Can pastors and other church leaders learn anything about leadership from President Obama? From President George Bush? From Bill Gates? From General Petraeus? From Chip Kelly?

That’s one of the questions I’d like to answer as we look at the three main resources God has provided to teach us about Christian leadership: His precepts, His patterns, and His providence.

God’s Precepts
God’s Word is obviously the first source of teaching on Christian leadership. The Bible tells us that there are two fundamentals for a Christian leader – spiritual life and moral life. Before anyone can become a Christian leader, they must first become a Christian; they must be born again (John 3:3,10). There can be no spiritual leadership without spiritual life.

But spiritual life is not enough; there must also be a moral life. As Christian leaders lead first and foremost by moral example, God’s moral law – the Ten Commandments – must shape their moral character.

Moreover, a Christian leader must go beyond having spiritual life and a holy life; these are but the basics of every Christian’s life. There are further leader-specific precepts and commands in both the Old Testament (e.g. Josh. 1:7) and in the New (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:24). 

God’s Patterns
In addition to His commands and instructions, God also provides us with models, or metaphors, of leadership: the servant, the shepherd, the captain, the father, the steward, etc.

God also makes these leadership models come alive in the lives of biblical characters, who are frequently set forth as exemplary leaders with unique leadership qualities: Joseph (long-range planning), Moses (meekness), Jethro (delegation), David (team-building), Daniel (courage), the apostles (pioneering), etc.  And of course, the ultimate model, Jesus Christ, combines every leadership quality in perfect proportion and balance.

God’s models are also found in the pages of Church History (e.g. C H Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Robert Dabney, Charles Hodge, William Wilberforce, etc.) There are also Christian leaders in our own day that the Lord has raised up, whose faith we are to follow (Heb. 13:7). Some of them may be internationally known. Others may be simply the pastors and elders whom the Lord has brought into our lives at various points.

God’s Providence
In His gracious providence, God has given leadership gifts to many outside the Church. They may be Christians or non-Christians, and they may be found in various fields: political, military, sports, business, etc. May we learn from such leaders in some or all of these fields, or not at all? And if so, what safeguards and cautions do we need to put in place to avoid contaminating the church with unbiblical practices?

There are some Christians who say. “No, we may not learn anything about leadership outside the Bible.” I can understand this instinct. Too often the church has become far too much like a corporation, the pastor has become too much like a CEO, worship has become too much like a concert, preaching has become too much like a stand-up comedy, and evangelism has become too much like a marketing campaign. However, these abuses and perversions should not stop us learning even from unbelievers in certain areas and with certain safeguards in place.

I’d like to defend the idea of learning from non-biblical (I did not say unbiblical) sources and then consider a couple of safeguards.

First, by way of defense, in addition to God’s saving grace, the Reformed Church has usually acknowledged God’s common grace whereby He distributes gifts and abilities to non-Christians for the benefit of His Church and people.

John Calvin used the illustration of spectacles to explain this. He said that the Bible is not only what we read, but what we read with. We use its pages as spectacles to view and read the world and the knowledge, the light of nature, God has distributed throughout it (Inst. 1.6.1).

The human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. . . . We will be careful. . . not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. (Inst. 2.2.15)

If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole foundation of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? . . . No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. But if the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance. For if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloths (Inst. 2.2.15-16)

Second, there are over 20 models of leadership in the Bible; and they have all been brought in or borrowed from the “world” (the servant, the shepherd, the captain, the father, the steward, etc.) The model was first in the world (by God’s providence of course) and then used by God to teach His Church.

Third, some of the words used for Christian leaders are taken from non-Christian activities:

  • oikonomia  is a noun meaning administration of a household or an office; management of a state or house (e.g. Lk. 16:1-17; 1 Cor. 4:2; Tit. 1:7; 1 Pet. 4:10)
  • kybernesis is borrowed from sailing, and referred to the helmsman or pilot that guides the vessel to its destination (e.g. Acts 27:11; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Revelation 18:17) 
  • episkopos is usually translated “overseer” and originally described a man charged with responsibility of seeing that things done by others are done right (Titus 1:7)
  • proistemi in classical Greek referred to leadership in an army, state or party. It developed a range of meanings including guard, care, be at the head of, have charge over, preside over, lead, represent, sponsor, etc. (Romans 12:8;  1 Thessalonians 5:12 ; 1 Timothy 3:4,12; 5:17; Titus 3:8, 3:14).

What safeguards can we put in place to learn from God’s gracious distribution of truth and gifts outside the church, without “bringing the world into the church.”

1. Biblical precepts and patterns are non-negotiable. If any leadership principle or practice is contrary to the Bible, then it must be rejected. The authority of Scripture stands above everything.

2. Biblical precepts and patterns must be studied most. While we may learn from non-biblical sources, if we are reading the Harvard Business Review and Business Bestsellers more than the Bible, we are in grave danger of drifting from biblical moorings.

3. Biblical precepts and patterns should control the big picture. If we keep the bible’s principles and practice as our overarching control, we can fill in some of the details from non-biblical sources. Here are some examples:

  • The Bible gives us the general principle of time management (Eph. 5:16), but it does not give us much detail about how to do this. We may fill out the details of this general principle by looking at the methods successful people in other fields have used to manage their time.
  • The Bible tells us that we are to be careful listeners, but again does not give us too many details about the “How to.” We can learn a lot from those who have studied the details of listening skills.
  • The Bible tells us we are to be shepherds, but we fill out the details of what that means by studying the character and conduct of ancient and modern shepherds.
  • The Bible tells us we are to teach God’s Word, but we can learn to be more effective teachers from specialists in the field of education.

With these three safeguards in place, we can prayerfully “plunder the Egyptians” for the good of Israel.

  • Cornelius VanKempen