Mahatma Gandhi once remarked to a group of religious dignitaries from the west, "There are two kinds of leaders of the church—religious leaders and Christian leaders. I would have been a Christian now had I seen a real one." To a large degree, the success of the church relative to its God-given goal depends on the kind of men and women that lead it.
Today half of the globe is subject to atheistic Communism, and the other half wavers between materialistic worldliness and faith. The church must face the crucial question of how it can fulfill its God-assigned role of being the world's saving agency. So what kind of men should lead the church in these momentous hours?
Let us roll back the hand of time and get our perspective from the history of the leadership of the early Christian church. When Christianity arose, the world was largely blanketed by paganism and the secularistic philosophies of Greece and Rome. Because of its insular mentality, Judaism failed to diffuse the light of truth it possessed. Its candle sticks illuminated only the narrow con fines of its own temple, and the world at large was left to revolve in moral and spiritual darkness.
Judaism did not lack men of leadership caliber. In her midst were men of learning, prestige, and skill. The great Gamaliel is just one example. There were also the men from the Levitical priesthood—the seminary, so to speak.
But in God's sight their "qualifications" disqualified them. Annas and Caiaphas, for instance, had the highest positions in the hierarchy, and they had connections with the ruling Roman authorities. But they were out of position and connection with God. They were only religious leaders.
The Pharisees and the scribes could have easily fielded their own candidates for church leadership. But they were "blind leaders" (Matt. 15:14), "whited sepulchres" (chap. 23:27). Outwardly their vestments and deportment were impeccable; their pious talks elicited the adulation of the people; their titles gave them claim to the "uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues" (verses6, 7); their public prayers and works of charity called for the blowing of trumpets (chap. 6:2). In today's parlance they were front-page copy, VIPs. But God had no use for them; they already had their reward (verse 2). They were mere religious leaders.
God chooses unlikely leaders
God picked His leaders from the most unlikely places—the seashore, a tax collector's booth, a lonely strip of the Damascus road. In the contemporary setting, that would be the waterfront, the office of a questionable accountant, and some desert highway where robbers and cutthroats tend to linger. The original twelve whom Christ chose to lead the Christian church would certainly raise eyebrows in modern nominating committees.
Did Christ, therefore, pick inferior men and women? According to worldly standards—yes. As a matter of fact, the religious authorities of that period called Peter and John "unlearned and ignorant men" (Acts 4:13). Technically, they were correct in their observation. These disciples hadn't studied the Greek classics, Roman jurisprudence, Egyptian lore, or the Code of Hammurabi.
But Peter and John knew Christ more than theoretically, and that makes a world of difference. If a man does not know Christ experientially, he is only a religious leader. He might have the "tongues of men and of angels," but he cannot effectively stand for God as a Christian leader. Top executives, excel lent administrators, expert promoters, can be picked up anywhere. There are literally hundreds of employment agencies that can fill any number of leader ship positions. But Christian leaders are a special, if not rare, breed. They come only from God's production line—cast in His own mold and crowned by His unique glory. The Lord is not impressed by a man's or woman's resume; He is concerned about one's response. The disciples responded positively; Peter, James, Andrew, and John "straightway left their nets, and followed him" (Matt. 4:20).
The first thing that God desires to see in a Christian leader is absolute dependence upon Him. The disciples believed that apart from Christ they could do nothing (John 15:5). They were convinced that their sole source of success was Christ; their only recourse for results was Christ. Peter said, "To whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life" (chap. 6:68).
God is not antiacademia. He is the source of true knowledge, wisdom, and intellect. But the learned in those days leaned on their own learning; they were too smart for their own good. God cannot use leaders who rely on the consensus of committees, the dictates of demographic data, the force of financial figures, and the mechanics of modern machinery and technology. But when leaders fall before the presence of the Lord and confess, "O Lord my God, ... I am but a little child," He can use them to lead His cause.
Moses and Paul had great learning, but God had to order them to the desert to dry out of them their dependence on the arm of flesh. When Moses had learned to "stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord" (Ex. 14:13), God could effectively use him to lead His people. Then he would no longer depend on his skill in the martial arts to destroy the Egyptians. Rather, he would let God deliver His people by means of His mighty arm. After Paul "determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2), God used him to lead in evangelizing the Gentiles.
God is looking for men and women to lead His movement. He is willing to let them come close to His throne and see His great power as long as they don't steal the glory away from Him. The moment they do, they have rendered themselves unfit and useless. They can only be religious leaders, not Christian leaders.
The truth of the matter is that the Lord is willing to use both the learned and the unlearned. Peter and Paul illustrate this. Peter had not had the opportunity to receive scholastic training. Paul had. God had to train and mold each one so he could be used effectively as a Christian leader. Each had to die to self and let Christ live in him. Only then could he live for Christ and do His work on earth. It is thrilling to witness the results! The unlearned confound the wise, and the learned exemplify the wonderful simplicity of the faith of a little child.
Characteristics of Christian leaders
What happens when leaders study in Christ's school of Christian leadership?
1. They become bold but not bossy. Peter and John became known for their boldness (Acts 4:13). But Peter himself said that an elder must not lord it over God's heritage (1 Peter 5:3). The boldness (parrhesia) Peter and John had was the determination and courage to speak freely for Christ in the face of opposition. No earthly authority could stop them from proclaiming God's message (see Acts 4:1-12, 29).
We must watch lest we allow our desire for good public relations to com promise our integrity. Let us beware lest in our eagerness to make the church acceptable to the world, or for the sake of camaraderie, or in the spirit of ecumenism, we compromise Christian principle. In the process our character will become emasculated and our message will lose its distinctive flavor. I recall how, when I became a Seventh-day Adventist thirty-two years ago, Adventist preachers were stoned, hated, and hooted at because their message pressed on certain moral nerves. Since then the stones have stopped falling and the hoots and hisses have ceased. I wonder: Have we lost our boldness in Christ?
2. They become godly. To be genuine Christian leaders, we cannot simply be good people. There are plenty of good men and women even outside the religious circle. God's man is a godly man. Concerning Peter and John, Scripture records that others "took knowledge [notice] of them, that they had been with Jesus" (verse 13).
True Christian leaders conduct the work of God in accordance with God's ways. They treat everyone with godly kindness. Everything that they are and everything that they do is worthy of God's approval. With persons such as this at the helm of God's work on earth, there is no reason to worry. The church is in good hands. God's work and God's workers are in good hands too.
3. They become soul winners. Paul had an inner compulsion to preach the gospel and see souls saved in God's kingdom (1 Cor. 9:16). I really cannot imagine the likes of Paul, Peter, and John being content with sitting behind a mahogany desk day after day, shuffling papers, pushing pencils, and steering councils and committees. Paul did take time to sit and write his Epistles to the churches. But again and again he went to the marketplace, the Temple or synagogue, the riverside, and any other place where people congregated and proclaimed the gospel to all who would listen. He trained others to win souls, and he visited churches and studied the progress of the work, but his paramount concern was doing soul winning himself. In dealing with the squabble between the Greek and Hebrew members, the disciples made it plain that their primary task was the ministry of the word (Acts 6:1-4).
I visited Manila during the public evangelistic effort Elder Neal C. Wilson, the General Conference president, held in the heart of that city. What a thrill it was to see his personal commitment to evangelism! The members were aroused with sacred zeal as they realized that the head of the church organization was at the very center of the fight for men's souls.
4. They become endowed with sanctified vision. "Where there is no vision the people perish," says the wise man of the Bible (Prov. 29:18). Peter had a vision of an outreach beyond the limited sphere of Judaism (Acts 11:1-18). And Paul saw a broad ministry to the Gentiles (chap. 16:9).
Likewise, Christian leaders receive a heavenly vision. They can see beyond the fog and haze of the spiritual lowlands and inspire the people of God to climb to the top of the mountains of the spirit, where they can breathe the pure air of heaven and see the Promised Land.
With sanctified vision the Christian leader stops being satisfied with the status quo and becomes creative and innovative. A true leader will not allow the saints to rest on their laurels or be hindered by the losses but will inspire them to reach forth "unto those things which are before" and to "press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:13, 14). Not afraid to try new things and new ways, such leaders do not permit themselves or their peers to be riveted to routine. They encourage subordinates to "launch out into the deep" and throw the gospel net on the untried side.
5. They become people of prayer. Christ showed that those who carry the heavy and delicate burdens of leadership need a constant prayer life. He prayed all night (Luke 6:12). He prayed for that unpredictable and unstable man Peter so that his "faith fail not" (chap. 22:32). When you have a difficult person on your hands, do you, church leader, pray for him, or do you put him conveniently away? Christ prayed for His disciples and for those "which shall believe ... through their word" (John 17:20).
It may sound like a worn out cliche, but it is still true that "more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of." We would be better leaders and workers in God's cause if we spent more time communing with Christ. We would accomplish more if we attempted less and spent more time closeted with our God, quietly waiting upon Him. We ought to renounce the erroneous idea that we are doing nothing unless we are busily running to and fro.
The early church received its power while on its knees. It began with little manpower and meager resources. Yet in a comparatively short time it was able to carry the gospel to the very heart of imperial Rome and even into Caesar's household.
The modern Christian church, with all its personnel and rich resources, cannot seem to make headway. Perhaps its leadership is spending less time on its knees and wasting precious hours poring over human plans and procedures.
6. They become compassionate heroes. Jesus said, "The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep" (John 10:11). A truly Christian leader does not ask the sheep to give their lives first. Christ, the chief leader, gave Himself for His church (Eph. 5:25).
How truly blessed is the church when her leaders are willing to lay down their lives in her behalf! The book of Acts records certain "chosen men" who worked with Paul and Barnabas. I call them the unknown soldiers of the cross. Of these men, it was said that they "hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 15:25, 26).
Some years ago Idi Amin's forces persecuted the Christian churches in Uganda, subjecting believers to imprisonment and, in some cases, a real bloodbath. During those dark hours a truckload of soldiers swooped down upon one worshiping congregation. Bristling with automatic weapons, they encircled the small chapel. Immediately the pastor ran out the front door and closed it behind him. Arms outstretched over the door, as in the sign of the cross, he boldly addressed the leader of the army unit.