Transformational Leadership from an Anabaptist/Pietist Perspective: part 2

Posted: April 7, 2011 in Theology

In part 1 of “Transformational Leadership from an Anabaptist/Pietist Perspective,” I argued that transformational leadership is the lifestyle to which Jesus calls his followers. I also suggested that this form of leadership has particular markings and I stated that the first marking is service. In this edition I will argue that the subsequent markings are humility and love as exemplified in the life and teachings of Jesus. In parts 3 & 4 of this series I will extend the argument to the subjects of source and practice.

Marked by Humility

Transformational leadership is also humble in nature. One of the often misconceptions of humility is that it means to deny reality of one’s identity in order to make oneself lower or of diminished value. The Oxford Dictionary definition reflects the potential of what this word can come to mean in the following definition: “having or showing a low estimate of one’s own importance.”[1] From a perspective primarily shaped by the Graeco-Roman world, humility was considered a character flaw and a sign of weakness. However, from a biblical perspective the concept is essentially tied to one’s self perception in the context of divine relationship. Especially in the Hebrew scriptures, humility is a virtue as the humble person is associated with affliction, poverty, the marginalized of society and thus is fully dependent upon God for mercy, justice and provision (1 Sam. 2:8). Even as the Sermon on the Mount links humility with righteousness, in this virtue is found rightness before God or in relationship to God. Humility is essentially an honest self-perception of one’s self in relationship to God. Throughout the gospels Jesus acts humbly. Jesus is consistently portrayed as the suffering servant messiah. Through Matt. 21:5, the gospel writer applies the prophecy (Zech. 9:9) of the humble king to the person of Jesus. Humility in this sense of leadership is expressed in a sincere concern for others in need. Following Paul’s instruction, it is considering the interests of others over the interests of self. This does not mean that one denies one’s self value, but that it is out of that valuation (which is dependent fully upon God) that the person is able to consider the other person’s needs. Jesus exemplified and embodied this in his life (Phil. 2:1-5). Therefore even as humility marks the transformational leadership of Jesus, transformational leadership is essentially Jesus’ lifestyle. In this sense it is the lifestyle his followers are exhorted to live.

In humility, Jesus understands who he is, particularly in relationship to his Father and those whom he came to serve. He knew that he was from the Father and that his ministry was empowered by the Spirit (John 13:3; Luke 4:16-20). Therefore, as followers of Jesus, the disciples are instructed to live as he lived thus living out transformational leadership. Having said this, those who follow Jesus are to understand themselves in dependent subordination to God, empowered by the Spirit, and submitting themselves “one to another” (Eph. 5:21). Regardless of which ministry a person participates in the context of the church, that person is to lead transformationally.

Marked by Love (Mercy, Compassion)

In as much as transformational leadership is marked by love, it is such only in that the believing individual demonstrates “abiding love” (both in God and with others). In his farewell discourse (as recorded in John’s gospel), Jesus defines what it takes to follow him. In order to be considered a disciple, the believer is required to “abide” in Jesus’ love. In order to “abide” in Jesus’ love the believer must “obey” his command. The underlying narrative theme of John’s gospel is “abiding love.” From the beginning of this gospel where Jesus is imagined “abiding” in the “bosom” of the Father as a demonstration of his intimate relationship with the Father, to the close of the gospel where Jesus questions Peter as to his love for him, abiding love (relationship) is central to the life to which Jesus calls his followers. To abide with someone is to dwell (make one’s home) with that person. Abiding love, then, is lovingly dwelling with others. There is an intimacy of participation in abiding love. Abiding love is in the first place abiding in God. To abide in God is to be obedient to his commands. Jesus teaches in John’s gospel that the expression of love to the Father is accomplished by obeying his commands. Essentially, obeying his commands is for the disciples to love each other. It is in this that they abide in God’s love.

In much the same way Jesus instructs the disciple to abide in God, he instructs them to love (abide with) each other. In order to express abiding love one must participate in the life of the other. By participating lovingly in the life of the other, believers place themselves relationally “with” and “for” the other. In this sense they become advocates for the benefit of the other. This, then, expresses a solidarity and unity with the other as an extension of loving participation in life. Thus, it is not merely love that marks transformational leadership, but “abiding love.” This is essentially the command that Jesus leaves his disciples, to love each other as he loved them (John 15:12). The examples of this lifestyle are not limited to Johannine literature. The synoptics also demonstrate this acquiescence for loving relational existence. Jesus portrays this as he enters the homes of sinners for meals. He crosses cultural caste boundaries and shares the necessities of life with those dwelling on the margins of society. He shared parables that express the joy of finding that which is lost with those who were considered lost. Jesus commanded his disciples to maintain and guard whole relationships by his mandate to forgive endlessly. Jesus elevated love to the supreme virtue by which not only did he live, but what the author of 1 John considers the essence of God’s existence.

This love is not a shallow affection that is experienced by good feelings. The love that marks the transformational leadership that Jesus lived is a costly love that requires vulnerability and a willingness to suffer (rejection and even death). The loving relational existence to which Jesus commanded his disciples is profoundly illustrated in John 13-22 beginning with Jesus taking the towel and filling the basin to wash his disciples’ feet and ending with his questions to Peter as to whether he loved him. Throughout this section of John’s gospel love is exemplified through self-giving and self-emptying. It is an intense expression for the wellbeing of others which ultimately leads to the extreme suffering of the cross. This love is fundamentally redemptive. It is an act that is not limited to those who are friends, but even as a means for drawing enemies to himself. The mark of transformational leadership is a love that picks up its cross and follows the master (Matt. 16:24-26). It gains its life power through the forfeiting of self-preservation for the sake of others.

When the church talks about leadership, it necessarily refers to the leadership model taught by Jesus. And as we look to his example there are noticeable attitudinal markings: service, humility and love.


[1] The Concise Oxford Dictionary, ninth edition, Della Thompson, ed., (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 662.

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