THE NATURE OF CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP:
REFLECTIONS FROM AN ORTHODOX THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE BY ARCHBISHOP TIMOTHY PAUL
“Thus says the Lord God: Behold, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves…the weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them…I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice.” (Ezekiel 34:2-4,15-16).
When difficulties arise in a family, a corporation, or the nation itself, the role of leadership is especially critical. The same holds true when difficulties arise in a parish or the wider Church. Leadership becomes the key to facing up to the problems, engage them with honesty and wisdom, and come out on the other side stronger and more mature both as individuals and as a body. An essential part of the task is to reflect on and discuss the nature of Christian leadership itself and permit it to become the cornerstone of combined efforts to address the difficulties and resolve the problems for the love of Christ and the good of the Church, without recriminations, retaliations and demonization of others.
What is Christian leadership from an Orthodox perspective? What is the purpose of leadership? Who can legitimately exercise it? What is the authority behind leadership? And what are the attributes, methods, and limits of leadership? The following are some basic reflections offered in good faith for further thinking and discussion. In our ecclesial context, what is needed is a sound theology and spirituality of Christian leadership pertaining to all aspects of the life of the Church, especially its spiritual principles and values. Of course this is not to exclude the established structures and laws within which leadership is exercised, including the role of the Holy Canons, the Charter of the Archdiocese, the Uniform Parish Bylaws, and all other formally adopted policies, procedures and regulations of Church institutions. All these elements are interdependent and should be mutually supportive in a healthy and vital Christian community.
Perhaps the most powerful metaphor for imaging leadership in Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition is that of the shepherd or pastor (poimen). In the Gospels Christ speaks about Himself as the Good Shepherd who, out of love, leaves the ninety-nine sheep to seek out the one which is lost. You may recall the Byzantine icon of the Good Shepherd carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders. According to the Gospel of St. John, chapter 10, the Good Shepherd knows His sheep by name and is ready to give His very life for the sheep out of love. That’s why the sheep hear His voice and follow Him as He leads them out to feed them and quench their thirst under His unfailing protection. In contrast, Christ has sharp words for contemporary Jewish leaders who abused their position calling them “hirelings”, “thieves and robbers,” who come to “steal” and “destroy.” Christ had in mind the “word of the Lord” to the Prophet Ezekiel in the Old Testament: “Thus says the Lord God: Behold, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves…the weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them…I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice.” (Ezekiel 34:2-4,15-16).
Christ exercised leadership through love and humility. But He also exemplified divine authority and spiritual boldness in His leadership. No one can lead without authority. Jesus constantly appealed to the authority He had received from God the Father. Jesus gave authority to the disciples to preach, teach, baptize, and guide His flock (Mt 18:18; 28:18-20; Jn 20:21-22). Of course, He did so in order for them to exercise this authority within the Church and not over the Church, a task properly carried out when motivated by love, conducted in humility and intended for the purpose of edifying service in the Name of Christ and for the good of the Church. This is a basic teaching of the New Testament and Orthodox Christianity, as compared to certain other Christian churches and traditions which appear authoritarian whether in the legal or charismatic expressions.
Accordingly, the spiritual leaders of the Church, which includes all the clergy, and especially the Bishops, have divine authority to lead, teach, guide and discipline the flock, but must do so in the spirit and manner of Christ, that is, on the basis of love and service, not personal interests, predilections, agendas, self-aggrandizement, arbitrary acts, etc. In the New Testament Christians are instructed to “obey their leaders and submit to them” (Hebrews 13:17) but also “to consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith”(Hebrews 13:7), that is, to be inspired by and learn from the example of the faithful and righteous life of their shepherds. Nothing is more convincing and effective than leadership by example in terms of love, humility, fairness, compassion, forgiveness, and good judgment. The disciples devoted their whole life and service to the Lord precisely because He loved them, He washed their feet as an example of service, and commanded them to love one another as He loved them (Jn 13:1-17,34).
If we look extensively into Scripture about shepherds and flock, we will find that Scripture contains many more passages about the responsibilities of and admonitions to leaders, rather than passages about obedience to them by the people of God. For example, we read in First Peter 5:2-4: “Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock.” In the Church the gifts of authority and leadership are precisely gifts for the purpose of service on the basis of love; they are not personal prerogatives or arbitrary rights to be exercised by fiat and refusal of accountability. Blind obedience may have a limited place in the military (within the bounds of the military code), but it has no place in Christianity, and certainly not in the Orthodox Church as a loving community and the Body of Christ. In the Church, authority and power derive from God, they belong to the whole Church (“where two or three are gathered in my Name,” Mt. 18:20), and are to exercised with love and humility for the salvation of souls. Apart from these theological and spiritual principles, authority and power translate into arbitrariness and authoritarianism which end up betraying Christ, perverting the Orthodox understanding of leadership, and harming the Church and its mission in the world.