Gospel Leadership in the Workplace

Gospel Leadership in the WorksplaceWhen Christians talk about character in the workplace, we have tended to discuss it in terms of moral implications. Moreover, when leadership is discussed, much of the talk is simply about how to give a prominent moral flavor to otherwise recognized leadership skills. Occasionally, Christian writers will descend into shallow character studies in biblical events.[1] Yet just as surely as Christians act, they fail to live up to moral standards; and as surely as they work in different fields, there are various leadership skills which are valued in each field that conflict with biblical ethics at some point. Even more specifically, the gospel is not a call to be a moral person, and so the gospel must mean something different for leadership in the workplace.

So, what does the gospel teach us about leadership?

The first thing that the gospel teaches us is that leaders must abandon self-righteousness. It’s clear that within the kingdom of God the greatest is the least (cf. Luke 9:46-48), but we sometime separate that principle as a “religious” principle – believing that while that is true in God’s sight we need to believe in ourselves to succeed here in this world. However, Jesus and the apostles are all clear that such a neat separation of our lives is not realistic. The successful and wealth who act with entitlement tend to bring that same sort of entitlement into the presence of God (cf. Luke 16:19-31; James 1:1-6). Paul even presses Philemon, a slave-master, to embody extreme humility in dealing with a run-away slave. The gospel calls us to lay aside any hint of self-righteousness in anything that we do. In theological terms, our justification in Christ demands that humility become a central virtue in the Christian life.[2] If you are a leader, you ought to be humble because you will make mistakes – and, honestly, everyone who works for you will likely know it before you do. The difference that the gospel makes is not that it makes us morally upright, but that it frees us to admit that we are not perfect!

The second thing that the gospel teaches us is that leaders must give up self-serving ends. In some ways, this point is closely allied with the first. However, it is possible to be honest about our mistakes but to never be changed by that kind of humility – which is no real humility at all. True humility, however, will be accompanied by change – not complete and flawless change – but real change nonetheless. Yet as soon as I mention real change, we think about what sort of thing pleases God. Yet thinking about our work as “pleasing God” means we’re thinking about change that will result in positive results from God. So the language of “pleasing God” easily becomes covert language for a kind of legalism – a way of getting God to owe us something. Instead, real humility is not concerned with gain; it is concerned with benefiting others. Paul describes his own leadership in terms of laying aside his rights as an apostle in 1 Corinthians 9. Here he utilizes his own life to demonstrate a pattern of life shaped by the gospel. Christian leadership knows that God’s pleasure is already secure in the gospel, and so it is free to live sacrificially. In other words, Christian leaders ought to be primarily concerned with serving others!

In conclusion, let me tell a personal story to illuminate the problem. After college, I served for four years as an officer in the Navy. Obviously the military has a fairly clear conception of what it expects from its leaders. As a young man I had to make some serious decisions about how to lead. Needless to say, I definitely did not lead perfectly. There were a lot of things I messed up and need to correct. Yet early on I came to the conviction that I should not yell at sailors who worked for me – except perhaps in emergencies. (On several occasions more senior officers told me that it would be good for me yell more.) For a time, I think my convictions made me appear weak before my division. However, one day I got upset and yelled at a petty officer that worked for me. He had been in the service for a while, and I don’t think it bothered him too much; but I apologized to him later that day anyway. He was shocked. He had undoubtedly been yelled at countless time before, but I don’t think anyone who outranked him had ever apologized to him. It was a turning point not only in my relationship with him but also with the whole division. I don’t know that he told anyone about it, but it changed our relationship and that change had affect upon others. What changed that day was not me – I was not the perfect leader – rather, it was the freedom that the gospel gave to me that changed me and changed my relationship with those sailors.

In the end, leadership in the workplace that is transformed by the values of the gospel will be neither self-righteous nor self-serving. Instead, it will be marked by humility and concern for the welfare of those whom we lead. Whatever skills a particular field may require, whatever the dominant leadership ethos of any one career path, the Christian who takes their faith seriously subjects it all to the gospel. It might mean some sacrifices, but according to the gospel sacrifice is the way into success

[1] For a strong summary of recent Christian thought on leadership, see Robert Banks and Bernice M. Ledbetter, Reviewing Leadership: A Christian Evaluation of Current Approaches (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 57-93.

[2] Not surprisingly, humility appears throughout the New Testament as a central value of the those who grasp the gospel: Ephesians 4:2; Philippians 2:3; Colossians 3:12; James 3:13; and 1 Peter 3:8.