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Public leadership: Seeking God’s kingdom first

Being part of God’s kingdom shapes how we see public leadership, says David Smyth

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.

A foodbank, a new business venture, mums and tots in the portacabin at church, recycling your plastic bottles. A teacher bringing knowledge to her students, a lawyer fighting for justice, a nurse compassionately binding up wounds. Kingdom seems to be used as a neat shorthand for everything we used to call church and work or even all that is good in the world.

God is before all things and in Him all things hold together (Colossians 1:17), and He is King over all the earth (Psalm 47:7). So, is it that simple? Is every good act, worshipfully committed by a Christian, part of God’s kingdom? Is it evidence of the kingdom breaking in? Is this joining God in the renewal of all things – are these all the same thing? And where does public leadership fit in God’s kingdom?

The kingdom of God is the best and most subversive message ever to be proclaimed in any age. While there are different theological approaches to understanding God’s kingdom, there is no doubt among Christians that the kingship of God and His kingdom rule are key themes in scripture from the garden in Genesis to the city in Revelation. It is the true story of God’s rule over His world – the defeat of sin and death, salvation and redemption culminating in the return of King Jesus and the new creation as described in Revelation 21. It is at the same time, near and now but not yet and still to come. 

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We are invited into the salty foretaste, the light in the darkness which reveals an upside-down world where the least are the greatest, the first are last, the poor are rich, where adults are to grow more childlike and where death leads to life. We enter this kingdom by dying to ourselves and being born again: being adopted into God’s family, we become part of a royal priesthood –mind, heart and lives transforming and conforming to the image of Jesus. This has profound consequences for how we see and be in the world around us. 

Here are three ways living as a subject in God’s kingdom transforms our approach to public leadership:

Power

The exercise of this power and influence through public leadership is going to look different through God’s kingdom lens than through a corporate or sector-specific filter. In the way of the world, those at the top of the institution hold the most power, money and status. So often in Christianity we copy this culture but in God’s kingdom things are different. It crosses and transcends, is found within and outside of this world’s structures. The term servant leadership’ often seems to be used as a reason to avoid the label of leader’, but rather than a rejection of leadership it should be an attitude we hold as we lead.

God brought people like Daniel and Esther into worldly positions of power; and there is power in these roles, connections and knowledge that not everyone has access to – actions that can be taken on a large scale. But God also uses the weak things of the world to shame the strong: a rural shepherd boy topples the philistine army, and Jesus the King of all the earth became a carpenter travelling-preacher, seemingly devoid of power, wealth or authority.

God’s kingdom rule restores the creation mandate of dominion under God in all of us. Dead to ourselves but alive to Christ, we carry His presence and authority, living in us, everywhere we go. In this way and in many instances, we often become the most powerful people in the room, though frequently neither we nor anyone else realise it. Public leaders don’t have to climb the corporate ladder so they can be in positions of influence – Christians already have power, regardless of their title or the number of social media followers they have. This radically redefines how we understand the power-cultures within our spheres. Don’t get me wrong, though: there are and will be many Christians who are moved to rise to the top of the organisations God has placed them so that they can be a person of influence for His sake – and this is no bad thing.

Presence

Christian public leaders are living temples of the presence of God. This presence of God redeems and transforms, bringing holy judgement and mercy, life, hope and light. Whether in the arts, healthcare, education, justice or enterprise, Christian public leaders warm these spaces, witnessing to new life and hope under the kingdom rule of God. Too often people talk about how they serve God in their church, unable to see the ways in which they serve God in their workplaces and local communities as well. You can’t be an ambassador without stepping into foreign territory, and a light can only fulfil its purpose when standing in the darkness.

Purpose

Christian public leaders see everything through their call to follow Jesus. This gives new purpose and possibilities to their work and all areas of life. As Christians we are sent into the world by Christ with purpose (John 17). We are ambassadors of another kingdom with the ministry of reconciliation in a culture divided by sin (2 Corinthians 5). God is unfolding His good and redemptive mustard seed purposes throughout every area of life. Our role is to witness to Christ and His work, through which all things find their purpose. Everyday acts of public leadership become valuable acts of worship.

So, how exactly does public leadership fit into God’s kingdom? Ultimately, that’s an answer only the King can give. But it’s clear that if we’ve caught even a glimpse of how this kingdom is described in scripture, our approach to public leadership is going to be distinctly other-worldly in power, presence and purpose.

Photo by Ben White

About the author

David Smyth is public policy lead at Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland and coordinates the Public Leader: Northern Ireland course. He is a former solicitor and represents the Evangelical Alliance on a range of government, civic and charitable forums. He serves in the space where faith, law, politics and culture intersect.

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