring stability needed to gather the team back to the shared purpose and vision. 
  • Communicates effectively. In 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:9, church leaders are required to be able to teach. This is not so much about preaching but being able to communicate truths effectively. A leader must be able to communicate well not only verbally or in writing but also in gestures and postures. Communication is necessary for the core leadership tasks of gathering people towards a shared purpose and to tend to them relationally and contextually. 
  • Listens to counsel of the wise (Proverbs 13:20). Leadership requires wisdom (Proverbs 8:15-16). But nobody has a monopoly over wisdom. Hence, leaders must walk with a multitude of wise people and listen to their counsel.
  • Investigates facts carefully before judging. A leader often has to make decisions and judgement calls. A leader who judges without hearing the team out or investigating the facts properly will make foolish decisions (Proverbs 18:13). And if the decision impacts the team, it will also be unjust to them because they had no opportunity to be heard. It is a fundamental principle of natural justice that a person is heard before a decision is made against that person. That is why in Genesis 3, even before God judged Adam and Eve, and even though God must have already known what happened, God still gave Adam and Eve respectively the opportunity to speak. 
  • Looks out for the interests of others in the team (Philippians 2:3-4). 
  • Encourages and builds up the team to help them flourish in whatever they’re doing (Ephesians 4:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:11). 
  • Exercises courage to stand up for others. Leaders must have courage to stand up for others and advocate for their interests (Proverbs 31:8-9). This is especially because in most workplace settings or social organisations, power dynamics are such that those at a certain lower level of hierarchy are regarded or heard less, whereas leaders have certain authority.
  • Delegates responsibility to reliable people (Exodus 18:19-22). A leader has many responsibilities and it is impossible for a leader to do everything faithfully. A leader must therefore delegate responsibility to reliable people. Delegation does not mean abdication. A good leader continues to provide guidance and walks alongside the team member to support her. 

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About the author

Ronald JJ Wong

Ronald JJ Wong is a servant of King Jesus. He is a practising lawyer and Director at his law firm; his life mission is to manifest the shalom of God through discipleship, advocacy, mobilisation and culture. He is National Coordinator of Micah Singapore and author of the book, The Justice Demand: Social Justice & the Singapore Church. He serves as an Elder at Yio Chu Kang Chapel.