Disagreeing Wisely

Disagreeing Wisely

All Christians are called to similarly engage with the fallen world into which God has placed us. That is how Christianity transforms culture: one interaction at a time. That influence is really what effective followership is about, and since leadership is influence, effective followership is simply leadership by another name. This means that as Christians, we are called to be effective followers both of Christ and of the secular authorities God has placed over us.

In previous posts about cultural issues in general and transgender pronouns in particular, I have addressed ways in which Christians can conscientiously object to policies that would cause them to sin.  This will undoubtedly lead to conflicts in the workplace between Christians objecting to these policies and their leaders who are charged with enforcing them, which brings up a leadership topic that is not often discussed but definitely important: followership.  Every leader is a follower, but not all followers are leaders, so it is just as important (if not more important) to know how to be a good follower as a good leader.


So what is a good follower?  We often associate good followership with blind obedience or unquestioning agreement, but these are actually not traits of effective followers.  Instead, Robert Kelley said that effective followers “think for themselves and carry out their duties and assignments with energy and assertiveness. Because they are risk takers, self-starters, and independent problem solvers, they get consistently high ratings from peers and many superiors….Effective followers are well-balanced and responsible adults who can succeed without strong leadership”.[1]  He goes on to describe the qualities of effective followers: self-management, commitment to the organization and to purposes outside of themselves, ever-increasing competence, effective focus of effort, courage, honesty, and credibility.[2]  For Christians, this aligns with commands for servants to respect their leaders while working heartily as ultimately working for God (Ephesians 6:5-8).  Its proactive nature and sense of greater underlying purpose also fit well with my definition of submission based on Philippians 2:3-4 from my leadership paper: “choosing to live sacrificially by putting the needs of others and their ultimate good ahead of ourselves motivated by a healthy fear of God and following the example of Christ”. This means that good followers develop a reputation of trustworthiness, diligence, and competence such that when they disagree with their leaders, those leaders are willing not only to listen to them but even take certain risks in order to accommodate them.  Therefore, Christian workers should endeavor to build just such a reputation before conscientiously objecting to policies.

With this reputation, a good follower can also strongly yet respectfully disagree with their leaders.  This needs to happen behind closed doors before a decision is made.  The follower makes the case to the leader why a different course of action would be better and the two can debate it.  Since these discussions can get passionate, the military term to describe them is “cussing and discussing”.  This term does not necessitate the use of foul language—which the Christian is forbidden from using (Ephesians 4:29)—but speaks to how a leader and follower can passionately disagree about what is best for the organization and debate the topic in a heated manner while still maintaining respect for each other.  At the end, the leader makes the decision then the two exit the room on the same page.  If the leader ends up still deciding to follow the course of action the follower opposed, a good follower will own that decision and work hard to make it successful.  Regardless of the outcome, the private nature of the discussion means that the two can disagree and resolve that disagreement without undermining the reputation of either in the eyes of others.   However, this only applies when the leader’s decision does not cause the Christian follower to do something unethical.  If a prospective leadership decision would cause a Christian to sin, the Christian follower must find a way to avoid sin while still obeying the leader.  It is to this challenge we now turn.

Daniel as an Effective Follower

A wonderful example of this is found throughout the life of the prophet Daniel.  Taken from Jerusalem as a teenager, he was forced to serve the kings of the Babylonian and Medo-Persian empires.  This he and his friends did with such distinction that they became trusted advisers and thus some of the most influential men in the world at the time.  Throughout this time, they also had to confront the most powerful men in the world at the time.  His friends had to confront Nebuchadnezzar’s self-absorbed idolatry by refusing to worship his statue (chapter 3).  Daniel then had to tell Nebuchadnezzar that he would be humiliated by God as a punishment for his pride and self-confidence (chapter 4).  He also had to declare impending doom to Belshazzar by interpreting the writing on the wall (chapter 5) before refusing to commit idolatry by praying to Darius (chapter 6).  In all of this, he had such a reputation for impeccable character that his enemies literally had to invent an unethical law in an attempt to bring him down.  This makes him perhaps the best merely human example of being above reproach that we see in Scripture.  All Christians should seek to emulate his example such that if our enemies want to dig up dirt on us, they will need to provide that dirt themselves.

Daniel and his friends developed this reputation from the beginning of their time in Babylon, giving us an excellent example of how to conscientiously object well with their refusal to eat the king’s food.  With all of the remarkable stories and prophecies recorded in Daniel, the story of the “Daniel diet” in Daniel 1:8-16 appears unremarkable, but this amazing event would set the tone for his entire seventy years of service while teaching us how to maintain obedience to God while serving our secular bosses well.  From Daniel 1:3-7, we learn that Daniel and his three friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were among the Jewish youths taken from Jerusalem to Babylon to serve in the royal court.  This began with three years of indoctrination in the Babylonian language, literature, culture, practices, and religion to turn them from Jews to Babylonians ready for service.  Part of this process was changing their names from names that reflected their devotion to the God of Israel to names that honored the false gods of Babylon: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.[3]  It also entailed a change from the diet required in the Law to eating food forbidden by the Law.  It was to this that Daniel objected, since obedience to the authorities over him in eating the food provided would have meant disobeying God.  So Daniel went to the chief of the eunuchs who was over him and asked not to eat the food and drink the wine provided but to keep a diet of vegetables and water that would obey the Law.  After Daniel and his friends successfully tested this diet for ten days, they were allowed to continue it indefinitely.  Thus, they successfully objected to a policy that would have forced them to sin without any negative impact on their careers.  We can take several lessons from this.

Lesson 1: Develop a Reputation for Trustworthiness and Excellence

Successful conscientious objection is greatly aided by a good reputation.  Daniel clearly established a reputation for both character and excellence early, which bought him an audience with the chief of the eunuchs.  There is no telling how many boys were part of this program, but it was likely enough that someone of less reputation would have been ignored or punished.  No doubt some level of attrition was expected in this program, meaning that without that reputation Daniel could have easily been removed.  It was at least partially due to his good reputation that the chief of the eunuchs was willing not only to listen to him but also to allow his alternate diet.  Daniel and his friends had clearly established a good reputation as both honorable and competent young men such that their removal would have been detrimental to the program, meaning the chief of the eunuchs had a vested interest in listening to them and even accommodating them.  When we conscientiously object, we should have established a reputation such that our leaders are willing to do what they can to accommodate us and even fight for us to their superiors if necessary.  Without such a reputation, it will be much easier for our leaders to either ignore us or fire us for our objections since they wouldn’t have a vested interest in keeping us.

Lesson 2: Choose Your Battles

Just as the boy who cried wolf was not taken seriously when the actual wolf arrived, so conscientiously objecting Christians will not be taken seriously if they develop a reputation of objecting to nearly everything.  It is easy to focus on what Daniel objected to while forgetting what he did not object to.  First and foremost, his name was changed from one honoring God to one honoring pagan gods, which he could have objected to on the basis of the probation of idolatry, but he did not.  Instead, it appears he found a workaround by using both his given and new names, as he is referred to several times in the book by both names together (Daniel 2:26, 4:8, 4:19, 5:12, 10:1).  He was thus able to use the new name while still ensuring it was clear that he retained his identity as a worshipper of the One True God.

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