HOW CAN ONE IDENTIFY A SPIRITUAL LEADER, one sent by God? That is the question. From men like Joel Osteen or Creflow Dollar, to Billy Graham, John Piper, or Tim Keller, leaders come in all sizes and shapes. Some have a Ph.D.—others a High School diploma. Some are eloquent speakers, others less so. Some are old, others young, some are white or black, blue collar or white collar. But, every leader sent by God shares one common quality, and by this you can discern their call.
God’s leader moves God’s people, onto God’s agenda, with God’s means for God’s glory. It’s that simple.
Although formal education is helpful, accomplishing the above requires something more. The goal of education is to equip God’s man to move God’s people onto God’s agenda with God’s means for God’s glory. But education doesn’t always accomplish this. It’s also important to remember that the Bible puts no emphasis on formal education. But it puts a massive emphasis on godliness (See 1 Timothy 3:1ff).
I am for formal education, but it is never the main thing. It is secondary. Neither Augustine, John Calvin, Charles Spurgeon, nor Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones enjoyed the privilege of formal theological training, yet they were some of the most effective leaders in church history. On the other hand, we have all known skilled in Hebrew, Greek, and systematics, who has published his doctoral dissertation, but has little ability to impact God’s people.
God’s leader moves God’s people onto God’s agenda with God’s means for God’s glory.
What is God’s agenda? It is a church that glorifies him. This means new converts, because the conversion of needy sinners glorifies God’s mercy and grace. We want more conversions, not just for the person’s sake, but more importantly for God’s.
But it doesn’t stop there. God’s agenda also means progressive sanctification—God’s holiness expressed through his people. What does this look like? It is a church unified around the gospel. It is a people growing in humility as they behold their unworthiness in the light of God’s sinless perfections. It is a people growing in servanthood. It is also husbands and wives increasingly serving each other as they invest themselves in the lives of their children. It means a church that self-replicates leaders—a church that is a leadership factory.
How does a church get on God’s agenda? The church gets on God’s agenda by using God’s means.
God’s means to his ends are utterly different than man’s. The first is his example. Does he model humility? Does he love his wife? Does she submit to and support him? Are his children happily growing in grace and godliness? Does he model what he preaches? Does he use people or serve them? Does he use his position to enrich himself, or does he use it to enrich those around him, if necessary, at his expense?
It is the same for his elders. Do they model what they preach? This matters because the church will only rise as high as its elders. Whatever the elders are the church will become. Are the elders experiencing true Christian community? Are their families in good order? Does unselfish ambition characterize their relationships? Do they love and serve each other?
Besides example, the elders of each local church have a second “means” to God’s agenda—the Word of God. The power of God to change people is in his word. All preaching and counseling must be focused on, expressive of, and honoring of God’s Word. A Word-saturated church is a healthy church. It moves God’s people onto God’s agenda.
God’s leaders also have a third “means”—death to self-life!
Jesus went to the cross. He died that we might live. Paul saw this and understood that Christ’s death laid down a timeless, universal leadership principle. Death precedes life. Paul would live according to his willingness to die. He also knew that his followers would live according to his willingness to die. In other words, he understood that there is no spiritual life unless and until someone dies to their self-life. This is the third crucial means that moves God’s people onto God’s agenda.
Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.”2 Corinthians 4:10-12
Last God’s man does all this for God’s glory. Motives matter. They matter greatly. What motivates the leader? What energizes him? Is it a large church? Is it the esteem of others, or is it the esteem of God?
Ultimately, God does everything for his glory. The center of John’s vision (Revelation four) is God’s throne. The Cherubim and Elders encircle him. They focus on God. God is the reason. He is the purpose for everything. “That in all things Christ might be preeminent” (Colossians 1:18). “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever” (Romans 11:36).
A faithful leader understands this. He daily crucifies the lust for self-glorification which is systemic to our fallen human nature. The only person who knows if he really does this is God. But eventually, the character of the church will make the nature of his motives known.
God’s leaders move God’s people onto God’s agenda with God’s means for God’s glory. But whether or not this is occurring is not always immediately apparent. Fruit grows slowly, much slower than we would like. Sometimes you need to be in a church for a year or longer before you can discern if this is really happening. Real fruit, the kind that ultimately matters, takes time to discern. All that glitters is not gold.
But of this you can be sure. A man sent from God will move God’s people onto God’s agenda with God’s means for God’s glory. Eventually, it will become clear if this is what he is really doing. This is how you and I can discern a leader’s authenticity.