The Meaning of Leadership


One of the biggest controversies between the Christian Church and women is the question of whether women should be allowed to lead.

The general arguments that I tend hear against women leading go something along the lines of

a) women are just naturally the weaker sex, and men need to lead because they’re strong ones
b) women are not necessarily weaker, but men and women are made for different roles
c) regardless of historical relevancy or not, it says so in the Bible, so it must be followed
d) some variant or combination of the above

On the other side, the general arguments that I hear for women leaders in the Church are some mix of

a) there were women leaders in the Bible, so why shouldn’t there be women leaders now?
b) men and women are made with different roles. But one is not weaker than the other
c) the verses written against women leading in that time had historical relevancy that aren’t necessarily the same now
d) some variant or combination of the above

I honestly have not finished muddling through the slew the Bible passages/verses, cross references, historical texts, and Greek and Hebrew definitions sufficiently enough to come to a thorough conclusion of what I should be believing. On one hand, there are prominent biblical figures that also happen to be strong independent women, like Deborah or Jael, as well as verses that say things like “There is neither…male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). On the other hand, there are verses like “the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says” (1 Cor. 14:34). Those are the ones that throw me for a loop, while I continue to try to wrestle with how such instruction fits under a God of justice.

So right now I don’t have a good answer. I really don’t.

At the same time, though, I wonder if we are—as we tend to do— getting into a furor while completely missing the point. When we debate leadership, the contention is generally over who can and ought to have power and prominence. It’s about rights and equal opportunity if we’re being noble, and about leverage and economics if we’re being a little less than that. But ultimately it’s about who comes first.

Except that the definition of leadership in Christianity is not defined by who shall come first, but who shall be last.

Take for example the first disciples, who had their own questions and quibbles about who out of the twelve of them would lead and have power.

And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to [Jesus] and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Which is hilarious, because He is their Messiah and King. And yet patient He remains.

And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?
And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

Their perception of Jesus at that point was still that of a typical rebel leader. They assumed that His idea of leadership and rescuing Israel was to become their warrior king of power, and defeat the Roman empire that was then occupying and holding the power in their land. And since He had chosen them as His disciples, their assumption was that they would lead with Him, which they then assumed meant that they were to be given shares of power and glory. And they were definitely ready for that.

Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

Understandly, the other disciples were offended that the two brothers were already vying to be Jesus’ top men.

And when the [other] ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.

But then Jesus stops them, and then says something unexpected.

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.

This the disciples knew all too well, living under the oppression of Roman occupation. They probably then expected Him to give them a call to action to lead by fighting back, to return the power to the Israeli people. But He says instead,

“But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45)

The leadership that Jesus was calling His followers to was not one of holding power or authority, and contending over the specifics of who would be at the top. Instead, the leadership that He was calling them to was one of humility, submission, and service. It was one of Love, in its fullness. That remains today. And no one is exempt, neither female or male. For Jesus Christ did not make even Himself exempt, but set an example by doing it first.

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him…

This is incredibly significant, not just because Jesus, incredibly influential rabbi and Savior of the world, was washing the presumably stinky and dirty feet of a ragtag group of people under Him. It is significant because washing feet at the time was the work of slaves—it was a lowly chore, signifying a lowly status. The disciples knew this, which was why they were at a loss of what to say, and how to receive it. For it was the very opposite of exercising power and authority. The Jesus that was patiently and cheerfully cleaning their toes was the very foil to the fearsome warrior king they were expecting. This was not the leadership they were expecting. This was not the Messiah they were looking for.

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. (John 13: 1-20)

So I think the question now isn’t so much which gender should or shouldn’t be leading in the Church, but rather if we as the Christian Church truly understand what Christlike leadership looks like. For if we were to be biblically correct in our leadership, then leadership wouldn’t be about contending about who is stronger or weaker, who should do what, or who should or shouldn’t hold power. Because leadership in the Bible isn’t quite what the world thinks leadership looks like. Rather, it is quite the opposite. Instead of who should hold authority, it’s about who can go lower.

So men that think they ought to be holding leadership in the Church should therefore be the ones cheerfully setting their hearts to commit to serving those around them the most—perhaps even the ladies around them. This means doing things perhaps considered below themselves to lift those around them up. This means sacrifice. This means genuine love. And women that think they ought to be holding leadership ought to be doing the same, perhaps for the men around them in turn as well.

It is much less of an issue of what roles or tasks men or women in the Christian Church should be taking on, but rather the state of the Christian’s heart, male or female. For this is how Christ led—he came not to be served, but to serve. And this was not just about the appearance of humility, but the demonstration and manifestation of genuine love that took Him all the way to unjustly die a criminal’s death on a cross for those He led, served, and loved. And this too is how He calls all those who follow Him to lead as well.

So this is my suggestion to my fellow Christians: let us stop being silly, and stop quibbling and fighting for influence, glory and power. The world has enough of that already. Rather, let us, regardless of gender, lead as Jesus led by serving. For that is what the kingdom of heaven looks like.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow… “– Philippians 2:1-11