Is Leadership Teaching Scriptural?
Tony Cooke

Is Leadership Teaching Scriptural?I recently saw a post on social media that different people were sharing. It seemed to call into question the validity of teaching leadership in a Christian/pastoral context. It presented the idea that the term servant appears vastly more times in the Bible than does the word leader. The exact wording was:

Leader is mentioned only six times in the Bible (KJV). Servant is mentioned 900 times! Why do we have so many leadership conferences?

Is a person to deduce, therefore, that teaching on leadership is somehow unimportant, misguided, or perhaps unscriptural? As someone who teaches leadership principles to pastors and church staffs frequently, this certainly made me think, and I want to share some of those thoughts with you.

First, it can be very misleading to present an idea simply on the number of times a word is used in the Bible. The post indicates that the word leader only appears six times in the Bible. The assumed inference is that because of the word’s infrequent usage, leadership (or leadership teaching) must not be all that important.

However, the few usages of the word leader(s), as cited in that particular post, is only correct in the King James Version. In the New King James Version, the word leader(s) is used on 116 occasions. When you check the New Living Translation, the words leader(s) and leadership are used 542 times. That’s a big jump from six!

Even so, it is vital to realize that the importance of a concept is not necessarily determined by the frequency of the usage of a given word. For example, do you know how many times the word Trinity is used in the Bible? The correct answer is zero; the word Trinity is not found in the Bible. Does this mean that the Trinity is therefore unimportant? Absolutely not! The concept of the Trinity is through a myriad of references to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit throughout the New Testament. Are we to conclude that the triune nature of God is not important because the word Trinity does not appear in the Bible?

To carry this illustration to an absurd level, one could also write:

The word Trinity never appears in the Bible.
Satan, devils, and evil spirits are mentioned 185 times (KJV)!
Why do we have so much teaching about God?

Clearly, such a statement is ludicrous, but it is the same type of logic reflected in the leadership/servanthood analogy referenced earlier.

Another important factor is that many other New Testament words beside “leader” capture the concepts involved in leadership. For example, overseer, pastor, shepherd, elder, and bishop all have relevance to the exercising of leadership in the church. In 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul also refers to administrations (NKJV) or governments (KJV). Likewise, the Old Testament refers many times to people in leadership positions without necessarily using the term “leader.” In these cases, words like king, ruler, prince, shepherd, judge, captain, and elder are used instead.

Further, I believe people often miss important truths in Scripture because they look at things from an either/or perspective instead of a both/and viewpoint. In other words, nowhere does God say, “Choose ye this day what ye shall hav­e—an attitude of servanthood OR better leadership skills.” The two concepts are not mutually exclusive; they should work hand in hand. Every spiritual leader should operate with a servant’s heart. Absolutely! Servanthood and spiritual leadership are no more mutually exclusive than is the fact that Jesus is both the Lamb of God AND the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

It has often been said that “ministry is people business,” and that is very true. Beyond senior leaders, anyone who manages, supervises, or influences people can benefit by increasing and sharpening their leadership skills. Whether we call them directors, department heads, coordinators, supervisors, or assistants, many people lead, and they will typically lead better if they have quality training and instruction.

The reality is that the Bible is absolutely loaded with guidelines and principles for godly leadership. Those who were selected to assist Moses in ministering to the people of Israel were to be “capable, honest men who fear God and hate bribes” (Exodus 18:21, NLT). If those were necessary characteristics in leaders, isn’t it reasonable to believe that Moses probably taught about those traits at times?

Moses and Leadership Training

Long before Israel had a king, instructions for that office were given. In Deuteronomy 17:14-20 (NLT), Moses states:

“You are about to enter the land the LORD your God is giving you. When you take it over and settle there, you may think, ‘We should select a king to rule over us like the other nations around us.’ If this happens, be sure to select as king the man the LORD your God chooses. You must appoint a fellow Israelite; he may not be a foreigner. “The king must not build up a large stable of horses for himself or send his people to Egypt to buy horses, for the LORD has told you, ‘You must never return to Egypt.’ The king must not take many wives for himself, because they will turn his heart away from the LORD. And he must not accumulate large amounts of wealth in silver and gold for himself. “When he sits on the throne as king, he must copy for himself this body of instruction on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. He must always keep that copy with him and read it daily as long as he lives. That way he will learn to fear the LORD his God by obeying all the terms of these instructions and decrees. This regular reading will prevent him from becoming proud and acting as if he is above his fellow citizens. It will also prevent him from turning away from these commands in the smallest way. And it will ensure that he and his descendants will reign for many generations in Israel.

Moses provided godly wisdom on what leaders (kings) were not to do, as well as what they were to do. All of that certainly sounds like leadership instruction to me.

As we move further along in Scripture, David’s final words on earth include the following admonition (2 Samuel 23:3, NKJV). These words are very instructive concerning the nature of godly leadership.

The God of Israel said,
The Rock of Israel spoke to me:
“He who rules over men must be just,
Ruling in the fear of God.”

Jesus and Leadership Training

When Jesus comes on the scene, he appoints apostles who will ultimately serve as witnesses of his resurrection, and inevitably, leadership responsibilities will come upon them. We see Jesus preparing them for their assignments, emphasizing godly values and principles that were to be implemented as they carried out their tasks. Jesus often corrected his disciples when their attitudes or actions did not represent him or the Father properly.

Perhaps the ultimate example of how Jesus taught his disciples to lead properly is found in Matthew 20:27-28 (NLT).

“You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. 26 But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus, here, is not dismissing all leadership concepts; rather, he is highlighting those virtues—such as servanthood, a sacrificial mentality, and a giving nature—that reflect the nature of God in leading others, and he is rejecting fleshly, carnal approaches to leadership.

Paul and Leadership Training

As we move further in the New Testament, we see Paul conducting a leadership meeting in a “retreat” venue in nearby Miletus with the elders from the church in Ephesus. I encourage you to read (slowly) Paul’s admonitions to these church leaders in Acts 20:17-38. Paul presents the example of his own life and ministry to demonstrate how they are to serve Christ. He presents such vital topics as humility, consecration, perseverance, and doctrinal content, and he provides details about the serious nature of their God-given responsibilities.

In addition to personal meetings with elders (church leaders who were responsible for feeding the flock and exercising oversight), Paul also writes Timothy and Titus very powerful letters that are often referred to as the Pastoral Epistles. These letters are replete with all kinds of instruction as to how these two younger ministers are to carry out their spiritual assignments. Paul encourages Timothy and Titus to discharge their duties with humility, boldness, perseverance, and wisdom. In essence, the pastoral epistles represent leadership training in the form of a letter.

Over the years, I have heard people refer to doctrine in a very negative tone (e.g., “We don’t want any doctrines around here”). Likewise, I have heard people speak disparagingly of theology. The truth of the matter is that those terms (doctrine and theology) are not problematic in and of themselves. What’s bad is bad doctrine and bad theology. In the same way, leadership teaching must be judged on its actual content. I don’t want bad leadership teaching either! But done well, doctrine, theology, and leadership are vital and helpful tools.

Where Does This Bring Us?

Perhaps some have heard leadership teaching that discounted scriptural principles or negated the importance of prayer and reliance upon the Holy Spirit. I would have a problem with that also. But should we throw out the baby with the bathwater? Unfortunately, those who think in all-or-nothing terms have a tendency to do that.

Of course, we are to be discerning. I was taught early in my ministerial training to “eat the hay and spit out the sticks.” If the substance of leadership teaching is biblical, promotes Christlikeness, expounds upon scriptural principles, and equips pastors and others to lead more effectively and with greater wisdom, I’m all for it. Church leaders need all the help they can get as they guide their congregations and promote the spiritual growth of believers in these challenging times.