ArticlesWho Can Lead?

Who Can Lead?

By Matt Richard

Tim Keller is a famous retired pastor and author. His ministry at Redeemer City Church in NY, which he started, spanned nearly four generations. His wife, Kathy, shares that in the late 1980s, their family was comfortably situated in a very livable suburb of Philadelphia where Tim held a full-time position as a professor. While there, he got an offer to move to New York City to plant a new church. He was excited by the idea, but she was appalled. Raising their three wild boys in Manhattan was unthinkable! Not only that, but almost no one who knew anything about Manhattan thought that the project would be successful. She also knew that this would not be something that Tim would be able to do as a nine-to-five job. It would absorb the whole family, and nearly all of their time.

It was clear to Kathy that Tim wanted to take the call, but she had serious doubts that it was the right choice. She expressed her strong doubts to Tim, who responded, “Well, if you don’t want to go, then we won’t go.” She replied, “Oh, no, you don’t! You aren’t putting this decision on me. If you think this is something you are called to do, you have to make the choice. It’s your job to break this logjam. It’s my job to wrestle with God until I can joyfully support your call.”[1] 

It is easy to get caught up discussing whose job it is to lead in a situation like this. In fact, the Keller’s hold to a traditional understanding that the male always leads, and the woman always follows. Ironically, in their own story, Kathy is used in exerting leadership to help her husband wrestle with a call that even she is uncertain, and apprehensive about. In my understanding, the specific roles one fills in leadership are less biblical, than is the grace you see in the multiple models the Bible provides.

If I had to come up with one word to describe biblical leadership, it would be “grace.” It is not about fitting a mold, but graciously exercising the gifts God gives. A cursory glance through the Bible features a multitude of personalities and leadership styles. If you placed them in contemporary church roles, you would have all kinds of individuals. 

There are indeed strong, typical leaders. Solomon would be your pastor that excels in facilitating a building program and physically expanding the footprint of the church or organization, but he probably would not be very good at pastoral care. Peter might be an energetic, charismatic preacher and teacher that people would easily rally behind and follow due to his personality, but he would lack discernment. Paul would be a traveling salesman, of sorts, on behalf of Christianity; starting churches, evangelizing large groups, but struggling to keep up with all of them. Barnabas would be your average, encouraging deacon that is always willing to do what is needed. Priscilla and Aquilla, a husband/wife team, would be like a husband and wife Bible study couple that teaches in the church I pastor, with Priscilla doing most of the teaching, and Aquilla keeping the time, attendance, and making sure the lesson does not go too long! 

But then there are biblical models to which some of our contemporary church models struggle to find a correlation. Junia (a female) is mentioned by Paul as being “outstanding among the apostles” in Romans 16:7. Phoebe, in the same passage, is called a “deaconess.” And Deborah is a prophetess, wife, and leader of Israel. Clearly, this was not common, but neither is her position referred to as inherently sinful, or wrong. 

I have heard it argued that the only reason Deborah was a judge was because there was a failure from all the men to “step up” and lead. People who make this argument are typically also those who think God’s model for leadership comes from Genesis 3, instead of Genesis 1-2. Genesis 1-2 portray men and women as equal in God’s eyes before sin entered the world. It is only AFTER this in 3:16 that God tells Eve that “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” This is an effect of the fall, not God’s redeemed plan for us. 

Deborah is referred to as a lot of things – but she is first, and perhaps primarily referred to as a prophetess. Listen to how this plays out in Judges 4:4-5: Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided.

Ideally, Deborah would not have had to use her influence to lead during a time when everyone did what was right in their own eyes (Judges 17:6; 21:25). On the other hand, none of us live in an ideal time. So, the wife with a husband who does not have the same commitment to the Lord as she does uses her influence to lead her children, and maybe even her husband into what it looks like to be faithful followers of Jesus. Sometimes, the child or the teen who has parents with no commitment to the Lord leads their family in surrendering their lives to Jesus. Many who consider themselves “just laypeople” hold more sway in the lives of others than a preacher or pastor ever will.

And if you have can influence over someone, you may have been given a gift/calling to lead them. Why not let God use it?


[1]  Tim Keller and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (Penguin Books, 2013), pages 243-244.




*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common

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