Preaching is inherently a form of leadership. Our identity as pastors and the influential nature of our pulpit ministries necessarily define it as such. And like any aspect of Christian leadership, we must be careful to exercise it and evaluate it according to biblical standards rather than worldly principles. This is what essentially differentiates scriptural leadership from secular leadership.
While we would unquestionably affirm this seemingly obvious reality as it relates to preaching, many pastors unintentionally find themselves using secular methods and metrics to measure effectiveness in the pulpit. In order for our preaching to qualify as scriptural leadership, we must go beyond simply affirming the biblical principles typically associated with godly leadership and we must identify ways to implement them into our pulpit ministries. There are three primary and practical distinctions between scriptural leadership and secular leadership that can safeguard our preaching and help us lead God’s sheep while we feed his sheep.
1. Scriptural leadership from the pulpit is built on truth, not trends.
Leadership is established through consistent influence over time. As the calendar turns, trends come and go, even in preaching. From the platform arrangements in our auditoriums to casual attire and social media promotion, the trendy influence of the culture has crept into our pulpits. Even more significant than the sermon setting, many preachers also follow the cultural trends in determining the substance of their messages. While social hot-button topics, political agendas, and appeals to the emotional needs of our congregations can inform our practical application, they can’t be allowed to dictate the foundational content of our sermons. These are the very ‘trends’ and teaching that Paul warned Timothy would attract eager and zealous crowds while ultimately leading them away from “the truth” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).
Unlike these seasonal, fading, and ever-changing flowers, God’s word is timeless, trustworthy, and true (1 Pet. 1:23–25). As such, Scripture must be the source and substance of our sermons so that the only thing that changes are the lives of the listeners! God uses his living word, faithfully proclaimed, as a powerful sword and a precise scalpel to work in the hearts of people (Heb. 4:12). Therefore, we must not compromise our commitment to lead our people with the unchanging truth of God’s word. We can’t fall into the trap of thinking we somehow have to enhance Scripture with contemporary sermon trimmings. And we can’t reduce Scripture to a spiritual springboard that launches us into a casual conversation about a relevant issue that ultimately amounts to a discourse seasoned with biblical flavoring. Scriptural leadership is built on the sure and reliable foundation of God’s word, and it’s our responsibility as expositors to avoid compromising it in our preaching by prioritizing its timeless truth over temporary trends.
2. Scriptural leadership from the pulpit begins with character, not charisma.
Throughout Scripture we see examples where those who possessed superficial characteristics were elevated over those with spiritual depth. For example, God’s people celebrated Saul because of his perceived strength and stature (1 Sam. 10:23–24). Yet, when anointing David as king, God instructed Samuel to be more concerned with a person’s spiritual attributes than their natural ability or physical appearance (1 Sam. 16:7). The apostle Paul echoed these same sentiments in commending his ministry to the Corinthian church by contrasting it with those who, “boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart” (2 Cor. 5:12).
It’s easy for ministry in the contemporary church to follow this same pattern. With the rise of social media and digital marketing, public notoriety is more attainable than ever, and public personas have become a desirable trait and valuable commodity for many churches. Magnetic personalities in the pulpit have always been attractive and have served as a bit of a ‘pied piper’ to lead people. And many pastors’ hearts have been seduced by the intoxicating affirmation of others, leading them to begin performing more than preaching.
But God’s desire hasn’t changed. Scriptural leadership that honors the Lord (and that the Lord honors!) is more focused on our Christ-like character than charismatic charm. While this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be winsome in our demeanor, it does prioritize our spiritual health above our skillful delivery. In his ordination sermon for a young minister, the Scottish minister Robert Murray M’Cheyne charged:
Remember you are God’s sword, His instrument—I trust a chosen vessel unto Him to bear His name. In great measure, according to the purity and perfection of the instrument, will be success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.1
M’Cheyne’s challenge echoes Paul’s admonition to Timothy that “anyone who cleanses himself from what is dishonorable” will be “a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master” (2 Tim. 2:22).
For us, as pastors, this means that we can be free from the pressure to perform or conform. We don’t have to be enslaved to the church culture’s insatiable desire to raise up the next “celebrity pastor,” to be squeezed into the mold of people’s expectations, or to be compelled to impress our people with dazzling communication skills. Our focus should be on the inward person of the heart, displaying the ultimate beauty of Christ while humbly allowing the Lord to use our natural personality and our unwavering devotion to his word to faithfully lead his people.
The emphasis on Christlike character over charisma is a crucial distinction between secular leadership and scriptural leadership that we must embrace for our pulpit ministries. When we prioritize spiritual growth in our own lives, it will be evident in our preaching. This will lead our people to focus on their personal sanctification as well. Their individual growth will result in the corporate maturity of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:12–16) and the radiant purity as the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:26–27).
Scriptural leadership from the pulpit boasts in our Savior, not ourselves.
3. Scriptural leadership from the pulpit boasts in our Savior, not ourselves.
The prominent nature of preaching makes it easy for pastors to become the center of attention. As a result, it also becomes tempting for us to focus on our public perception and reputation. But scriptural leadership never seeks the spotlight for ourselves. Since Jesus is at the forefront on the pages of Scripture, he must take center stage on our platforms as well.
Our commitment to biblical exposition obligates us to interpret, explain, and apply every text of Scripture in light of its Christological fulfillment, its gospel significance, and its missional implications (Luke 24:44–47). Simply put, to expound the written word is to exalt the living Word. And to exalt Jesus requires us to humble ourselves. In the spirit of John the Baptist, who devoted his entire ministry to pointing people to Jesus, we must adopt the same mentality: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). We must declare with the apostle Paul, “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5).
In addition to aligning our preaching ministry with the purpose of Scripture, we must also synchronize our sermons with the work of the Spirit. Jesus described the Spirit as the ultimate Teacher (John 14:27) who guides his followers into the truth by disclosing God’s will and declaring his word (John 16:13–14). And every aspect of the Spirit’s work is intended to fulfill his ultimate role, to glorify the Son (John 16:14). Scriptural leadership from the pulpit must cooperate with the work of the Spirit and pursue the same goal. We must be teachers who proclaim God’s word and guide his people into the truth of Scripture for the sole purpose of exalting Christ and honoring his name.
Although there are pastors who blatantly peddle the Scriptures for monetary gain and worldly fame, the majority of us struggle with more subtle forms of self-promotion in our preaching. Some become enamored with fanciful outlines and flattering rhetoric that seek to impress people with their wise and persuasive words. But these things can actually undermine the testimony of our ministry and reveal impure motives (1 Thess. 2:3–6; 1 Cor. 2:2–5). Other preachers fish for and feed off of compliments from their members, appealing to the court of public opinion rather than seeking the approval of the righteous Judge (2 Tim. 4:1–2). And all of us can become easily discouraged when we receive frequent critiques and even well-meaning but customary affirmation, or when we see little to no public response to our messages. But these misguided desires and emotions can be cautionary signs of spiritual blind spots in our hearts, indicating that our preaching has become more about ourselves than our Savior.
Scriptural leadership differs from secular leadership in a variety of ways, but these three distinctions are essential in order for our expositional leadership to be faithful and effective. We must build our pulpit ministries on the eternal truth of God’s word, devote ourselves to becoming men of character who humbly serve his people, and faithfully preach Christ for his glory alone.
- Quoted in Andrew Bonar (emphasis added), Memoirs of McCheyne (Moody, 1978), 95.
R. Scott Pace and Jim Shaddix are authors of Expositional Leadership: Shepherding God’s People from the Pulpit.
If preaching isn’t simply transferring data or trying to make people feel something through our charisma, what is it?
While it may sound strange, we must understand that leadership is not the ultimate goal or standard of success when it comes to gospel ministry.
These statements about leadership are endorsed by our culture, but may not be true. In fact, these statements may even be harmful to individuals and organizations and the missions they pursue.
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