It has occurred to me a few times over the years after I read the stories of Jesus and His apostles that His teachings to the apostles about humility and service were of special importance in the discipleship training that Jesus was doing with the men that He would leave in charge of spreading the Gospel and stewarding His church. Think of passages like Matt. 20:21 or John 13 and the constant reminder to “Follow Me.” There’s even teaching reminder to us that Jesus Himself learned obedience through the things He suffered (Heb. 5:8). Why? You have to learn how to follow before you can lead.
Leadership among God’s people, we are told, is not like the world practices it (Matt. 20:25). The reason so many of us are enamored with the desire to be leaders is because we hope to be the “big dog”, the “lead dog”, the one who “calls all the shots”, the one who doesn’t have to obey anyone anymore, the one who tells others what to do, and the one who always gets their way. It boils down to the selfish reasons of wanting the glory, wanting the prestige, and wanting my way. But this is the furtherest thing from Jesus’ way of leadership.
Although there are a number of things that I could talk about here, I’ll limit myself today to this one: You must learn to follow before you lead. My observation over a lifetime of ministry is that the folks who seem most breathless to lead are often the ones who don’t take kindly to direction. Many who aspire to and strive for leadership are not as interested in serving others and the Lord as they are in arranging things and people the way that they personally would like. They’re more interested in getting the limelight and the plaudits and the affirmations. This is a serious challenge for Christian leaders, because (as Bob Dylan famously wrote) “You gotta serve somebody!”
Learning to follow before being a leader means, among other things, a committed willingness to listen carefully to the Lord. No matter how long you’ve been in ministry, how long you’ve been an elder/shepherd in the church, how much education you’ve obtained, how much experience you’ve garnered, or how highly you are esteemed in the church, community, or the world; Jesus is still higher, His word is more authoritative, and it is He who will be the final judge — we, therefore, must follow Him.
It is not by accident that some ancient and modern ecclesiastical authorities have embraced a MIS-translation of Matthew 16:19. KJV translates it — “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” And even NIV translates — “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The NASB95 more accurately translates — “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” The verbs for bind and loose (here and in Matt. 18:18) are grammatically “future, perfect, passive” in Greek, and clearly mean that neither Peter nor the other apostles or disciples had authority to legislate religious law, doctrine, or morality, but were merely to reflect in their teachings what had already been bound or loosed.
But even beyond learning to follow Jesus (as superlative of a priority as that is) it is also important learn how to follow, so that the leader can learn to have the follow-ship’s best interests in mind — exercising Christian love and selflessness. Let me illustrate, the military, with few exceptions, demands that their officers work their way up through the ranks. Lieutenants who fully carry out their orders from above will become captains; captains who carry out their orders from above well will become colonels, and such colonels will become generals. They must learn to love and identify with the troops in order to properly lead and inspire them. They learn and earn leadership by first learning to follow.
A failure to learn this angle of leadership is why some men are poor husbands and fathers, leading selfishly or willfully, interested only making life easier for themselves — they likely were headstrong young men who never learned to follow. And likewise, having never learned to obey, some women want to usurp their husband’s authority, so that they can get their way and make their lives easier (in no way mindful of what it might mean for their husbands, the kids, the family finances, or their marriage). Some church leaders — unmindful of the effect of leading without relationship with the congregation, without communication with the congregation, or without input from the congregation — cause resentment among the member, because they either never learned or have forgotten what it’s like to follow.
Good Christian leadership learns and remembers how to follow.