After the fall, leadership—just like everything else in the world—was stained with sin. Though the world changed, the heart of God for his creation, his acts of influence toward that creation, and his implanting of leadership into the social order continued. Two types of leadership emerge in the biblical accounts: positional and personal.
Positional Leadership. In the Old Testament, the most basic form of leadership was expressed through the established power and authority attendant with official positions, titles, and roles. God established an order for the proper functioning of his people, and roles of leadership were at the heart of that order. From the smallest social unit to the largest, God ordained positions of authority, and when people in those positions acted in godly and responsible ways, the Lord’s blessing was upon them and those under them.
In the family unit, husbands were established to lead their wives, and mothers and fathers were to lead their children. Beyond the family, leaders were appointed to act as local judges in the community (Exodus 18) and oversee regional tribes (Numbers 1:1–19). National leaders also arose. Moses became leader of the Jewish nation by the calling of God. Joshua succeeded him and led Israel into the Promised Land.
As the early history of Israel unfolded, God established the leadership role of the prophet. These leaders possessed spiritual authority, often speaking on behalf of God to existing rulers as well as to the people of the nation. They were used by God to instruct, warn, and correct others in his ways (e.g., Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha). Following the conquest of the Promised Land, judges directed the affairs of the loose confederation of the tribes of Israel. They ruled, provided military leadership, and presided over legal disputes.
After the mostly damaging experience of the judges of Israel, the elders pleaded for a king to lead the nation. Although their request was displeasing to God, under his grace and sovereignty the Lord permitted the monarchy to be established, and he directed the prophet Samuel to appoint a king. The kingdom was divided after the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon, and eventually the monarchies of Israel and Judah ended. God’s people were now conquered, dispersed, and in exile under pagan domination. The Old Testament would close with a period characterized by prophets who exercised spiritual leadership while under duress. People such as Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, and Jeremiah were established by God to yield some form of influence over a diminishing remnant of Jews, speak God’s truth to pagan power, and foretell impending judgment.
The great volume of leadership in the Old Testament is characterized as positional, that is, having the right to exercise leadership over others because of authoritative title, role, or function.
Likewise, the New Testament speaks of positional leadership. Though the roles and offices change, we still see God-ordained positions of leadership for the sake of the proper functioning of the church. These include apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, elders, teachers, overseers, and deacons (Ephesians 4:11, 1 Peter 5:1–5, 1 Timothy 3:1–10). Similarly, political governing authorities seem to be commissioned under God’s sovereignty to bless, protect, and provide for the social order (Romans 13:1-7).
Positional leadership means the ability to exercise leadership over others due to authoritative title, role, or function. _________________
Personal Leadership. Though positional leadership is prominent in Scripture, the Bible both instructs and implies a higher form of influence that is more consistent with the heart of God as ultimately expressed in his Son. This is leadership not related solely to the position of the leader, but to the person of the leader. This “more excellent way” yields influence through the power of love (1 Corinthians 12:31). It flows from the character of the person leading and the qualities he or she expresses that build trust, credibility, and inspiration within followers. In fact, the Scripture intimates that even those with positional power should manifest a higher form of influence that goes beyond position and title—one that is uniquely Christian, that acts in the best interest of those being led, and that is rooted in the morality and motivations of the leader. (Genesis 50; 1 Kings 3:9, 12:1-19; Psalm 78:70-72; John 13:12-15; Acts 20:28; Romans 13:1-4; 1 Peter 5:1-3)
Positional Leadership Personal Leadership
Leads through power and authority Leads through love, sacrifice, and service
Exhibits command and control Exhibits empowerment & encouragement
Possesses the right to lead through title Earns the right to lead through trust
Key Actions: Rules and Regulates Key Actions: Influences and Inspires
There may be no more powerful, practical example of this difference than Paul’s leadership toward the church in Thessalonica. In chapter 2 of 1 Thessalonians, Paul states that he sought to express the higher form of personal leadership rather than positional leadership, even though he possessed the latter: “Nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority” (1 Thessalonians 2:6, NASB). He states that in contrast to authoritative rule, he loved the Thessalonians and became among them as a nursing mother (2:7); a faithful, hard worker (2:9); and a loving father who would “exhort, encourage, and implore” his children (2:11). These influencing verbs are very different from the “command and control” kind of leadership that often typifies the positional approach.
People tend to respond to positional leadership mostly due to fear. The leader in position over a follower may reward one who responds appropriately or punish one who does not. While positional leadership might bring someone into submission and conformity, lasting impact and influence tends to come from personal leadership. Positional leadership alters one’s external behavior and is therefore often only temporary in its influence. Personal leadership has the potential to transform the heart and mind and can lead to lasting impact.
I am a father of three. My initial leadership to my children is based upon the title and the authority vested in my role as father. In this sense, I might be able to get them to conform to my expectations simply because I hold an authoritative position over them. But if my children only do what I tell them to do because I hold the title of father, then I have failed as a parent. That kind of leadership will only last until they leave our home. While I do hold the title of leader, I will not have fulfilled the wonderful blessing and opportunity of the role as God designed it. If I seek lasting impact, I must instead influence my children through character and example. I must live before them, with passion, the values I hold dear in the hopes that they will embrace them as well. I must not just teach them and tell them what to do, but serve and sacrifice for my children in order to earn real credibility. I must provide a vision for them of the kind of life I desire them to live, as well as empower them with the potential to live it. This is the virtue of love inherent in biblical leadership, and it represents God’s ultimate intent for believers who lead others.
Paul exemplified and Jesus epitomized true, biblical leadership when personal leadership is expressed through positional leadership (1 Thessalonians 2, Philippians 2:5–11)—that is, when leaders who hold position and power use that position and power for the benefit of others. Said another way, when people who possess the right to lead through title also earn the right to lead through trust, then leadership as God intends is expressed. Here, the magnanimity of leadership as designed by God is unveiled.
Personal leadership means the credibility to exercise leadership toward others due to the character and actions of the leader, which build trust and inspiration within followers.