In the evangelical church, humble leadership is one of the hardest things to pull off. Each year, the church seems to hear yet another story about a pastor who has bulldozed people, rubbing congregants the wrong way, and not carrying himself like a minister of the gospel of peace should. Sometimes, it seems as if our whole leadership model is broken. Timothy Paul Jones and Michael S. Wilder, both veteran pastors and scholars in the area of leadership, call Christians back to a thoroughly biblical model of leadership in their new book ,The God Who Goes Before You. Starting with the text of Scripture, they set out to prove that the Bible — when rightly interpreted — communicates a three-part leadership process: union with Christ, communion with the people of God, and mission to the world. Below, they discuss how this process works, along with an especially timely message about how personal power must push a leader to empower others.
AJWS: How does this book explore a uniquely Christian approach to leadership? What does Christianity offer to a philosophy of leadership that other leadership structures don’t?
MW: Early in the writing process, we knew we had to define Christian leadership, which is a messy amalgamation in all the leadership scholarly literature. I spent three months reading everything I could, gathering every definition I could find. The answers were all over the map. What we came back to was a deep and rich conviction that Christian leadership must be primarily understood in our identity in Christ and our union with Christ. I became convinced that there must be a redemptive framework for the way we do Christian leadership. I think that’s one of the unique elements of Christian leadership particularly — there’s a redemptive framework. And there’s a deep identity in Christ — a union with Christ and his people. So, leadership is rightly understood in the context of community, which in communion with other people in the church eventually leads to a particular mission we are meant to fulfill. But it all begins with a redemptive framework — an identity in Christ that drives us.
TPJ: One of the things David Prince always says is: “If Jesus didn’t have to be crucified and raised from the dead for this sermon to work, go back and try again.” That’s been the approach we took throughout the project. That was a principle that I really applied, all the way through, even in the editing. In the book, we discuss a three-fold leadership structure: Leadership is about union, communion, and mission. It involves union with Christ, and therefore leadership itself comes out of our identity in Christ. I’ve not seen another leadership book that starts there. That union flows into our communion with God’s people. It’s not that the leaders, who are united with Christ, tell everybody in the church what to do. Rather, the people we lead are also in union with Christ. Our shared union creates communion with one another.
That’s where the subtitle of the book comes from: Pastoral Leadership as Christ-Centered Followership. As leaders, we are never above or beyond the people. We lead among the people. And in some sense, our people follow Christ through us. Of course, they are not following us — they are following Christ through us. Not only are we unified with Christ and in communion with other believers, but we are doing Christianity on mission. We have a particular mission that is greater than ourselves — it transcends who we are.
AJWS: There are a lot of Christian books about Jesus and leadership. But many of them aren’t very biblically based. What makes this book different from the many others in its genre?
MW: We’ve started with Scriptures first, rather than starting with theory or pragmatism. Instead of a pragmatic foundation, the book genuinely has a biblical, theological, and Scriptural foundation. We are not prooftexting; we are asking what Scripture teaches us, first and foremost, about who we are. And then we ask, “What does that mean for leadership?” Then, we press out from there into the function of leadership rather than imposing a pragmatic, theoretical base back upon the text.
TPJ: I think of the analogy that I believe Matt Chandler uses: “Is Scripture your diving board or your pool?” And by that, he means: Do you jump off the Scriptures into another topic, or are the Scriptures the context in which you’re swimming? I think most books on Jesus and leadership treat the Bible as a diving board. In this book, we have tried to let the Bible be the pool in which we swim. That means there’s a whole biblical theology that must be addressed before we even get to the practical topic of leadership.
AJWS: If leadership is within a community and not above a community, that means good leaders don’t force people to do what they say, right? Leaders should be integrated with their people and part of the community. But is that hard to do?
TPJ: It’s not hard; it’s impossible — in our own power. The only way we do that is by actually living out of our union with Christ. That removes our need to leverage people for our own ends, or our need to impress people. I think that is the biggest struggle every leader faces. We must lead from a sense of absolute security in Christ, and that’s just really hard. It is only through Christ that we’re able to lead that way.
MW: Until his identity in Christ is firm, I don’t think a pastor will perceive himself as a brother raised up amongst brothers and sisters to lead the church rightly. We don’t want to downplay the office or the authority of pastoral elders in the church, but until you rightly understand yourself as a fellow brother, you can’t lead. I became very consumed during the research process for this book by Peter’s formation of his own identity in the New Testament. In 1 Peter 1, Peter calls himself an apostle. But then by the time we get five chapters into the letter, he writes that he is a “fellow elder.”
As evangelicals, I think we’ve got a lot of lead pastors and senior pastors who think that they’re the only ones that matter. Having a right understanding of your identity — as a brother in Christ among your people — changes everything. Once that identity is rightly ordered, then you are able to work within the context of the community.
I think being among your people, and having a spirit of collectivism in the body — I think that’s a part of changing the culture of the church. We don’t lose our individuality or our personhood, but we are first and foremost understood as a collective. As a leader, I am a part of that collective and I lead as part of that collective. That is the mindset and perspective of the pastor. If he does not have that, then healthy community is never going to come to fruition. But that requires a whole cultural change at your church; that doesn’t happen overnight. Yet it starts with the leader properly understanding his own identity in Christ before it’s ever going to work out in the body.
AJWS: Why is it important to recognize that power in leadership is not inherently our own power — that we receive it from God?
TPJ: If we think that we possess power, then ultimately that power will possess us. We want to recognize that we do not possess power in ourselves — we are stewards of another’s authority. That has been delegated to us, and it is our responsibility to steward it well. That means we should never take power lightly, and we should never use the power that we have for our own personal benefit. Almost every disorder in leadership — especially anything scandalous — begins when somebody starts to live as if the power belongs to them. When that happens, scandal is not far behind.
MW: Ask a group this question, as I often do in class: “When you hear the word ‘power,’ what is your initial reaction to that word?’ Good, bad; evil, righteous? Almost always, it carries for people a negative connotation — and that’s always derived from the abuse of power. But God is the origin of power, and so power is necessarily good, right, and beautiful. God is omnipotent, and that involves both the essence and action of power. So, it is good and right, but Timothy is correct — we are only the stewards of God’s power. As leaders, we derive both power and authority from God, and we are supposed to exercise those derived responsibilities wisely in order to affect change. So, when we couple those two things and understand that they are both delegated and derived from God and not ourselves, that changes things. We will start to steward it well. We will employ it in a gentle instead of an abusive way.
TPJ: And you are more able to give your power away.
MW: Yes. In true communion, leaders should develop, empower, and equip fellow laborers. That involves a giving away of that power. A right theology of power has to include a right theology of empowerment. Every time we see God’s powers — in creation, redemption, or consummation — they are always used for empowerment. So, if we fail to model that kind of empowerment in the way we lead, we come up short.