Aaron became an elder in a church where I was the lead pastor. He was intelligent, knowledgeable of the Bible, a good husband and father, a good Bible teacher, and he discipled others. By all qualifications, he was a model elder. I was excited to have someone so capable to serve alongside in our growing church. I needed his strong leadership. As soon as the church installed him as an elder, his attitude and actions changed. He led with a relentless, forceful hand. It became apparent to me that his leadership did not include love. When I pointed that out to him, he said the biblical elder qualifications do not include love but authority. He eventually resigned, leaving a trail of destruction behind.
We can lead by force or we can lead by love. Both are effective ways to get the attention of those we are guiding, but only one approach is truly persuasive, because it is the leadership avenue shaped by the gospel.
I could not argue that the technical list of elder qualifications does not explicitly include love for the congregation, fellow elders, and those in a community. But church leaders have a calling to shepherd like Christ. Loving others is implicit in the call to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2). Jesus made it clear that love is the foundation for following him.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this, all people will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35).
Wisdom from the book of Philemon
The little-known letter found in the book of Philemon is one of the treasures of the New Testament. The apostle Paul gives us a hefty dose of wisdom and pastoral savvy when writing his shortest letter. Paul was the human agent in the conversion of both Philemon and Onesimus. Onesimus, introduced in verse 10, is traditionally considered Philemon’s indentured servant who stole from him (v. 18) and fled to Rome (vv. 15–16), where he encountered the apostle Paul and became a believer (v. 10). According to Paul, he once was useless but became “useful” to the apostle (v.11). The name Onesimus means “useful.”
The point of the letter seems to be to bring reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus. Paul thinks enough of Onesimus and his transformation that he would like Onesimus to travel and minister with him (vv. 14, 20–21).
Paul led with love. Looking at how he handled the situation between Onesimus and Philemon, we can glean several principles for leaders who have been impacted by Christ’s love.
1. Gospel-shaped leaders encourage generously.
Paul expresses his respect for Philemon and notes how he is making a difference in the lives of the saints. He specifically mentions Philemon’s love for the gathered believers and how he is refreshing them in their faith. He does this same thing in his letters to Timothy. I am afraid the church today is encouragement-deficient because her leaders aren’t encouragers. What can we do to better spur on one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24) and to highlight the work of God in the lives of those we lead? Can we encourage too much? To guard against unbelieving hearts that fall away from the faith, the writer of Hebrews says, “But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13 NASB1995).
2. Gospel-shaped leaders lead with love.
Paul implies his authority as an apostle and as an older man. But he appeals to Philemon based on love. though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you “ (vv. 8–9, ESV). Our position or age does not give us total license to direct others to do something—even if it’s right. A leader must love with gentle courage.
3. Gospel-shaped leaders stand in the gap for the benefit of others.
Paul advocated for the good of Onesimus, not for personal advancement (v. 10). Christ is an advocate for us. “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). An advocate stands in the gap to support or comfort another. Leaders step in to shield, advance, console, and reconcile.
4. Gospel-shaped leaders submit with Christ-like humility.
Paul willingly submits to the authority of Philemon and leaves the decision to Philemon to do what he feels is correct (v. 14). One Sunday morning, I exercised my pastoral authority without wisdom. I decided to combine two adult Sunday School classes without discussing it with the teachers. It was my prerogative as the lead pastor, but it lacked respect for others. I could have avoided conflict with one old-school phone call by saying, “Here is why I think it is best to combine classes today, but it’s your class. What do you think?” Leaders must strive for ever-increasing humility by “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
5. Gospel-shaped leaders treat everyone with honor.
Paul referred to both Philemon, the well-to-do leader in the church, and Onesimus, the indebted runaway servant, as a “beloved brother” (vv. 1, 16, emphasis added).The church is currently dividing over race, gender, politics, social status, vaccines, and theology that is not of first importance (1 Corinthians 15:3–4). Leaders can use their position and influence instead to create a culture of honor. In our church, we try to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). It starts with the example of the leaders.
Loving others may not officially be on the delineated list of church leader qualifications, but it is foundational to Christianity. The Bible says if leaders communicate effectively, have insightful Bible knowledge, have faith to move mountains, experience “success” in ministry, and don’t have love, they are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1–3, emphasis added).
We can lead by force, or we can lead by love. Leading with love is leading like Christ.
The Gospel Shaped Leader: Leading ON Jesus to Shepherd His People
Through many years of ministry experience, Thomas has seen the importance of the “soft skills” of leadership—empathy, kindness, and listening—and how not developing those skills negatively impacts churches. Understanding and applying the gospel will bring transformation.