By Greg Van Court
The unfolding storyline of the Bible, through its narrative examples, prophetic oracles, apostolic instructions, and divine admonitions, provides the necessary contours for discerning a biblical theology of leadership. The whole drama of redemption can be viewed in terms of God’s design for human leadership. God created humanity to serve as leaders over his creation. Adam brought about the Fall when he failed to lead properly, and the result of the Fall was an abdication of leadership from man to Satan. God sent his only Son as a man to forever restore proper leadership over God’s creation to a glorified human race over which he is the head. From Eden to Egypt to Canaan to Exile to Judea to the ends of the earth to the recreation of the world, proper leadership is characterized by four important qualities. First, it is a derivative leadership that originates from, reflects, and represents the leadership of God. Second, it is a leadership marked by obedience to God. Third, it is a leadership distinguished by love for those who are led. And finally, it is a leadership characterized by order, harmony, and wholeness.
Leadership in Eden
Biblical leadership is established in Genesis 1:26-28 when man is created in the image of God and is given the task of ruling over God’s creation. The role of image-bearer and the task of exercising dominion are both fundamental to man’s leadership. An essential meaning of bearing the image of God is to “represent the authority of God.” Man serves as vice-regent over the creation. One critical aspect of exercising dominion over the created order is “to lead the creation in worship of the God who had created all things.” It is important to note that this leadership is a leadership by example. Man leads all of creation in worship by being a perfect worshipper of God, and this entails obedience to God’s proscriptive and prohibitive instructions. The order, harmony, and wholeness of God’s design for human leadership can be seen in the fact that God creates man as male and female. While Adam “is the leader in the world which God creates,” Eve “is to help him as he leads.” This one-flesh union of a man and woman is a loving relationship comprised of two unique roles coming together in complementary fashion with singleness of purpose.
This order, harmony, and completeness is tragically disrupted when sin enters the world. When our first parents disobey God’s instruction, “they repudiate their role and task.” Eve takes the initiative to listen to Satan instead of her husband. Adam, who should have been faithfully leading, instead follows the lead of his wife. The consequences are disastrous. Since “it was his duty as leader to maintain the purity of the garden by ensuring that its inhabitants followed the Word of the Creator,” it is Adam whom God seeks out. Because the man abdicated his leadership, it is his leadership that is most affected by the curse. While he is still under obligation to be the leader, it is Satan who has been given authority over this fallen world (Mt. 4:8-9; Jn. 12:21; 2Cor. 4:4; 1 Jn. 5:19). Under the curse, man’s leadership over creation is susceptible to being undermined because now the land fights back, the woman fights back, and the serpent is allowed to wreak havoc in the world. Rather than lovingly leading, he is now tempted to selfishly rule as a despot. The rest of the biblical storyline involves the failures of human leadership under the curse and the hope of a restoration of faithful leadership as God takes the initiative to establish a people who will rightly lead his creation.
Leadership in Exodus
Prior to King David, the archetypal leader in the history of Israel was Moses. The derivative nature of leadership is clearly seen in his calling as a leader. Contrary to the view that Moses possessed “unique characteristics … that qualified him to be selected as a leader,” the Bible portrays Moses as initially ungifted as a leader. He had displayed all the effects of the curse; he had lost his temper, killed an Egyptian, hid the body, and fled to Midian when the Lord commissioned him (2:11-15). Moreover, he had “never been eloquent” but was “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (4:10). God first called him as a leader and then graciously equipped him for the task (4:11-12). The life of Moses demonstrates that “a human leader is none other than God leading his own people through an anointed servant.”
Moses also demonstrates leadership that is marked by obedience to God. He leads the people out of Egypt in obedience to God even when the people’s faith in God falters. While the people grumble and doubt God’s provision in the wilderness, Moses trusts the Lord for food and water. The greatest contrast is drawn when Aaron and the people defy Yahweh by worshipping the golden calf while Moses obediently meets with God on Sinai to receive the Law. As obedient a leader as Moses was, however, the fact that he was not allowed to enter the promised land because he failed to treat God as holy serves as a reminder that a full restoration of proper leadership is still needed. It also introduces a new factor to the leadership quality of love. In the fallen world, loving leadership involves not merely love for those who are led but also sacrifice and suffering. Moses becomes “a type of vicariously suffering servant” who experiences the punishment of the rebellious generation whom he led.
Leadership in the Promised Land
Joshua, as a type of second Moses, takes up the mantle and leads the new generation of Israelites into the promised land. He leads the people in obedience to God, by calling on them to forsake all idolatry (Josh.24:14) and by modeling true obedience to God (24:15). The death of Joshua ushers in the period of the judges, which is marked by a lack of proper leadership. The book of Judges ends with the comment that “in those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25; cf. 17:6; 18:1; 19:1). This is a repeated refrain in the last half of the book, as it closes out with descriptions of appalling incidents of rebellion and apostasy. The implication seems to be that what was missing during the period of the judges was a righteous ruler on earth who could bring order to the chaos by representing God’s reign over his people as a good shepherd.
God had prescribed just such a king when he established his covenant with Israel at Sinai (Deut. 17:14-20). The first act of a king of Israel upon his coronation was to take from the high priest a copy of the law and to make it his own personal copy to read every day. His obedience was to be representative of the people’s obedience, so that as he prospered in his obedience, God’s people also prospered. It is King David, the man after God’s own heart, who is the most promising character in the Old Testament to fulfill this role and restore proper leadership. Indeed, God promises David an everlasting kingdom (2 Sam. 7). Sadly, while his “early reign over Israel is marked by divine blessing,” the end of his reign is marred by one of the most infamous and egregious abuses of authority in the entire Old Testament. Over the course of their four hundred years of rule over the Southern kingdom of Judah, David’s family fell short of what a true king was supposed to be. David’s son Solomon introduced court-sanctioned idolatry. Manasseh, the most wicked of David’s heirs, actually built altars to pagan gods inside the temple in the very presence of the holy of holies, an act which provokes God to decide to “cast off Jerusalem, the city I have chosen” (2 Kings 23:27) and to send her people and her Davidic king into exile. While the Davidic kings were supposed to be representatives of God’s righteous and compassionate rule to his people and representatives to God of his obedient and worshipful people, what they became, in fact, was a demonstration of the need for a more faithful leader who would truly be a good shepherd and would follow in God’s commands blamelessly.
Leadership in the Prophets
During the darkest years of Israel’s history, when the leaders were evil and the exile was looming, the prophets exhibited true leadership despite the fact that they were often “isolated individuals, rejected by the community and in conflict with it.” The derived nature of their leadership is clearly shown from the prophetic introductory formula: “thus says the Lord.” During rampant apostasy and opposition, the prophets remain obedient to God and warn the people, kings, priests, false prophets, and foreign nations of the consequences of disobedience. While decrying the appalling lack of biblical leadership, the prophets also provide hope by prophesying of the restoration of true leadership through the line of David. Israel’s Messianic hopes were all wrapped up in the anticipated restoration of the leadership of the house of David that they knew would someday come.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, Micah, and Zechariah all depend on the promises of 2 Samuel 7 as the source of their hope in a future leader. Amazingly, Isaiah 9:6-7 not only promises a future ideal king who will ultimately be the greatest of David’s line, but it also calls him “mighty God.” Jeremiah 22:30 prophesies against Jehoiakim, declaring that no man of his descendants will sit on the throne of David. With this, “the prophet is calling into question the permanence of the Davidic covenant.” However, the prophet follows this prophesy with the promise that “the days are coming” when “a righteous branch” will be raised up for David who “will reign as king and act wisely and do justice and righteousness in the land” (23:5). Ezekiel decries the leaders of Israel who destroy the people “like wolves tearing their pray” (22:27) and highlights the disharmony and chaos created by their lack of biblical leadership by comparing Israel to an unfaithful wife (16:1-59). The prophet goes on to prophesy of the hope of a new age where God will appoint a new Davidic shepherd, so that “a new era of peace, security and blessing will begin with a change in leadership.” Over and over again, the prophets condemn the current leaders for failing to reflect and represent the leadership of God, for disobeying God, for failing to love the people, and for creating disorder. At the same time, the recurring prophetic hope is the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant in which the son of David will restore true, biblical leadership that will be characterized by faithfully representing God, obeying God righteously, caring for the people as a shepherd cares for his sheep, and restoring order.
Leadership in the First Gospel
Through long years of exile and unfulfilled hopes, God had kept David’s royal line alive until, in the fullness of time, a virgin conceived, just as was foretold through Isaiah the prophet, and David’s greater son was born. No gospel writer underscores the Davidic lineage of Jesus more than Matthew. The first gospel opens with a reference to the long-awaited Messiah as “Jesus Christ, the son of David” (1:1). Just as the prophets did in the Old Testament, Jesus throughout the gospel narratives rebukes the religious leaders of his day for their failed leadership. He also models and teaches about biblical leadership, identifying himself as the promised one who was sent by the Father to set all things right.
Jesus reserves his harshest, most condemnatory words for the religious leaders. As in the days of the prophets, Israel’s leaders failed to lead the people according to God’s design. They were not representing God to the people. In fact, Jesus calls them the sons “of hell” and the “sons of those who murdered the prophets” (23:15, 31). Secondly, they were not exhibiting the obedience of biblical leaders. Jesus explicitly instructs the crowds and disciples not to follow their behavior since “they speak and do not do” (23:3). Third, they had no love for the people they were leading. Jesus pronounces woe upon them for neglecting “justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (23:23). He condemns them because they “tie up heavy loads and lay them on men’s shoulders while they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger” (23:4). Finally, they subvert the order and wholeness that God intends. They are divided within themselves which is why Jesus repeatedly calls them “hypocrites” (23:13-15; 23, 25, 27, 29), and they oppose the restoration of order by shutting “off the kingdom of heaven from men” (23:13).
In contradistinction to the religious leaders, Jesus bears all the marks of a biblical leader. He faithfully represents God. Jesus explains that “he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me” (10:40; cf. 11:27). Secondly, Jesus’ entire life is marked by obedience to the Father’s will. Meeting Satan in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus picks up right where the first man failed. Tempted with “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory,” Jesus refuses Satan’s offers and chooses to obey God (4:1-10). His obedience to the Father continues even to the point of death, as he prays, “Thy will be done” (26:42). Third, Jesus exemplifies the sacrificial and suffering love of a true leader. Jesus taught that “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (20:28). Finally, Jesus’ leadership is characterized by order, harmony, and wholeness. He preached, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (4:17). Jesus came to usher in the orderly kingdom that Adam abdicated at the Fall. He lets John the Baptist know that he is the promised one who will restore all things by reporting to him that “the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (11:5).
Not only does Jesus model biblical leadership, but he also teaches about what it involves. One important characteristic of “godly leadership” is “humble service in contrast to self-exaltation and a seeking after personal glory.” Christ teaches that in contrast to “the rulers of the Gentiles” who “lord it over” those they rule, the biblical leader serves others sacrificially (20:25-26). He commands the crowds and his disciples, saying “Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ” (23:10). The clear implication is that no leader should love honored titles or seek his own glory on earth but should rather seek Christ’s glory. He also teaches that a biblical leader must be humble because “whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (23:12; cf. 18:4).
Matthew ends with Jesus proclaiming, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth’” (28:18). This proclamation alludes to Daniel 7:14 where God bestows upon the Son of Man “a kingship which is to be everlasting and indestructible.” The first gospel opens with the royal lineage of Jesus in chapter one and his legitimate kingship underscored in chapter two in contrast to King Herod. Though mockingly given the title “King of the Jews” in 27:37, here he is more than king of the Jews only but has been given “all authority in heaven and on earth.” The kingdom of the world which Adam abdicated to Satan and which Satan offered to Jesus at his temptation belongs to the resurrected Jesus at the end of the gospel. It is with this authority, and with the assurance that he will be with his disciples always even until the age’s consummation, that King Jesus sends out his disciples to the nations to make disciples of them. This final event gives the impression not so much as an end to the Gospel but as the beginning of a new era.
Leadership in the Pauline Epistles
The early church understood Jesus to have inaugurated the restoration of biblical leadership that was abdicated at the Fall. Jesus is the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45). The rule of man over God’s creation that was disrupted by the Fall is being reestablished. God “begins the redemptive kingdom work first through individuals, the patriarchs, then through the nation Israel, then in the presence of his Son, and now through the Church.” Jesus is the new head of a redeemed human race. Paul understands Christ to be the “first-fruits” of a glorified humanity (1 Cor. 15:20-23). The application Paul draws from this are to “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). This implies that those who are “new creations” are enabled to exercise the biblical leadership that God intended humanity to exercise at creation. So Paul teaches, for instance, that redeemed wives are to “submit in everything to their husbands” just “as the church submits to Christ” and redeemed husbands are to “love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). The Christian home and Christian church can now reflect the order and harmony that God intended.
This order for the church is spelled out by Paul in the pastoral epistles. There are a plurality of elders who lead (1 Tim. 5:17ff; Titus 1:5ff) and a plurality of deacons who serve (1 Tim. 38-13). The “uniqueness of the organization of the NT church eldership against its Hellenistic or Jewish cultural setting” has been demonstrated, such that “its organizational structure is distinct from any other previous organization.” This uniqueness is only fitting since Paul describes the church itself as a “mystery” (Eph. 5:32) and since “the concept of Jewish and Gentile believers united into one body forms a new entity.”
Paul not only describes the biblical leadership which Jesus restores but he also models it. First, he is clear that his own leadership originates from, reflects, and represents Christ. In Galatians, he opens the letter with the words: “Paul, an apostle not sent from men, nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead.” He goes on to write, “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel, for I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11-12). Both Paul’s apostleship and his message originate from and represent Christ. Paul’s leadership is also characterized by obedience, so that he can exhort the church to “imitate me” (1 Cor.4:16; 11:1). Finally, his love for the church is demonstrated by a sacrificial and suffering life that is described as “being poured out as a drink offering” (Philip. 2:17; 2 Tim.4:6).
Leadership in the New Creation
The New Testament also describes a time when the restoration of biblical leadership will be complete. Jesus alludes to it when he tells his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mat.19:28). The Greek word paraphrased by the phrase “new world” is the compound noun made from the two words palin (“again”) and genesis (“origin”). It refers to the re-creation of the world. Clearly, some perfect form of biblical leadership will be forever established in the new creation. The second chapter of Hebrews alludes to this as well. Verses 6 through 8 comprise a quote from Psalm 8: “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” This important psalm celebrates the dominion that mankind enjoyed at creation, but the author of Hebrews quotes it in the context of a future day when “the world to come” will be “subjected” to a redeemed mankind. Finally, the book of Revelation closes with the image of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). This new creation is described in images that “are reminiscent of the Garden of Eden.” It is a place of splendor where “on either side of the river” is found “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month” and “no longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him … and they will reign forever and ever” (22:2-5). Thus, the story of God’s image-bearers exercising dominion by leading all of God’s creation in worship of him serves as bookends to God’s revelation.
Not surprisingly, the biblical portrayal of the nature and character of leadership is often counterintuitive and sharply distinct from the world’s understanding of leadership. Rather than laying stress on innate leadership traits, the Bible portrays human leadership as something designed and initiated by God. It is both created by God and is created for God. Mankind was created to represent the authority of God and lead all of creation in glorifying God through obedience. Part of our obedience is submitting to those who are leaders over us as unto the Lord. Another part is in leading those who are placed under our care with love. When every person fulfills their role within the leadership structure that God has designed, the result is an order, harmony and wholeness that brings glory to God. While this order was disrupted when Adam abdicated his role as leader over God’s creation, the last Adam has inaugurated the restoration of biblical leadership so that all who are new creations in Christ may once again obey God. In the consummation of the new creation, glorified humanity with Christ as the head will once again perfectly rule God’s creation in faithful worship of the Father.
Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 68.
 Noel Due, Created For Worship (Scotland: Christian Focus, 2005), 40.
 David Lee Talley, “Gender and Sanctification: From Creation to Transformation: A Comparative Look at Genesis 1-3, the Creation and Fall of the Man and the Woman, and Ephesians 5, the Sanctification of the Man and the Woman in a Redemptive Marriage Context,” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 8 (Spring, 2003): 7-8.
 Stephen G. Dempster, “The Servant of the Lord,” in Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity, ed. Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007): 137.
 Talley, “Gender and Sanctification,” 8.
 Ibid, 9.
 Ari Z. Zivotofsky, “The Leadership Qualities of Moses,” Judaism 43 (1994): 258.
 Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2006), 92.
 Ibid, 90.
 Due, Created For Worship, 95.
 Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart, 104.
 Patrick D. Miller, “Toward a Theology of Leadership: Some Clues from the Prophets,” The Asbury Theological Journal 47 (Spring, 1992): 43.
 Laniac, Shepherds After My Own Heart, 135.
 Ibid, 148.
 D. A. Hagner, “Matthew,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. D. Alexander and B. S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 266.
 A. D. Clarke, “Leadership,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. D. Alexander and B. S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 638.
 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 1112.
 Gerry Breshears, “The Body of Christ: Prophet, Priest Or King?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37 (March, 1994): 7.
 David W. Miller, “The Uniqueness of New Testament Church Eldership,” Grace Theological Journal 6 (Fall, 1985): 327.
 Mal Couch, A Biblical Theology of the Church (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999), 75.
 T. D. Alexander, The Servant King: The Bible’s Portrait of the Messiah (Vancouver: Regent College, 1998), 163.
Alexander, T. D. The Servant King: The Bible’s Portrait of the Messiah. Vancouver: Regent College, 1998.
Due, Noel. Created For Worship. Scotland: Focus Publications, 2005.
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.
Hoekema, Anthony A. Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.
Mal Couch. A Biblical Theology of the Church. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999.
Laniak, Timothy S. Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible. Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2006.
Breshears, Gerry. “The Body of Christ: Prophet, Priest Or King?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37 (March, 1994): 3-26.
Clarke, A. D. “Leadership.” In New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. D. Alexander and B. S. Rosner, 636-640. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Dempster, Stephen G. “The Servant of the Lord.” In Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity, eds. Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House, 128-178. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.
Hagner, D. A. “Matthew.” In New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. D. Alexander and B. S. Rosner, 262-267. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Miller, David W. “The Uniqueness of New Testament Church Eldership.” Grace Theological Journal 6 (Fall, 1985): 315-327.
Talley, David Lee. “Gender and Sanctification: From Creation to Transformation: A Comparative Look at Genesis 1-3, the Creation and Fall of the Man and the Woman, and Ephesians 5, the Sanctification of the Man and the Woman in a Redemptive Marriage Context.” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 8 (Spring, 2003): 6-15.
Zivotofsky, Ari Z. “The Leadership Qualities of Moses.” Judaism 43 (1994): 258-269.
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