Cross-Shaped Leadership, Pt. 2

The Bible has much to say about leadership generally, but two specific texts contrast God’s aims for leaders of his people with corrupted forms of leadership—Mark 10:42-45 and Deut. 17:14-20.

Deuteronomy 17:14-20

When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite. The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.

Mark 10:42-45

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Taking a cue from these texts, over the next bunch of posts I will sketch cross-shaped leadership in broad strokes by contrasting it with worldly leadership practices.  This may help us discern how perverted ambitions, hidden idolatries, and destructive practices subtly affect how leadership works in Christian communities.

To begin, I’ve come up with these alternative descriptions:

Worldly leadership: A desire to increase in prestige, status, and influence and a willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve these things, even if it means neglecting or hurting people who do not appear to be means of one’s own personal advancement.

Jesus-shaped leadership: An unrelenting commitment to the delivery of the love and grace of God into the lives of others (or, the life of another), and taking the initiative to see to it that this happens.

I’ve drawn these up from reflection on biblical texts and my own experiences in ministry.  I’ll elaborate on these two forms of leadership as our discussion progresses.

Cross-Shaped Leadership

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about leadership recently and I thought I would revise some previous meditations on the topic from a cruciform perspective.

The cross of Jesus Christ is central to the Christian faith, and it shapes  and determines everything about being Christian. Cruciformity — or, being “cross-shaped” — means having our lives and church community dynamics oriented by the cross-shaped life of Jesus.

Cruciformity is a powerful reality because it is the only way to gain access to the resurrection power of God.  When we shape our lives according to the life of Jesus, we experience his presence by the Spirit, and God floods our lives, relationships, and communities with resurrection power.

When I talk to people training for Christian leadership about cruciformity, however, I discover the assumption that it isn’t easily practiced in ministry.  Many assume that cruciformity may be good for ordinary Christian people, but it won’t work in leadership situations.

I wonder if this is because our imaginations are shaped by worldly conceptions of leadership and of power.  We assume that at some point cruciform leadership would fail.  It wouldn’t be up to the challenges of “real world” situations where power must be wielded over others.

In my view, we simply haven’t given enough creative thought to how leadership in churches and Christian organizations can be shaped by the cross, generating and unleashing the life-giving power of God.

For Jesus, this isn’t negotiable.  He addresses forms of leadership in Mark 10.  The disciples are agitating for positions of privilege, power, and prestige in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus responds:

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

Leadership in the Kingdom of God must be shaped by the life of the King, who gives himself for others.  This is contrasted directly with worldly forms of leadership, which has to do with power over others.

This form of leadership for God’s people isn’t all that new, actually.  Moses had already outlined a counter-cultural form of leadership in Deut. 17:14-20.  Israel’s king was to be radically different, having the Law read to him daily so that “his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen” (v. 20).

Christian leadership, then, ought to be cruciform since those who lead do so on behalf of the One whose identity is determined by the cross.

Over the next handful of posts, I want to think through some contrasts between cruciform leadership and worldly leadership in an effort to provoke imaginations with hope in leading God’s people according to the ways of God revealed in Jesus.

The Fragile Mission

I’ve been reading and re-reading Mark 3:13-19 in which Jesus appoints the Twelve “that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.”


I recall wandering through an airport bookstore and flipping through a book titled something like “Leadership Lessons from Jesus.” One of the “lessons” was that Jesus was a great team-builder. Just look at the team he put together! He was the model CEO! You, too, should look out for people who are effective and take initiative! Like Jesus!

How foolish.

As Mark’s narrative proceeds, the team is a near-disaster. In listing their names, and taking the whole context of the Gospel into account, Mark hints at their fragility. There’s Simon, the violent revolutionary; Peter, who denied him; Thomas, who doubted him; and Judas, who betrayed him.

Mark is indeed a mysterious Gospel, and Jesus’ “calling” and “wanting” (v. 13) these people is surely an instance of God’s mysterious grace rather than the disciples’ effectiveness.


Being with Jesus

From Joel Marcus’s commentary on Mark 3:14-15 — “He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.”

But the Twelve are not only summoned to perform acts of proclamation and exorcism; those acts flow out of a prior commission, the call to “be with Jesus.” This tension between being with Jesus and being sent out by him is most simply resolved by interpreting 3:14 and 3:15 sequentially: now the disciples are with Jesus, but later he will send them out to preach and exorcise (cf. 6:7, 12-13). But Mark’s odd formulation probably also contains another layer of meaning. Throughout the Gospel, Mark speaks of the disciples being with Jesus or his being with them (1:29; 2:19; 3:7; 4:36; 5:37, 40; 6:50; 8:10; 9:8; 11:11; 14:7, 14, 17, 18, 20, 33, 67) . . . In other cases Mark seems to have introduced references to the Twelve or to the disciples generally (e.g. 2:15; 3:20; 6:1; 11:11) or to have highlighted their presence rhetorically by his use of plurals (e.g. 11:15, 19, 27). These features have the effect of portraying Jesus as one who is almost constantly surrounded by a circle of disciples; he does not exist primarily as a solitary individual but as a being-in-community, and living the Christian life means “being with him.” . . . In this light there is another way of reconciling the tension within 3:14: now, in the post-Easter period, it is possible both to be with Jesus and to be sent out by him; Mark, in fact, would probably say that any mission not rooted in “being with Jesus” is doomed to failure (p. 267).

More on “The Plight” from Wright

I’ve been reviewing some older critiques of “the new perspective on Paul” that mention specifically its lack of a theology of sin and salvation. It seems to me, however, that it’s more accurate to say that “the new perspective” broke the hegemony of a certain account of what Paul must have meant by the plight and the solution.

That is, many interpreters had assumed that for Paul, the problem is that humans are sinners and the solution is salvation. Humans are unrighteous and are at enmity with God, and they need righteousness and must be set right with God.

The revolution in Pauline studies that led to a global re-reading of Paul’s texts (all of them, not just our favorite ones) demonstrated that while all this is true, it is part of a much larger picture of what is wrong and how God has acted to set things right.

Grasping this more robust and far-reaching Scriptural depiction of what is wrong leads to a greater appreciation for God’s manifold action in Christ, and to a greater understanding of how God’s people inhabit and embody the massive (and under-explored) reality called “salvation.”

Wright PFG

I say all this just to note that N. T. Wright in Paul and the Faithfulness of God does a very nice job of demonstrating what Paul saw as “the plight.” It wasn’t just that humans needed righteousness. In fact, the problem went beyond humans. It was cosmic in scope, including the entire creation.

What happens, then, when we put together these three elements, cross, resurrection and spirit? Paul has revised his previous understanding of the plight of the world, of humans and of Israel in line with his revision of monotheism itself. Standing behind it all was the strong early Christian belief that in Jesus and the holy spirit the covenant God had returned at last, and had acted decisively to judge and save. The sudden brightness of this light cast dark shadows: if this was what it looked like when YHWH returned, all sorts of things were called into question. The resurrection of Jesus constituted him as Messiah, but he remained the crucified Messiah, and if in the strange purposes of the One God the Messiah, his one and only true ‘son’, had had to die, it could only mean that the plight of Israel was far worse than had been thought. The resurrection itself demonstrated that the real enemy was not ‘the Gentiles’, not even the horrible spectre of pagan empire. The real enemy was Death itself, the ultimate anti-creation force, with Sin – the personified power of evil, doing duty apparently at some points for ‘the satan’ itself – as its henchman. Finally, the experience of the spirit revealed the extent to which hardness of heart and blindness of mind had been endemic up to that point across the whole human race. All these were there in Israel’s scriptures, but so far as we know nobody else in second-temple Judaism had brought them together in anything like the form we find them in Paul. It looks very much as though it was the gospel itself, both in proclamation and experience, which was the driver in bringing Paul to this fresh understanding of ‘the plight’ from which all humans, and the whole creation, needed to be rescued (761-2).

Earlier Jewish writers had seen quite a bit of this, of course. But for Paul the nature and extent of ‘the enemy’ and ‘the problem’ were revealed precisely in the act of their overthrow. The full horror of the threatening dragon became apparent only as it lay dead on the floor. The hints had been there already, including the biblical warnings about the corrosive and destructive principalities and powers standing behind outward political enemies and operating through the local and personal ‘sin’ of individuals. Neither Saul of Tarsus nor Paul the Apostle would have supposed one had to choose between the partial analyses offered by Genesis 3, Genesis 6 and Genesis 11: human rebellion, dark cosmic forces and the arrogance of empire all belonged together. A thoughtful and scripturally educated Pharisee could have figured that out already. But for Paul all of these were seen afresh in the light of the gospel. The fungus that had been growing on the visible side of the wall could now be seen as evidence of the damp that had been seeping in from behind. The worrying persistent and ingrained sin of Israel, not merely of the nations, was the tell-tale sign that the principalities and powers of Sin and Death had been at work all along in the covenant people, as well as in the idolatrous wider world (763).

Paul’s robust monotheism allowed fully for the fact of rebellious non-human ‘powers’ luring humans into idolatry and hence into collusion with their anti-creational and anti-human purposes. Sin in the human heart, darkness in the human mind, dehumanized behaviour in the human life: all went together with the rule of dark forces that operated through idols, including empires and their rulers, to thwart the purposes of the one creator God. And Israel, called to be the light of the world, had itself partaken of the darkness. Israel, too, was ‘in Adam’ (771).


N. T. Wright on Paul’s “Plight”

In Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright has a wonderful section dealing with the multifaceted “plight” in Paul’s theological outlook. For Paul, far more has gone wrong than simply humanity being sinful and in need of being set right with God. The problem of evil is multi-dimensional, including personal and cosmic aspects. This, of course, makes salvation multi-dimensional for Paul.

Wright PFG

The larger section of which the below is an excerpt is well worth reading, not least because it demonstrates the emptiness of the claim that Wright and others who read Paul from a “new perspective” don’t take sin seriously.

The ideas of personal sin and salvation, and the role of Israel’s Torah in relation to those questions, remain important, indeed obviously vital, in Paul. But instead of approaching them through the framework of mediaeval and Reformational theories, we must relocate them within the much larger Jewish framework: monotheism versus idolatry, Torah-keeping versus immorality, the social, cultural and political meanings which went with those antitheses, and not least the larger global and even ‘cosmic’ perspective which was glimpsed from time to time within Israel’s scriptures and later traditions and which Paul brought more fully into the open. We must not, in other words, collude with the relatively modern break-up of ‘the problem of evil’ into ‘natural evil’ on the one hand and ‘human sin’ on the other. Nor, in particular, must we go along with the classic western assumption (still evident in the continuing mainstream tradition and in Sanders’s revisionist proposals) that ‘salvation’ will mean the rescue of humans away from the present world. Insofar as second-temple Jews reflected on such things, they saw evil of all sorts as an unhappy jumble of disasters at all these levels, and ‘salvation’ as rescue from evil (whether personal, political or cosmic) rather than as rescue from the created world. Their monotheism was expressed in the cry for justice and the plea for rescue, two of the great themes of Isaiah 40—55: in other words, for a radical change of affairs within the created world. Paul’s revised monotheism declared that justice had been done, and rescue provided, in the Messiah and by the spirit. This gave him a much sharper vision of ‘the problem’, but it did not create it from scratch.

The basic point can be put quite starkly. Paul already had ‘a problem’; all devout Jews did, as we have seen. The fact that it was not the same as the ‘problem’ of the conscience-stricken mediaeval moralist does not mean it was non-existent. It was the problem generated by creational and covenantal monotheism: why is the world in such a mess, and why is Israel still unredeemed? The revelation of Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah meant, for Paul, that the covenant God had offered the solution to these problems – but, in offering the solution, Israel’s God had redefined the problems, had revealed that they had all along been far worse than anyone had imagined (p. 749).

Christians & Depression

For a variety of reasons, many churches are not places of welcome and rest for those struggling with depression. The helpless silences and perceived judgmentalism can have tragic consequences.

Depression in the Church

In Depression in the Church, my sister, Alison Hall, courageously tells her own story of suffering in the darkness and of breaking through the deceptions and misconceptions that afflict many Christian communities. She honestly tells her story and then offers very practical, hopeful, and biblical counsel for those who suffer or who love those who find themselves so afflicted.

I’m a proud big brother, but I’m also confident that many will be blessed by Alison’s hopeful reflections.

Prayer for Commencement

Last Friday night Grand Rapids Theological Seminary held its commencement ceremony. It was a wonderful time of celebration and once again made me so happy to be part of an institution and community so thoroughly shaped by the gospel and by Kingdom priorities. I led the invocation and this was my prayer:

Lord and heavenly father, we pray to you in Christ and by your Spirit. We thank you for this community, for GRTS, for these students – now graduates – for our administration, for faculty and staff. Thank you for the warm community of friendship and support throughout the process of preparation for ministry.

Thank you for the fellowship we enjoy in a community of learning, where we’ve provoked one another to consider how we might grow up in understanding, in skill in handling the Scriptures, and in resolve to honor you as we serve your people.

We give you thanks on this occasion of celebration for your faithfulness. You have carried us, upheld us, sustained us, empowered us, challenged us, shaped us, and loved us in more ways that we could count or imagine.

And as we look to the future, to the unknown, to the struggles, difficulties, and challenges we will face, we know that you will remain faithful.

Strengthen us, Lord. Give us courage. Give us wisdom. Keep us humble. Give us expansive hearts to love as you love.

You have prepared us for the ministries to which you have called us. And we thank you that we can be confident as we look to the future.

We thank you for all these things in the name of Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

Explaining Stage Fright

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain has an interesting discussion of stage fright, noting that “public speaking is the number-one fear in America, far more common than the fear of death.”

I’m terrified pretty much every time I speak in front of other people, so this makes perfect sense to me.

In fact, public speaking anxiety may be primal and quintessentially human, not limited to those of us born with a high-reactive nervous system. One theory, based on the writings of the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, holds that when our ancestors lived on the savannah, being watched intently meant only one thing: a wild animal was stalking us. And when we think we’re about to be eaten, do we stand tall and hold forth confidently? No. We run. In other words, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution urge us to get off the stage, where we can mistake the gaze of the spectators for the glint in a predator’s eye. Yet the audience expects not only that we’ll stay put, but that we’ll act relaxed and assured. This conflict between biology and protocol is one reason that speechmaking can be so fraught. It’s also why exhortations to imagine the audience in the nude don’t help nervous speakers; naked lions are just as dangerous as elegantly dressed ones (pp. 107-8).

An audience as a pack of predators — makes even more sense!

Paul the Pastoral Theologian

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about Paul as a pastoral theologian (or, as a theologically-oriented pastor). I was struck by, and had to re-read a few times, this wonderful closing passage to Part 2 of N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God:

So when people say, as they often do, that Paul ‘was not a systematic theologian’, meaning that ‘Paul didn’t write a medieval Summa Theologica or a book that corresponds to Calvin’s Institutes,’ we will want to say: Fair enough. So far as we know, he didn’t. But the statement is often taken to mean that Paul was therefore just a jumbled, rambling sort of thinker, who would grab odd ideas out of the assortment of junk in his mental cupboard and throw them roughly in the direction of the problems presented to him by his beloved and frustrating ekklsiai. And that is simply nonsense. The more time we spend in the careful reading of Paul, and in the study of his worldview, his theology and his aims and intentions, the more he emerges as a deeply coherent thinker. His main themes may well not fit the boxes constructed by later Christian dogmatics of whatever type. They generate their own categories, precisely as they are transforming the ancient Jewish ones, which are often sadly neglected in later Christian dogmatics. They emerge, whole and entire, thought through with a rigour which those who criticize Paul today (and those who claim to follow him, too!) would do well to match.

What is more, the reason Paul was ‘doing theology’ was not that he happened to have the kind of brain that delighted in playing with and rearranging large, complex abstract ideas. He was doing theology because the life of God’s people depended on it, depended on his doing it initially for them, then as soon as possible with them, and then on them being able to go on doing it for themselves. All Paul’s theology is thus pastoral theology, not inthe sense of an unsystematic therapeutic model which concentrates on meeting the felt needs of the ‘client’, but in the sense that the shepherd needs to feed the flock with clean food and water, and keep a sharp eye out for wolves. For that, pastoral theology needs to be crystal clear, thought out and presented in a way that teaches others to think as well. That, too, is part of the point: Christian theology, for Paul, was not just about what you know, but about how you know. And, just as the Christian worldview compels people to think in a new way, because otherwise the worldview itself is unstable, so Christian theology remains both a corporate task, one in which the church as a whole has to engage, rather than being spoon-fed by one or two high- octane teachers, and also an incomplete task, because each generation needs to become mature in its thinking, which wouldn’t happen if Paul, Athanasius, Aquinas, Luther, Barth or anyone else had closed off the questions with answers that could then simply be looked up. The ‘authority’ of Paul did not consist in his providing lots of correct answers to puzzling questions. That would have left his converts, and subsequent generations, with no work to do on the questions he had answered, and no starting-point for the ones he didn’t. They would have remained radically and residually immature. Give someone a thought, and you help them for a day; teach someone to think, and you transform them for life. Paul’s authority consisted in his setting up a particular framework and posing a specific challenge. Living as Messiah-people demanded, he would have said, that people work within that framework and wrestle with that challenge (PFG, 568-69).


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