By Steve Moore
Steve is the President and CEO of The Mission Exchange, formerly called EFMA.
The most important source of leadership information you will ever have is the Bible. To become an effective message bearer, your leadership must become increasingly Bible-centered.
Yet more than 15 years of experience working with leaders around the world has convinced me that while most Christian leaders believe leadership is important they do not view the Bible as the seminal textbook on the subject.
I’m not saying most Christian leaders don’t know anything about leadership or what they do know is unbiblical.
What I am saying is most Christian leaders do not view the Bible as a primary source for leadership, don’t know where to look in the Bible for leadership insights and do not have a well developed toolbox of study skills to refine biblical application principles that will inform their leadership.
I realize you may question my assumptions but before you reject them completely consider the following exercise.
You’ve probably had some experience with word association games. Someone says a word, and you respond with the first word that comes into your mind.
If, for example, I said “day,” you might respond with “night.” If I said “hot,” you might respond with “cold.” Of course, not all word associations reflect the opposite of the given word. If I said “blue,” you might respond with “sky” or something else that relates to blue.
I want to do a modified word-association exercise with you, one that relates topics with biblical passages. Here’s how it works. I’ll give you three topics and I want you to write down any relevant passages of Scripture that come to your mind.
I suggest you limit yourself to sixty seconds for this exercise, roughly twenty seconds per topic. Keep in mind, these are top-of-the-mind responses, not mini research projects. Be as specific as you can in terms of the book of the Bible, the chapter and the verse.
If you can only remember part of the “address” for a given reference, jot down whatever portion of it that comes to your mind. Here are your three topics: love, faith and missions. You have sixty seconds. Start now.
Are you cooperating with me or just reading along? Here’s what I have learned after doing this with hundreds of leaders.
Although the cited passages may vary, even leaders with modest ministry experience have little difficulty identifying passages like 1 Corinthians 13 for love, Hebrews 11 for faith, and Matthew 28:18-20 or Acts 1:8 for missions.
You may be wondering what all this has to do with the Bible and leadership; stay with me for one more step.
Now let’s do the same experiment with three more topics. Once again, write down the Scripture passage that represents your top-of-the-mind response to these three topics: strategy, resolving conflict and setting priorities.
As in the last exercise, take no more than sixty seconds to write down the passage, including book, chapter and verse. If you are really taking this seriously, go ahead and write the Scripture passages down. Your sixty seconds begin now.
I realize that only a small number of readers will have written anything down, and even fewer will have paid any attention to my time limit. But, I think you get my point. Every time I do this experiment, the results are the same.
Even the most seasoned church or ministry leaders have a much easier time identifying biblical passages related to major doctrines than to leadership topics. Many younger leaders can’t identify any passages at all for the leadership topics.
A Copernican-Style Paradigm Shift
I believe this problem goes deeper than a lack of Bible knowledge and points to the need for a paradigm shift, a completely different perspective as we read the Bible.
Dr. J. Robert Clinton, Professor of Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary, describes this change of perspective as getting “leadership eyes” and becoming Bible-centered.
You probably remember the historical account of Copernicus, who although never a professional astronomer, challenged the conventional scientific ideas of his day by postulating that the sun, not the earth was the center of our galaxy.
This called for a major paradigm shift, a new way of looking at the universe. It took more than a century and the research of Isaac Newton before the ideas of Copernicus became widely accepted.
Let me make my point with a few questions. Does your leadership revolve around the Bible or does the Bible revolve around your leadership? Are you truly Bible-centered in your leadership? If not, a Copernicus-like paradigm shift is in order.
The Bible and Leadership
Christian leaders, especially those in the global north, have become accustomed to studying leadership from the thousands of books and periodicals that are published every year on this important subject. Great leaders are motivated learners, demanding a wide range of study.
But when their study is not accompanied by a Bible-centered approach to leadership, they chase after every leadership fad and become vulnerable to unbiblical values and practices.
I am not opposed to extra-biblical leadership sources; some of them are outstanding. However, if leaders have no biblical compass for assessing their values, they are likely to find false comfort in their perceived rate of progress—only to discover later that it was in the wrong direction.
Leaders in the global south are often frustrated with the lack of leadership literature, especially in their first language.
The desire for more resources is understandable, but when we become preoccupied with what we don’t have, it can blur our perspective on what we do have—the Bible, which is the most important reference tool on leadership ever written.
According to Dr. Clinton, a Bible-centered leader is someone whose leadership is significantly informed by the Bible and who uses the Bible effectively to impact followers.
Bible-centered leaders understand the intent and content of Scripture so as to apply it to current situations. Their values have been shaped by biblical values. They use the Bible with power to influence followers.
Knowing Where to Look for Leadership in the Bible
One of the first steps toward Bible-centered leadership and getting “leadership eyes” is understanding where to find leadership in the Scriptures. In simple terms, there are three sources of leadership data in the Bible: leadership passages, leadership case studies and leadership acts.
In a broader sense, there are passages, such as parables, that apply to all Christians but have specific implications for leaders.
There are also entire books of the Bible, such as Judges or 1 Corinthians, that provide important leadership findings. But, I want to limit our discussion here to the three sources mentioned above.
Leadership passages, although few in number, give biblical information to leaders about leadership. Often we skim these familiar verses without understanding their leadership implications. Acts 20, where Paul met with the Ephesian elders, is one such leadership passage.
This beachfront gathering was a by-invitation-only meeting for leaders about leadership where Paul shared his heart with elders from Ephesus. Yet rarely is this text viewed as leadership-specific.
Leadership case studies are based on historical narrative passages about biblical leaders. Scripture is filled with leaders who served as message-bearers in their time. For many of these leaders, we are given only a name with little or no details.
Only about one hundred biblical leader’s stories include enough information to study the broad context for their leadership. We have enough data on about fifty biblical leaders to develop a full-blown leadership case study that traces their development and ministry over a lifetime.
These leadership case studies provide a rich treasure chest of leadership findings that reveal failures and victories, methods and values.
Leadership acts are individual snapshots, usually taken from larger case studies, showing the interaction between leaders and followers in a specific leadership context.
Acts 15 is an example of a leadership act that reveals how early church leaders solved a specific problem: resolving conflict related to expectations for Gentile Christ-followers with regard to the Mosaic Law and Jewish cultural traditions.
People with “leadership eyes” view the Bible as a primary source for leadership. They recognize leadership passages, leadership case studies and leadership acts when they study the Bible.
They actively refine the study skills necessary to harvest important findings from these sources.
A Biblical Example of Bible-centered Leadership
Ezra is one of the most powerful Old Testament examples of Bible-centered leadership. He serves as a role model for message-bearers and leaders everywhere. Five different times in only two chapters God’s blessing on Ezra’s life and leadership is affirmed with the phrase, “the hand of God was on him.”
Why did God look so favorably on Ezra? “Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.” (Ezra 7:10)
It could hardly be said more succinctly: if you want to be a Bible-centered leader devote yourself to study and obey God’s Word so you can effectively communicate it to others.