The Authoritarian vs. the Progressive View on “Great” Christian Leadership

What is Great Christian Leadership?

In the past twenty or thirty years, Progressive Christian theologians have been thinking about what makes a great leader and how to apply Christian values to leadership. This has become particularly important today in the midst of the Russian-Ukrainian war, which demands great leadership. In a number of books about Servant Leadership, several ideas have become very clear: 

A great leader puts others first, acting as a steward and public servant for her or his entire nation, not just for one but for every population segment. These include the most vulnerable to the most privileged. If sacrifices need to be made, they are made by the most fortunate. In exchange for status and recognition, this concept discusses the obligations of those who are most privileged. It comes from a medieval concept called noblesse oblige (or obligations of the nobility). 

In Liberation Theology, this is sometimes called a preference for the poor. If we have to choose where we stand, we stand with the marginalized, the least fortunate, and the oppressed. There are thousands of verses in the Bible about the Christian responsibility to care for the widows and orphans, the broken and broken-hearted.

A great leader has an eye towards the future, planning for both the present moment and the ones ahead. Progressives recognize that our actions today ripple outward and have consequences for decades, even for hundreds and thousands of years. Progressives recognized the danger of climate change decades ago and tried to address it. They discussed the risks of nuclear power, a problem which we see now in Ukraine. The severe danger we are in, was all prophesied in the 1970s and 1980s.  

A great leader supports and maintains the best of the status quo and is also open to ever-evolving improvement. This is done in part by rejecting all forms of corruption which stops us from moving forward.

A great leader does this while additionally considering all of humanity on our one shared planet, and seeks to foster peace without military arms or other forms of oppression. Great leaders are thus not warmongers but rather peacemakers. Great leaders serve by instilling hope, not fear. Fear immobilizes and silences. Hope strengthens and gives courage to carry on into an unpredictable future.

President Zelenskyy has been hailed as a great leader by governments and individuals around the world. The courage he shows by continually being firm in his belief in the bravery of his people and in the belief of right, encourages all of us and compels us to act.

There is a verse in the Apocrypha which says “in a multitude of wise men is the salvation of the world and the sensible king is the stability of his people” (Wisdom 6:24a). Great leaders have great advisors. They are not afraid to make ethical decisions where the boundary between the right choice and the wrong choice might be unclear. But they do not make these decisions in isolation. Their advisors are experienced, competent, insightful, and wise. Right now, we are in the midst of the difficult decision of figuring out how to support Ukraine without escalating a war. How do we deal with a leader who cares little for others and desires to maintain power for his own egocentric self? 

Diplomacy is key, optimally for discussion between all parties. This means seeking the truth, discussing real facts, and ideally seeking consensus. A great leader promotes rational thought and assessment. This takes an ability to stay calm in the presence of chaos. A great leader believes in the possibility that there is some goodness in the enemy that can be accessed. Great leaders have the ability to negotiate with others rather than nullify The Other. Working together for the betterment of all has a much better chance of success because everybody has a stake in the result. A great society considers itself not in isolation, but as part of a living whole.

This demands of leaders a moral center and a moral standard. It moves from power to empowerment and from individuality to cooperation and community. It is tragic to see that so many leaders have no awareness that this non-violent model has a better chance of succeeding, thus creating a more productive and effective world. This new model upgrades civilization from win-lose to win-win.

We are seeing a clash right now between leaders who are desperately trying to think of the larger community with those who are still stuck in the older authoritarian model. Many of us believe that this new model is coming to the forefront and will continue to do so.

Submitted by John Robey, a member of Colorado Springs Friends Meeting, and Dr. Linda Seger. Dr. Seger is a CDA advisory board member and author of “Jesus Rode a Donkey: Why Millions of Christians Are Democrats.”


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