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The Challenge of Spiritual Leadership

Category Articles
Date September 24, 2013

Who is sufficient for the task of spiritual leadership? The man who leads Christ’s flock needs at least two rare qualities: a compassionate heart, and also nerves of steel. No one is well equipped to guide the saints of God on earth unless he has two seemingly contradictory sides to his character. He needs to be full of love to all those who are Christ’s people, and immovable in his adherence to the principles of God’s Word.

It has been well said of Moses, one of God’s choice leaders, that his earlier life was spent learning two opposite lessons. He spent his first forty years learning all the wisdom of Egypt; and the second forty years in the solitude of a desert. The first period of life was spent learning to be something; and the second period of life was spent learning to be nothing. When he had learnt both these lessons he was ready to lead God’s people forward towards the Promised Land.


A leader of Christ’s people must have a compassionate heart. He must love, and love to feed, those who love Jesus. At the same time he must firmly resist all attempts to put the souls of God’s people at risk. The true leader has to have the wisdom to know when love for their souls requires him to smile, and when it requires him to growl. Good leadership does not smile when professing Christians want to go in ways not approved by God. It is the false shepherd who relaxes his voice when some of his flock want to rush off into forbidden or foolish paths.

Weak leaders give in to the harmful requests of their congregations. Wise leaders realise there are times when they must say ‘No’. Aaron, for example, was a good man, but a weak leader. He had not the courage to say ‘No’ to a golden calf when the people asked him to make them new gods.

Good leadership requires the wisdom to know what is important and what is trifling. The Pharisees were firm to a fault in objecting to any alteration in their traditions. But their traditions were man-made and not God-given. They were more concerned to tithe mint and anise and other herbs than to do the greater matters required by God, such as justice, mercy and faith (Matt. 23:23). They made mountains out of molehills, and molehills into mountains. This is always a mark of bad leadership.


Good leadership begins when men have learnt to lead themselves. The good leader orders first his own personal life in the ways of God and godliness. The secret of a godly man is that he spends time with God in secret. The weak leader is taken up with lesser things. The good leader is first of all concerned to know, to understand and to do the will of God, rather than to conform to the opinions of the people. Like Moses, the good leader spends time on the mountain-top holding communion with God.

The first duty of the spiritual leader is to see that those who follow him are properly taught in the Word of God. Theology is the queen of the sciences and the essence of all true knowledge. Hence the spiritual man’s greatest concern is to ensure that his flock are well-grounded in the truth. Hard things must be explained in simple language. Deep truths must be made as clear as we can make them. Our people are sanctified through the truth (John 17:17).Therefore we must aim at opening up the truth as clearly as we can.

Stand alone

Good leaders are lonely men in this life. They must learn to walk with God and to expect not to be popular with everyone. This is a painful discipline, which some cannot be trusted to keep to. Some leaders in church life must have a circle of admirers who will support them along the way. The comfort is that they can enjoy the smile of their inner circle. But there is a price to pay. They know that they must keep the smile on the faces of their followers, even if this must be done at the expense of the truth and at the expense of righteousness.

The wise Christian leader must have friends and counsellors, but he must never have favourites. A favourite is one who is respected more than the rest because he is given higher status in the congregation. But we are not to have ‘respect of persons’ (James 2:1). God’s justice has set a standard for us all. We are to treat all with equal fairness.

To be a leader of God’s people demands that a man be ready to suffer for righteousness. One of the differences between prophets and false prophets is that the former are prepared to suffer for the truth, and the latter are not. ‘The hireling [or false prophet] fleeth because he is an hireling’ (John 10:1 3). But truth is worth suffering for because it is God’s truth. Truth is more precious than life. It was for truth that the prophets and apostles suffered. It was for truth that John the Baptist was beheaded. It was for truth that Christ our Lord died on the cross.

Whole hearted

A real spiritual leader gives himself wholly to his work as a servant of God. The weak leader only works as far and as long as it suits his convenience. Every man must have a time of rest. But there is a difference here too. The weak leader rests to enjoy his own pleasures. The true leader rests only to be more efficient in his work. He rests so that he might renew his strength and mount up higher as on an eagle’s wings (Isa. 40:31).

One of the gravest weaknesses of a bad leader is that he demands that his followers make a fuss of him. This was the weakness of King Saul. He so much loved the praise of man above the praise of God that he was ready to put to death young David, who excelled him in leadership. It was all-important to poor Saul to be something in the esteem of men. It would have been far more to his good if he had attended to his reputation with God. But he was spiritually blind and did not care how much sin he committed if only he could keep the crown of honour on his own head. But leaders who look to their own honour are on the slippery slope. Like Saul they run the risk of losing any praise from God at last. It was the pathetic confession of King Saul towards the end that he had ‘played the fool and erred exceedingly’ (1 Sam. 26:21).

The mark of a leader is that he must lead. The measure of a leader is the extent to which he leads in the right direction. If all who claim to preach the gospel were to lead their congregations the right way Scotland would be a different place.

The spiritual leader’s task is to show men their misery before he shows them comfort. Preaching is only real preaching when it begins by telling men they are ruined, lost and helpless. No preacher is at liberty to give assurance or comfort to those who do not believe in Christ. It is treason to Christ’s Word to give hope of heaven to any who have not repented and come with a broken heart to Jesus Christ. To say this is not popular; but our duty as spiritual leaders is not to court popularity.

Speak the Truth

No greater blessing could come to our nation than that a new generation of spiritual leaders should be raised up by God. They would not need necessarily to be expert academics. The apostles did not all come into that category. But they would need to have the courage to speak the truth to this generation. By ‘truth’ we refer to those doctrines which flow from the Bible and which are the substance of our Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

To lead men and women into biblical ways of thinking and behaving is what is supremely needed in all church life today. God must be recognised as high, holy and hating all sin. Christ must be presented as God in man’s nature, the Saviour of all who believe in him and the final Judge of all mankind. The Holy Spirit must be recognised as the Author of the new birth and therefore the only source of saving faith. Life must be viewed as a dutiful response to God’s love in a careful keeping of his commandments. Death must be presented as the gateway to heaven for all believers, and the door to eternal punishment for unbelievers.

Our generation needs leaders, but it does not need novelties. The old truths of God’s Word are well able to bring fresh life to our nation. The challenge is: Will the rising generation of young men be strong leaders, or feeble leaders?

The destiny of nations is in the hands of God. But men who see their duty aright will study to show themselves approved as leaders who love the gospel passionately and will strive to bring our nation back to God.

Taken with permission from the Free Church Witness, September 2013

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