Sometimes people say to me, “leadership is not a biblical category. The right terms are shepherding or stewardship or discipleship.”
Shepherding, stewardship, and discipleship are indeed critical things. And the absolute last thing I would want to say to pastors is “you aren’t shepherds, you’re leaders.” That would be horrible. Shepherding is a massive, valid, critical, and biblical category, and I think it communicates more about the nature of the pastoral role than simply the term “leader” does.
However, leadership is a biblical category. Pastoring (shepherding) is a type of leadership. And there are other types of leadership in the church and in all sectors of society everywhere that we are unable to properly describe and understand if we abandon the term “leadership.” Leadership is a good and right and proper category for these things.
In other words, if we abandon the category of “leadership,” we abandon an essential and necessary grid for understanding the task of (dare I say it) leading people. That’s what school superintendents, project managers, small group leaders, managers, CEOs, directors, vice presidents, marketing managers, executive pastors, senior pastors, and on and on, are doing.
Saying “that’s not leadership, that’s stewardship” doesn’t help a ton — stewarding what? Neither does saying “this is discipleship.” In the church and among Christians, that’s a helpful category. But is the marketing manager at Target discipling his or her employees? Maybe there is an element of that, even in the general arena of work. But if so, it’s discipleship in the context of leading a department, or carrying out whatever your role is.
We might be tempted to say that leadership is the right category for the task of leading outside the church, but it’s not a biblical category for inside the church.
But this would ignore the fact that the Bible actually speaks of leadership, and uses that term to describe the task of leading and shepherding inside the church as well. For example:
Luke 22:26: “Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.
Hebrews 13:7, 17: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. . . . Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls.”
Acts 5:31: “God exalted him at his right hand, as leader and savior.”
One interesting thing to note, and this is one reason this matters so much: In Luke 20:26, Jesus is drawing a contrast with how the Gentiles led, and how he wants the church led. The Gentiles lorded it over people and saw exercising authority and controlling people (for the leader’s benefit!) the main thing in leadership. Jesus said: “Not so. That’s a wrong view of leadership. It will not be that way among you.”
Here’s the point: If we remove leadership as a category of thought, we are unable to make these sorts of contrasts and comparisons. If what a person in the general society is doing can be called “leadership,” but what we are doing in the church can’t be, we lose the ability to learn from comparisons and contrasts. Jesus couldn’t have made the point he did here.
And, it is to be noted, Jesus’ point was not “you aren’t leaders.” His point was: “Lead in this way, not that that way. You will lead for the benefit of those you serve, not your own benefit. You will not focus on controlling people and exercising authority, but building them up for their good.” That’s true leadership.
The problem is not the concept of “leadership.” It’s that there are lots of wrong ideas about leadership out there. The problem is not leadership, but bad leadership.
We don’t need to be afraid of the term leadership — it is a biblical category. Let’s not eat the confusing fruit of overspiritualization that seeks to eliminate real, biblical, helpful categories in favor of more spiritual-sounding, but often ambiguous, ways of speaking.