The Spirit of Biblical Leadership



Everything rises or falls on leadership, so the old adage goes. But, unlike the world, where leadership is grounded on things like confidence in self, emotional intelligence, and excellent communication skills, biblical leadership is grounded in one’s ability to die to self. The fundamental difference between the world’s view of leadership and the biblical model of leadership is best seen in the contrast between the leaders of the world and Christ. Unexpectedly, Christ’s greatest act of leadership was seen when he willingly died on a cross for those who would follow him. Many have died for the leaders of the world and for their vision of life; but Christ came to die so he could, in fact, deliver an abundant life – and only his vision of life will become an eternal reality.

However, this act of sacrifice did not begin at the cross, but began much earlier when, as the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ disrobed himself of his glory in heaven and took on human flesh to become a man. Over the centuries there has been no small amount of ink spilled in an attempt to explain this divine act. Today scholars discuss the Kenotic Theory of Christ. Kenosis is a Greek word that means “an emptying.” The word comes from the book of Philippians, 2:7. The text reads,

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men (Phil. 2:5-7 ESV).

It is the view of this author that for biblical leadership to be authentic, those who would aspire to positions of leadership in the church must reflect this act of self-emptying. Specifically, the nature of God expressed in Christ reveals that for leadership to effectuate the Kingdom of God it must necessarily be self-emptying, and therefore self-sacrificing. Therefore, denial of self as expressed through kenosis is not an optional characteristic of biblical leadership. It is its foundational element; without which biblical leadership, despite what other qualities may be present, cannot be said to have occurred.

Explanation of Doctrine

Though the word kenosis (actually the verb form kenóō) is found in Philippians 2:7, the idea of self-emptying is found throughout the pages of scripture. However, in order to recognize the concept in scripture, we need to be clear on what kenosis actually is. There are two primary ways to understand the concept, the Classical view of the incarnation and the Kenotic view (Forrest, 2000, p127).

The Kenotic theory postulates that Christ emptied himself, not just of his status as the Second Person of the Trinity, but of many of his divine attributes. This interpretation “denies that Jesus had the powers normal for a divine person” (Forest, 2000, p129). According to Robin Le Poidevin from the University of Leeds, England, “The Jesus of the Gospels does not appear to be omniscient” (Le Poidevin, 2013, p214). Poidevin argues that the idea Christ had all the qualities of the divine person was a medieval concept. He writes that kenosis was not Christ just taking on human flesh, “but a relinquishing or abjuring of those divine characteristics that would prevent complete participation in ordinary human mortal life. He was like us in all things apart from sin” (Poidevin, 2013). In other words, for Jesus to be truly human it was necessary that Christ relinquish his divine attributes. Specifically, Forrest argues that for the Kenotic theory to be correct Jesus had to relinquish the “Omni” attributes – omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, etc. (Forrest, 2000, p129). This was not a permanent relinquishing of power, but a necessary one during the incarnation. This is not to suggest that Jesus ceased to be divine. However, as Forrest argues, the kenotic view has God relinquishing power for the sake of love. He writes, “The central thesis of Kenotic theism is that we should progress beyond the ‘omni-God’ conception to that of the kenotic God who out of love abandons absolute power, while retaining sufficient power to warrant total trust” (Forrest, 2000, p131). Hence, while Jesus was truly divine, during his incarnation he was also fully human to the extent that he was only human.

The classical view of the incarnation teaches that Jesus maintained all of his divine attributes. He was fully man, but he was also fully God in the truest sense of what it means to be God. Rejecting the Kenotic Theory, J.I. Packer argues that the scriptures clearly demonstrate that Jesus was fully God. He argues that only as God was Jesus able to fully reveal the Father. While it is true there are some examples where Jesus seems not to have omniscient knowledge (for example, cf. Matt. 24:36), Packer argues that this is better explained by suggesting Jesus restricted his divine powers instead of relinquishing them (Packer, 1993, p62). Packer argues that though Jesus was co-equal with the Father from all eternity, during the incarnation Jesus subordinated his will to the will of the Father. He argues that the

God-man did not know independently any more than he acted independently … [thus] the reason why he was ignorant of … the date of his return was not that he had given up the power to know all things at the Incarnation, but that the Father willed that he should not have this particular piece of knowledge while on earth (Packer, 1993, p62).

Instead, the real meaning of kenosis, according to the classical view, is that Jesus voluntarily laid aside his glory and restrained his power in subordination to the father’s will as he became a servant to others. Jesus was willing to undergo the humiliation and suffering of the cross, so he could love sinners to the uttermost (Packer, 1993, p63).

It is interesting to note that despite the large metaphysical distance between the two views, both the Kenotic and Classical view have a similar conclusion: namely, any limitations exhibited by Christ were grounded in love and for the benefit of those he came to serve. He came to give himself away. However, it must be asked, is there a difference and does the difference have bearing on our discussion of leadership? There are three points to consider.

First, according to Kent, a study of the Greek grammar supports the classical view. He writes,

The word ‘taking’ [as in taking the form of a servant] (labōn) does not imply an exchange, but rather an addition. The ‘form of God’ could not be relinquished, for God cannot cease to be God; but our Lord could and did take on the very form of a lowly servant when he entered human life by the incarnation … [Hence] Christ did not empty himself of the form of God (i.e. his deity), but of the manner of existence as equal to God (Kent, 1981, p123-124).

This is in keeping with the larger biblical data concerning the nature of God. God presents himself as being of a humble spirit, but always God (cf. Isaiah 53; 57:15; Luke 2:6-7; John 13:1-17).

Second, the Kenotic Theory that states Christ divested himself of his divine attributes creates a tension where none need to exist. If Christ divested himself of his divine attributes, especially his omnipotence, then we (the readers of scripture) are left with the untenable position of wondering what he knew and when he knew it. In other words, are his words only the words of a finite mind and therefore liable to error? Only the eternal divine mind can claim to be infallible. A mind disconnected from eternity is not in the position to confidently assert eternal truths, let alone reveal the fulness of God (as Packer contends). How can the church then know his teachings on servanthood reflect the mind of God?

Third, the fact that Christ did not lose his divine attributes means his position as a humble servant was a choice. This is especially important for our discussion of leadership. Jesus was God and he knew he was God. Indeed, when Philip asked Jesus to reveal the Father, Jesus responds with, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9). What is significant is that the nature of leadership under discussion, is first, grounded in the eternal nature of God; and second, it is predicated upon a choice made by Christ to embrace the position of a servant, despite the reality that all power was available to him.

Christ could have destroyed his enemies, but instead chose to allow himself to be arrested, tortured, and killed on a cross (cf. John 18:6). His position as a servant for the sake of others was taken as the result of the divine will. Hence, God’s active will expressed in Christ reveals God’s nature and therefore God’s preferred method of leadership. He chose to come and directly relate to his people as a servant who was willing to suffer extreme deprivation for the sake of those he came to serve. Hence, because it reveals the mind and will of God, there is no equivocation in Christ’s actions as he presents the biblical model of leadership.

Therefore, the position of this paper is that kenosis is best understood as Christ limiting his status and glory as God while maintaining his unique divine attributes. Instead of appearing as God, Christ choose to appear as a servant. Indeed, he not only appeared as a servant, but truly lived as one also. There is no need to invoke philosophical arguments that focus on ontology to describe the self-limiting of Christ. The passage in Philippians does not directly speak to such issues. What the passage reveals is how God works in the world. With profound humility he interacts with his creation as though he were a part of it. He comes to serve his people as a person who could identify with them at every level.

As God, it certainly was his right to deal with humanity in a very different way – one that involved the use of absolute power. However, the incarnation reveals the heart of God. While absolute power is available, his nature (as love) dictates that his power be channeled in ways that bless and transform others. Hence, Christ comes to his own, becomes one of them, lives amongst them, and in that context uses his divine attributes/power for the sake of the saving the world. The world has hope of redemption because of what he did with his powers while in it.

Application of Doctrine

Therefore, if Christ knowingly laid aside his privileges as God to become a servant so others could have life, then those who would follow him into positions of leadership must adopt the same attitude. Indeed, this was Paul’s main point, “Let this mind be in you….” (Phil. 1:5). The church is called to conform to the pattern of Christ in the way each member relates to one another. Christ limited himself, not claiming his rights, so as to better serve others. Hence, Paul writes in the previous verse, “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interest of others (Phil. 2:4). If this is the standard for the Body of Christ as a whole, then how much more for those who would be its shepherds? Biblical leadership, then, is grounded on the reality that Christ gave up his position as the Second Person of the Trinity, humbled himself as a servant, and used his abilities and powers for the sake of others, all the while pouring out his life, so others may live.

This has implications for God’s purpose and plan for biblical leadership within the church. First, to point out the obvious, leadership that exhibits kenosis will be aimed at people. Specifically, it will be aimed at the formation of people in the context of the Kingdom of God. In other words, the first priority of biblical leadership is not to get something accomplished (i.e. get an agenda completed). Sometimes leaders focus on the what of leadership (i.e. what needs to be done) to the neglect of the who of leadership (i.e. who am I leading). As a first priority biblical leadership is not about leading people to do things. It is about leading others to become a certain kind of people.

Throughout his ministry Christ was always focused people and the formation of their faith – and he was always willing to meet them where they were at. In Desiring the Kingdom, James Smith argues that the goal of discipleship should be aimed at “the formation of hearts and desires” (Smith, 2009, p19). He argues that people are by nature creatures of desire. They are lovers before they are thinkers. In other words, people follow their hearts before they submit to ideas. Therefore, to effectively disciple them, their desires must be cultivated with the goal of leading people to become lovers of God. Indeed, when asked “What is the greatest commandment in the law?” Jesus responded with, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Jesus saves people so they can become lovers/worshipers of God. The goal of biblical leadership, then, is not to get people to do something or to go somewhere, but to become someone – lovers of God. Formation of people to become lovers of God is the first priority of biblical leadership.

A second implication for biblical leadership is that for it to be effective in accomplishing its goal of spiritual formation, it must be incarnational. Jesus did not send a field manual from heaven telling people how to be changed. He came to accomplish the work himself. As one writer said, God has a “divine-preference for human agency” (Laniak, 2006, p22). This means God’s method of ministry is to dwell with his people as one of them (John 1:14). This entailed leaving behind the glories of heaven, disrobing himself of his divine majesty, and becoming human as he immersed himself into a world of unbelief and sin. Jesus walked and lived amongst the very people he came to save. In every area of life he was able to identify with the needs of his people (Hebrews 2:14-18). Therefore, to be effective, biblical leadership must embrace an incarnational approach to ministry.

It is not enough to speak to people once a week in a large setting. Incarnational ministry requires living amongst them. It requires entering into their difficulties, doing life with them, and engaging them where they are. In their book, Pastoral Theology, Akin and Pace write, “A philosophy of ministry that lovingly engages people where they are, humbly sacrifices for their needs, and intentionally delivers the gospel, can be described as incarnational” (Akin, Pace, 2017, p80). In an age of mega-churches where worship meetings look like concerts, this approach to ministry has become obscured. Even though Jesus did speak with large crowds, his most effective ministry was when he engaged people either individually, or in small groups where conversation could be had and where real, life-transforming change could be affected.

In addition, incarnational leadership requires a willingness to sacrifice. The incarnation of Christ required that he become the sin bearer of his people. The Bible says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). In order to transform his people, it was necessary that he first bear their burden. Only through the incarnation was that possible. So too, those who would assume the mantle of leadership must embrace the difficult reality that affecting spiritual formation in the lives of others will entail sacrifice. And while only the sacrifice of Christ can save others, church leaders understand that entering into the daily lives of people means getting involved in the activities and concerns of their life. Sometimes those concerns are messy and involve special attention, without which spiritual formation cannot be accomplished.

A third implication for biblical leadership entails a willingness to follow. We live in a world where self is king, and people are encouraged to build a monument to their ego. For biblical leadership to be effective, however, leaders must put God’s will ahead of personal ambition and desire. Just before Jesus is betrayed and arrested, we read these words,

My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me. And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will (Matthew 26:38-39).

To fulfill the Father’s will, it was necessary for Jesus to die on the cross. Henry Blackaby notes that Christ’s willingness to follow the Father’s will was central to his mission. Ultimately, his relationship with the Father defined his purpose in the world (Blackaby, 2001). Yet even Christ had to grapple with the full implication of what that entailed. His heart was heavy as the task loomed before him, and he prayed for the Father to remove the cup. But, however difficult the task, Jesus revoked his right for self-determination and willingly submitted to the task that would take his life.

This is what Paul was referring to in Philippians 2:7, when he wrote that Jesus “Emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant.” The word translated “servant” is the Greek word doulos, and is better translated, “slave.” Shockingly, Jesus submitted to the Father’s will as a slave submits to his master. The church often fails to understand the implications of what that means.

In his book, Slaves of Christ, Harris writes that slaves relinquished all rights to self-determination. In other words, slaves were “rightless” (Harris 1999, 37). We live in an age where individual rights are a leading virtue in society. People work diligently to ensure they do not lose their rights and defend those who have. However, to accomplish the Father’s will Jesus gave up his rights as God. Those who follow Christ are called to do the same. However, in today’s environment, this biblical reality has been overshadowed. Harris writes,

In twentieth-century Christianity we have replaced the expression ‘total surrender’ with the word ‘commitment’, and slave with ‘servant’. But there is an important difference. A servant gives service to someone, but a slave belongs to someone. We commit to do something, but when we surrender ourselves to someone, we give ourselves up (Harris, 1999, p18).

Christ willingly choose to give himself up. His act of surrender to the Father’s will was necessary to accomplish his work, and it cost him everything. To accomplish God’s will, biblical leadership demands that leaders are first followers. They follow God completely – even as slaves. They are willing to give everything up for the sake of the One they follow. “Not my will, but your will be done,” must be their guiding philosophy of ministry.

If the purpose of leadership, then, is to affect transformation in the lives of people via faith formation, as they immerse themselves incarnationally into their ministry setting, sacrificially serving for the benefit of others, then the role of the leader can best be described as that of a shepherd. In his Book, Shepherds After My Own Heart, Laniak provides a biblical overview of the theme, demonstrating that the motif of Shepherd describes not only those who serve God, but accurately describes God’s method of leadership amongst his people.

According to Laniak, Scripture portrays God as one who dwells amongst his people. As such, he is the one who provides, protects, and guides them (Laniak, 2006, p79-86). Laniak demonstrates that over the course of biblical history God identified with his people through shepherd imagery – imagery that was common to their daily life. By the time Christ enters history as the second person of the trinity, he claims the title of shepherd for himself (John 10:2). This identification conveys a rich tapestry of meaning whereby God’s people can readily understand how God relates to them (Laniak, 33). God is not a ruler siting on the distant throne. He is the One who is actively leading his people as he dwells with them, embracing their suffering, meeting their needs, and teaching them his ways. This imagery gives confidence to those under God’s watchful eye. It reveals that God takes ownership of his people. He knows his own and can call them by name (John 10:3). With this knowledge, they can rest in his care, trusting his provision, and rely on his guidance in all areas of life.

Therefore, a genuine shepherd is one who loves the sheep. Ultimately, a shepherd is defined not primarily by his skills but by his heart. As one writer rightly observed, “The well-being of the flock is the mark of a true shepherd” (Gunter, 2016, p8). Hence, “In the Good Shepherd discourse, Jesus demonstrates that genuine shepherd-leadership is indicated primarily by a singular concern for the sheep entrusted to the leader’s care” (Gunter, 2016, p9). This is clearly reflected in Jesus’ powerful declaration when he said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14). Everything Jesus did was defined by his love for people (John 3:16). It was his love that drove him to leave heaven and “take the form of a servant.” This is the essence of shepherd-leadership. It requires that leaders strive to cultivate the heart of a shepherd that loves the sheep. Such love, however, requires a complete dedication.

Therefore, because of the comprehensive commitment of being a shepherd, Jay Adams argues that those who seek positions of leadership within the church must count the cost (Adams, 1978, p11). Being a shepherd to God’s people requires more than a desire to teach and preach. It requires an understanding that a shepherd “is one who provides full and complete care for all of his sheep. Sheep are helpless (Isaiah 53:7), are followers (John 10:3-5), are likely to wander astray (Isaiah 53:6), but under his care they do not lack” (Adams, 1978, p5). The task of shepherding is all encompassing, requiring total commitment to the wellbeing of others. When Christ became our shepherd, he set aside his status and glory as the Son of God to become a servant who willingly died on the cross so that his people could be cleansed from their sin and brought into the Kingdom of God. He emptied himself of things that were rightly his, and he did this because the needs of his people required he do so. Jesus was willing to stoop into history to ensure his people lacked nothing.

If leadership is best described as shepherding, then what should be the response of those who are being led? The book of Hebrews gives some insight:

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. … Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb. 13:7, 17).

Here leaders are seen to have two responsibilities. The first is to lead by example. The second is to keep watch over those under their charge. As they accomplish those tasks, those who follow are to submit to their leadership.

The purpose of submission is so leaders can appropriately care for those they lead. And the purpose they lead is to effectively influence the faith of those who follow. Submission does not imply an imperial form of leadership where the shepherd has complete control over his charges. Rather, it recognizes that the shepherd has the best interests of the sheep in mind. He seeks to lead them in a way that will maximize their spiritual growth and formation. Therefore, trusting that the shepherd is acting in the sheep’s best interest, they follow where he leads (and where he is himself going). But, for leaders to succeed in their task, submission is necessary. Without submitting to the guidance of their leaders, spiritual formation can become obstructed and impaired. Many a sheep have wandered, and even been lost to wolves, because they “kicked against the pricks.”

However, for leaders to invite this kind of attitude in those that follow, a spirit of humility is required. Unfortunately, the importance of this truth is often overlooked. In his monograph, Kenosis and its Discontents, Stephen Pardue writes,

Less remarked upon, but equally important, is an analogous and long-standing debate about the nature and pervasiveness that we should assign to humility in Christian teaching. Indeed, the interweaving of humility and kenosis in Philippians 2 arguably requires that the two rise or fall together; even if the concepts are not semantically equal, their meanings and their theological implications overlap in manifold and important ways (Pardue, 2012, p271).

He argues that those who lead Christ’s people must emulate Christ – which means they must humble themselves as he did. Christ was the ultimate servant. Though God, he came in a spirit of gentle humility. He led by example and demonstrated what humility looks like in the context of biblical leadership (Pardue, 2012, p278). Without a spirit of humility, biblical leadership simply cannot happen. In an age where the measure of a ministry is seen in crowd sizes, humility is, unfortunately, not always promoted as a leading value in leadership.

Speaking about its necessity, in his book, Letters to the Church, Francis Chan shares a conversation he had with a pastor from India who has been instrumental in discipling over three million people. He writes,

He proceeded to tell me that his biggest mistakes were the times when he allowed people into leadership who were not humble. He got so excited about releasing their gifts, but it always led to their destruction…. Now his main criterion for identifying leaders is their humility, and his leadership problems have significantly decreased (Chan, 2018, p114-115).

Without humility there can be no real lasting success or impact for the Kingdom of God. Instead, a lack of humility can damage the cause of Christ and derail the spiritual formation of those being lead. As demonstrated by Christ, humility is a bed-rock, non-negotiable attribute if biblical leadership is to be effective and lasting. It is the essence of kenosis.  Biblical leadership rises or falls on this one character trait. Jesus fully embodied humility in his incarnation; and only because of this reality was he able to secure eternal salvation for all who would come to him.

Further, in his humility God’s power became manifest. Jesus’ death secured eternal life for those who come to him in faith. He demonstrated that it is through a humble spirit that God reveals his power (cf. 2 Cor. 12:1-9). Therefore, humility becomes the necessary conduit that channels the power and glory of God which impacts people as nothing else can. As one writer said, humility “wields power far greater than one might have expected” (Pardue, 2012, p280). Dr. James Allan Francis captured this reality in his poem, One Solitary Life:

Today we look back across nineteen hundred years and ask, What kind of trail has he left across the centuries? When we try to sum up his influence, all the armies that ever marched, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned are absolutely picayune in their influence on mankind compared with that of this one solitary life…. (Francis, 1926).

Never was there a more humble man than Jesus, and never did the power of God shine so brightly. There is genuine power in a humble life that seeks to serve others. Jesus proved it could be done; and he expects his people, especially those who lead his church, to live such a life themselves.


There are many paradoxes in scripture. What the kenosis of Christ teaches is that to be great one must first seek to be least. Indeed, Jesus said, “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:11-12). The key to success in biblical leadership, then, is to follow the self-emptying of Christ. Only through the model he provided and exemplified can his work be accomplished today.

This paper has argued that for biblical leadership to be effective, leaders must embrace a life of self-denial as seen in Christ. He emptied himself in order to lift others up. Biblical leadership occurs when, in a spirit of Christ-like humility, leaders cultivate a shepherd’s heart that seeks the well-being of those led, for the purpose of leading them to become lovers of God.



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Akin, D., Pace, R. (2017). Pastoral Theology : Theological foundations for who a pastor is and what he does. Nashville, B&H Academic.

Blackaby, H. Blackaby, R. (2001). Spiritual Leadership : Moving people to God’s agenda. Nashville. Broadman & Holman Publishers.

Chan, F. (2018). Letters to the Church. Colorado Springs, CO: David Cook Press.

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Packer, J.I. (1993). Knowing God. IL: InterVarsity Press.

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Poidevin, R. (2013), Kenosis, Necessity and Incarnation. Heythrop Journal, 54(2): 214-227 doi:10.1111/j.1468-2265.2012.00796.x

Smith, J. (2009). Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic.




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