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Public leadership: Leading in making Jesus known

How public leadership can make Jesus known in our communities – by Abi Jarvis

Public leadership can shape and transform society. In a time of social disunity and chaos we’re exploring the power of public leadership to influence change, taking a look back at evangelical change-makers throughout history, how the kingdom of God influences public leadership and how our Christian identity shapes the way we lead.

I have long struggled with the way I hear many Christians refer to the concept of servant leadership’. It seems to have been misunderstood as an advocation for a path of service only, to turn away from leadership roles and simply wait to be asked to do something instead. 

I think servant leadership is a call to have an attitude of service as a leader. At the heart of public leadership is the belief that Christians can utilise the power and authority they have in their workplaces and communities in order to serve the people around us and to be a voice for God. 

The very first sentence in the Bible says that God created the heavens and the earth. He was, and is, the ultimate authority, with all power. But within just two chapters, God granted Adam the authority (and creativity) to name all the animals God had created and to rule over them. He gave humanity the great gift of delegated authority, as His ambassadors on earth. 

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The reality is that everyone has power of some sort. We often call it influence’ to soften it, but the fact remains, we all have ways in which we can affect the people around us. We can choose to utilise that power for our own benefit or for the benefit of others, in self-promotion or in service. This doesn’t just apply to those with a grand title at work; there is also power in being a liked and respected community member or bringing a warm, friendly attitude to a customer service role. 

But as with all gifts, we can use them badly, to serve ourselves and not to give glory to God. After the fall of man, this gift remained but it became subject to corruption. Before the fall humans named animals, cared for the ground, and walked with God. After the fall eating food from the ground became painful toil”, animals were killed for clothing (Genesis 3:17 – 23), and leaders including Joseph, Daniel and Esther sought God’s wisdom as they walked alongside pagan rulers. People chose to use the gift of authority for their own benefit, not for others, nor for God. 

The early church (as per the book of Acts) was full of people who had power in places filled with corruption: Lydia, a business woman, would have had to deal with the powerful guilds who practiced ritual sacrifices as part of their trade deals – a bit like a business leader today deciding whether to participate in industry practices of bribery and cooking the books’. 

Dionysius was a member of the Aeropagus, the high court of Athens, which met surrounded by alters to pagan gods – a bit like an artist surrounded by people invested in conflicting ideologies. In big ways and small, God’s people, as shown throughout the Bible, held power and authority, and faced the challenge of how to do so in a way which served Him. 

Most of us are not politicians or influential business owners, and we might feel ill-equipped for leadership. Perhaps we’ve lost hope of making much difference in such a chaotic world. Thankfully, leadership isn’t about changing everything in the world all at once. In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann comments that a confrontational model of prophet versus established power … [is] increasingly difficult to bring off and without great social effect”. For most of us, smaller acts of leadership, such as changing something in our workplace culture, can influence and change the status quo. This doesn’t mean it is any less faithful or God-serving than high-profile leadership. 

The questions we must ask are: What is God asking me to do right now, in the context of leadership I’m in? And what might He be leading me to in the future? We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us avoid the desires of the flesh”, which have caused many leaders to fail (Galatians 5:16 – 21), to aid us in the work God has set before us (Exodus 31:1 – 5), and to prophesy where society might be heading (Nehemiah 9:30).

If we keep our faith private, our ability to share Jesus is limited. I am not an evangelist, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want people to know Jesus. I’m terrible at making the pitch’, but thank God He uses each one of us according to the gifts He has given us. Making Jesus known can mean so much more than the 30-second bus station pitch. 

In 1 Peter, Peter reminds the churches of Asia Minor that their faith has made them a single community, united not just by following Jesus but by refusing to take part in the sinful practices of the society in which they live. Their lives should be different to those around them, marking them as foreigners’ and leading people around them to glorify God (1 Peter 2:10 – 12). 

The idea of going public’ about our faith can seem scary, confusing, or even unnecessary. Perhaps you feel more comfortable serving in anonymity, keeping your faith private. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. But have you considered the opportunities you could be missing? Opportunities to tell people that your approach to power and authority comes from a desire to serve God? Opportunities to remind people that Jesus is your model for treating everyone with equal respect and attention. 

Joseph and Daniel were given great power and prestige for their prophetic social leadership, but both told their rulers that it was God who deserved the glory (Genesis 41:16, Daniel 5:17). And like these individuals (and like Tim Farron), public leadership leaves you vulnerable to attack. As Paul reminded Timothy: Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Be ready and prepared for this. 

Esther chose the difficult path of going public with her religious identity, following God’s guidance and making herself vulnerable to attack. But just as Abraham was blessed so that all peoples on earth will be blessed” through him (Genesis 12:2 – 3), Mordecai suggested to Esther that she had been placed in a position of influence so that she could save lives (Esther 4:14).

Public leaders bring glory to God, not to themselves. But we must utilise the influence God has given us – whether that’s national prominence, in the local community, or your small office – in order to do so.

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About the author

Abi Jarvis is the public leadership coordinator at the Evangelical Alliance, seeking to equip Christians with the skills and confidence to be leaders in the places where God has called them. She has responsibility for the SENT course and the Public Leader: England curriculum.

Abi has a BA in Ancient History and an MSc in Political Communication. She enjoys going to the theatre, watches too many American TV dramas, and somehow became responsible for daily office exercises despite her hatred of all things sporty.

Much to her dismay, Abi ticks the box for pretty much every stereotypical feature of a PK – a pastor's kid.

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