Christlike Leadership: An Example
What does Leadership Christlikeness look like?
Most discussions of Christlikeness get down to individual Christians acting like Jesus – following his teaching, of course, but especially embodying his cross. So sanctification becomes cruciformity.
Such cruciform Christlikeness finds its paradigmatic expressions in self-surrender, self-denial, and in nonviolent resistance or dissidence.
But what does Christlikeness mean when expressed by a group, say elders or deacons or pastoral staff or an entire layer of denominational leaders? What kind of discussions have to be held?
What does this say about leadership? Is group denial like this what servant leadership is? Does this even surrender what it means to be a leader? (Some would think so.)
Such surrender involves vulnerability to someone else making crucial decisions and it means surrendering control. But isn’t this precisely what cruciformity is?
Consider with me a passage in the Book of Acts, chapter six. (I quote from the NIV.)
The account begins with a time of numerical growth in the church: “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing” (6:1).
Some are prone to see the devil in every obstacle to a flourishing church while others are more prone to take a closer look at human ambition, pride, and a lack of love. What happened in this period of growth? Luke tells us “the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.”
Judaism, and Jerusalem in particular, was known for its relief of the poor and some of whom would have been classified as the Anawim, the pious poor (Mary’s Magnificat, Simeon, and Anna). Evidently the earliest followers of Jesus believed they should be supporting their own poor. Care for widow and orphans was a biblical teaching and it was considered so by the brother of Jesus (James 1:26-27).
Now a problem in the midst of two good things – flourishing and compassion for the poor. The Greek-speaking Jews observed the Hebraic (Aramaic speaking) Jews were “looking by” or ignoring the Greek-speaking widows. There is tension then between two language groups: Greek-speakers and Aramaic-speakers.
The problem is discrimination based on group identity, perhaps class, perhaps status, perhaps then too power (isn’t power often involved?). It’s ethnic prejudice at some level. I’m with James D.G. Dunn: a language forms out of a culture and one language group vs. another is culture clash. He’s right, too, in suggesting that Aramaic-speakers may well have held suspicions about Greek-speakers – the history of the Maccabee movement showed that Greek-speakers led to relaxing and abandoning law observance. Cultural groups are often suspicious of other culture groups. I would suggest, too, that the seeming absence of support for Paul from the Jerusalem Aramaic-speaking followers of Jesus when he was confined in Caesarea Maritima shows these tensions could pop up now and again.
So what happened? Leadership Christoformity is what I will call it. Of course, they got together and made a decision. That’s what always happens, right? But who makes the decision? Those in power. That’s what happens always, right? “So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together” (6:2). Those with the power to make decisions, the apostles, deliberated together. They had a pragmatic framework: they were called to something else so they said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables” (6:2). Think about this: they knew what they were called to do, and they knew what they were good at, and they know what had to be done, and they weren’t the ones who were to be doing it.
So, they handed the power and decision over to others: “Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” That’s Christocentric leadership: they surrendered the work to others. The apostles let them make the decisions. You may be thinking they saw their callings as superior and this waiting on tables as inferior, and you may be right. But the moment you are talking about vulnerable, poor widows you must avoid that kind of thinking. This is very serious stuff. They knew their calling and they knew it wasn’t the distribution of food to the widows. They needed “specialists.” So they handed the task over to those who could decide who could do the job well.
Everyone agreed, so we have a consensus: “This proposal pleased the whole group.”
What I learned from my seminary professor and what has proven true so many times in my own studies of the world of the New Testament is what we need to see now. The apostles had the power; they knew the tensions; they knew the cultural significance of treating the vulnerable widows in a way that was right. So what did they do? They surrendered the whole business over to the Greek-speaking believers: “They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.” Greek names, every one of them! What a powerful display of Christoformity: instead of aggrandizing power for their own side, they seemingly surrendered the power to the other side. To the minority.
If the current arrangement ignored the Greek-speaking widows, which indicates probably that the distribution was carried out with prejudice or at least ignorance of systemic neglect, the decision to give the power to the other side is an admission of failure. To reconcile and compensate they surrender power to the other side and, do what?
They seem to ordain them:“They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.” The apostles don’t call their decision into question; they trust the decision.
When Christians with power surrender their power for the good of the gospel we often observe a surge of enthusiasm: “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”
This is Christoform leadership, a pragmatic strategy that reconciles and empowers others for the good of the gospel. It takes a heart filled with the Spirit and faith to have the courage to surrender power to the vulnerable, to survivors, and to the marginalized but that’s what it often takes to accomplish a Christlike justice.