Incarnational Leadership in 2018

It was only a decade ago that Christianity Today published (on its website CT Pastors) a stirring article titled: New Testament Principles of Leadership: with leadership comes great responsibility.


The article by Kenneth Gangel states “several principles stand out with piercing impact for today's church.” They are:

  • Leadership is servanthood
  • Leadership is stewardship
  • Leadership is shared power
  • Leadership is ministry
  • Leadership is modeling behavior
  • Leadership is membership in the Body


Under “Leadership is modeling behavior” Gangel points out that this dynamic is clearly seen in the relationship between St. Paul and Timothy. He then quotes Lawrence Richards and Clyde Hoeldtke to summarize the implication: “the Spiritual leader who is a servant does not demand. He serves. In his service the spiritual leaders sets an example for the body: an example that has compelling power to motivate heart change.”


The two Scriptural passages Gangel cites, from the Pastoral Epistles are 1 Timothy 4:11-16 (….but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity) and 2 Timothy 3:10-15 (…But as for you, continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ).


These pastoral injunctions are certainly as relevant today as when they were sent to Timothy over 2,000 years ago.  One has particular relevance for us in 2018: modeling behavior. At its most basic definition, modeling behavior can be understood in simple “behavioral” terms.  A good and easy to grasp example is that used in sports:  mentally imagining the actions that one is trying to master in order to achieve proficiency.  See it; do it. Correspondingly there is the idea of copying someone’s behavior, as in that implied in mentorship, where the mentee models him/herself on the mentor. Copying behavior can be extended to faith in the idea of behaving like Christ, but that is a pretty reductionist view of what, for instance, Thomas a Kempis had in mind in his book Imitation of Christ.


In this spiritual classic, four major themes are described in four books: the withdrawal from the outward and development of an interior life, the development of inward peace and submission to the will of God, internal renunciation so as to be able to enter into Christ, and the role of the Sacrament in receiving spiritual grace, and transformation.

Your belief may be sole fide; sola scriptura with the resultant being “born again.”  You may not agree with the “sacramental view of life” that clearly underlies the faith and worldview of Thomas a Kempis which assumes transformation of the self: becoming Christ-like. In Eastern Christian terminology it is theosis: the goal and the process of salvation, whereby the faithful become conformed to God’s likeness by experiencing the energies of God in prayer, communion and the sacraments, and thereby return to the pre-Fall state of being which is in full communion with the Holy Trinity.


What should stand out regardless of theological position is that becoming Christ-like is a process and the end point results from transformation.  There are some implicit elements here: faith, practice, community, worship, and communion (or Communion) and the sacraments (or Sacraments) at a minimum. 


Also, at the risk of overstating it, what is being transformed here is the self.  As in, “the self, the whole self and nothing but the self.”  In other words it is the personhood that each of us possess as human beings that is undergoing complete transformation from what we are in our fallen state to what we can become in our restored state.


There is no room for compartmentalization in this process.  You can’t just transform part of you, say your beliefs but not your practices.  Your worship, but not your ethics. Your public behavior but not your morals. Transformation of the person has to be an integrated process of the whole person.  That brings us to a very important Biblical and theological concept: incarnation.  Most Christians limit the understanding of its applicability to Christ, as in He ‘put on flesh” or “He became flesh” and “dwelt among us.”  The Greek word is sarx, meaning flesh. Literally, then, incarnation means to be “en-fleshed,” and it applies to us as well in the sense that we are to “en-flesh” to “flesh out,” to live out, to manifest, the divine in our lives. Christ put on the human; we are to put on the Divine. We are to put divine truths into action in our lives. But, that only happens when those divine truths have first been incarnated into us and we proceed to be transformed.


Far too many of us give lip-service to the fact that to be a Christian means to be in communion with God in His Church--to be part of the Body of Christ.  The sad reality, though, is that we live most of our lives as though Christ and the Kingdom of God were an incidental add-on, just another "nice thing to do."  This is not to say that to be a "real Christian" one must enter a monastery or convent, that withdrawal from the world is required to live a holy life.  What it implies is that we should live holy and integrated lives whatever our station in life, and that our living needs be informed by the Gospel of the Kingdom. 


We must incarnate and then live out that which we say we believe.  This precisely illustrates the critical relationship between faith and practice. Our theology must move beyond concept to implementation: from talking about vision and belief, to incarnating and implementing it in our lives.


What that has to do with 2018 is the disconcerting appearance across much of contemporary American Christianity of the phenomenon of compartmentalization.  Yes, compartmentalization has been with us forever, even long before this relatively recent term was coined.  But it is an especially challenging and toxic problem today when it comes to morality and ethics. And, specifically when it comes to morality and ethics in our leaders—whether secular or sacred!


The majority of America’s Christian leaders, and Christians at large, have gone silent of the moral and ethical question of our President.  Few have addressed the litany of publicly validated moral and ethical violations that he has accumulated in just the last few years.  It’s not hard to do a moral or ethical test on yourself or anyone else: read the Ten Commandments and read the Beatitudes, then ask yourself honestly how you or (in this case) the President measures up.  On the Ten Commandment test, the President fails at least six out of ten (consider stealing, coveting, lying, swearing, adultery, idolatry).  On the Beatitudes test, its much harder to say, but we can be pretty sure the type of compassion and charity extolled in that sermon is rarely evident. 


Alas, we no longer hold our leaders to a moral and ethical standard as long as it suits our personal position or advances our political agenda.  When asked by Erin Burnett on CNN about the report of a payment of $130,000 to cover up an affair Trump had with a porn star (Outfront, Jan. 23, 2018) Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council, contended recently that the evangelical community has given President Donald Trump a "mulligan" when it comes to his personal behavior. "Yes, evangelicals, conservatives, they gave him a mulligan. They let him have a do-over. They said we'll start afresh with you and we'll give you a second chance."  This to the person of whom the Washington Post has documented over 2,000 lies in the first year in office!


Did Christ give a mulligan to the Sadducees or the Pharisees, to the money changers?  Where does this kind of thinking come from?  One of the few Evangelical writers to raise the matter is Trevin Wax in a recent blog piece (www.thegospelcoalition) Feb. 15, 2018), where he points to a new view proposed by Barton Swaim in The Weekly Standard (a conservative magazine) which “advocates for an older tradition that stretches back before the 1960s, a time when society knew how to ‘distinguish between public and private morality.’ He quotes James Bowman’s book on honor, which claims that past generations separated public honor from private morality.”  Wax summarizes by saying “Swaim makes the case that our public discourse would be better off if Americans would once again keep quiet about their leaders’ adulterous escapades.”


The public discourse may arguably benefit, but what of the moral and ethical capitulation that’s involved?  Wax continues with his personal response: “But don’t we lose something profound when we say that private character no longer matters as long as public honor remains untainted?”  A man’s betrayal of his wife is not just a “regrettable indiscretion” and it does require a change in principles in order to now defend what used to be indefensible—think of the Christian response to Bill Clinton’s indiscretions vs. the current response to Trump’s!


Wax concludes with a summary that all Christian leaders should seriously ponder given the current cultural and ethical turmoil we live in:


Christians who say we can split public honor from private morality go directly against the kind of human flourishing described in the New Testament—those who are pure and undivided in heart, those who have wisdom and integrity, those who are held up in contrast to the man who is double-minded and unstable in his ways.

Instead of justifying egregious behavior and turning the blind eye, Christians ought to be praying for a renewal of public honor. And we ought to be praying for God to break our hearts and lead us to repentance whenever we minimize or justify sin. We lament the moral decay of our culture. How much more should we lament the seared conscience of the church!


While Wax’s diagnosis is correct, it is at the point of applying the remedy that his response falters.  One need go no further than the surviving students of the Parkland, FL school shooting who are collectively saying, “don’t tell us your thoughts and prayers are with us – do something about the problem!”


It is all too easy to turn to platitudes in the face of difficulties.  It is especially so in the face of big problems or tragedies, but that is exactly when people of honor and character, those who claim to ascribe to the purest teachings and highest calling should be standing on their principles and beliefs instead of capitulating and compromising on them to further their own political ends.


Yes, we’re all human and fallen, and operate somewhere on the spectrum between poor and good!  However, go back to the subtitle of the book on New Testament leadership principles: with leadership comes great responsibility.  Among the types of responsibility is that for those one leads and cognizance of the damage that can be inflicted upon them. If you’re a Christian leader (and all are leaders to greater or lesser degree) you can’t compartmentalize ethics and morality.  You especially can’t do it when less than two decades ago you subscribed to the requirement of high moral and ethical standards of your government leaders, but now you want to separate public honor and private morality.  There’s a word for that which was uttered by Christ when he said, “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” The so-called Seven Woes all focus on hypocrisy, and illustrate the difference between the inner and outer moral condition.


If this seems harsh and out of bounds, so be it, but the sad reality is that one only has to have the blinders off for a bit and look around to see how examples of moral and ethical integrity that are not buying into the phony public honor and private morality model.  Just last year Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck Pharmaceuticals resigned from one of President Trump’s business advisory councils following the Presidents implicit support for racism in his remarks following the Charlottesville white supremacist riots.  He described he decision to The New York Times as follows: “It was my view that to not take a stand on this would be viewed as a tacit endorsement of what had happened and what was said. I think words have consequences and I think actions have consequences. I just felt that as a matter of my own personal conscience, I could not remain.” Of note was that before resigning he discussed the matter fully with and sought the support of Merck’s Board of Directors (Merch is a publicly traded company) and they unanimously supported the decision.  If it is happening in the so-called secular business arena, how much more should it be happening in the sacred space?


Finally, while the list of leadership principles with which this piece began is valid, it is not exhaustive—certainly not so in the case of Christian faith and practice.  To that list, as echoed in the Old and New Testaments has to be added the prophetic voice, that when required Leadership is calling for Justice and Righteousness.  As Abraham Heschel made clear in his monumental work “The Prophets,” to the prophets in ancient Israel kindness, justice and righteousness were the highest ideals and actions.  Justice was the supreme manifestation of God. As Heschel showed, the prophets were not preoccupied with the ideal of justice, but with the practical applications of injustice and oppression.  Much of their work was to intervene into circumstances which did not concern them personally but which they understood to be instances of injustice. “The prophet is a person who is not tolerant of wrongs done to others, who resents other people’s injuries.”  Thus, one has to ask: where is the prophetic voice from the American Christian community in the face of this moral and ethical quagmire?


We should all seriously ponder the Eighth Woe we are likely to hear directed at us: “Woe to you Christians who silently abet immoral and unethical behavior hoping to advance your own political ambitions or favorite part of the culture wars. You are hypocrites!”  And if this proclamation applies to many contemporary American Christians today, then it doubly applies to the majority of contemporary American Christian leaders who have chosen to go silent or give a mulligan!

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© Benjamin Williams