10 Key Bible Verses on Leadership

This article is part of the Key Bible Verses series.

All commentary sections adapted from the ESV Study Bible.

1. Psalm 78:72

With upright heart he shepherded them
and guided them with his skillful hand. Read More

David was taken from the sheepfolds. Like Moses (Ex. 3:1), he learned how to shepherd with literal sheep. The king is ideally a shepherd of his people (cf. 2 Sam. 5:2), caring for them, protecting them, and leading them in faithfulness to the covenant. David at his best did his work with upright heart and skillful hand, though he had his own moral failures; many kings in his line were much less upright and skillful. The term “shepherd” came to be used of leaders in Israel (priests, nobles, and judges), and the prophet Ezekiel spoke out about the greedy shepherds in his day (Ezek. 34). He looked forward to the time after the exile when God would raise up “his servant David” (i.e., the Messiah) who would be the “shepherd” of his people (Ezek. 34:23–24). When Jesus called himself the “good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14), he claimed to be the long-awaited heir of David, who would guide his people perfectly.

2. Proverbs 11:14

Where there is no guidance, a people falls,
but in an abundance of counselors there is safety. Read More

The role of counselors is to aid a person in making wise decisions (cf. Prov. 15:22; Prov. 24:6). While this is particularly important for those who lead a people, Proverbs also stresses its broader application to people’s decision making in all sorts of situations—cf. Proverbs 11:5 and the contrasting description of how the wicked falls “by his own wickedness.”

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3. Matthew 20:26–28

“It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Read More

A servant was a hired worker who maintained the master’s household, and a slave was someone forced into service. These were two of the lowest positions in Jewish society, yet Jesus reverses their status in the community of disciples to indicate prominence and greatness.

Jesus himself is the primary example of servanthood. Jesus will give his life as a ransom (Gk. lutron, the price of release, often used of the money paid to release slaves) for many. “For” (Gk. anti) means “in place of” and signifies the notion of the exchange and substitution of Jesus’ life on the cross for all those who accept his payment for their sins (see notes on 1 Pet. 2:24; 1 Pet. 3:18).

4. Luke 12:48

Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more. Read More

The faithful and wise manager is the person who faithfully and fairly cares for those for whom he is responsible, giving them their portion . . . at the proper time. When the master returns, the faithful manager will be rewarded—a metaphorical picture of the rewards that will be given to faithful believers at the return of Christ. The faithful manager is then contrasted with the unfaithful servant who beats the household servants and gets drunk. To the surprise of the unfaithful servant, however, the master will return at an hour he does not know (Luke 12:46), resulting in swift and harsh judgment: he will cut him in pieces (cf. Jer. 34:18) and put him with the unfaithful—a metaphorical reference to the punishment that awaits the unbeliever at the return of Christ. The latter description (cf. Luke 13:27–28 and esp. the parallel in Matt. 24:51) indicates eternal judgment and separation from God (cf. Luke 8:13). much will be required. People who have been entrusted by God with many abilities and responsibilities will be held to a higher standard on the last day (cf. notes on Matt. 25:29; Mark 4:24, 25).

5. John 13:13–17

“You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” Read More

The disciples will understand fully only after the cross, though they do grasp in part Jesus’ amazing humility, which serves as a model for all of his disciples.

Footwashing continues as a regular ceremony in a number of modern denominations, which literally obey Jesus’ command, “you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Others believe the language is figurative for the importance of serving one another, and that the act itself is not required.

6. Acts 20:28

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. Read More

Pay careful attention to yourselves. Spiritual leaders need first of all to guard their own spiritual and moral purity. The last part of this phrase refers to the blood of Christ poured out in his atoning death on the cross (cf. Rom. 3:25; 5:9; Eph. 1:7; etc.). The reference to God in the first part of this phrase (“the church of God”) most likely is a reference to Christ as the head of the church and as “God the Son,” the second person of the Trinity. Alternatively, if God the Father is in view in the phrase “the church of God,” then “his own blood” is a reference to the blood of God’s “own,” that is, of “God’s own Son” (which would be a legitimate alternative reading of the Greek).

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7. Romans 12:3–8

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. Read More

The diversity and unity of the church is illustrated by comparison to the human body. Just as the human body is one with many members (lit., body parts, limbs), so the church is united though it is composed of many members. On the theme of the church as the body of Christ, see also 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4:4, 12–16.

The variety of the body is evident from the various gifts God has given the church. On the gift of prophecy, see notes on Acts 21:4; 21:10–11; 1 Corinthians 12:10; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Thessalonians 5:20–21; and other notes on 1 Corinthians 12–14. Paul instructs prophets to speak only when they have faith or confidence that the Holy Spirit is truly revealing something to them, and not to exceed the faith that God has given them by trying to impress others.

Christians should concentrate upon and give their energies to the gifts God has given them, whether in serving others, teaching God’s word patiently, or in exhortation and encouragement in the things of God. Thus Paul spotlights three attitudes necessary in exercising particular gifts: (1) those who have a special gift of helping others financially should never give grudgingly but always generously; (2) those who lead often have no one to whom they are accountable, and hence they must beware of laziness; (3) those who show mercy to the hurting must not grow weary but continue to minister with gladness.

8. Ephesians 4:11–13

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ . . . Read More

Christ gives specific spiritual gifts to people in the church whose primary mission is to minister the word of God (Eph. 4:12). Regarding prophets, different views on the nature of the gift of prophecy in the New Testament affect one’s understanding of this verse. Since the Greek construction here is different from Ephesians 2:20 and Ephesians 3:5, some see this verse as a broader reference to the gift of prophecy generally in the New Testament church, rather than a reference to the “foundational” prophets mentioned in Ephesians 2:20 and Ephesians 3:5. From the Greek word for the “gospel” (euangelion), evangelists denotes people like Philip and Timothy who proclaimed the gospel (Acts 21:8; 2 Tim. 4:5). shepherds (or “pastors” [ESV footnote]). In the Old Testament these are kings and judges (2 Sam. 5:2; 7:7). In the New Testament, elders “shepherd” by watching over and nurturing the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1–2). There is some uncertainty as to whether “shepherds and teachers” refers here to two different ministry roles or functions, or whether the reference is to a single “shepherd-teacher” ministry role (cf. ESV footnote), since Paul uses a different Greek conjunction at the end of the list, joining the two nouns more closely together than the other nouns in the list. If “teachers” are a separate group, they can be understood as a special branch of shepherds (overseers, elders) responsible for instruction in God’s word (cf. 1 Tim. 5:17).

Those church leaders with various gifts (Eph. 4:11) are to equip the saints (all Christians) so that they can do the work of ministry. All Christians have spiritual gifts that should be used in ministering to one another (1 Cor. 12:7, 11; 1 Pet. 4:10).

9. James 3:1

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. Read More

Teachers were important in the early church (Acts 2:42; Rom. 12:7; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11), and those who were ambitious sought teacher status for the wrong reasons. However, with greater responsibility comes greater expectations by God (Luke 12:48; Heb. 13:17), and teachers will be judged with greater strictness (lit., “greater judgment”), since they are accountable for more.

10. Philippians 2:3–4

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Read More

There is always a temptation to be like Paul’s opponents in Philippians 1:17 and operate in a spirit of selfish ambition, looking to advance one’s own agenda. Such conceit (lit., “vainglory”) is countered by counting others more significant than yourselves. Paul realizes that everyone naturally looks out for his or her own interests. The key is to take that same level of concern and apply it also to the interests of others. Such radical love is rare, so Paul proceeds to show its supreme reality in the life of Christ (Phil. 2:5–11).

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