Building Sermons: Pt. 5 Lessons from Jesus Leadership Style

Just prior to the time of World War II a social psychologist departed Hitler’s Germany and came to the United States. He soon engaged in studies of what was understandably a subject of great interest to him, leadership styles. In his research he identified four approaches to leadership. The publication of his studies formed a classic in the field (Kurt Lewin, Resolving Social Conflicts. [New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1948]).

Later writers who leaned on Lewin’s work have tended to combine his first two styles to speak of three basic approaches to leadership. He called the first of his three the autocratic leader. In his approach the leader sets all goals, makes all decisions, drives members to reach goals, and cares for persons only as means to an end. The scholar gave the title of the laissez-faire leader to his second type. His approach has him hiding from his group by being busy with paper work and letting them set all goals as well as making all decisions while he serves as a resource person only on request. Lewin’s third type is that of the democratic leader. He 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 of them suggests about effectiveness in being a group leader. He may even conclude that the setting and the situation determine which of the approaches is most appropriate to take. However, in the end he must determine that the Bible rather than the social sciences is his sole guide for faith and practice, including the style of leadership he will adopt as a leader in the Church.

Scripture contains several examples of outstanding leaders.

They include Moses, David, and Nehemiah. However, the greatest among them is, of course, Jesus Himself. What He taught and demonstrated on the subject obviously takes precedent over all others.

Mark’s Gospel contains priceless insights into what Jesus said and did on the subject of leadership in the Church (10:35-45). In the 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. Sometimes people still present a similar petition to a friend. Matthew makes clear that the request came through their mother (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. They could have been upset because the others tried to pull political strings in the work of God. However, the account suggests that they were displeased because the two got ahead of them in expressing their desires for the best positions in the coming administration of Jesus in His government on earth.

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

While stating the basic principle to 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 Mark (10:45). Other than on the cross, His greatest demonstration of this principle of leadership came when He washed the feet of his students at the Last Supper (John 13:1-17).

Selected Bibliography

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