I was reading through the little letter of Jude the other day to prepare for a class on apocalyptic literature. Having cruciform leadership on my mind, I was struck by Jude’s strong rhetoric of judgment for leaders who are selfishly ambitious.
He warns against ungodly leaders who are driven by ambition, leading them into all sorts of follies.
He orients his short letter by the word “keep,” employing it to highlight God’s salvation at the letter’s opening and closing. He also uses it to commend to his readers a discerning self-control that avoids the destructive consequences of selfish ambition.
He opens the letter by speaking of his readers in terms of their being held in God’s saving grip.
Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James, to those who have been called, who are loved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ (v. 1, NIV).
He closes with a beautiful celebration of God’s power to preserve his people:
To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen (vv. 24-25).
Within the body of the letter, he compares corrupted leaders with “the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day” (v. 6).
He’s referring to a prominent early Jewish interpretation of Genesis 6:1-5, which understands the “sons of God” as cosmic rulers that looked lustfully on women, took on bodies in order to have sexual relations with them, and spawned a race of giants.
According to Jewish texts like 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees, these angelic figures have been put in some kind of bondage to await final judgment.
Jude doesn’t refer to these figures to fascinate modern readers, but to note for his hearers that leaders who do not control their ambitions are, like those cosmic figures, headed for judgment.
He warns of such leaders, noting that they are captive to their own selfish ambition:
they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage. But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. They said to you, “In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.” These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit (vv. 16-19).
Jude commands his readers, “keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life” (v. 21).
Leaders often receive praise for their ambition, their big dreams and impressive plans. In the church, however, such leadership is fraught with peril. The church is God’s holy and cruciform people, called to be utterly unique in and for the world.
Christian leadership, then, must be different and utterly unique. It must be cruciform, and that means that leaders of God’s people put themselves and their ambitions on the cross, leading and loving the people of God according to God’s own character.