Whether it is in the community, business, or civil government, one thing that is sometimes hard to find is true Christian leadership—men and women of biblical character, serving and leading selflessly as they follow the example of Christ. Often the selfless nature of Christian leadership is the reason why it is a challenge to identify. Consequently, it is not unusual for Christian leaders to go unnoticed and unappreciated. So let us examine the character of a Christian leader in order to recognize and aspire to it in our own lives.
What is character?
In his book After You Believe, N.T. Wright defines character as “[T]he pattern of thinking and acting which runs right through someone, so that wherever you cut into them (as it were), you see the same person through and through."
The quality of character as it “runs right through someone” calls to mind the atom. The atom is present in every part of the physical person. No matter where you look, the atom is there. As the atom is to the physical man, so character is to the spiritual man. No matter where you look in the spiritual man, the one thing constant is that man’s character. But unlike the atom of the physical body, the character can be transformed and improved.
Why would one want to transform his or her character? What force is strong enough to accomplish this? The ancient philosophers pointed to the classic virtues, characterized by human effort and discipline. But they were only scratching the surface. Wright compares the ancient philosophies with the inspired teachings of the New Testament: "The comparison [between New Testament and Greek philosophical morality] is somewhat like that between a three-dimensional model sitting beside a two-dimensional one—a cube beside a square, say, or a sphere beside a circle: Jesus and his followers are offering the three-dimensional model toward which Aristotle's two-dimensional one points."
Wright asserts that a person's character is who he is essentially, and if a man searches himself honestly on any level, that quality of his identity will always be present. The opposite of this, as Wright also notes, is superficiality. This is the reason Aristotle could only conceive of a two-dimensional set of virtues. Anyone can be outwardly virtuous without a true change of character. But no one can be brought under the rule and guidance of Christ and forego a complete re-creation of who he is on the most essential level.
Although a leader, especially a Christian leader, should have a set of guiding principles, not all creeds and moral codes are equally up to the task. Sometimes a leader must be flexible in his moral codes. In his book Questions of Character, Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. defines moral flexibility: "Leaders need moral codes that are as complex, varied, and subtle as the situations in which they often find themselves. This does not mean abandoning basic values or adopting moral relativism. It does mean, however, embracing a wider set of human values and understanding them personally and emotionally."
Flexibility in one's moral code comes from understanding a situation deeply, and assessing how to best respond without abandoning one's core principles. Few situations are black and white. There is always more to life's challenges than what appears at the surface. To be flexible in one's moral code is to be discerning.
Jesus Christ told his followers to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” when they went into the world and encountered difficult situations and trials. A Christian understands what is meant by “harmless as doves.” Christians are not to be threatening. A Christian’s strength comes from the gospel, not from worldly means. But, “wise as serpents”? What could this mean but assessing, discerning, understanding what hills to die on, and what battles are the most important to fight?
For the Christian leader governing non-Christians, this means acting in fairness according to the laws of the land, even if it means, for example, protecting the freedom of speech for a person who is diametrically opposed to Christianity. Think of how valid that leader’s witness would be if, while protecting that right, he or she came alongside that person and shared the gospel with them.
Leading by Christ’s example
An example of Christian leadership in action is found in 1 Corinthians 10:31-33, 11:1. “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.”
Here, Paul is setting himself up as an example to follow, but only insofar as he is following Christ. By first being sure he is following Christ, this in turn causes him to both work hard on himself and to do what is right, understanding that people will do as they see their leader do and that his example will impact their lives. This is a call for all Christians, particularly leaders, to follow Christ closely. Christian leadership is branded with the reputation of Christ, and He is never anonymous.