Christ-like leadership: Considering the Question of Character

In the recent Singapore General Election, the concern was about electing the “right” political leaders to govern the nation for the next five years. As Christians, what are biblical qualities of leadership that God would deem essential for those who are followers of Christ. Dr Lewis Winkler, an EAST resident faculty who teaches theological studies, shares his thoughts from the Scripture.

“Leadership is influence”(Maxwell 2007, 13). John Maxwell’s well-known dictum captures a profound but simple truth: People who influence others are leaders. For Christians, two crucial questions arise. First, what kind of influence are we talking about? Is it coercive and manipulative or persuasive and empowering? Is it accidental and piecemeal or thoughtful and intentional? In short, what kind of influence is exercised upon others, from where does it come, and how it is properly obtained and developed?

This leads us to a second and more important question for Christian leaders. What does Christ-like influence look like? The church talks a lot about leadership but too often takes its models from primarily non-Christian sources. Christians can glean wisdom from such sources, of course, but failure to give adequate attention to specifically Christian concerns regarding leadership can end up diminishing or even opposing a biblical vision of what a Christ-like leader should look like.

Defining Christian Leadership

All of this illustrates the importance of clearly defining specifically Christian leadership versus leadership in general. Church leadership expert J. Robert Clinton defines it thus: “A leader is a person with God-given capacity and God-given responsibility who influences a group of followers towards God’s purposes for the group” (Clinton 1988, 127). Here, God-given capacity and responsibility come into view such that leadership influence in the church is first and foremost grounded in God’s graciousness, directing us toward specifically divine goals and ideals, not merely human ones.

God-given responsibility involves both calling and opportunity. Has God called the person to lead, and what opportunities has He provided to influence others? God-given capacity, on the other hand, involves both gifting and training. Gifting is a divine endowment involving both natural and spiritual gifts. In this regard, God is responsible for how gifted a Christian might be in terms of leadership capacities. Training, however, involves the active and ongoing choices of the Christian leader to grow in three primary arenas: knowledge, skill, and character. Thus, the development of these becomes, at least in part, the responsibility of the individual leader.

As important and valuable acquiring knowledge and skill are, this article only addresses the question of character in the Christian leader since it is the most important and foundational aspect. Christians can be naturally and spiritually gifted, well-versed in leadership theory and practice, and highly skilled in the application and execution of leadership principles, and still be ungodly leaders. In short, without godly character, leaders can easily slip into the dangerous and damaging practice of using their gifts, knowledge, and skill to manipulate and control rather than empower and persuade. Consequently, rather than honoring and glorifying God, leaders can end up promoting their own agendas and advancement, often without even realizing it. Consequently, Christ-like character becomes the bedrock of a leadership that seeks to influence others to increasingly honor, obey, and love God.

Defining Christ-like Character

Granted that character counts in Christian leadership, the question then becomes this: What is the content of Christ-like character? What does it look like for someone to be genuinely Christ-like? Due to the limited scope of this article, only three Christ-like characteristics—goodness, gentleness, and humbleness—will be considered (Sanders 1985, 69-111). These were chosen because they are the traits Jesus explicitly uses to describe Himself in John 10:11, 14 and Matthew 11:29. Additionally, such qualities are not always adequately highlighted in contemporary leadership books and seminars where other concerns tend to take pride of place.

We begin in John 10:11 and 14, where Jesus calls Himself the good shepherd. The Greek word (kalos) denotes demonstrated honorable and noble character. From the context, we see that Jesus’s goodness is manifested in radically self-giving love and protective care. His love is so great, He willingly sacrifice His very life for the safety and well-being of His flock. Later, in John 15:3, He reiterates this idea, telling the disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.” Thus, goodness is shown in giving one’s own life away for the well-being and protection of those being led. Just as Christ did not regard equality with God as something to be held onto, He “made himself nothing” (Philippians 2:7-8) and “gave His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) to demonstrate His utter goodness.

This kind of Christ-like goodness, then, when exercised by a leader, is more than moral righteousness, as important as that it. It includes willingness to sacrifice oneself for the betterment of those entrusted to one’s care. Peter highlights this in 1 Peter 5:1-6 when he exhorts spiritual leaders to shepherd people in a non-domineering way because when Jesus, the Chief Shepherd, appears, He will judge spiritual leaders for failing to lead with self-giving humility—as Jesus led.

To be good, as Christ is good, a leader must honestly ask and answer the following set of questions: Do I exhibit self-sacrificial care and concern for those under my care? Am I willing to offer and pour out my very life in service of others so they might become the people God wants them to be? Or am I leading to protect myself, control others, and advance my own agendas and interests? The good and Christ-like leader lays down his or her life for the sake of others and the glory of God.

Looking at the second characteristic, Jesus describes Himself as “gentle” (Matthew 11:29). The Greek word (praus) is sometimes translated “meek.” It is not easy to find an English equivalent because it does not mean weakness, as meekness might suggest. The best way to describe it is the exercise of strength under control—the appropriate use of power and authority without harshness or excess. Leaders possess legitimate, God-given power and authority, but Christ-like leaders exercise these with exceptional wisdom and restraint, using only what is needed to gently move those in their care toward greater godliness.

This kind of restraint is clearly demonstrated by Jesus at His crucifixion. Matthew 27:42-44 tells us that the chief priests, scribes, elders, and even the thieves beside him, mocked and ridiculed Jesus as He hung on the cross, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself . . . . Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” A moment’s reflection reveals that as the Son of God—the second person of the Trinity and the Creator of the universe, Jesus could have blasted them all to kingdom come if He wished. Instead, He patiently exercised His almighty power and authority to not only remain on the cross as a sacrifice for sin, but to call upon the Father to forgive them for their godless ignorance (Luke 23:34). This puts biblical gentleness is a new light. Leaders should utilize their power and authority with exceptional wisdom and restraint, helping those under their care to be brought into a deeper experience of God’s unmatched kindness and forgiving love. As Cornerstone University President Joseph Stowell puts it, “for all us of who have thought that meekness is weakness, it’s time to think again. It seems to me that it takes a very strong leader to refuse the easy way of controlling the environment with brutish behavior” (Stowell 2014, 153).

Again, an honest self-assessment using the following questions can help a leader discern if his or her life is genuinely characterized by the gentleness of Christ. How do I use my power and authority in leadership? Do I use them with Spirit-filled and God-guided restraint, or am I prone to demanding immediate and unquestioned acquiescence to my demands? Do those beneath me tend to exhibit fear and a reluctance to disagree or speak up in my presence, or do I cultivate an open atmosphere of patient grace and kindness? The gentle leader uses power and authority with astute and extraordinary restraint to encourage and empower others to become increasingly more like Christ, walking “in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6).

Lastly, Jesus describes Himself in Matthew 11:29 as “lowly.” The Greek word (tapeinos) literally means, “low-lying” or “low to the ground.” In scripture, it is often used figuratively and translated, “humble,” as it is, for example, in James 4:6. Humble leaders are “low to the ground” and do not demand or seek to be elevated and exalted in their leadership. This is the profound irony when speaking of humility and lowliness in leadership since leaders are often considered to be “above” and “higher than” those they lead. And yet, no human being was more exalted and yet humbled Himself more completely than our Lord Jesus Christ. This was Paul’s point in Philippians 2:3-11. Jesus did not demand that He retain or hold onto His exalted position, although He has the right. Instead, He “humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). Again, we see the astounding nature of Jesus’s sacrificial and self-denying character in a very concrete way.

The Christ-like leader consciously chooses to release his or her position and rights so that others might be exalted instead. This is precisely what is meant in passages like James 4:10 and 1 Peter 5:6 where believers are told to humble themselves, trusting that God will exalt them “at the proper time.” While God humbles us in a variety of ways, He also calls us to intentionally lower ourselves for the greater benefit and well-being of others. Thus, “Humble people realize that humility is a choice.” Not only that, but humility gives ongoing and open acknowledgment that everything the leader has, every natural talent and ability, spiritual gift, training and leadership opportunity, even life itself, are all gifts from God. To humble oneself, then, is to give thanks to God and consciously promote His glory and the well-being of others. Such promotion is most manifest in unrelenting love and sacrificial service.

Leaders who desire to become more like Jesus should honestly ask and answer questions like these: Do I tend to take credit for my successes or am I quick to recognize and give thanks to God and for the help of others in every successful endeavor? Do I expect to be served or do I actively look for opportunities to serve and encourage others? Am I holding on tightly to my position and place of power or using them to promote and care for others? Ultimately, humble, Christ-like leaders are filled with gratitude and emptied of pride.


Leadership is influence, but Christian leaders should especially be concerned about the kind of influence they have upon others. Ultimately, character determines a leader’s spiritual legacy and impact. And while Christ embodies many important and admirable character traits, His self-ascribed qualities of goodness, gentleness, and humbleness can take a leader a long way toward the goal of exhibiting Christlikeness. As the Apostle Peter explains, “if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:8).


Clinton, J. Robert. 1988. The Making of a Leader: Recognizing the Lessons and Stages of Leadership Development. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Maxwell, John C. 2007. The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You. 10th anniversary edition. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Sanders, J. Oswald. 1986. Spiritual Leadership. Chicago, IL: Moody.

Stowell, Joseph M. 2014. Redefining Leadership: Character-driven Habits of Effective Leaders. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

About the author: Dr Lewis Winkler is a resident faculty of East Asia School of Theology.

#SaturdayGoodRead #EASTfaculty #ChristlikeLeader #ServantLeader

Comments are closed.