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A Critique of “Leadership Ethics”

Another Look at the Summer CSQ

Once in a meeting, I was asked two questions by several young brothers and sisters: “Can you share how God has spoken to you recently in your scripture reading?” and “Can you tell us how, during recent occasions, you were able to share the gospel?”

To be honest, I felt offended during that meeting. I needed to quickly figure out a recent example that I could share with them—shamefully it wasn’t one from the day before. I felt I was more senior to them, and that it was my right to ask them such basic questions. Later I confessed my pride—I had felt angry for being asked these two basic questions by junior believers.

In later conversations with other leaders, none of them said that he/she had ever been asked such questions by congregation members or team members. They said they would view such questions as a challenge to their leadership. But, how fundamental these two questions are, for any follower of Christ, not to mention for leaders!

The editors of the recent ChinaSource Quarterly rightly point out that, with the growth of Chinese Christianity in the past two decades, the issue of leadership may have become the greatest crisis for Chinese churches from within. It is an issue in normal congregations as well as in various ministry organizations.

The authors try to understand the reasons why it has become extremely serious in Chinese churches. The past experience of being marginalized in society contributes a lot. The social inferiority might stimulate a sense of spiritual superiority. Theological confusion, such as in ecclesiology, may bring in a rigid understanding of leadership. The culturally paternalistic style of leadership or hierarchical understanding also influences leadership in the church.

With such factors, as Jerry An writes, “servant leadership easily degenerates into a mere slogan or item of propaganda” in practice. It may result in abusive use of power inside the church. Or it may produce a dictator-style of leadership because of a leader’s gifts and performances. Or it may be reflected in attempts to duplicate western infrastructures, such as denominations or membership systems, into Chinese churches and organizations.

The church in China has grown rapidly in number during the past decades. However, spiritual maturity is not evaluated by how powerful the leader is or how effectively a church carries out a project. Rather, maturity should be viewed by how closely a leader or church senses and follows the ongoing guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I believe the image of servant-leadership comes from the imitation of God’s character—Jesus himself is a serving God. Not only has he called leaders to serve the sheep, but he also has called the church to serve the world in the same way. This image also reflects the realization of our own brokenness, “our badness” as mentioned in An’s article. We are still human, broken and sinful, even with God’s amazing grace upon us. This attitude should be practiced by the leader among the congregation, as well as by the church in the world.

If a leader is to be viewed as the “elite” in the crowd, either by external expectation or by self-expectation, he will eventually try his best to cover his brokenness, in order to prove his correctness. Performance-driven attitudes, or legalism, will become inevitable in that community. Such attitudes are becoming more popular in the so-called middle-class urban churches.

Mary Ma mentions in her article what is necessary for foreign Christian workers to mentor Chinese leaders. I feel that, besides needing the understanding of power dynamics in China, western workers should be put under the same accountability checks on power, because none of us is “good enough” or immune to the lies of the Evil One.

In dealing with leadership ethics, I feel the articles do not adequately put the issue within the light of the very purpose of the existence of God’s church, which is the mission of God. Rick Warren is right in his PEACE statement that the issue of leadership is part of the gospel message that we should be living out—in the family, in the church, in the workplace, in the society—in the world.

If the church is just one type of institution in society—static, with its own culture and heritage—then we might be able to address all the leadership issues inside the church in ways similar to those outside the church. But the church is not just one of many institutions. God intentionally put his church in this generation to share the same struggles that the world is suffering so that the salvation message can be rightly perceived as “good news” by the world. Therefore, the issues of leadership, as part of this world’s struggles, should be addressed in depth. They go beyond “right” or “wrong,” or simply as a part of “political correctness.” Leadership is at the core of how to effectively witness Jesus Christ in this generation.

Image credit: Image by 彬彬 王 from Pixabay
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John Zhang

John Zhang (pseudonym) is a member of a national mission agency in China focusing on partnership development across ministries. John has been involved in mission mobilization, leadership training, and field strategy development with a broad range of ministries for about 20 years. He serves in several agencies at the board …View Full Bio

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