Lead vs Leader vs Leadership

Lead vs Leader vs Leadership

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Saturday, January 20, 2024

It would help us to call people what they are. If someone holds a Biblical office of pastor/elder or deacon, then they aren’t a ‘leader’ and we should use the name of their office. Not least because these function institutionally: they are moulds that form us towards particular behaviours and habits. It would probably help fs we stop elevating some above others too, if we believe (as I do) that the New Testament dictates our churches are led by a plurality of elders.

Throughout the Bible, people lead. Whether they are judges, kings, or prophets, they lead the people of God by showing them a direction in which to go. Leading is good. Leading is required, for without it we are like sheep gone astray, crying for a shepherd and prone to false ones. Churches need direction (even if that direction is ‘sit still’).

Of course, if there’s leading to be done, we assume the people doing it are leaders and that the science of what they’re doing can be called leadership. This is where I fear we start to come unstuck.

I have two complementary concerns that I’ve touched on before. Firstly that the language we use to describe things actually creates reality. Secondly that we’ve imported a set of concerns and solutions from the business world uncritically, to the point that in some more extreme instances the governance of our churches looks more like a corporation—or a large charity—than it does the assembly of the household of God.

My point on language is not particularly sophisticated. When we use metaphors or shorthand to describe something that aren’t exactly what we mean, we will find that those metaphors are more effective than the unsaid thing we did actually mean. They plough furrows in our mind that our thought then will flow down like a well-irrigated field. If they lead us otherwise, it is hard work to think against the grain—to mix metaphors—and it is often helpful to plough new furrows that send the water where we wanted it to go. In other words, if we say something that isn’t what we mean, our thought, practice, and (crucially) vibes (a technical term) will align themselves with what we say rather than what we meant. This is a slow process and is particularly pronounced when passing from one generation to another, but it’s a real phenomenon.

When we start calling Pastors leaders, and some other people leaders too, is it any wonder if the distinctions between that office and someone who is leading something are worn down? Or, if we start calling Pastors leaders, is it any wonder if they start to act more like business leaders than Pastors?

My second point is essentially that ‘leader’ is not a noun used in the New Testament. You might point to Hebrews 13 and I’ll come back with ‘those who rule’ is not ‘leader.’ It’s particularly not the same as what most of us picture as a leader. Leadership is not a science that is known in the New Testament, either. Leading is mentioned as something some people should be doing (Romans 12). They aren’t leaders. I suspect they are engaging in leadership, but whether that’s the same thing as what you find in a leadership book is a question we should examine carefully.

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