Lessons From Jesus on Leading People

Just prior to World War II, a social psychologist emigrated from Hitler's Germany to the United States. Soon after he arrived, he began formal research in a subject in which he had a great interest, leadership styles. In his study he identified four approaches to leadership. The book that resulted from that study became a classic in the field, Kurt Lewin's Resolving Social Conflicts.

Later writers who have built on Lewin's work have tended to combine his first two styles to yield three basic approaches to leadership. Lewin called the first style the Autocratic Leader. That kind of leader sets all goals, makes all decisions, drives members to reach goals, and cares for people only as means to an end.

Lewin gave the title of Laissez-Faire Leader to his second type. In that approach the leader hides from subordinates by busying himself or herself with paperwork and lets the group of subordinates set all goals and make all decisions. The Laissez-Faire Leader serves merely as a resource person, and that only on request.

Lewin's third type is the Democratic Leader. That person neither withdraws from leadership responsibility nor takes it all on his or her shoulders, but shares goal-setting, decision-making, and even scheduling with the group.

Which of these three styles of leadership best fits the biblical pattern?

One may ponder with some profit what each style suggests about effectiveness in being a group leader. The person may even conclude that the setting and the situation determine which of the approaches is most appropriate. In the end, however, the believer must determine that the Bible rather than the social sciences is the sole reliable guide for faith and practice, including the style of leadership a person should adopt as a leader in the Church.

Scripture contains several examples of outstanding leaders, Moses, David, and Nehemiah among them, just to name a few. The greatest of them, however, is Jesus Himself. What He taught and demonstrated on the subject obviously takes precedence over all others.

Mark's Gospel contains priceless insights into what Jesus said and did on the subject of leadership in the Church, particularly in Mark 10:35-45. In that account, two of the Twelve, James and John, approached the Master with a request. They simply said, "Lord, do us a favor," without specifying what it was they desired. Matthew's account indicates that the request came through their mother (Matt. 20:20). Either the sons got her to do the talking, thinking she would be more apt to gain a favorable response, or she was the driving force in attempting to get her boys to move up the corporate ladder.

When the other ten apostles discovered what was happening, they were indignant toward their fellows. It might have been justifiable for the ten to be upset over the two trying to pull political strings in the work of God; however, the ten had a less noble motive. The account suggests that they were displeased simply because the other two got ahead of them in expressing their desires for the best positions in Jesus' coming administration.

Accordingly, the Master addressed all twelve and not just the two as He sought to correct their misconceptions on the nature of leadership in the Kingdom. He told them outright that worldly thinking on the subject possessed all of them. They had assimilated the leadership philosophy of the pagans among whom they lived. In the pagan world those who were leaders acted as lords over their fellows. The Teacher went on to warn them, however, that such ideas must never prevail in the Kingdom. Rather than political positions with authority over others, what matters in the Church is spiritual service. That often requires leaders to drink the cup of suffering and to experience baptisms of sorrow. Besides being unaware of that truth, the disciples apparently had not yet learned that the will of God, not political patronage, determines leadership in the Church.

When stating the basic principle that should guide ambition in the Kingdom, Jesus gave Himself as a prime example.

He came not to be served but to serve. Many consider His words as the key verse of the entire Gospel of Mark (10:45). Other examples through all four Gospels, such as His washing the disciples' feet at the Last Supper (John 13:1-17), echo this same principle of humble, self-sacrificing leadership. The greatest example of all, of course, was His willing death on the cross for all mankind.

What a Leader!

Selected Bibliography

Lewin, Kurt. Resolving Social Conflicts. New York: Harper and Row, 1948.

About the Author

Dr. Charles Harris is a recently retired Profes­sor of Bible and Pastoral Ministries as well as the Chairman of the Division of Church Ministries at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. He was associated with the college for thirty-eight years.

In addition to his duties as an educator, Dr. Harris is also an author. His writings have appeared in The Sunday School Counselor, God's Word for Today, and The Adult Teacher. Among his works are three books, What's Ahead, Proofs of Christianity, and Under the Glass: An Analysis of Church Structure, as well as a commentary on Second Corinthians in The Complete Biblical Library. He was a contributing author of Power Encounter, A Pentecostal Perspective.

Dr. Harris holds a bachelor's degree in Bible, a master's degree in counseling, and a doctorate in education.