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Biblical Leadership

What is Biblical Leadership?


Recently, I had a seminary assignment to write out a personal philosophy of leadership.  The process of clarifying and writing my thoughts was very helpful for me, and I thought I would share it as a series here on the blog.

Leadership is a simple concept, and yet simultaneously incredibly complex.  As I have processed through my own leadership philosophy, I have arrived at this definition of biblical leadership:

Biblical leadership is meeting someone where they are, and taking them where Jesus wants them to go.

This definition has served for me as a fundamental axiom in discipleship, in leadership development, and in organizational leadership.  The two essential components that are at the core of my philosophy are the understanding of the individual, and the biblical vision for a life lived under the lordship of Christ.  Biblical leadership is therefore intensely personal and at the same time intensely biblical.

This definition provides a basic foundation for leadership, but as with any definition, it requires us to expand the meaning.

Biblical Leadership

First, the term “biblical” can be put in front of just about anything and be supported by a few texts.  By no means do I think the definition above comprehensively encapsulates all that the Scriptures teach about leadership.  For me, however, it captures the essence of what leadership consistently looks like throughout the Scriptures.

Whether you look at Moses leading the Israelites of out Egypt, David reigning over the kingdom of Israel, Peter leading the New Testament church, or Jesus, the perfect leader, making disciples here on this earth, there are three irreducible components:

  1. The Leader
  2. The Follower(s)
  3. The Interaction between Leader and Follower(s)

The definition I have written is from the perspective of a leader understanding the follower and providing a framework for interaction.  In the following posts, I’ll unpack what I mean by the phrases “meeting someone where they are” and “taking them where Jesus wants them to go”. How would you define Biblical leadership?

Where Jesus Wants Us To Go

For the purposes of clarity, the second half of the definition of leadership will be analyzed first, as it provides the foundation for the first portion of the definition.  Theologically, leadership cannot be understood apart from the revealed Word of God and the perfect life, atoning death and resurrection of Christ.  To lead biblically, a person must first submit to the Word of God, the work of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.  Often, discussion begins on philosophical and value-based grounds, but biblical leadership must primarily be rooted in a worldview grounded in the Scriptures.

Leadership in Light of the Story of Redemption

Biblical leadership, therefore, looks first to the story of redemption in the Scriptures for a beginning and endpoint. The meta-narrative of Scripture puts leadership squarely in the purpose of God to exalt Himself.  God the Father has accomplished the exaltation of Himself through the person and work of Christ and leadership therefore is ultimately Christocentric.  Finally, the Holy Spirit is intimately involved in effectually carrying out this work of the exaltation of Jesus in the world through applying God’s word into the hearts and minds of believers.  This redemptive activity of God to exalt Himself in the person and work of Christ by the power of the Spirit is the fundamental reality of the Christian life, and therefore any activity within the Christian life, like leadership, must fit within this overarching story and purpose.

The Great Commission as the Fundamental Command of Leadership

Having a firm grasp on the story of redemption, the next step in defining biblical leadership is to answer the question “what is the primary task of the leader?”  Surveying the Scriptures, it appears that the primary way in which Jesus desires his followers to lead is expressed in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The primary command of a leader grounded in the redemptive plan of God is to make disciples through the means of baptism and teaching obedience.  This is the basic command for biblical leadership because it is the foundational commission for all followers of Jesus. To define leadership without the great commission is to build a house without a proper foundation.  Biblical leadership therefore is founded on helping individuals publicly identify themselves with Christ through the means of baptism, and submit the entirety of their lives to obedience to Jesus the King through obedience to His word.

Jesus is the Model of Biblical Leadership

If obedience-based discipleship is the foundation for leadership, it seems wise to search the Scripture to see a tangible demonstration of this model.  Fortunately, we have the perfect example of this kind of leadership in Jesus and his investment in the first disciples.  From selection to commission, the life of Jesus presents us with a compelling illustration for biblical leadership. 

  • Jesus met his disciples in the context of their everyday life (Matthew 4:18),
  • Called them to radical obedience (Matthew 4:19),
  • Demonstrated the power of God (Matthew 4:23-24),
  • Revealed to them the authority of His word (Matthew 7:28-29),
  • Shepherded them through their sin and disobedience (Matthew 18:1-5),
  • Provided them a vision for their lives (John 21:18-19), and
  • Commissioned them to do the same in the power of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:8).

The Method of Jesus Provides the Pattern of Biblical Leadership

If Jesus perfectly obeyed God the Father in His time here on earth, then He presents a faithful representation of how God desires for leadership to be done.  Through the life of Jesus as recorded in the gospels, God has provided the church a tangible model for faithful leadership that makes disciples for the glory of God.  Robert Coleman, in his classic work “The Master Plan of Evangelism”, outlines the process and methodology of Jesus with simplicity and detail.  

In short, Coleman’s work details discipleship as eight overlapping principles; selection, association, consecration, impartation, demonstration, delegation, supervision, and reproduction. From a process standpoint, I do not think there is much to improve upon, and this book has served as a foundational resource in my own leadership. 

Meeting People Where They Are

The apostle Paul writing to the Ephesians church speaks to this holistic aspect of discipleship. He writes: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:15-16)

The goal of each and every believer is to serve and lead in such a way that the body of Christ builds itself up in love. If that’s the goal, then the proper working of each part is needed and thus each individual must grow up into him who is the head. Simply put, the more each of us looks like Jesus then the more the body of Christ will grow.

Understanding with clarity where Jesus desires the follower to go provides a clear vision for the forward-looking direction of the leader.  The other half of the task of leadership is to understand where an individual or an organization is.  Casting a compelling vision for a Christ-exalting life is part of leadership, but understanding how best to communicate God’s word into individual and corporate circumstances with persistence, persuasion and precision is what distinguishes a visionary from a biblical leader.

An Example from the Life of Jesus

No better example can be found than in the life of Jesus.  In John 4, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman who is drawing water.  In this instance, Jesus recognizes the woman’s marital situation (“you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband”).  He sees where she is, her sin, and knows exactly what to say in order to move her to where she needs to be.  He utilizes her circumstances of desiring water to help her understand the motivations of her heart, and pointing to her ultimate need for a savior.  Ending the conversation with the revelation that he is the messiah, Jesus clearly meets the woman where she is and points her towards where He wants her to go.

Seeking Understanding of the Person

In our current church culture, there is a tendency towards proclamation and systems building as the primary means of leadership.  Both of those tools are incredibly helpful and necessary for organizational leadership, but often those systems can only accomplish a portion of the task of discipleship and leadership.  There are two primary deficiencies with this kind of leadership.  First, in order for preaching to remain sufficiently broad to attract an audience, the content is generalized to a wide audience, which requires the individual to have the motivation to respond to the message and work out implications on their own.  Second, with respect to systems, they are often constructed inside of the current culture as a response to a problem, and therefore most often are syncretistic with culture rather than challenging the existing idolatries.

Most churches rely on small groups to combat the idolatry of individualism and challenge their communities to radical generosity to counteract materialism.  At the heart of most church systems, however, consumerism is left systemically unchallenged, providing a service where the individual church attender is merely coming to an event to receive some benefit from it.  Systemic leadership must be willing to meet people where they are, but move them towards biblical fidelity and challenge the predominant idolatry of a culture.

In the same way, leading people on a personal level must involve hearing their individual story, understanding their worldview, and engaging persuasively through building bridges to a gospel-centered, word-centered way of life.  In our current American culture, biblical leadership requires an understanding of individualism (our propensity to view ourselves as autonomous units), materialism (our proclivity to find meaning and value in the accumulation of things) and consumerism (our hearts desire is driven by what we can receive from something or someone).  These idolatries are the common world-view of most American individuals, and therefore are also pervasive inside of organizations composed of these kinds of people.

The Triperspectival Content of Biblical Leadership

Once a leader has listened to where an individual is, the next step is communicating where Jesus wants the person to go in a gracious yet challenging way.  Leadership is helping to provide doctrinal and biblical content, processing through the appetites and affections of the heart, and then tangibly giving steps of obedience forward to an individual or organization.  The primary role of a leader is that of a teacher, of a shepherd, and of a coach – leaders instruct in doctrine, help form character, and give practical wisdom to foster action.

Equipping the Whole Person

Primarily, the task of the biblical leader who has an understanding of the individual is to equip the whole person—their head, heart and hands.  The biblical leaders adopts the role of teacher in communicating the truths of God’s word, of shepherd in helping a person understand the affections and emotions of the heart, and coach in providing practical steps toward obedience to Jesus.  Biblical leadership does not simply content itself with singular attention toward one particular role, but seeks to be faithful to lead through all the faculties of a human.

Ephesians 4, verses 14 through 20 offer a compelling vision of Paul’s desire for the Ephesian church being rooted in the Trinitarian God.  The words he uses to exhort the church involve “being strengthened in Spirit in the inner man”, Christ “dwell[ing] in your hearts through faith”, “strength to comprehend…and know the love of Christ” and that would ultimately produce God’s greater glory.  Paul has a great understanding that humanity is composed of several faculties, and biblical leadership involves leading in all facets.  These faculties are often summarized tri-perspectivally as “head, heart and hands”.

Instructing the Head

“Head” knowledge is rooted primarily in the intellect. This is the type of knowledge that is associated with recalling facts, doctrine, and teaching. Head learners typically have a love for Scripture or knowledge and are able to affirm truths based on propositions or argumentation.  Doctrine rooted in the Word of God is the primary content of biblical leadership, as it is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)

Shepherding the Heart

“Heart” knowledge is rooted primarily in the desire, will, or emotions. This is the type of knowledge that is often associated with shepherding, character, or relational care. Heart learners are often guided by feelings and are typically wonderful at shepherding the souls of those who are under their care. Things like worship environments make them feel closer to God and whenever they read the Scriptures, they typically are attracted to verses that speak of positive things, with more difficult truths being bypassed.  To simply teach something as true ignores that most decisions of a human are driven by desire, not simply by reason.  The biblical leader helps a person to understand what drives their affections, both positively and negatively, and thereby cultivates strong character rooted in sound doctrine.

Coaching the Hands

“Hands” knowledge is rooted primarily in action, or tasks. This is the type of knowledge that would most closely be related to coaching, skills, or assessment. It is the application of the knowledge from the head and the heart toward actually seeing change. Where Head and Heart learners simply feel or think about doing things, Hands learners actually execute them.  The role of a biblical leader is to not only teach the mind and shepherd the heart, but to equip and hold accountable to active obedience.


Biblical leadership recognizes that different situations demand different modes of leadership, and ultimately that obedience, affection and intellect are intricately interwoven.  Every leader has a bent towards one particular faculty, but the biblical leader values and understands all three faculties, employing them as Christ did throughout His earthly ministry.

Ultimately, discipleship and leadership is not simply meeting once a week over breakfast to have Bible study or calling the shots for an organization. Rather, discipleship and leadership is continually pointing the disciple to Christ in variety of contexts, situations, and locales with the hope of seeing them be turned more into the likeness of Christ over time. If your discipleship and leadership is not happening in a variety of contexts and various kinds of conversations, you’re not biblically leading.

Highlight of Todd Engstrom Presentation