Leading Without Authority

By Bruce G. Allder

Christian leadership involves authority grounded in relationship with Christ not a title or populist affirmation.

Authority and power: these are often the first words that come to mind when the term “leadership” is mentioned. References to these are easy to find in relation to Jesus, and he is the one to emulate in Christian leadership, right? All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go… (Matt 28:18); Jesus entered the temple and drove out all those who were selling and buying in the temple… (Matt 21:12). There are many more such examples in the Scriptures.

These words and actions by Jesus are usually read through the lens of institutional authority and hierarchy—authority and power. Jesus is God and has the absolute authority and privilege of interrupting people and events according to his will and purpose. However, to understand Jesus’ actions in this way is to miss the foundation of Jesus’ leadership. We can so easily drift into what Brueggemann calls empire (secular power), rather than kingdom (principles of the Kingdom of God). At the heart of this issue is that Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14; Matt 3:17). God reveals the nature of the Godhead and invites people into a life-giving relationship. The establishment of the covenant with the nation of Israel in Exodus 20 was an important step forward in that self-revelation. The Kingdom of God was established as a theocracy—God as king. God’s people are to live and work under the rule of God to reach fully their created potential.

A theocracy sounds good in theory. But what does that look like? It is too easy to have leadership claim “theocratic leadership” when it is simply a guise for autocracy, or to run to democracy and have populism dictate what is right. Shaw says that both autocratic leadership and democratic leadership are built on fear. In autocracy, the leader fears a loss of control while in democracy there is a fear of autocracy. In the end, we are left with the choice between the tyranny of the one and the tyranny of the many.

A genuine theocracy is an alternative to these opposites. Jesus’ leadership illustrates Kingdom leadership and the challenge is to look beyond the perceived demonstration of authority and power in his life to see the Kingdom principles at work. Under the leadership of Moses, God brought the Children of Israel out of slavery and through the desert to the threshold of the Promised Land. Moses, who did not enter the Promised Land himself, prepared this new nation for life there. His speeches are recorded for us in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses gave clear instructions about the kind of leadership (king) that the nation would need (Deut. 17) to be faithful to the covenant the people had made with God at Mt Sinai. The king of Israel was not to be like a king of other nations. Their king was to be a servant of Yahweh (God) and under authority himself. The king’s authority was to be an inferred authority, based upon the quality of the relationship he held with Yahweh. In other words, the king’s authority was only as good as his personal relationship with the God he was meant to serve. This is what the prophet Samuel warned the people about when they asked for their first king (I Sam. 8:10f). A title and endorsement by the people were insufficient bases for his authority as king of Israel. In an odd sort of way, leadership in this kingdom is not dependent on the response of the people served. Rather the quality of the relationship the leader had with God was the foundation from which the leader was to have influence.

By submitting to God, discernment of God’s agenda and discernment of God’s activity in the world becomes the focus of leadership. This is consistent with the New Testament teachings. The leader finds the authority to serve primarily in such a relationship (Matt. 5-7; Mark 10:43-45). Jesus shocked the religious people of his day because they anticipated that he would act like the kind of leader they were used to seeing—one that lorded it over those under them. Instead, Jesus sought out the marginalized, washed his disciples’ feet before a meal, loved people unconditionally, and gave his life as a ransom to the undeserving.

We speak of Jesus as Lord, and he is that to those who follow him. But understand that Jesus is Lord, not because he has followers, but because that is who he is. Jesus’ lordship is found in his relationship with his Father (God). This is the essence of Kingdom leadership. Perry W.H. Shaw says that when we find confidence in God through our relationships with Jesus Christ, we no longer need the praise or subordination of others. We are free to serve in authority and under authority.

Here is the genius of Christian leadership: in serving God as the essence of our leadership, we are not held hostage to the whims and opinions of those we serve, nor do we arrogantly usurp the authority that is God’s. Once again the question is, what does loving God look like in our leadership? We love God by serving others. Our loving is expressed practically. It is not just saying “I love you” but actually engaging with people in the ordinary.

Samuel Wells identifies four different ways that leaders can relate to the people they serve. Namely, working for people, working with people, being for people, and being with people. He suggests that while all four have some place in Christian leadership, the most profound and deepest level of service is found in being with people. This is a profound shift in thinking about leadership. The default stance in being with people is not being a problem solver, nor one who comes from a place of authority and power, but being one who comes alongside to empower others.

Elements in such relational leadership include:

1. Presence: being in the same physical space with the people we serve.

2. Attention: not just ‘showing up’ but being present, focused, and vulnerable in the moment of interaction.

3. Mystery: acknowledging that in this unique encounter we find people and possibly ambiguous circumstances that cannot be fixed or broken down into various parts; however, we can enter into, explore, and appreciate the personhood of the other and their ability to find a way forward.

4. Delight: being glad to take time rather than being overtaken by urgency to “sort the issue.”

5. Participation: having the patience not to leave people behind; replacing urgency with patient engagement with those who are seeking their own way into an optimistic future in relationship with their Creator.

6. Partnership: acting in community and seeing how respective gifts can be harnessed to enable a team to reach a common goal.

7. Enjoyment: enjoying time spent with those whom are often discarded as being of no use, yet who are actually of inestimable value because of God’s love.

8. Glory: celebrating God’s originating purpose of being in Christ

Here’s the wonder: we can do all these things as leaders without the need for an authority that puts us at the center of the activity. Now that is counter-cultural! This kind of leadership moves us away from a transactional approach where we are “owed” certain benefits (authority, payment for services, etc.) to one of genuine transformation. The focus is on God’s agenda of transforming people (including us!) and discerning well God’s activity in the world. Institutional and traditional authority has more to do with the management of resources that we have before us, but management is not leadership. The danger in letting management set the leadership agenda is that it puts the focus on resources rather than relationships with people. The temptation is to manipulate resources to our own agenda because we can grab control. It feels good to be “needed” and to have a role to play, and is therefore so easy to drift into a leadership model that is self-focused rather than God-focused.

Being with people and relying upon our relationship with Christ to give us an inferred authority means that we are not the center of attention. It means that we are free to empower those around us to serve as we serve. It enables people to discover their own way forward in relationship with Christ. It opens the way for us to trust the Holy Spirit to lead and shape us as a community of Christ-followers. Maybe this is leading from the middle rather than the front. Sounds like leadership without authority to me!

Bruce G Allder is Asia Pacific Regional Education Coordinator for the Church of the Nazarene and Senior Lecturer in Pastoral Theology and Ministry at Nazarene Theological College in Brisbane, Australia. Research interests include the teaching of theological education, the influence of context in preaching, and leadership in the Body of Christ. He loves team sports, especially cricket, and enjoys hiking the Australian bush.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

UL Leadership Cover