One of the discipleship axioms we use is that everybody looks like a sheep from the front and a shepherd from behind. Everyone is receiving investment from someone and also investing in others. It emphasizes the responsibility that all of God’s people have to not only be disciples of Jesus but to make disciples of Jesus.
In other words, there is a necessary directive element to discipleship, a definitive following of a leader. One common concern with this way of practicing discipleship is that it could lead to a “toxic leadership” situation, where control and manipulation run rampant through a community.
So how do we deal with this dilemma? How does the New Testament seem to deal with it?
I think this dilemma can be resolved by simply appealing to the Christian virtue of humility. Both leaders and followers need to embrace a radical humility if the relationship is going to work as it is designed to. The humility we are all called to is, not surprisingly, modeled for us by Jesus himself.
Jesus was clearly recognized as the “leader” of his disciples. “Why do you call me ‘Lord’ and not do what I say?” he asked at one point. The disciples very clearly understood that they were following Jesus. Jesus was the shepherd, they were the sheep. Doing what he said was part of what it meant to follow him.
But he modeled for his disciples a way of leading that contrasted sharply with the leaders they could observe in the political and religious arenas. When the disciples started bickering about who was the greatest (a conversation many of us perhaps have secretly in our own hearts?), Jesus said to them,”The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 22:24-26).
Paul beautifully sums up Jesus’ way of leadership when he wrote that Jesus “made himself nothing… taking the very nature of a servant… humbling himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross!” (from Phil 2:1-11).
Jesus modeled and explicitly taught his disciples to lead in the same way he did: as a servant. He poured out his life for his disciples. He leveraged all his time, energy, conversation, and prayer to serve them so they could do “greater things” than he did. His heart was not that they would simply stay “sheep,” but would become shepherds themselves who would lead others in the same way he did: laying down their lives for those who were following them.
Everyone still looks like a sheep from the front and a shepherd from the back. That is, each of us is always leading and always following, but if we are practicing humility, we’ll hear different words from Jesus ringing in our depending on which position we’re in.
As a shepherd, Jesus’ word to me is “Don’t lord it over them” (Luke 22:24-26). As a leader, a disciple-maker, I hold everyone with an open hand. I never demand anything. Anyone can stop following me at any time for any reason with no ill will from me. I don’t own or “command” these people in any way. That’s how to embrace humility as a leader.
But as a sheep, Jesus’ word to me is “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority” (Heb 13:17). As a follower I am making a conscious decision to submit to and imitate those who are more fruitful than me, so I can bear more fruit and teach others to do the same. Of course, I know that I can leave at any time. There’s no control involved, but I willingly take action on what fruitful people say to me. That’s how to embrace humility as a follower.
As a leader, I never tell anyone to have confidence in me and submit to my authority. My responsibility as a leader is simply to serve humbly, never “lording” authority over anyone. But as a follower, I never tell a leader to “stop lording it over me.” My responsibility as a follower is to imitate people who are more fruitful than me. If it becomes “lording” leadership, I can simply stop following.
In this way both leaders and followers are taking responsibility for their own stuff in discipleship. We always get into trouble when we try to take responsibility for other people’s stuff.
When leaders and followers alike are “making themselves nothing,” dying to self, laying down their lives to serve the other, practicing humility in the way they deal with one another, the danger of authoritarianism and manipulation fades and in its place we see a beautiful upward spiral of humility, servanthood, and love that bears “much fruit” and thus brings glory to our Father in heaven.