As I am writing this, we are still in the middle of the Covid 19 crisis. New Zealanders have been looking to the government for leadership and direction through this difficult time. The Prime Minister has given us clear explanations about the government’s decisions and directions and why they have chosen the course they have. No doubt all of us have had our own thoughts on what should happen and when, yet we know that it is impossible for leaders to please all the people all the time. Time will tell how successful our government has been at managing this crisis, and the citizens of New Zealand will assess this at the next election. There is no doubt that the government has faced a very difficult challenge and has tried to protect both lives and livelihood.

What makes good leaders? Are they good managers, that is, people who are well-organised and efficient, with drive and energy? Or are they people with personality and charisma, people who are vibrant and engaging? What about leaders in the church? The session is regularly calling for nominations for men to serve as elders and deacons. What qualities should you look for as you consider nominations? 

All of us, in some way or other, formally or informally, function as leaders. Someone has described leadership as “the power to influence other people”. Those you influence may be your children, your younger brother or sister, your spouse, your friends, or others in the church. We all have people who look to us for direction and so we all have the power to influence others. 

The apostle Paul describes leadership as a gift in the church, “… in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is … leadership, let him govern diligently” (Romans 12:5,6,8). All of us who are called to some position of leadership need to be diligent in our task and role. We need to carry out our tasks conscientiously, to do what is required of us, to fulfill our responsibilities, to do our duties. 

In this article I want to focus on the necessary traits of character in Christian leaders, and on how they should lead as servants and by example. These qualities of leadership are often neglected in articles and discussion of this subject, even in Christian literature.

Christian Character

Over the past few decades there has been a great deal written on Christian leadership. Much of this is based on business models. Pastors are often compared to CEOs. Many books and conferences on church leadership focus on planning, teams, goal setting, vision casting, and time management. 

Church leaders do need to be good managers, efficient workers, and make good use of their time. But the biblical emphasis is not on skill but on character; not on technique but on theology; not on ‘know-how’ but on ‘know-whom’. Christian leadership arises out of knowing who God is, through the Lord Jesus, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, and applying this knowledge and experience to our own lives and behaviour. 

The biblical requirements for the qualifications for elders and deacons focus on character. The church needs holy men as leaders. Being an elder is not a matter of having a university education, a certain IQ, or a professional job. Rather the elder must display the fruit of the Spirit and godliness of life. 

The qualities listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 as requirements for elders are a description of a mature Christian and ought to be seen in every Christian. Don Carson notes, “The most remarkable feature of the list is that it is unremarkable …. Almost everything on the list is elsewhere in the New Testament required of all believers.”1 That is, an elder must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, gentle, not quarrelsome. These are listed as requirements for elders because these qualities of character must be evident in them. The only two qualities listed that are not required of other Christians are “not a recent convert” and “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2, 6). 

Yes, leadership is a gift and requires certain abilities, but the most important qualities required of leaders in the church are those of Christian character. The church must see these qualities of character before people are appointed to leadership, and these must be maintained and sustained while they are serving in this position. Without these, their leadership will come to nothing. Most of us have heard of at least one Christian leader who has failed morally and had to resign from his position of ministry. This inevitably causes great harm to his own reputation, to his family and to the church in which he was serving. Sound Christian character is the most important requirement for leadership in the church.

Christian Service

What do you look for in a leader? Most people look for strength; a leader must be forceful, tough, taking a no-nonsense approach. There must be no sign of weakness or failure. This is why many admired the leadership of Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain as she was competent, had clear principles, and was willing to stick to them. 

The New Testament was written in the context of the Roman and Greek cultures. Both cultures admired success. Their philosophy and religion centred on the cult of the hero. If you wanted to advance in that society you needed to project an image of eloquence, confidence, achievement, and strength. 

The false apostles in Corinth presented this sort of image: they had it all together; they were strong and were puffed up with a sense of their own importance. Paul, writing from Corinth to the Christians in Rome warned against such pride; “do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” (Romans 12:3) 

In 2 Corinthians Paul wrote against these leaders and their unbiblical style of leadership and their false teaching. One of the themes in this letter is the nature and character of true Christian leadership. The apostle Paul modelled this. In ministering to those Christians he assured them that he did not “lord it over your faith”, rather “we work with you for your joy.” (1:24) He loved these believers and told them so. (2:4) He wept with them and for them. (2:4a) He was open about his concerns for their wellbeing and the motives for his actions. (1:23) 

Unlike the false teachers in Corinth he did not focus on himself; “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Cor 4:5) In his earlier letter he wrote, “So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ.” (1 Cor 4:1) He did not want to focus on himself but on the Lord Jesus; he did not want people to follow him but to follow Jesus. The apostle Paul, who was a great missionary and evangelist, regarded himself as a servant of the church in Corinth for Jesus’ sake.

In writing this he was echoing the teaching of Jesus. On one occasion, after the disciples had been arguing about who was the greatest, Jesus told them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) On another occasion, when the disciples had another argument about who was the most important, Jesus instructed them about Christian leadership; “he who is least among you all, he is the greatest.” (Luke 9:48) Jesus himself, even though he was the Lord of glory, and the Son of Man, “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45; Rom 15:8; 1 Cor 2:8; Phil 2:7)

John the Baptist said about Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease.” (John 3:30) If Jesus, John the Baptist, and the apostle Paul saw themselves as servants of God’s people how much more ought we to serve one another? We who are servants of Jesus must follow his example. 

Peter Hastie, editor of the magazine Presbyterian Life, pointed out in an interview that the term ‘leadership’ only came into the vocabulary of the church in the 1980s. Prior to that the church had ministers and elders whose task was service.2

Bill Hybels wrote a book on Christian leadership with the striking title, Descending into Greatness. Oswald Chambers wrote, “The test of our spiritual life is the power to descend.” Rather than thinking of ourselves as strong and invincible and having a ‘can-do’ attitude, we must recognise our own weakness and dependence on God and his grace, and that we who lead are called to serve others in love.

Christian Example

Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth and addressed them as his “dear children”. (1 Cor 4:14) He knew they had many ‘guardians in Christ’. (v 15) A guardian was a trusted slave who was put in charge of the child, taking him to and from school and supervising his conduct. But Paul had become their “father through the gospel. Therefore, I urge you to imitate me.” (v 16)

Today we live in a strongly individualistic society and there is little pressure for a son to follow his father’s profession. But in the 1st century, and in every pre-industrial society, sons were expected to imitate their fathers whether he was a blacksmith, a farmer, a butcher, or a baker. Paul urged these Christians to imitate him as their spiritual leader and father. This meant he had to model the life he wanted them to live. 

He wrote that he was sending Timothy to them: “He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.” (v 17) Paul sent Timothy to remind them of Paul’s teaching and way of life. Don Carson comments, “Biblical Christianity embraces both creed and conduct, both belief and behaviour.”3 

This is true for all of us as fathers, mothers, teachers, counsellors, pastors, elders and deacons. We need to teach sound doctrine and model a holy life. We need to pass on biblical truth and be examples of godly living. The two must go together; our living must back up our teaching. 

God demands that Christian leaders lead by example. We must live out the fruit of the Spirit and Christian character and do so in a consistent manner. “It is a general principle that we can influence and lead others only so far as we ourselves have gone. The person most likely to be successful is one who leads not by merely pointing the way but by having trodden it himself. We are leaders to the extent that we inspire others to follow us.”4


The Bible has many examples of leaders. Think of Moses, Joshua, Ehud, Gideon, Deborah, David, Solomon, Josiah, Hezekiah, Nehemiah5; and in the New Testament the apostles Peter, James, John, and Paul.

In church history think of Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, John Wesley, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, J C Ryle, and RC Sproul.

Christian leaders are all very different. God has raised up different people for different situations and different needs. Moses was different from Joshua, David from Solomon, Peter from Paul, Luther from Calvin. Yet all these leaders were men and women of Christian character. They had their faults and failings, as we all do. But they sought to serve their Lord by serving others, often at great personal cost and self sacrifice. Despite their particular sins and weaknesses they provide us with models and examples to follow. Of course, our greatest example of a servant leader is the Lord Jesus himself who calls us to follow him. 

1D. A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry – Leadership lessons from 1 Corinthians; (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1993), p. 95

2M Geluk, Preach the word, Trowel and Sword, July 2009, p. 15. The noun “minister” comes from a Latin word meaning servant, and the verb “to minister” means “attend to the needs of”.

3Carson, p. 110

4J O Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, (Bromley, Marshall Pickering, 1967), p. 20

5Nehemiah was an outstanding leader and a book of the Bible is devoted to his leadership in post-exilic Israel. Many books have been written about him, including one by J I Packer, which I have reviewed for this issu e of Faith in Focus. 

Mr John Haverland is a minister of the Reformed Church in Pukekohe.

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R C Sproul,