Leaders, Christ and Power

Dallas Willard

Originally published in Together: A Journal of World Vision International, January-March 1992

Could it be, in this day of vast knowledge about group dynamics and managerial skills, that the bedrock need of God’s people is leaders who are more “spiritual”? I believe it is. The finest personal talents, the most highly developed skills in management and personal relations, will do little to meet the needs confronting the church—unless they are given substance by life that is manifestly “from above.”

Christians understand spirituality by reference to Jesus Christ, our Leader. As the Son of God, he is the preeminently spiritual man. Judging simply from his effects on history, he was the greatest leader humanity has ever seen.

The principles of leadership under God—so strikingly manifested in biblical figures such as Moses, David and Nehemiah—are brought to completion in Jesus’ example and teachings. Those same principles are validated in the lives of his great followers through the ages. Whatever leadership role one may have, however high or low in any organizational structure, it will flourish under God as we follow Jesus in living out the following truths:

1. The leader led by Christ knows that we do not exercise leadership for our own gratification. Power is not a prize. Position is not for personal gain. To get or hold onto position for position’s sake is simply not an objective. Leading is not something we need to make us “okay.” Our self-esteem is not tied to our success as leaders. In companionship with Jesus we are abundantly cared for, whether we lead or not. Who leads is God’s business.

In fact, we even want others to lead if that will better promote the good that we serve, and we cheerfully seek for others who can do better than we. Fear of losing our position does not cross our minds as we follow Jesus. We are entirely freed from what the world recognizes to be the number one burden of its type of leaders.

Paul’s great writing in Philippians 2 clearly lays out the pattern for any disciple of Jesus who assumes leadership: “Leave no room for selfish ambition and vanity, but humbly reckon others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3, Revised English Bible). Jesus’ own teaching in the Gospels was that his leaders must be “the salves of all, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:28, REB). The shape of leadership is totally transformed by Jesus as we follow him into the kingdom of heaven.

2. The leader led by Christ knows that power belongs to God (Psalm 62:11). He or she knows that advancement does not come form any place on earth, “from the east or the west,” nor “out of the blue,” but from God only (Psalm 75:6-7). As Jesus taught, “Any plant that is not of my heavenly Father’s planting will be rooted up” (Matthew 15:13, REB). Living in this confidence is how the true leader submits himself to “the mighty hand of God, who will exalt him when the time is right” (1Peter 5:6). Accordingly, he or she will not manipulate by power that lies entirely in his own hand.

Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness relate to his role as leader. He rejected leadership based on material reward, on appearance or “image,” and on force (Matthew 4:3-10). He was content to wait upon the movement of his Father in the hearts of human beings—though no doubt he could have overwhelmed the world with his own greatness. When he knew that Peter would fail him, he simply said, “I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith shall not fail” (Luke 22:32). Surely he could have just “fixed” Peter. But he would not use his power for his own sake. He waited upon the Father’s power to achieve the Father’s goal.

3. The leader led by Christ is competent in the realm of the Spirit.  He or she is completely assured of the Spirit of God moving within his or her life, thought and action. He or she knows by experience “how vast are the resources of his power open to us who have faith, as seen at work when he raised Christ from the dead” (Ephesians 1:19, REB). He or she knows how to make things happen through prayer, and how to act with God. He or she has seen ways opened when there was not way out, and confidently tries, then waits on God for the attainment of what is humanly impossible.

For such a person, God’s spiritual reality is not a hope beyond knowledge, but a familiar resource in ordinary as well as extraordinary circumstances, “a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). Everyone recognizes confidence is indispensable in a leader, but the confidence of a leader led by Christ is founded on the infinite resources of God and their ability to deal with the challenges of life.

4. The leader led by Christ abounds in joy. How strange that Jesus is thought, even by many Christians, to have been a rather gloomy and depressed individual! Miserable people make poor leaders. But Jesus, before he left his little troop, assured them of their abundant power in the abundant power of the Father, and said he gave them this so that his joy might stay with them, filling them with joy to the brim (John 15:11). Then he prayed to the Father that his joy might fill them to overflowing (John 17:13).

It’s possible that the most common weakness found in those of us trying to lead for Christ is a lack of joy in proportionate measure to the confidence in God that we supposedly possess. Of course I’m not talking about the supercilious hilarity that is seen all too often, but rather a deep and genuine joy.

The true faith of Jesus is inseparable from an all-pervasive joy. Our sorrow, our concern, our suffering—even these are permeated by a quiet and boundless joy as we walk with Jesus. People who are continually angry, disappointed or discouraged, people who fail to find sufficiency of joy and peace in their lives with him, cannot lead as he intends. The recent well-known “moral failures” of religious leaders—these have come from the desperately needy condition of their inner lives. Leaders led by Jesus do not live desperately, even when living in desperate circumstances.

5. The leader led by Christ knows and uses time-proven techniques for sustaining a serene and powerful life in God. He knows that it is God’s initiative that opens the door to plans for Christlikeness. In one of his most-desperate circumstances, when his own people were on the verge of stoning him, we read that “David encouraged himself in the Lord his God” (1 Samuel 30:56). Paul, one of the greatest examples of a leader led by Christ, speaks of his regular disciplines in terms of the athlete in training: “I do not spare my body, but bring it under strict control, for fear that after preaching to others I should find myself disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, REB).

With Jesus we walk into his disciplines for life from above: solitude and silence, study and worship, secrecy and sacrifice, celebration and fellowship, and so forth. It is these practices that form the constant framework of our lives, not the projects and efforts by which others may outwardly identify us. Facing death because of his faith, Daniel “went to his house, which had windows open toward Jerusalem, and there . . .knelt down three times a day to offer prayers and praises to his God, as was his custom” (Daniel 6:20, REB).

We are saved by grace, not paralyzed by it. It is we who are given the task of putting off the old personality and putting on the new. The leader led by Christ is one who, with utter confidence in the generosity and availability of God, assumes responsibility for his own spiritual condition and employs the historically proven means for sustaining it at the very highest level. He does the things Jesus did in his life with his Father, and thereby receives the power to lead as Jesus led.

These principles of leadership according to Christ are not dreamy, mystical or impractical. Indeed, unless these principles are implemented, our “successes” will seem successful only by comparison to worse failures. And the awesome needs facing the church and the world will remain unmet. They are the heart of the art of Christian leadership, and the indispensable foundations for all further technique. For they are the heart of Jesus, and of the life from above.

Dallas Willard. “Leaders, Christ and Power.” Together: A Journal of World Vision International, January-March 1992, 11-13.