Unlocking the Power of Redemptive Leadership


A charismatic leader in a church with a wide influence on the various assistant pastors, directors, and small group leaders used his influence too often in unChristian ways. He had an eye for who “fit” and who had the “DNA.” He also perceived those who disagreed with him, even if on a small matter, as a threat. So he used his influence, or power, to discredit those who did not fit. At times he formed alliances against people he did not think should be working for the church. Behind closed doors he used his power to gossip and at times spoiled the reputations of others. His influence became a tangible social power, a culture, to all around him. Before long, those he did not like knew they no longer fit and chose to leave. Quietly and privately he saw such leavings as a victory though he usually used words to make such persons think he liked them and would miss them.

Power is a dangerous poison in the hands of people in need of deeper character formation.

Power, when stewarded as Jesus taught, creates a culture we call tov (Hebrew for “good” or “goodness). Power can become an agent of toxicity that degrades and discredits others. Power can also become a redemptive agent of tov that empowers others and glorifies God. Character determines whether power becomes toxic or tov.

The New Testament flipped the script of power so radically that it stunned the audiences of Jesus and the apostles.

Once two of Jesus’ favorite followers approached him, expressing a desire to be on top. Well, not exactly. They asked, put up to this by their mother (no kidding, look it up in Matthew 20:20-21), if one could sit at Jesus’ right and one at his left when the Kingdom of God arrived. A perfect set-up for Jesus. He leaned on the ways of Rome. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them” (20:25, niv). His next words, only four little words, pierced their hearts: “Not so with you.” The way of Rome, which is the way of power through domination and intimidation, through degrading others and gossiping about fellow workers, is not the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus looks like this: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (20:28, niv). Jesus used his power for the sake of others. To empower others. He used power redemptively.

Each of us, as Diane Langberg reminds us in her wonderful book Redeeming Power, have power. We have influence. Parents and pastors and teachers and neighbors and voters.

How you and I use our power, our influence, can be reduced to four little words found in these four questions:

Do we use our influence as a power over others?

Do we use our influence as a power to influence others in ways we want?

Do we share our influence as a power with others?

Do we engage our influence as a power for others?

The way of Rome uses power to dominate others (power over) and it manipulates its power to get people to do what Rome wants (power to). But Jesus called his followers to use their power to share with others, which is what the spiritual gifts are all about, and to use their power for the good of others.

We all have power.

Are we using our power redemptively or to buckle others under or to manipulate others to do what we desire?

Think of how the apostle Paul responded to the Philippians when they were gossiping about one another and tearing one another apart. When they were using their power for their own interests. He reminded them of the way of Jesus and, without quoting one word of Jesus, laid out for them the way of Jesus. Jesus surrendered his status and glory to enter the world of sinners in order to redeem sinners. He redeemed them in order to glorify God (Philippians 2:6-11).

Maybe the most radical example of reminding the community of Jesus of the way of Jesus is found in Revelation 5. John began to “weep bitterly” when he realized that in all of heaven and earth no one was “worthy” to open the seals that would finally bring justice to the world (5:4, nlt). Suddenly, one of the twenty-four elders around the throne of God said, “Wait. We’ve found someone. The Lion of Judah is worthy” (my paraphrase of 5:5). But when John looked for the Lion he discovered not a mighty, ferocious, intimidating lion but a Lamb “as if it had been slain.”

Just like Jesus.

The way to use our influence and power according to Jesus is not to assert dominance or to manipulate others, but to share power and to use it to redeem others and so empower them. To give ourselves for others.

Scot McKnight is professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary and a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. He is the author of more than ninety books, including A Church Called Tov, the award-winning The Jesus Creed, and The Blue Parakeet. He and his wife, Kristen, live in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Pivot: The Priorities, Practices, and Powers That Can Transform Your Church into a Tov Culture, a new book written by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, releases in September.

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