We live in a society that has become painfully skeptical about leadership — some of it for good reason.
Stories of use and abuse abound, and the letdowns make for big headlines. We all have felt the sting of being let down by some leader in whom we had placed our trust. The pain and confusion are real. The wounds can be deep. We learn to guard ourselves from future disappointment, and cynicism feels like a trustworthy shield.
But the high-profile failures of famous leaders can mask the true source of our discontent with being led: our love affair with self and autonomy. And coupled with it is a distorted sense of what leadership is. When leadership has become a symbol of status, achievement, and privilege, we’re happy to be leaders ourselves and get our way, but we’re reluctant to grant anyone else that place over us.
Led by God Through Leaders
Into such confusion, the Christian faith speaks a different message. You need leadership. It is for your good. You were designed to be led. Yes, ultimately by God — through the God-man who wields all authority at the Father’s right hand. But there is more.
The risen Christ has appointed that there be human leaders on the ground in his church. Precious as the priesthood of all believers is — a remarkable truth that was radically counter-cultural from the first century until the Reformation — today we have a growing need to articulate afresh the nature, and goodness, of leadership in the local church.
A Christian Vision of Leadership
One of the ways Christ governs his church, and blesses her, is by giving her the gift of leaders: “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12).
The mention of “shepherds and teachers” is of special significance, because that includes the pastor(s) of your local church. You’ve never met one of Jesus’s apostles, but chances are you know a pastor. Pastors are a gift from Christ to guide and keep his church today.
Are they flawed? Yes. Sinful? Absolutely. Have some pastors made terrible mistakes, fleeced their flocks, and injured the very ones they were commissioned to protect? Sadly, yes, too many have. But it is not because they were fulfilling the vision of what true Christian leadership is, but because they were falling short of it. In fact, their failures show — by contrast — what real leadership in the church should be.
Leaders Are for Your Joy
The letter to the Hebrews gives this important glimpse into the dynamic of Christian leadership:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
Here is a beautiful, marriage-like vision of the relationship between the church and her leaders. The leaders, for their part, labor for the advantage — the profit — of the church. And the church, for her part, wants her leaders to work happily, not with groaning, because the pastors’ joy in leading will be for the church’s own benefit. The people want their leaders to labor with joy because they know their leaders are working for theirs.
Leaders in the church, then, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:24, are workers for your joy. Christ gives leaders to his people for their joy. That turns the world’s paradigm for leadership upside down.
For Your Advance and Advantage
Paul saw himself as such worker for joy in the lives of the Philippians. “I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again” (Philippians 1:25–26).
He saw his leadership as a laboring for the church’s “progress and joy in the faith.” How eager, then, must the people have been to submit to such a leader? It drastically changes the prospect of submitting to a leader when you know he isn’t pursuing his own private good, but genuinely seeking what is best for you, what will give you your deepest and more enduring joy. “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24).
“Who wouldn’t want to be a follower if Christian leaders truly were ‘workers for your joy’?”
You who are skeptical of leaders in general, what if you knew that “those who are over you in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 5:12) were not in it to stroke their ego, or garner private privilege, or assert their will to control others, but actively were laying aside their rights and comforts to self-sacrificially take initiative and expend energy in working for your joy?
And you who are leaders in the church or in the home or in the marketplace, what if those under your care were convinced — deeply convinced — that your place of authority was not for self-aggrandizement or self-promotion, but that you were working for their joy? That your joy in leadership was not a selfish joy, but a satisfaction you were finding in the joy of those whom you lead?
No Greater Joy
Leaders taste the greatest joy when they truly look out for the interests of others — when they do everything in their power to bring about the thriving and flourishing of those in their care. They know the delight of the apostle who says, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4). They can say, “What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20).
When undershepherds in the church show themselves to be workers for the true joy of their flocks, they walk in the steps of the Great Shepherd — the great Worker for your joy — the one who tells us to pray “that your joy may be full” (John 16:24), and speaks to us “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11; also John 17:13).
Christian leadership exists for the joy of the church. Such a vision changes everything, first for pastors and then for their people.