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Influence, Leadership and Power

12 November 2007

John Maxwell – qb’s not a big fan, but Maxwell is at least coherent – says that “leadership is influence.”  That’s really pretty true, as far as it goes.  But it goes to seed somehow, and morphs into something else, like “influence is power.”  And influence becomes the thing sought because we see it as the key to amassing power.


Jesus had a great deal to say about leadership and influence, but what he actually said might surprise us.  Here’s an example, taken from his devastating polemics in Matthew 23:1-12.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father–the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (italics added)    

These are words to the disciples, mind you, and they seem to be directed right at the heart of modern, American assumptions about the way we ought to “do church.”  We fiddle with our titles so that they reflect our true value to the kingdom of God – “call me `pastor’ instead of `minister.'”  We give one man the lofty title of “Senior Pastor,” and then we erect layer upon layer of bureaucracy between him and the peasants to ensure that his precious time is not unduly violated.  We surround this powerful fellow with an ever-smaller circle of confidants and “advisors,” whose sworn duty is to insulate him from the inconveniences of criticism, no matter how sound and biblical they may be.  We call those advisors “elders,” and we say that he is accountable to them, but he holds veto power over their nomination and appointment, and they are seldom if ever heard to disagree with him; after all, he came to us on the condition that we (1) adopt a consensus model of governance and (2) reduce the number of elders so that he has fewer minds to persuade.  And we dismantle the stairs from the auditorium floor to the stage.

Power, authority, position, prestige.  And Jesus drives his blade right into the heart of all of it.  Don’t even think about presuming to positions of authority over one another:  you are all brothers, every one of you, and you have one head – me.

* * * * *

Zebedee’s wife had come to Jesus with a wonderfully motherly request.  After all, they were her boys, and she was proud of what they had become.  “Teacher, grant that my sons would sit at your right and left hands when you come into your kingdom.”  The other disciples, who had not similarly impressed her, grumbled among themselves.  But Jesus cut them off:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”     

“It’s not my way,” he says, “it’s emphatically not my way.  Position, power, prestige, authority – all of that has been given to me, and I’m not to delegate it to anyone.  You go in my name, and in turn, I send you with my Spirit.  And by the way – watch how I wield all of that power, and then go and do likewise.”  And off to the cross he went, eschewing all of the trappings and prerogatives and weapons of power, even in the face of unspeakable violence to his person and his reputation.

Eugene Peterson calls it “the Jesus Way.”  It is a great inversion of our cultural assumptions.  For our part, we must have leadership, and it must be efficient leadership – so we’re better off having one leader calling the shots instead of a group of ’em.  (Too many cooks spoil the broth, as they say.)  

But Jesus will have none of it.  Instead, he says, we are to follow him in the disciple’s posture.  If he had been violent and assertive in embracing the ways of power and authority and position, his disciples would also.  But he chose a radically different way:  the way of weakness, meekness and lowly position.

As my dear friend Doug McGown always says, “go and learn what this means.”  What is influence, anyway?


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