A Leadership Model for the Suffering Church

Sebastian (fictitious name) met us soon after the border officials had checked all our necessary papers and approved us for entry. For several days, Sebastian led us on a whirlwind tour of the church in mainland China. He told us stories about untold suffering. Along the way, Sebastian recounted his own personal journey as a Christian leader. Born into a Christian family in 1928, Sebastian’s father served as pastor of several churches. Sebastian followed in his father’s footsteps and became a noted church leader in southern China. As his leadership role became more prominent over the years, Sebastian faced increasing scrutiny from the Mao system. Unwilling to compromise his commitment to lead an “unregistered” church, he was arrested and served hard labor for twenty-three years in a communist prison camp. He was finally released when he was sixty-seven years old.  Sebastian was faithful to his leadership calling.  With a sense of satisfaction, he said, “Although I permanently lost my position and my personal influence, the church in China today is flourishing.” Sebastian’s story exemplifies leadership in the suffering church that may call for biblical alternatives to popular western leadership models.

Christian Leadership as Influence

Numerous authors have suggested that “influence” is the essential component of Christian leadership. For example, Sanders (1967) wrote, “Leadership is influence, the ability of one person to influence others” (p. 19). Chambers cited famous leaders such as Lord Montgomery, John R. Mott, Harry Truman, and Li Huang Chang whose leadership definitions supported his own. Bobby Clinton (1988) added, “Leadership is a dynamic process in which a man or woman with God-given capacity influences a specific group of God’s people toward His purposes for the group” (p. 14).

These authors generally distinguish between assigned leadership positions and actual leadership influence. Sanders (1967) wrote, “Spiritual leaders are not made by election or appointment, by men or any combination of men, nor by conferences or synods” (p. 17). Referring to his definition of leadership, Clinton (1988) explained, “This is contrary to the popular notion that a leader must have a formal position, a formal title, or formal training. Many who are called to lead in church or parachurch organizations may not have formal titles such as pastor or director” (p. 14). Likewise, Maxwell (1998) wrote, “Titles don’t have much value when it comes to leading. True leadership cannot be awarded, appointed, or assigned.  It comes only from influence, and that can’t be mandated” (p. 14). According to these models, personal influence is the essence of leadership.

Leadership Effectiveness as Expanding Influence

While influence is a key component of effective leadership, caution should be taken when taking the logical next step to suggest that leadership effectiveness is measured by the extent to which a leader’s influence expands during his/her lifetime. A model of leadership that standardizes expanding influence during one’s lifetime as the measure of leadership effectiveness is not helpful in virtually any environment where the propagation of Christian faith is illegal or biblical principles are held in contempt. For example, one young Cambodian pastor recently reported that virtually no confessing church leaders in his country survived the Pol Pot massacres. The suffering church needs leadership models that consider alternative measures of effectiveness in lieu of the leader’s expanding influence during his/her lifetime.  The life and ministry of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels provided an appropriate model for leaders in the suffering church.

Jesus: An Alternative Leadership Model

Biblical texts that record some selected words and works of Jesus provide a basis for an alternative leadership model. Jesus was the unique Word sent from God to assume human flesh (John 1:1,14). Due to Jesus’ uniqueness, Ford (1991) asked, “Given our all-too-human feelings of inadequacy, in what sense can Jesus be taken as our leadership model? If he is unique, if he is the Son of God, does that not put him in a category light years beyond us? And what relevance can a leader like that have for us?” (p. 30). The following three biblical realities provide bridges for interpreting Jesus’ leadership as a model for today’s Christian leaders.

First, Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. One New Testament author stated, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he (Jesus) too shared in their humanity” (Heb. 2:14). According to this passage, Jesus was genuinely human. Second, Jesus wanted his disciples to follow his model. Toward the end of his earthly ministry, after he had washed the feet of his disciples, he said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:14,15). Third, Jesus’ leadership was both culturally relevant for his time and transculturally applicable for all time. Jesus was born and grew up Jewish under Roman occupation in Palestine. His identification with family and culture was complete to the extent that the crowds, witnessing his wisdom and miraculous powers, asked, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” (Matt. 13:55). He also proclaimed after his resurrection that he possessed all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:19). Jesus’ model of leadership is relevant for today’s leaders because he fully shared our humanity, he intentionally provided a model for us to follow, and he effectively functioned in a specific culture with a leadership approach that speaks to all cultures through the ages.  With these principles in mind, several key factors from Jesus’ life and ministry provide a basis for the needed alternative model.

Transcendent Purpose

First, Jesus’ leadership was characterized by an unusual sense of transcendent purpose. His teaching was radical; he saw himself as fulfilling all that had preceded him in Israelite history (Matt. 5:17; Luke 4:16-19). Throughout his life and leadership, this purpose influenced his daily plans and procedures (Mark 14:21; John 13:1). In one post-resurrection appearance, Jesus explained to his disciples, “This is what I told you while I was still with you. Everything must be fulfilled what is written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). This appreciation of history and personal sense of destiny created in Jesus a consciousness that he had come to fulfill his divine purpose of doing the Father’s will (John 4:34; 6:39).

For the suffering church in China, Sebastian fulfilled God’s ministry purpose through imprisonment and obscurity. In his case, commitment to a leadership role in God’s greater sovereign flow of history actually resulted in diminished influence over the course of his lifetime; however, leaders like Sebastian can be confident that God’s higher purpose is not limited to their time and place.

Goal of the Cross

Second, Jesus’ goal was the cross. He revealed his mission statement when he declared, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). With this mission, Jesus both accepted a place of weakness and identified the source of spiritual power.  In one stunning display of focus, Jesus turned away from rising popularity that resulted from his feeding the masses and aggressively confronted the same people with offensive truth (eating his flesh and drinking his blood). At the very moment when followers wanted to acknowledge his popular leadership role among them, his confusing words caused them to turn away (John 6: 1-15, 25-59).

Today’s church in South Asia is experiencing an explosive surge of growth; one recent estimate reported twenty thousand new churches have been planted in the past twelve months.  But this growth has not been without a cost to some faithful leaders who have been jailed and tortured for their liberating Gospel message to people who live under an oppressive caste system. Following the example of Jesus, they did not pursue the potential of expanding influence because their leadership perspective was beyond their own lifetime (Luke 19:10). Like many leaders of the suffering church who are faithful to their calling, the breadth of Jesus’ personal influence seemed to decline during the course of his ministry until he died alone. Ford (1991) wrote, “Here is the heart of leadership in Christ.  We do not start at the cross and go on to bigger and better things. We start there and go deeper and deeper, but there we also find the power, the living power, of that same Jesus. Every day brings a ‘chance to die,’ but also a chance to rise with Christ” (p. 157).  Jesus’ leadership is a challenging model for Christian leadership today.

Identification Precedes Accomplishment

Third, Jesus led out of a consistent sense of who he was in relationship to his eternal Father. Early in the Gospels, the Father affirmed Jesus as his special son (Matt. 3:17); security in this identity lay at the very heart of his life and ministry. When he was accused of breaking Jewish laws by healing a lame man on the Sabbath, Jesus referred to his relationship with the Father that guided his ministry leadership (John 5:16-20). Leadership did not seem to be primarily based on something Jesus did so much as who he was. Even when tempted by Satan in the wilderness to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful, his relationship with God and his Word was the key ingredient for obedience (Matt. 4:1-11).

Sebastian resolved to obey regardless of the consequences because he was certain that his identity is fundamentally based in his relationship with Christ rather than in circumstances beyond his control. For any leader, this identity is certainly no excuse for fatalism or slothfulness, but has provided Sebastian and many other leaders of the suffering church an anchor of significance when hostility threatens their present and future faithfulness.


Fourth, Jesus advocated through his words and actions a leadership approach that actually contradicted his culture’s conventional leadership notion that privilege and prominence are byproducts of the leader’s position or personal influence. Instead, Jesus taught that the one who desires true greatness should choose the last place; he said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very least, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Rhinehart (1998) reported that servant leadership is currently a popular term in both business and ministry milieus; however, he wrote, “Often those who write and speak about it (servant leadership) focus on the second word: servant leadership. Viewed with this emphasis, serving is simply a means to an end . . . . This is just another subtle form of power leadership” (p. 41). Conversely, the apostle Paul provided a classic description of the Son of God when he wrote, “. . . he made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient to death – even death on a cross” (Phil: 2:7,8).

Malcolm Muggeridge once wrote a book to honor Mother Teresa entitled Something Beautiful for God. In his book, he wrote, “To choose as Mother Teresa did to live in the slums of Calcutta amidst all the dirt and disease and misery signified a spirit so indomitable, a faith so intractable, a love so abounding that I felt abashed.” Muggeridge went on to tell of an experience he had in Calcutta to which he responded by retreating to his comfortable flat and pontificating about the wretched condition of the city. Then he concluded with these words: “I ran away and stayed away. But Mother Teresa moved in and stayed. That was the difference.”

A leader of the suffering church following Jesus’ model persistently prioritizes a servant style not as a stepping stone to increased power or influence but as a distinguishing characteristic of biblical leadership. This alternative leadership model functions from an eternal perspective focusing on influence beyond one’s own life; therefore, the sanctified life as characterized by the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22,23) is the non-negotiable measure for leadership effectiveness.

The Danger of Expanding Influence

God created humankind in his own image (Gen. 1:27). With this image also came Adam’s freedom to exercise his will; he chose to disobey God (Gen. 3:6). This choice set into motion humankind’s (sin) nature and its unfortunate consequences until the present time. The apostle Paul explained, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned – before the law was given, sin was in the world” (Rom. 5:12,13). Due to this adamic nature, leaders are prone to chronic behavior that is not consistent with the image of God in which they are created. McIntosh and Rima (1997) identified pride (Prov. 16:5), selfishness (James 3:14-16), and self-deception and wrong motives (Prov. 16:2) as the raw material for this “dark side of leadership” that works toward destructive results through natural leaders. McIntosh and Rima wrote, “Contrary to much contemporary thought, every leader possesses within him or her the raw material necessary for the manufacture of the dark side. None of us are immune” (p. 49). This “raw material” can cause leaders to be blind to their own ambition for expanding influence at the expense of other biblical mandates. Leaders may sacrifice integrity and faithfulness when facing hostility if influence becomes the primary measure of leadership effectiveness.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ presented the only way (Acts 4:12) for all people who repent and believe (Acts 2:37-38) to reverse the effect of sin (Rom. 5:15).  With the gift of salvation (Rom. 6:23) and abundant life (John 10:10) offered through Jesus Christ, leaders have the potential to function as new creations (2 Cor. 5:17). The redeemed leader’s realm of “flesh” and “spirit” is the competitive battleground for daily decisions and activities (Rom. 7:14-25); nevertheless, the Spirit’s empowerment is available to the leader who submits to his controlling influence (Eph. 5:17).

Bennett (1988) pointed out that Jesus used many terms to explain his disciples’ leadership calling; however, Jesus never directly used the term “leader” in reference to those he chose for leadership in the early church. Perhaps to combat the cultural perceptions of his day, Jesus employed other terms including: apostle (Matt. 10:5); servant (Luke 12:37), the chosen (John 15:16), worker (Matt. 9:37-38), salt and light (Matt. 5:13-14); fishermen (Mark 1:17), friend (Matt. 20:13), son (Matt. 5:45); guest of the bridegroom (Matt. 9:15), branch (John 15:1-5), disciple (Matt. 10:42), witness (Luke 24:48), hired servant (John 10:12-13), manager (Luke 16:1-12); child (Matt. 18:10); sheep (Matt. 10:16), feeder of sheep (John 21:17), wheat (Matt. 13:24-30), and seed (Matt. 13:38). In his research of the metaphors that Jesus used to describe those he was developing for leadership, Bennett concluded, “Jesus’ primary focus in teaching the disciples was not to help them to master skills often associated with leadership. Instead, Jesus showed them how to follow, how to obey, and how to respond to the authority and call of God” (p. 192).  Celebrating such faithful obedience among suffering church leaders can be a source of great encouragement.


Popular western models of leadership have benefited the church in many ways. These models of leadership that emphasize expanding influence seem to be appropriate in certain contexts; however, they are inappropriate to the extent that a Christian worldview is counter-cultural. Ministry leadership in such cultures can place one’s personal welfare and leadership “success” at great risk. Sometimes effective leadership has been the very reason that Christian brothers and sisters of the suffering church have been stripped of all opportunity for positional or personal leadership influence.

The alternative model of effective leadership, therefore, emphasizes that the Christian leader’s identity is fundamentally based in his/her relationship with Christ rather than in circumstances beyond his/her control. This model prioritizes a servant style not as a means to increased power or influence but as a distinguishing characteristic of biblical leadership. This alternative leadership effectiveness is measured by faithfulness to live out the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22,23). The biblical leader confidently perceives his/her leadership ministry in the sovereign flow of God’s divine purposes. This biblical model needs to be communicated in order to foster effective leaders who faithfully follow Christ in contexts where serious hostility toward the gospel exists.

Leaders like Sebastian are real champions as they face enormous conflict and potential suffering. They offer us vivid examples of how to lead by walking faithfully without seeking expanding influence or increasing authority. They faithfully model for today’s Christian leaders what it means to be used of God to reach the world for Christ.


Bennett, D. W. (1993). Metaphors of Ministry: Biblical Images for Leaders and Followers. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

Clinton, J. R. (1988). The Making of a Leader: Recognizing the Lessons and Stages of Leadership Development. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Ford, L. (1993). Transforming Leadership: Jesus’ Way of Creating Vision, Shaping Values, and Empowering Change. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.

Maxwell, J. C. (1998). The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

McIntosh, G. L., & Rima, S. D., Sr. (1997) Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership: The Paradox of Personal Dysfunction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

New International Version of the Bible. (1986). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.

Rinehart, S. T. (1998). Upside down: The Paradox of Servant Leadership. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Sanders, J. O. (1967). Spiritual Leadership. Chicago: Moody Press.


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