Natural Born Leaders?

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In his play, Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare wrote, “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” When the apostles are arguing over preeminence in the coming kingdom, Jesus warns them about the desire for greatness and the need for a servant mentality (Mt.20.20-28). While they clearly learned that lesson well, and gave their lives to the service of the King and His people, we nonetheless think of them in retrospect as “great men”. Which raises questions to me – Were they born great? Did they achieve greatness? Did they have greatness thrust upon them? I suppose in a sense, one could answer “yes” to all three, and particularly to the last two. But I am the most intrigued by the first question.

For some people, certain qualities or personality traits are almost innate. Greatness seems inevitable for a select few. And so does the quality of leadership. For instance, what made Peter such an obvious leader among the apostles? He appears bold and outspoken, impulsive and decisive. He clearly made mistakes, yet the Lord entrusted him with the “keys to the kingdom” (Mt.16.19) and he indeed threw open the gates to both Jews and Gentiles. In Jn.21.2f as Peter determines to go fishing (whatever the implications of such), half of the apostles follow him. And when the apostles proclaim the gospel in the temple on Pentecost, it is Peter who rises to their defense, risking his life to call the Jews to repentance (Acts 2.14f). That he was a leader is beyond question. But why?

Leadership is an almost indefinable quality. Book after book as been written to help people develop the ability to lead others, and there are certainly tools and strategies and qualities that can be adopted and adapted to help one develop as a leader. However, there are some who seem practically born to the role. In almost every endeavor and circumstance, certain people rise to the fore. Watch a group of children – a leader will inevitably surface. In athletics, in business, in a community, in a volunteer organization, even in simple social circles, leaders emerge. Perhaps they achieve it or have it thrust upon them. But it also appears to be an inherent quality in some – a gift if you would. Is it confidence? An exceptional ability? The power to communicate? Or some simple charisma that certain people have, while others don’t? It is curious, is it not?

In Christ’s kingdom, there is no hierarchy as we often find in the corporate world or within human organizations (in spite of the denominational adoption of such). The kingdom of heaven is a monarchy – or more technically a theocracy. Jesus Christ is King and we are all His people, on equal standing with each other as children of God. However, we are all given gifts to be used in the service of the King. Such a truth is the basis of the parable of the talents in Mt.25.14f, and the subject of frequent admonitions (Rom.12.1f; 1 Cor.12-14; Eph.4.7f). And while we most often think of such gifts in terms of miraculous abilities – prophecy, speaking in foreign languages, interpreting other languages, healing, etc. – it is evident that not all of the gifts given by God to His people were miraculous in nature, even in the days of such spiritual power. For instance, in Rom.12.1f Paul addresses the gifts given by the Lord to the Roman church. Beginning in v.6, he lists a number of such and the only one mentioned which would have some “supernatural” power attached to it is that of prophecy. Otherwise he speaks of service, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and mercy. Such are qualities that we see in people every day – qualities that are often simply associated with personality. Some are born servants, natural teachers, gifted encouragers, inherently benevolent, innately compassionate. And some are simply leaders.

God’s people need leaders, whether such involves some specific function like oversight (elders) or public service (deacons), public instruction and admonition (preachers and teachers), or merely the task of stepping to the fore and taking the initiative in some endeavor. And to those who have such a gift (and we almost always know who they are), the Lord offers some pointed instruction and warnings. Such men and women are vital to the growth of God’s people and to the work of Christ’s rule. Like the example of men and women who were leaders of God’s people in the OT, great good is possible with effective leaders in front, and tremendous harm is inevitable with unqualified people in the lead. Thus, for those who seem to naturally rise to the fore, please give some attention to the following passages.

Rom.12.1f – The primary instruction which drives this chapter is self-sacrifice. Given God’s gift of mercy wherein all men have the opportunity of redemption, the natural response of a believer should be complete sacrifice and the transformation of character which accompanies such. My life is to stand as a testimony to the power and will of God, and any abilities which I possess are to be considered with that service in mind. V.3 teaches that I am to view myself with humility and sobriety – without undue emphasis on self due to my talents and properly appreciating that such endowments are gifts to be used for God and not for self-promotion. I must view myself in relationship to others as connected to each other, important to each other, and vital to each other (v.4-5). Armed with such a mentality, I am to use my abilities accordingly. We live in a world where people use their “God-given” talents for all manner of personal gain – wealth, fame, advancement, etc. And leadership often brings with it recognition, influence, and power. Yet for one who has such a gift among the people of God, he/she is to use it for the good of others and not for self. Moreover, he is to be “diligent” in such (v.8). Given that leadership is one of those “natural” abilities, it can often be neglected or dismissed. Leadership can be tiring and tedious and overwhelming, given that others are looking to you for direction or encouragement. Aside from the temptation of pride and self-importance, leadership can also invite a kind of “weariness in well-doing.” Thus the admonition here. Leaders cannot waver, flail, or flag in the use of their gift. Others are following. God needs leaders who are consistent in sacrifice, looking to His glory, looking never at self, looking always to the good of those who are following.

1 Timothy 3.1-13; Titus 1.3-9 – Perhaps the most recognizable position of leadership within the Kingdom of Christ is that of elder/shepherd/overseer. People have long noted (and debated) the instructions to Timothy and Titus as “qualifications” for those who serve as leaders in such a capacity. In reality, the work of the elder is not as much under consideration in these passages as is the character of the elder. There are mentions of the work (“able to teach”; “taking care of the church” in 1 Tim.3.2,5 and “holding fast the word” so that one can “exhort and convict” those who contradict in Titus 1.9). The work itself is honestly seen in the terms of description – shepherding; overseeing; possessing the wisdom, respect, and knowledge of an “elder” man. When Paul is writing to these local preachers, what he underscores is character. Leadership in the absence of character is a recipe for spiritual disaster. While character in leadership is respected in the temporal world, it is not necessarily demanded. Many businessmen or politicians or athletes are hailed for their talents and followed by untold numbers of minions while manifesting godless immorality in their personal life. Power and wealth and pleasure are goals that many pursue blindly, and so long as someone leads them to such, they could care less about his or her moral fiber. Thus, another temptation associated with the gift of leadership is that charisma can thrive even in the absence of integrity. For Christians who are gifted with the quality of leadership, the development of character is inviolate. You are leading others to Christ. Such is the function of a shepherd. And in order to encourage the character of Christ in others, you must develop it in yourself. All of the personal qualities in 1 Tim.3.1f and Titus 1.6f describe the character of our Lord – blameless; temperate; sober; good behavior; not given to wine; not violent; not greedy; gentle; not quarrelsome; not covetous; wise; of good reputation. One who is naturally possessed of the gift of leadership, if he is to serve God’s people and thus the Lord, must do whatever is necessary to develop those qualities. Only in the development of such can he effectively help others to “put on Christ”.

James 3.1-4.10 – This is a passage rarely associated with leadership, yet I am convinced that the desire for such is precisely what God is addressing here. As above, leadership brings with it recognition, and for some Christians, ambition is a powerful temptation. Most men respect leaders, recognizing their value, and often heaping too much praise upon them. Jesus consistently warned about the motives of the Pharisees who liked to be seen of men in their religious service (Mt.6.1f; 23.1f). Moreover, He repeatedly dealt with ambition among His own apostles due to their worldly view of the kingdom and greatness (Mt.18.1f; 20.20f; Lk.22.23f). For some men, the local church represents a little pond wherein they aspire to be a big fish. Thus, James warns about the desire to be a teacher (3.1f), noting the difficulty of the proper use of the tongue – an invaluable quality for those who lead. Moreover, he proceeds to rebuke and warn those “who have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts” (v.14,16). Note again the admonition toward good works (v.13), toward godly character (v.17-18), and toward humility (4.6-10). God’s people do not need leaders who aspire to such in the pursuit of their selfish ambitions. The words of James echo those of Paul in Romans 12.1f (or more likely, vice-versa if James wrote his epistle first). Some men want desperately to be leaders, and perhaps even have some qualities associated with such. But we should be warned when we want too much to be seen and recognized. Living sacrifices care not how they are employed, for the will of God is the aim.

Some men are not afraid to lead. Some seem born to such. Some develop the capacity. Some have the task thrust upon them. Such an ability cannot be underrated for quality leaders can help achieve important goals. Nowhere is such a gift more important than in helping others toward redemption. May God help us to recognize our gifts. May God help us to be humble in the use of them. May God help us to be like our Lord and develop a character like His. And may God help us to have the wisdom to keep our place in the body.

–Russ Bowman