We often see Jesus portrayed as meek and mild, but he actually led with a fierce humility and was often confrontational, says Paul Friend. In today’s celebrity-obsessed culture, the Church must return to Christ’s example of leadership if we are to model a better way
It’s a horrible feeling - you know the one - you’ve sent a highly confidential email to the wrong person by accident. It’s a terrible moment. You want the ground to swallow you up to escape the embarrassment as you attempt to salvage what is an unsalvageable mistake.
We can look at these moments and say that we have been humbled. However, there is a big difference between being humbled and humbling ourselves. The former is where we look stupid and are found out; the latter is where we choose to lower ourselves before God and others.
Right now, in this moment, we are bombarded with leadership failures in politics, entertainment and, sadly, the Church is no exception. Whatever the issue, something in our culture of leadership is rotten.
I’m currently renovating a really old house and, as I type this, a builder is stripping the walls right back to the stone. It is a painful, slow and expensive way to repair decades of damage and damp caused by patch-up jobs – but using the right materials and doing a thorough job is the only way to rebuild properly. Perhaps it is time we stripped leadership back, and began to re-build it with the right materials.
But what would those be?
As I look back at the leadership model of Jesus, I see something very different to our 21st century Western Church models. I don’t see large buildings, large stages and celebrity, but a small, relational, missional movement.
There is a big difference between being humbled and humbling ourselves
Jesus described himself as “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29). His whole life - from his birth in a stable, to having nowhere to lay his head to, ultimately, his death on a cross - was categorised by humility. As Philippians says, Jesus “humbled himself” by “being made in human likeness” and again “by becoming obedient to death - even death on a cross!” (2:6-8)
Sadly, the way of Jesus and this lowering of ourselves is not often the main characteristic of the Western Christian leader.
Jesus not only lived, taught and modelled humility to all he interacted with, he also embodied a fierce humility that fought against pride in his followers. It’s as if he knew that pride, and all that comes with it - jealousy, competitiveness, arrogance and basically all sin - was the greatest enemy to his coming kingdom.
Perhaps it is time we stripped leadership back and re-built it
When Jesus is described as a “meek and mild” saviour, we often miss out on the strong, fierce leader that scripture describes for us. When Jesus witnessed arrogance and pride in the Pharisees he called them “white washed tombs” (Matthew 23:27). When he found the disciples fighting for position he says: “Not so with you” (Matthew 20:26). And just after saying that he would build his Church on Peter, he turns to him and says: “Get behind me Satan” (Matthew 16:23).
His words were confrontational and very clear. Jesus was fierce about humility. He calls us to join him in the battle to root out pride in our own lives, and in the lives of those we lead and serve.
Leading in strength
In a world that is fixated on celebrity, this counter-cultural path demands a deep reflection on the condition of our own hearts.
Firstly, we must humble ourselves before God, and encourage our teams to do this too, creating space and time for this to happen. Secondly, we must learn to humble ourselves before others. This includes releasing people, not controlling them, seeking forgiveness, serving others, creating unity and operating from a place of vulnerability and accountability. With each of these areas, we must first unpack it for ourselves, as leaders, and then explore how we encourage, model and support others to do the same.
As leaders, we must live lower, choosing to humble ourselves and fiercely fight against pride, both in our own hearts and in our teams. Only then will we see a Church set apart from the world, led by those who walk like Jesus in a radically attractive, relational way.