This article deals with the theology of leadership (its definition and theological dimensions), biblical models of leadership, a working model of leadership, and the concepts of servant-hood in the Old Testament and the New Testament as central to the biblical understanding of leadership. It also deals with reasons why leadership is vital in the church. 


There are varieties of definitions of leadership. However, only a few will be outlined in order to give a clear direction that the article takes on the subject. Leadership has been defined by Oswald Sanders (1994:27) as:

“…The capacity and will to rally men and women to a common purpose and the character that inspires confidence. It is the art of influencing and directing individuals in a worthwhile cause in such a way as to obtain their willing cooperation, confidence, and respect in order to accomplish the objective. It is dependent on someone catching the vision from God, and mobilising others to join them in its fulfilment (Equip: 2003:4).”

The task of the Christian leader, according to Richard and Henry Blackaby (Blackaby & Blackaby: 2001:20), is to move people from where they are to where God wants them to be. This is influence. Thus, once a church leader understands God’s will, he will make every effort to move his followers from seeking their own agenda to pursuing God’s purposes. Those who fail to move people on to God’s agenda have not led. So, the greatest obstacle to effective spiritual leadership is people pursuing their own agendas rather than seeking God’s will. The Blackabys add that:

“…God is working throughout the world to achieve his purposes and to advance his kingdom. God’s concern is not to advance leaders’ dreams and goals or to build their kingdom. His purpose is to turn his people away from their self-centredness and their sinful desires and to draw them into a relationship with himself.”

Spiritual leaders depend on the Holy Spirit. Since God calls them to do something that, in fact, only God can do, Christian leaders cannot produce spiritual change in people; only the Holy Spirit can accomplish this. This is the situation that confronted Moses (Exodus 3:7, 8, 10).

Leaders seek to move people on to God’s agenda, all the while being aware that only the Holy Spirit can ultimately accomplish the task. The Christian leader is called by God to lead through a Christ-like character by demonstrating the functional competences that permit effective leadership to take place (Barna: 1997:25).

What is common about all the above definitions is that they focus upon the role of leaders influencing people onto God’s agenda and towards God’s purposes. 

Theological dimensions of leadership in the Bible

The scriptures indicate that there is no authority except that which has been established by God (Romans 13:1). Therefore, God confers a leadership role and the Spirit of God works through that person. Christian leaders are not elected, appointed or created by church assemblies. God alone makes and authenticates leaders. That is why Barna’s definition above talks of the call, the character and the competence of the leader. To this effect a Christian leader must have the call, the character and the competence to qualify to be a church leader. Thus, when God’s searching eye finds a person qualified to lead, God anoints that person with the Holy Spirit and calls him or her to a special ministry.

The apostles in the New Testament were chosen by Christ. In Ephesians 4:11 we read that he confers gifts of apostles, evangelists, prophets, pastors and teachers. In the book of Psalms we also observe that it is God who promotes a man to leadership. “Promotion comes neither from the east, nor from the west, not from the south. But God is the judge: he puts down one and sets up another” (Psalm 75:6– 7).

Even in what may seem to be the secular realm, God sets leaders over the realm of humanity. He sets as a leader whomever he wishes to be his minister to us for good. This is reflected in the book of Daniel (4:3 and 5:21) regarding God’s dealings with Nebuchadnezzar. The intention was for him to “…know that the Most High rules in the kingdoms of men and gives it to whomever he wills (Daniel 4:32; 5:21).

Moses, the greatest leader in the Old Testament had his leadership authenticated and assigned by God. Moses could not attribute his success to his own leadership abilities because he was not naturally gifted as a leader. When God assigned him the leadership role (Exodus 3:10) to bring forth his people—the children of Israel—out of Egypt, he admitted that he was a poor public speaker. In Exodus 4:10 we read: “O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before, nor since you have spoken unto your servant; but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.”

Other things for which Moses was incapable by using his own strength included his failure to delegate (Exodus 18:13–27), his temper problem (Exodus 32:19; Numbers 20: 9–13), and, worst of all, his murderous act as narrated in Exodus 2:12 where it is reported that “…he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.”

However, there is one thing that singles out Moses as an accomplished great leader of God’s people. It was his relationship with God. As we have already noted above, his leadership was not based upon the strength of his personality. His relationship with God made him what he was. Scripture testifies to this truth in the following words, “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). Consequently, the Israelites also recognised Moses’ close walk with God (Exodus 34:29–35). Despite this close relationship with the Lord, Moses was not a proud or arrogant leader. Instead, Scripture tells us that “Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3).

Examples abound in Scripture regarding God’s authentication of leadership. We can mention Joshua, Samuel, and David. There are many other biblical leaders who received God’s assignment to lead. 

The Concept of Servant Leadership

The role of servant leadership is not intended for self advantage but for service. In the Old Testament, the Kings of Israel were not to lift themselves up above their countrymen (Deut. 17:20). When Korah was not content to serve in a secondary role of leadership appointed to him, he was rebuked and judged (Numbers 16:9–33).

In the New Testament, the concept of servant leadership is seen in the lives of the apostles and the early church elders and in how God’s gifts were to be used. The apostle Paul saw his apostleship as a call to sacrificial labour rather than an occasion for glorying in the office (1 Corinthians 15:9–10). In the epistle to the Hebrews and in First Peter, the elders of the church were required to shepherd the flock of God, to care sacrificially for the souls of the faithful, giving account to God and serving one another as good stewards of God’s grace (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 4:10; 5:2–3).

Therefore, one of the qualifications of leadership, apart from the call by God, the character of the leader, and the competence of the leader, is being the servant of all (Matthew 20:28; 23:11). Servant leadership has been given, modelled, and commanded by the Lord Jesus Christ. Servant leadership is uniquely Christian and is much more than a leadership style. It begins with our attitudes and motives. It begins with seeking the attitude of Jesus Christ. Paul, commenting on Christ Jesus, presents an attitude expected of us in Philippians 2:5–8.

The only way servant leadership can be accomplished is for us to give up our attempts to do it on our own and commit ourselves to Christ. It is impossible to be a genuine servant leader if we are not first bondservants of Jesus Christ and filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Our motives are extremely important since God is not only interested in what we are doing but why we are doing it.

In 1 Samuel 15:26, King Saul was leading in his own way and not God’s way. Consequently, he was to be removed and another selected in his place. God desires leaders who have the right motives. This is clearly stated in 1 Samuel 16:1–13. The most commonly quoted part of this passage is verse 7, which says, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

Servant leadership requires the exercise of love. God does not give us power to be used for our own ends or desires. His power is entrusted to us so that we may serve him and others with the love of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. In order to love people, one must serve them. When we love one another as Christ loved us we will submit to their needs out of that love (Ephesians 5:21). Selfish leadership is destructive. It seeks to use people for its own ends. When people are used, something is taken from them rather than given to them to build them up. 

Some biblical models of servant leadership

God has given us a perfect example of servant leadership in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus gave us an example of servant leadership when he washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:12–15). When we practice servant leadership we are promised a blessing. The Lord Jesus made this very clear in the above passage when he said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you… Now that you know these things you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13: 15, 17).

In Matthew 20:28, the Lord Jesus Christ mentions his mission as that of service and sacrifice when he said, “…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” It is vital for anyone who aspires to be a true servant leader to carefully examine his life. Leadership does not take place in a vacuum or void, but within a community of people. A leader cannot live in isolation. He or she must be able to relate to other people as a servant.

The Apostle Peter urges each one of us to use whatever gift we have received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms (1 Peter 4:10). Therefore, every gift, and especially the gift of leadership, has the purpose of service. This service is also intended to equip others (Ephesians 4:12). Notice that when Peter wrote to the elders of the churches in 1 Peter 5:2–3 he did not write from the position of ecclesiastical hierarchy or political power but as a fellow elder.

Another model of servant leadership is the apostle Paul. Paul gives us another side of servant leadership when he indicates that servant leadership is not aimless. Servant leadership has direction. That direction is provided by God when such a leader is called by God to a particular ministry. That is why the apostle was able to write what he wrote in Philippians 3:12–14. Additionally, Paul is of the view that servant leadership is being willing to be a model (1 Corinthians 11:1). It fights personality worship (1 Corinthians 1:12) and seeks to build and spread God’s Kingdom. It does not seek control and domination of the lives of others, but to be a model. It encourages others to do what is right (Romans 12:1, 2).

The main goal of servant leadership is to benefit the people being led. This is because people are not the means to an end in its quest but are the ones to benefit from its role. This is why the concept of serving as a leader in Christ’s kingdom relates to people more than tasks. Leaders must remember that the people are God’s flock. 

A working model of servant leadership

As already mentioned above, God wants us to be examples to others. In order for us to be examples to the flock, we must be following the Chief Shepherd. We must serve willingly. If the only reason we lead is because we ought to, we will usually end up in legalism and exercising a judgmental attitude. We should not lead simply and purely out of a sense of obligation.

We must also serve eagerly. This excludes motives of personal gain. There is a clear yet subtle temptation to use our position for personal power or advancement. This should not be the case. Instead, the servant leader must be a servant first and a leader second. The test of the true servant leader is seen when those who are being served grow as persons into healthier, wiser, freer, and more autonomous individuals. Such individuals are more likely themselves to become servants. The minister’s task in the church, therefore, is to free people from dependence upon anyone or anything except God and to help them discover their area of ministry. 

Why leadership matters

  1. Jurgens Hendriks (2004:205) is of the view that the most important responsibility of leadership is “…to help a congregation towards a specific focus and sense of direction” and that this is “…a way of empowering people and giving them a sense of worth and self image, and helps them to know where they are headed and how programmes are linked in the overall sense of purpose.” When leadership is provided, it gives a sense of legitimacy to each person’s involvement.

Leadership matters because by it the leader defines the vision, expresses it so that others gather around it and understand it. The leader all the while works to inspire them as he maintains that vision. Vision arises from a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the current situation. According to Hendriks, the leader needs to make a diagnosis of where the institution is and where it should be heading. He should also understand how to take the faith community on that road (Hendriks 2004:197) and have a clear mental picture of the future.

The vision must get the approval of the church—or whatever institution in which leadership is being practiced—thereby enabling them to see and comprehend the future and embrace it together. Then the leader must kindle hope in the hearts of those he leads so that he can secure their cooperation. In order to secure their cooperation the leader needs to understand and know the followers’ needs, dreams, hopes, aspirations, visions, values. He should have their interests at heart.

Leadership involves understanding God’s mission in the spread of the gospel. This inevitably leads to a confrontation between the gospel and the local culture. Leadership is necessary to help the church to rediscover its identity and mission by paying attention to how its foundations are laid. In the book of Acts, chapter 6, the apostles were confronted with a situation that demanded that they focus on what God had asked them to do. What were they to pay attention to? Thus they responded to the situation by saying, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables…. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2, NIV).

Another reason why leadership matters is because people will always need models (Acts 9:2). It is, therefore, expected that Christian leaders will model their message. They should be what McKenna refers to as “without wax” (McKenna: 2005:52). That is, having the integrity expected of a Christian leader. Followers want to see how leaders behave in particular circumstances. This helps the leader to be able to clarify values and show by example how to live out those values. For instance, it means that in the midst of divergent views held by members as they contribute to the attainment of an agreed vision, agreed goals, purposes and objectives, the leader should look at those principles and ideals that the church holds and strengthen them other than relying on differences. He should aim at ensuring that common ground is emphasised and enhanced while divergent views are de-emphasised (Kouzes & Posner: 2007:15). Thus by example, he will be a peace-maker among his people.

A further need for leadership is that it is the leader who looks at things as they are and the one that challenges the process. It takes leadership to change the status quo, to venture out and step into the unknown. However, the leader does not launch out haphazardly but listens from followers and the people that have a part in the ministry in which the leader is involved. He looks outside for new and innovative ways of doing ministry. The leader needs to understand what is happening in his day because of the constant changes that take place and the uncertainties. Listening to the voice of God for a Christian leader is crucial. Thus there is need to spend time in searching the scriptures, prayer, and listening to fellow believers.

Leadership enables great dreams to become realities through team effort. If a leader wants to accomplish these great dreams he needs to enlist others to work with him. According to Kouzes and Posner (2007:20), “…in order for grand dreams to become significant realities…it requires a team effort…solid trust and strong relationships…deep competence and cool confidence…group collaboration and individual accountability.” For this reason, in order to get extraordinary things done, the leader needs to “enable others to act.” The leaders make it possible for others to do good work and enable them to have a sense of power and ownership. Again, as Kouzes and Posner have written (2007:21) “Inclusion…ensures that everyone feels and thinks that they are owners and leaders.”

Finally, leadership matters because without it people are tempted to give up when confronted with frustrating, arduous, long and exhausting circumstances in the pursuance of their objectives, goals, and vision. For this reason they need to give encouragement to the followers. This can be achieved by showing appreciation to the people for their good performance, recognising their contributions to the church’s objectives, goals and purposes. Getting along with the people can be one aspect of giving encouragement to people. Without relationships, there is no leadership. 

Leadership and the church

I am of the view one of the greatest passages in the Bible that does justice to leadership in the church is Acts 20:17–38. Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, records some things that leaders ought to do as they lead the church. This is the passage in which the apostle Paul bids farewell to the elders of the church at Ephesus.

The first thing that the Apostle told the elders of the church of Ephesus was to emulate his example of leadership. First, when Paul arrived in the province of Asia, he served the Lord with great humility and with tears even though he was severely tested by the plots of the Jews (vv.19–20a). Even though a leader goes through trials, he should not give up but continue to serve the Lord with humility.

Second, the leader must finish the assignment as given him by God. In that case, he needs to face the future with courage (v.24). He should be focused and preach the message with conviction and boldness.

Third, Paul poured his life into people. He served with tears and never hesitated to preach anything that was helpful to the people in the church. He taught from house to house and in the church. This means he ministered both privately and publicly. Similarly, the church leader must pour his life into people, be thorough in teaching and be committed to feeding the sheep by teaching the truth. The leader should also be committed to protecting the sheep; that is, warning and delivering them from error (v. 28a, 29–31).

Fourthly, and lastly, the leader in the church should prepare for battles from outside and from inside (v.29, 30) while trusting the power of God that prevails (v.32). The leader should love and value the flock over which God has made him overseer knowing that God the Father owns the church, Christ bought the church with his blood and the Holy Spirit has appointed and anointed him as leader. 


In an article such as this one, it is not possible to cover all that is needed to deal with the biblical theology of Christian leadership. Consequently, I have restricted myself to those areas assigned to me, namely, definition of Christian leadership, the concept of servant-hood in the Old and the New Testament. I have dealt with the reasons why leadership matters, the theological dimensions of leadership, the concept of servant leadership, some biblical models of leadership and how leadership functions in the church.

Leadership is influence towards the attainment of a God-given assignment. Christian leadership is servant leadership. It is different from worldly leadership. A Christian leader serves eagerly and lovingly. Leadership matters in terms of dealing with defining and maintaining the vision, modelling the way, challenging the process, enabling others in order to achieve team effort and also encouraging the heart. The goal is to finish the tasks given and bring glory to God. 


  1. Blackaby H. & Blackaby R. 2001. Spiritual Leadership. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman and Holman Publishers.
  2. Hendriks H Jurgens 2004. Studying Congregations in Africa Wellington: NetAct.
  3. Kouzes & Posner 2007 The Leadership Challenge San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons.
  4. McKenna, David L. Never Blink in a Hailstorm Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.
  5. Moffat. Howard 2001. Christian Leadership Lecture Notes. Lusaka: Baptist Theological Seminary of Zambia.
  6. Sanders, Oswald 1994. Spiritual Leadership Chicago: Moody Press.