The Trouble with Biblical Leadership Models

I am drawn intuitively, personally, and theologically to complexity theory as a substantial means of explaining and understanding organizational life. I particularly react to the premise of leadership as a single leader with particular traits and characteristics who leverages these in order to get people—who, of course, couldn’t otherwise figure out on their own how or what to do—to move in the direction that the leader generally desires or has deemed appropriate. Richard Barker makes the case that almost all current leadership models are basically some variation on this theme. I generally agree.

However, as I’ve contemplated more on biblical leadership models and the quest to identify a core biblical/theological conception of leadership as a process within the group, I bump into some walls with Old Testament models, i.e., Moses & Joshua. Moses seems very much the epitome of the great man theory of leadership, one who possessed certain powerful traits and came into leadership at a much-needed time. Charisma, influence, man on top and out front by himself, these are all true of Moses and Joshua.

One thing, for example, is that at the initial glance, shepherding as a leadership motif seems basically to be man with a stick caring for subjects who really are too dumb to care for themselves, protect themselves, or find their own food. Say what you want about the Shepherd, what bothers me here is the view of the sheep…but that’s another discussion.

I try to quell this a bit by noting the very significant element of divine, transcendent calling and empowerment, but these OT pictures seem to suggest anything but leadership in multiplicity and emerging from relationships.

Then it occurred to me: this is the teleological principle at work. The OT is the start of the process which the NT dynamics carry toward maturity, although the full end is yet-to-come. There is a continuum at work here that must inform our conception of leadership studies, theory, and practice. Intrinsic in the biblical record is the underlying question, “What is God doing and where is he taking us?” It simply will not work as a means of deriving contemporary models and theories to proof-text notable portions of Scripture and seek to find the principles therein.

Every leader, every event, every calling finds its full expression and meaning only in the broad, comprehensive plan of divine redemption; a plan the unfolding of which is not yet finished. When you study Moses or Joshua or shepherd and sticks in isolation from each other and from the whole of Scripture, it’s liking riding half a horse.

In seeking to understand how Scripture informs my leadership, I recognize two things: 1) I must interpret the particular in light of the general: God is doing something, and, 2) I must recognize that I, we, are not only observers, but participants in that story. What’s God doing and where is he taking us? That’s our leadership context and always will be. Good biblical leadership models will take into account this teleological principle.

Further reading

DNA of Biblical Leadership

Some thoughts on church leadership dynamics concerning the roles of preacher and pastor. Ephesians 4 names five “offices” or roles that...