C.Gene Wilkes, Jesus on Leadership. Discovering the Secrets of Servant Leadership from the Life of Christ (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Ltd., 1998), 251 pages. Paperback.
Evangelicals seek to ground their faith and practice in the authority of God’s word. Gene Wilkes, in his examination of Jesus’ words and practices in relationship to Christian leadership, has done us all a wonderful service in drawing us back to careful reflection on shepherding God’s flock the way Jesus did. Wilkes has pastured Legacy Drive Baptist Church in Plano, Texas since 1987. His book arises from his own experience and deep reflections upon the nature of Christian leadership as it is practiced in the setting of a large, Baptist church in the southern United States. He also brings to the task the competency of a biblical scholar, drawing upon his Ph.D. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
There is much to applaud in Wilkes re-examination of “Jesus on leadership”. The refocusing on Christian leadership as essentially service seeks to capture the heart of Jesus’ message and model as the Suffering Servant. Wilkes distills the key aspects of Jesus’ leadership style in seven principles: humbleness, following God’s will – not position, greatness through serving, risk-taking, serving others without regard to personal prestige, shared responsibility and authority, and team-building to carry out mission. Each of these principles is a significant element in the Jesus leadership model as expressed in the Gospels.
Yet, I was unable to buy into several of Wilkes key assumptions because I think they are inherently contradictory to the seven principles he discerns.
Wilkes focuses correctly on the importance of mission and vision as keys to the health and vitality of the local church. God’s Kingdom purpose and plans must find expression and embodiment in the life of the faith community. In Wilkes view it seems that the “servant leader” is the one who discerns the mission, expresses the vision, and then seeks to gain the support of other Jesus followers to carry it out. As Wilkes says in his first chapter
The leader then sees a picture of what the mission looks like in the future and casts his vision of that mission to others. Vision is a leader’s unique rendering of the mission. Leadership turns to service when the leader equips those recruited to carry out the now shared mission.
The paradox is that Wilkes argues that service is at the centre of leadership, but seems to hold that it is the leader’s sense of the mission and vision that determines everything. Others in the body give themselves in service to his mission. Wilkes does not tell us how it becomes a “now shared mission”. It seems it is only shared if people are willing to support it. Wilkes says
Every leader has an agenda – the ultimate mission she has been called to. When others begin to see that agenda, the leader has done her job! When she states her intentions clearly, she gives followers the opportunity to accept the plan or seek to end them.
Now it is true that in God’s Kingdom, His mission is dominant. Jesus calls us to follow him and give our lives in service to His mission – the Great Commission. However, we do not find in the Gospels any mandate to some of Jesus’ followers to make their perception of how God’s mission should be accomplished determinative for other believers. Even in the case of Paul, it is the Antioch church collectively that discerns with Paul what the Holy Spirit is saying about a mission to the Gentiles that leads them to dispatch Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1-3) to fulfill the work that God had saved them to accomplish for His Kingdom.
The perspective of the New Testament is much more collective and community-based when it comes to discerning God’s mission for the church and its vision of ministry. The spiritual care-givers assist the church in discerning God’s mission for them together and then encouraging, equipping, and supporting the accomplishment of that mission and vision together. Here is where the fundamental ‘serving’ of those entrusted as ‘elders’ finds expression. If we follow Wilkes’ perspective on this issue, we run the danger of violating the very principle of ‘serving’ that he is seeking to promote. Every believer is called by God and given Kingdom work to do. It is a primary role of the ones entrusted with shepherding responsibility to enable each believer to integrate their personal mission with the collective mission of the local church.
One of the analogies that Wilkes uses throughout his presentation is that of the ‘head-table’. He urges servant-leaders to disavow the pursuit of status as something integral with leadership in the church. The head-table represents for Wilkes status and becomes a symbol of wrongfully ambitious striving. A key text Wilkes uses in this regard is Luke 14:11 “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” As he reflects on this principle, Wilkes concludes that “Jesus taught that head table seats are ‘by invitation only’ rather than ‘by hook or by crook’.” He uses the example of Joseph to demonstrate this principle, as “God elevated him to a place where he could see.dreams fulfilled.” In his comments on ‘waiting’ he suggests that “expectant waiting is waiting for God to exalt you.” His conclusion is that “the first principle of servant leadership is ‘servant leaders humble themselves and wait for God to exalt them’.”
This principle is biblical and true. Potential confusion emerges as to when exaltation occurs. For example, is Joseph’s position in Egypt the exaltation that God promised for Joseph or is it merely the role that God has for Joseph to accomplish as His servant? If we interpret ‘exaltation’ as being appointed to some position on earth, even in the church, then perhaps we are misplacing the emphasis of Jesus. Shepherding and service in the church require sacrifice, suffering and enslavement to loving others. In the context of 1 Peter the apostle reflects upon the “unfading crown of glory” that will be presented when Jesus appears once again. It is an eschatological exaltation that I would suggest Jesus has in mind, as well as Peter and Paul. If we think that our service for God normally should result in an exaltation to ‘head-table’, i.e. to some position of authority and prestige here and now, then we have, I would suggest, misconstrued the essence of Jesus’ principle. This may not be a major issue in the overall presentation of Wilkes’ thesis. However, it allows for misunderstanding to occur.
The third issue concerns the exegesis of Acts 6 that Wilkes uses as the basis for promoting the concept of distributed authority. There is much to commend in his interpretation of this passage. However, I would suggest he goes beyond the scope of the passage when he argues that “the apostles multiplied their leadership by delegating some of their responsibility and authority to others in order to meet the needs of the fellowship.” I think Wilkes overlooks the involvement of the “multitude of the disciples” (Acts 6:2) in this process. It is true that “the twelve” discern the issue and make a proposal to the disciples. However, it is the disciples who evaluate the proposal and support it. They choose (6:5) the seven and present them to the apostles (6:6) for recognition. It is the collective church community that agrees with the proposal for a division of labour. There is no sense that the seven are accountable to the twelve or in some sense ‘delegated authority’ by the twelve. The seven are expected to look after this responsibility in the best way possible.
Further, Luke is very careful to note that whether people in the church are teaching the word or caring for practical needs in the church, they are all engaged in diakonia (6: 2, 4). There is no sense that one kind of ‘service’ is inferior to or less important than another. In fact it is precisely members of this group of seven that immediately are reported to be engaged in proclaiming the word of God through evangelism (i.e. Stephen).
The twelve discerned the need, made a proposal to resolve it to the church, and the disciples, i.e. the Christians in the Jerusalem church, agreed and selected those they thought would work well in this ministry. If we do not honour and respect the involvement of the faith community in such decisions, we endanger the entire concept of servant leadership, i.e. serving the people of God and enabling the body to bring about the growth of the body (Ephesians 4:16).
Studying and reflecting upon Jesus’ principles about serving as the heart of discipleship is a critical and healthy corrective. Our understanding of ‘leadership’ in the context of the church can only be enriched if we incorporate the ideas of service into the very fabric of our church life.
Reviewed May 30, 2005