A Crisis of Leadership and the Elder Solution (Part 1): Theology Is Upstream

By Joe Holland    |    February 5, 2024


There is a crisis of leadership. I’m not trying to be hyperbolic or alarmist. I’m not selling a grift course on how to solve all our leadership challenges. And I didn’t create a leadership assessment tool to unlock your potential. I don’t have a leadership degree from an Ivy League school plagued with leadership malfeasance (and I don’t want one). I am trying to be a realist. And we do actually have a significant global problem that bandies the word leadership around like being a leader is an essential human right. To highlight the problem, let’s say you’re going to have a conversation with a friend a few minutes after you read this essay. Your friend will start the conversation by saying, “I just read a news article about a well-known leader.” What do you think will follow that statement? The leader’s sordid financial dealings? A sexual scandal? A report on his gross incompetence? Accusations of plagiarism? A pattern of crude and abrasive language directed toward employees and colleagues? How far down the list do you need to go before you guess that your friend really wanted to tell you about the leader’s virtue, altruism, or skill at his profession? I’d guess it would be pretty far down the list. Even when we look at the leadership of clergy, men who used to be considered paragons of virtue in a culture, we find a similar problem.1 And to that, you might respond that it is only due to the media’s propensity to publish the salacious. To that, I’d say, “yes,” and “maybe.” But beyond media coverage, what is your personal experience of folks who go by the moniker “leader”? When we’re honest, we notice a strange tension. On the one hand, leaders have never had more access to leadership training, certificate accrual, books, or podcasts. Forbes reports that leadership development is a $366 billion industry. Someone is paying an NFL franchise-sized amount of money to grow as a leader. At the same time, leaders are struggling and not improving as leaders. In other words, in the face of enormous (faux) resources, leaders are actually getting worse and quitting in record numbers. Yes, there is a problem—in our culture and in the church.

Not the Problem You Thought

No, you did not make a mistake and visit the Drucker-Lencioni Weekly. This is a theological journal. And I’m not going to make the same argument that many make. The typical take on leadership issues (which also surface in the church) is that they are best sorted out at the corporation level and then applied piecemeal to the church. In this view, the church is downstream from where the real leadership work is being done—in very large secular institutions. In fact, the modern idea is that the church is so far downstream from secular leadership that it is a minor tributary tucked away in the reeds and marsh. The church is a kind of niché leadership environment, an oddity of low consequence to modern leadership concerns. So once the adults have figured out what plagues leaders, they’ll let the kids in on what might work for them in the church. I’d like to argue that this is entirely backward and has been for a very long time.2 This is why when most pastors want to study leadership, they read business books that are five years old or older.

I contend that the leadership crisis is a theological problem, that theological problems are always upstream from practical problems, that theological solutions are always primary, and that they tell us how to form and apply practical principles. The church (should be) is upstream from every form of instantiated secular leadership. That doesn’t mean that Microsoft would make a bazillion more dollars if the Bibles were on the desks of every VP, though I would be thrilled to find out that a Bible was on the desk of every VP at Microsoft. The Bible doesn’t work that way. But the Bible does reveal Jesus and the theology that describes his person and work. And that theology governs the world in which all of us live. It describes the world not as we’d like it to be but as it is. It describes the plight of every leader, no matter what his faith commitments are. It describes the general human condition, whether that human is a leader, CEO, VP, manager, colleague, or client. So, I believe one of the major reasons that leaders are struggling today isn’t just because of a post-COVID workplace filled with DEI-silliness, ESG regulations, and corporate greed. The problem is that we aren’t solving modern problems with correct solutions.

And I should add that upstream theology trumps any non-theologically based solution—conservative, liberal, left, or right. Many on the right want to return to the founding fathers, Classical literature, or the Great Books. These solutions aren’t necessarily bad3 but are incomplete and ultimately unable to solve what ails our leaders. They are giving out bandaids to treat cancer. Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics are rather profound for a pagan and can make your immediate life and workplace a significantly better working environment compared to the morass that passes as wisdom today. Plato’s Republic is rather insightful as age-old wisdom for ordering loosely associated people. But even the (secular Greco-Roman) classics of Western Civilization are downstream from Christian theology. Christian theology takes precedence.

Returning Christian theology in general, and as it speaks to leaders and organizations specifically, to its rightful place as divinely revealed wisdom, centered on Christ, and able to equip the Christian for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16) has significant import for addressing what we’re currently facing in the crisis of leadership. This reorientation frees pastors from a schizophrenic mindset that attempts to reconcile Bavinck and Maxwell. It provides the watching world with wisdom and truth that are solely accessible through the church. It restores the church elder to the prominence in society that Jesus intended, if not in status, then definitely in influence. It guards against baptizing general leadership principles with biblical footnotes and calling it Christian. Ultimately, it recognizes that there is one great leader, one great king, and his name is Jesus. But before we get to solutions, we need to parse out this idea of revelation a bit more.

General and Special Revelation

To be more precise with my upstream-downstream analogy, the church has inverted general and special revelation when it comes to considering leadership. The world will always do this, as we’ll see, because all they have access to is general revelation and because special revelation looks foolish or weak to them (1 Cor. 1:20–25). That is expected. What is not expected is for the church to go along with this switcharoo, which we have. If you have turtled your boat and want to correct the problem, an essential thing to know is the deck from the hull. And yet, when considering issues around leadership—in society and in pastoral ministry—the church has been sailing along on a capsized ship, wondering why things aren’t going so well.

Our God is a speaking God because he is a God of revelation. We could conceive of God as generally uncommunicative, a distant god, leaving breadcrumbs of wisdom here and there for anyone paying attention enough to pick up the crumbs. But if we conceived of God that way, he would not be the Christian God. The Bible details that God has been revealing himself ever since the beginning of creation. Theologians, typically under the theological heading of prolegomena, have categorized God’s revelation into general and special.4

Leadership problems are ultimately spiritual problems that require theological solutions. ”

—Joe Holland

General revelation is God’s revelation in creation. And we can separate this into two types as well—the imago dei and natural theology. All humans are created in the image of God (imago dei), and because of this, they have a thoroughgoing default morality. We see this in the studies of different cultures as an expression of common morality. Most people in most places look askance at murder, are rather upset when someone commits adultery with their wife, and, on the whole, think cannibalism is rather gauche. They don’t have to study Aristotle, Plato, or Socrates to arrive at this moral reasoning. It is all default software; it comes factory-installed. But it is also marred in every facet; there is ubiquitous epistemic sin. This gets to the doctrine of total depravity. All of our thoughts, affections, and actions are infected with sin. This includes our thinking and how we reason about the world around us. No one is utterly depraved (as bad as he could be), but everyone is totally depraved—marred at every point.

Beyond being created in God’s image, most folks will try to make sense of themselves, the world in which they live, and the God who made them. And God has constructed the world in such a way that he is clearly and generally revealed. So Paul writes in Romans 1:20–21, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Again, we see the dual principle that God has clearly and generally revealed himself in the created order—especially his eternal power and divine nature—and that all humans under the dominion of sin are “futile in their thinking” and have foolish, darkened hearts.

So, in general revelation, all people, and all leaders, have a default morality and knowledge of God and his world. But this morality and knowledge of God is so far from being clear or providing any basis of right standing before God that it remains revelatory but also insufficient for living in a godly or righteous way in the world (Heb. 11:6). Also, like a busted compass, it may lead you in the right direction some of the time, but you’re going to be more lost than you are on going to be headed in the right direction (and you certainly aren’t going to reach your destination). It is this general revelation that culture utilizes to make decisions about life. This general revelation is, and can only be, relied on when answering questions like, “What makes a great leader?” and “How do we correct leadership problems in my organization?”. The world’s wisdom is a Jeffersonian Bible—keep what you like and cut out the rest. In our modern context of leadership studies, this general revelation sits upstream from everything else. Hopefully, you can see why this might be a problem, especially if general revelation was all that we had. But, thankfully, it isn’t. We also have special revelation.

What makes special revelation special is that God did not only reveal himself to a lost and depraved humanity through creation. God took the initiative to redeem a people to be his very own people, to live in this world as pilgrims and exiles, to labor in this fallen world to his glory, and to one day live with him for all eternity in perfect joy, sinlessness, and glory. God also revealed this way of salvation as a distinct revelation apart from and in addition to general revelation. Herman Bavinck summarizes the difference between general and special revelation this way:

The revelation that thus comes to us objectively from the side of God is to be differentiated into a general and special one. General revelation is that conscious and free act of God by which, by means of nature and history (in the broadest sense, hence including one’s own personal life experience), he makes himself known—specifically in his attributes of omnipotence and wisdom, wrath and goodness—to fallen human beings in order that they should turn to him and keep his law or, in the absence of such repentance, be inexcusable.

Special revelation, in distinction from the above, is that conscious and free act of God by which he, in the way of a historical complex of special means (theophany, prophecy, and miracle) that are concentrated in the person of Christ, makes himself known—specifically in the attributes of his justice and grace, in the proclamation of law and gospel—to those human beings who live in the light of this special revelation in order that they may accept the grace of God by faith in Christ or, in case of impenitence, receive a more severe judgment. Both this general and this special revelation are primarily objective; and included in this objective special revelation, accordingly, is the revelation that occurs in the consciousness of prophets and apostles by addressive and interior speech, by divine inspiration in the sense of 2 Timothy 3:16.5

Special revelation, originally revealed in theophanies, prophecies, and miracles has now been summarily, finally, unequivocally, infallibly, inerrantly, and sufficiently recorded in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments—the Bible. Special revelation reveals the triune God’s ultimate purpose to bring all of human history under the lordship of Jesus Christ through the work of the church in advance of the return of Jesus.

Now, what does all of this have to do with leadership, you may ask? It is simply this, at least for the purpose of this essay. Special revelation is not a tack-on tract to general revelation in general or in specific application. We don’t muddle through life trying to make the best of things without a robust dependence on the Word of God as it proclaims the lordship of Christ, only at the end to say, “Oh yes, and one more thing, this is how you can be saved.” The grand redemptive narrative of our Trinitarian God, as it is revealed in the Bible, is the primary way we are to make sense of all the world, whether it is currently occupied by pagan leaders or those who claim Christ. As that narrative clearly says, sin and the dominion of Satan are the problem, and Christ is the conquering solution.6 This means that leadership problems are ultimately spiritual problems that require theological solutions.

To give a brief example, consider the Ten Commandments. Many of the Ten Commandments fall into the category of general revelation, agreed on moral principles based on all people being made in the image of God. The Decalogue was revealed in the Bible but did not come into clear focus until the ministry of Jesus. Jews, like the lawyers, scribes, and Pharisees, misinterpreted the Decalogue as ten really bad sins but not as summary descriptions of biblical morality. So, for example, they thought that adultery was right out, but lust was ok. Jesus corrected this view (Matt. 5:27–30), taught that the Ten Commandments (as they were understood as special revelation) were a summary of the whole law (Matt. 22:34–39), and showed that he was the fulfillment of that law (Matt. 5:17). This revealed a completely new way of understanding God’s will for his people through the person and work of Christ, truth that was completely inaccessible by general revelation, Plato, or Socrates. As it relates to leadership, the fifth commandment about parental authority is a summary of the biblical use of all authority. The Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC 123–133) details how biblical authority should be applied not just to fathers and mothers but also to all relations between superiors, inferiors, and equals. For our discussion here, WLC 123–133 is far more applicable and helpful to leaders than any leadership book or class on the current best-sellers list for business.

But we have to take one more step for implementation. God did not give special revelation to Christians in general, but to Christians as they are a part of churches. God did not intend for his purposes for leadership to be gathered up from the Bible and curated directly into books, training programs, and certificate degrees. There are men who are called and qualified to adeptly teach and accurately apply the redemptive message of the gospel in churches and to all nations, tribes, tongues, and corporations. These men are elders.7 They are the keepers of special revelation, emblematic leaders of God’s people (and to society), and should be the subject matter experts on leadership as God intended it. If theology is upstream, elders are standing at the headwaters.

A Way Forward

What I’m proposing generally is that elder-pastors, as the guardians and proclaimers of special revelation, will always be the ones who apply upstream theology to life’s problems. But these elders are not just providing theological lectures, nor are they societal ethicists. They are themselves leaders in particular communities called churches. So, elders both know how Christ intended leadership to function in the world, and elders must be competent leaders. However, many elders have assumed that leadership is a secular skill to be learned from secular leaders who only (and can only) have access to general revelation. So now we have a self-impoverished church with unqualified elders unaware of the wealth we have available to us in God’s Word. What we need is a return to the biblical doctrine of eldership. And more than doctrinal faithfulness, it will mean that some elders need to be disqualified and step down, while others will need to reform, and all of us will need to labor to correct the deplorable state of eldership in the church. This kind of eldership renewal and revival will have profound effects for leadership in the world. For, as we’ll see in the following parts of this series, as goes the church’s elders, so goes the world’s leaders.

Author’s Note: An earlier version of this essay was presented on July 28, 2023 at the Colloquium on the Modern View of Leadership in Washington, DC.

  1. I no longer consider Christianity Today a reputable source for reliable news or a trustworthy perspective on culture from a Christian perspective. But certainly, there is some truth in an article like this.
  2. I say “long time” because theology used to be considered the queen of the sciences, the academic discipline that influenced all the rest. To most folks now, theology (at least as far as practical ministry goes) is the chambermaid.
  3. Many of these conservative solutions are actually very good. But what made these older conservative ideas good is that they recognized the primacy of Christian theology as the governing principle for all of life.
  4. We could also break down general and special revelation into natural and supernatural subcategories, but teasing that out would make this long essay even longer. Plus, I tend to agree with Bavinck that all revelation is supernatural.
  5. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 350.
  6. In this, Thomas Carlyle was right in principle when he proposed the great man view of history. Only he failed in the application. It isn’t just that we should view history in terms of great men, but that history has already been dominated and dictated by the great man, Jesus.
  7. For our purposes, when I say elders, I also mean pastors. We can have our titular polity debates sometime else.
Joe Holland

Joe Holland is professor of Christian ministry and academic dean for Grimké College. He also serves as managing editor for Grimké Seminary and College.

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