Servants and Friends: A Biblical Theology of Leadership is precisely what the title indicates: a Bible-based theology of the concept of leadership—particularly as seen through the lens of servanthood. The interested reader will find themselves immersed in a comprehensive chronological survey of what the entirety of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, reveals about leadership.
The structure of the book follows this chronological study. Twenty scholars and ministry professionals have contributed a total of twenty-one chapters: six on leadership in the Old Testament (Leadership Language in the OT, The Creation Narrative, The Pentateuch, The Historical Books, Wisdom and Literature, and The Prophets), six on leadership in the New Testament (Leadership Language in the NT, The Gospels, The Acts of the Apostles, The Pauline Epistles, The General Epistles, and Revelation), and six on selected biblical narratives focusing on particular individuals or groups of individuals (Nehemiah, Women in the OT, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and Barnabas).
The concluding three chapters offer some general reflection on biblical leadership. In my review, I will focus on three chapters from different sections to illustrate the kind of research and conclusions the authors reach, as well as the general direction of the book itself.
The Creation Narrative (Jacques B. Doukhan)
Doukhan takes the reader on a very slow walk through the Creation story, stopping frequently to point out particular words, phrases, and patterns related to the concept of leadership. The fresh approach and the emphasis on leadership provides perspectives likely to catch by surprise even Christians well-familiar with this narrative.
It’s not that we have not seen, or even studied in-depth, these words or phrases before. Rather, it’s that we’ve never paused to wonder what they have to do with leadership. With depth and freshness, Doukhan offers just that missing connection. For example, we learn that beresit, usually translated as “in the beginning,” comes from ros, which means “head” and “is the technical term normally used to designate one who is leading in a given situation. Thus the creation event is described as an act of leadership” (pg. 31).
Several comparisons between the God of Scripture and the gods in the Near Eastern mythologies create a clear distinction between the two, and help contour the leadership model emerging in Genesis. For example, unlike the mythical gods who create in order to be served with food, God serves humanity by offering them an abundance of trees and plants for their food. The very fact, Doukhan remarks, that humans are created last, makes everything created before a gift to them.
God, who precedes everyone, is a generous and gracious leader who creates, not for His own benefit, but in order to serve others. Thus, to precede as a godly leader is to act for the benefit of those who come after, not for one’s own selfish purposes. “Creation is […] not an act of dominance, but an act of service” (pg. 37). The fact that God precedes all creation should also engender humility in us:
Leadership opens one to the dangerous temptation to abuse power or to assume superiority over others. A desire for leadership should be closely examined, since it may be inspired by ambition to dominate – to assume God’s place. (pg. 32)
Doukhan’s study leads him to conclude that to lead is to relate, communicate, serve, share, and create—principles on which he elaborates with clear connections to the biblical text. A leader is not above the community she or he serves, but is part of that community—sharing the work and participating in the projects that engage the various gifts and talents of its members.
The social dimension of the creative act of God and of humanity endowed with the gift of procreation illustrates an important aspect of leadership: relationship. The birth of humanity, an act of leadership on God’s part, is the result of a love relationship, and love is the context in which good and godly leadership can flourish.
One of my favorite parts of this chapter is the author’s connection between God’s leadership in Genesis, and change:
Just as God created as a manifestation of leadership, humans are now invited to create: to produce what has not yet existed. Leadership is not about maintaining the status quo. The leader is called to change the world, just as God has changed from world, from the state of nonexistence to a state of existence and potential. The first duty of the leader is to bring things into existence. (pg. 42)
The General Epistles (Thomas R. Shepherd)
Shepherd’s chapter is organized around five major passages dealing with leadership in James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, and Jude. The authors of these letters write to groups of people facing disunity, inequality, persecution, false doctrines, and division. Several leadership principles arise from a study of these passages (James 2:1-7, 1 Peter 1:10-12, 1 Peter 3:7, 1 Peter 5:1-4, and 3 John 9-10).
Leaders are to not show partiality towards the rich, but must instead treat everyone equally. This principle might have been of particular interest to an audience located in the context of the Greco-Roman honor and shame culture. The Christian culture and values, however, are to transcend the local context, and leaders are to make no difference between people on the basis of status.
Furthermore, leaders are to do their work for the sake of others, in humility, not for self-aggrandizement. The focus needs to be on others and their needs, not on self. In John’s epistles, love and truth are key concepts for understanding leadership: if “love creates the community sense of we/us and enhances relational aspects of leadership[,] [t]ruth creates the boundaries and center of the community and highlights limits beyond which leadership cannot go” (pg. 223).
1 Peter 5:1-4 draws a clear contrast between two different leadership models: a dishonorable leadership, in which domineering leaders act under compulsion for the sake of dishonest gain, and an honorable leadership, where people serve willingly, freely, and with joy, leading by example. Christians are to follow the latter mode.
“What seems to be the genius of this approach,” writes Shepherd, “are two words in the first adverbial antithesis – kata theon. This literally means ‘according to God’ or ‘in reference to God’ […] We normally think of conscience as an internal moral compass that tells right from wrong. But in the ancient world the moral compass was not so much seen as internal but as a consciousness of the values of your primary reference group […] Christian life is a reorientation toward the will of God. Christian leadership is the same. The reference point of ministry is God and what He has done in graciously blessing us with salvation and hope” (pg. 218-219).
Nehemiah: The Servant Leader (Barry Gane)
Nehemiah is not one of the most popular figures in Scripture, which may be precisely why I found this chapter surprisingly rich. After introducing the reader into Nehemiah’s world at the Persian Royal Court, the author proceeds to build a portrait of his person—first as a faithful and devoted believer in God, and then as a pioneer under whose leadership the Jews were able to complete the building of Jerusalem’s walls in an astonishing fifty-two days.
The rather obscure character emerges in this chapter as a leader who first seeks to understand the situation by listening closely and observing where people are. Only after grasping the needs did he cast his vision, inviting others to join in the challenge. His persuasive skills complemented his people skills, and thus was able to motivate the Jews to move towards the goal of rebuilding Jerusalem.
In his interaction with the people, Nehemiah was empathetic when it was called for, but was also assertive when necessary (especially with those who opposed him). He sought to educate the community, and to engage them throughout the process of casting and implementing the vision. He gave credit where credit was due, acknowledging people by name and appreciating the group leaders individually. Furthermore, Nehemiah was able to “make the whole greater than the sum of its parts” (pg. 251), that is, to “bring together multiple talents and build […] on then” (pg. 251). He created an effective team and a safe environment of empowerment and mutual respect.
If you are a leader and have struggled with opposition, sabotage, and backstabbing, this chapter is for you. Nehemiah’s resolution and endurance will be inspiring and encouraging to those who have embraced a God-given vision and mission, and yet are faced with internal battles as a result of external pressures and antagonism. Gane writes:
…when it comes to change, the leader has the choice to be either transactional (political and incremental in approach), or transformational, and his choice will inform him or her in the process of personal change as well as organizational change […] Transformational leaders are willing to risk and then to learn from both their successes and failures. Nehemiah demonstrates that to move toward real change there has to be an unswerving faith in the direction (vision) and courage to stay the course despite opposition. (pg. 255)
My favorite part of this chapter is the connection Gane builds between leadership and the future, written in simple, yet eloquent and heart-stirring language:
The future is not some place we are going to, but a place we are creating. The paths are not to be discovered, but made: and the activity of making the future changes both the maker and the destination. (pg. 256)
Although written by a large number of authors with an academic background, the book is easily accessible by any reader, and the book flows well from one chapter to the next, even while exposing the reader to a variety of research and writing styles. Evidently, each reader will be more drawn to some chapters than others; however, taken together, the book offers a comprehensive picture of the biblical concept of leadership, along with ample principles for immediate application—both at the individual level, as well as at a community level.
Many readers will find these principles new, refreshing, and perhaps challenging. Others, already familiar with some of these principles, will be delighted to see a foundation in Scripture for a leadership model they may have already embraced and practiced. Very importantly, the principles transpiring from this study are transcultural, and thus meant to challenge the local culture, familiar and comfortable as that may be.
This is a book I recommend to any leader, Christians or otherwise. The principles and ethics the volume encourages will not only provide great results, but foster positive relationships and a healthy work, ministry, and family environment. Most importantly, the book will orient us, once again, to who God is. Seen from the perspective of leadership, God’s person is such that one cannot but acknowledge its beauty and superiority, which the reader will desire to emulate.
Purchase here: Servants and Friends: A Biblical Theology of Leadership, edited by Skip Bell (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2014)