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The Humble Leadership of Christ

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For leadership to be Christian, it must follow the teaching and example of Christ. In other words, leadership must be Christ centered in order to be Christian. Three passages stand out to me when I think about Christian leadership.

Service and sacrifice

The first is Mark 10:35-45, where James and John are faster than the other ten disciples in asking for the most powerful and privileged positions in Christ’s kingdom. Jesus’ response reframes their entire concept of leadership. Unlike the Gentile leaders who demonstrate their authority through power plays and dominance, the followers of Jesus are called to a form of leadership that emulates that of Jesus himself. It is focused on service and sacrifice that work in the best interest of the followers. In the kingdom of God, service is greatness.

Jesus’ disciple, Peter, would later write a letter to Jesus’ followers scattered throughout the world, describing them as “those who reside as aliens” in various places (1 Peter 1:1). They were aliens, not chiefly because they lived outside their home country but because they represented the kingdom of God in the kingdom of darkness. The contrast is evident in 1 Peter 5:1-4, the second passage. Here Peter calls upon the elders to embrace the sufferings and glory of Christ by shepherding in step with the Chief Shepherd. This leadership consists of voluntary oversight, based on eagerness to serve rather than on greed. It is an authority that trades in influence by example, rather than coercion through power. This leadership carries with it an eternal reward from the Chief Shepherd, who led in the same way.

The third passage is in Paul’s letter to Ephesus, where he calls husbands and wives to mutual submission within marriage (Ephesians 5:21-33). The emphasis falls on the husband’s imitating the headship of Christ over the church. The husband is called to sacrifice, loving and caring for his wife as he would for his own body. The security and beauty of the wife is his goal as he nourishes and cherishes her to her full potential, affording her full and abundant life. This is what Christ has done for His church. This is what the husband should do for his wife.

In His steps

These three passages exemplify Christian leadership. It is to be Christ centered, following in the footsteps of Christ. It is leadership in the right-side-up kingdom of God in which first is last, greatest is least, and master is servant. It is leadership aimed at maximizing the beauty and benefit of the followers, rather than the status and power of the leaders.

Sadly, as followers of Christ, we often struggle to follow His leadership example. Like James and John, we find ourselves jockeying for power, arguing over greatness, and thinking of ourselves above those we serve. Leadership in the kingdom of God, the church, and the family are all too often defined and exercised in worldly terms. Leaders gain prominence through position, force, manipulation, and insistence on being obeyed by their followers. Followers end up serving leaders, rather than the other way around. People serve as a means to an end of greatness, rather than recognizing that in the kingdom of God, service is greatness.

The teaching and example of Christ and the apostles call us to a different style of leadership, which is characterized by humility, service, and sacrifice. Christ exemplified this approach by humbling Himself, taking on the role of a servant and sacrificing Himself for the sake of the world. When Paul describes this example in Philippians 2:1-11, he calls upon all of Jesus’ followers to imitate Christ in this way, having the same attitude that Jesus had. This is a reminder that we are all leaders, because we all influence others. As Christians, we are called to Christ-centered leadership, regardless of our title or position.

As Christians, we are called to Christ-centered leadership, regardless of our title or position. - Israel Steinmetz Share on X

Way of Christ

Those who lead like Christ are promised the power and authority to expand the kingdom of God now and enjoy the reward of the Great Leader himself for all eternity. No wonder, then, that those who exercise the most godly influence are oftentimes those without titles or positions of power. I’m often struck by the positive influence of godly women and men serving in the background, sacrificing themselves and humbling themselves before God and one another. And I’m often saddened by the negative influence of ungodly men and women expecting others to serve and sacrifice for them, puffed up with pride in their power and position.

The problem is not in granting authority or titles. Christ himself placed leaders within the body (Ephesians 4:11), and the New Testament is consistent in expressing the need for people to be entrusted with authority in the church. The problem is in the way we often approach this authority and these titles. When we approach them through the perspective of worldly leadership, we use them for our own power, status, and benefit. However, when we approach them through the perspective of Christ-centered leadership, we can use authority and titles to empower others, lift up those who are crushed, and benefit those we serve.

This is the way of Christ. May it be the way of Christian leaders. May our leadership be marked by humility, service, and sacrifice. And may we recognize those godly leaders around us who serve in such Christ-centered ways, particularly when they do so without any official authority or title.

Israel Steinmetz
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Israel Steinmetz is dean of Academic Affairs for Artios Christian College and pastors New Hope United Church in San Antonio, TX, where he lives with his wife Anna and their eight children. In addition to teaching, Israel is a prolific writer, having co-authored four books and contributed over fifty feature articles to the Bible Advocate. Committed to lifelong learning, Israel holds a Bachelors in Pastoral Ministry, a Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Theological Studies and is pursuing the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary.