Servants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership
by Arthur Boers
Abingdon Press, October 2015, 208 pp.
In this excerpt from Arthur Boers’ book, Servants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership, he considers how the church can learn from current leadership literature, while “faithfully challenge where worldly emphases—including faddish leadership preoccupations—take us off course.”
William Stringfellow was once invited to lecture in two locations near to each other, Harvard Business School and Harvard Divinity School. He presented essentially the same content in both places, biblical and theological reflections on the powers and principalities (e.g., Eph 6:12; Col 1:16). He was unsure about how he would be received at the business school. Bill Wylie Kellerman reports: “The business school students . . . engaged him thoroughly, bending his ear long past the hour appointed, with numerous examples from their own experience of corporate dominance and possession by the commercial powers.” But the theological students made a marked contrast; they reacted with disbelief, rejection, and mockery. Put simply, business students comprehended and were able to apply and integrate Stringfellow’s theological reflections; theology students could not.
There is much to learn from the business world, even matters we had better learn. Brian McClaren makes a good point: “‘The church doesn’t need to be run like a business,’ a mentor once told me, ‘but it surely shouldn’t be run like a bad business.’” Nevertheless, caution is in order. Bottom line concerns about profits, shareholder interests, and value-added priorities do not necessarily add up in God’s economy.
Reviewing Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Betty Smartt Carter raises critical issues. Sandberg, COO of Facebook, wrote about how women can shatter corporate glass ceilings and the implications of those choices on family life and priorities. Carter acknowledges attractiveness in Sandberg’s ideas, but asks:
What ends justify such sacrifices of ordinary family life . . . ? If the pay-offs were a cure for cancer and a solution to global warming, that would be one thing; but the benefits of so much corporate busy-ness usually don’t amount to much . . . Phones get smarter, packaged food travels farther, and more people in India can like each other’s statuses.
These critiques are not just ethical.
L. Roger Owens argues that much leadership literature promotes “functional atheism”: working from “the unconscious assumption that if I don’t make something good happen here it never will.” Relying on techniques and best practices, we may forego reliance on God; we act like atheists. We effectively deny God’s existence or efficacy. Walter Brueggemann portrays three faithful priorities that differ from common values encountered today: “YHWH is not a workaholic,” “YHWH is not anxious about the full functioning of creation,” and “the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.”
How do conscientious believers faithfully challenge where worldly emphases—including faddish leadership preoccupations—take us off course? Scriptures warn against getting caught up in the wrong values:
The Lord proclaims: the learned should not boast of their knowledge, nor warriors boast of their might, nor the rich boast of their wealth. No, those who boast should boast in this: that they understand and know me. I am the Lord who acts with kindness, justice, and righteousness in the world, and I delight in these things, declares the Lord. (Jer 9:23-24 CEB; emphasis added)
Jeremiah’s attention to wisdom and knowledge, power and might, wealth and affluence specifically responds to the reign of Solomon, the greatest Jewish king, one of Israel’s most famous leaders. Rather than honoring worldly priorities, we are to imitate God, who puts “kindness, justice, and righteousness” at the top of the agenda.
Pondering how the church engages the newly emerging discipline of leadership, I see a parallel challenge from not so long ago. Since the late nineteenth century, Christians have been faced with the emergence of another relatively new discipline, psychology (Freud, Jung, James, and so on). At first, several broad trends were evident. Some Christians rejected psychology, insisting that faithfulness was enough; serious problems were to be met with prayer and would be conquered with sufficient faith. Others, advocating “biblical counseling,” insisted that the Bible itself offered alternative psychological agenda. Still others embraced the “triumph of the therapeutic,” displacing classic soul care. (Therapeutic emphases hijacked understandings of worship, spiritual direction, church discipline, pastoral identity, and so on.)
In the 1970s, however, substantive theological engagement began between theologians and psychology in the work of University of Chicago’s Don Browning and impressive literature from the Lilly-sponsored Religion, Culture, and Family Project. These examples show that it is possible to approach a new emerging discipline in ways that are both appreciative (without naively embracing a theory wholesale) and critical (without dismissing or writing off completely).
Christians now have a parallel challenge of critically and appreciatively appropriating leadership studies. Obviously, leadership has implications for church life and how we relate to workplaces and society. We need to learn from others and to examine underlying assumptions. We also must speak forthrightly where Christian faith has different priorities. We do not have to settle for either uncritical embrace or wholesale rejection; we can opt for redemption.
Redemption implies both that something requires redeeming and is worth redeeming. In leadership studies, there are insights that merit claiming and redeeming. But there also needs to be caution and criticism in our reception.
Michael Walzer asks, “How much room for politics can there be when God is the ultimate ruler?” Christians might ask, “How much room can there be for leadership when Jesus is Lord of all?” The church needs to be deliberate and discerning in these considerations.
Excerpt used with permission from Abingdon Press.