“Was Martin Luther a multi-directional leader?”

That question, put to me by Collin Hansen last year, made me pause. Can we say that Luther, the firebrand theologian whose work launched the Reformation, was “multi-directional” in the way my book describes—aware of dangers coming at the flock from multiple sides of the field, willing to hold tightly to multiple truths in their fullness?

On some issues, perhaps.

Luther opposed the errors of the medieval Catholic church, but he also recognized the anarchist dead end of the radical Anabaptist movement. Still, there’s little resemblance between Luther and a model multi-directional leader like John Stott, especially when considering Luther’s temperament, his rhetoric, and his laser-like focus on justification by faith alone (to the point where he questioned whether James’s epistle belonged in the canon of Scripture!).

Was Luther an extremist? A one-directional leader in most matters? It appears so. And yet, we Protestants recognize that Luther’s extremism on a matter of central importance was used by God. Even the one-directional leader plays a role in the sovereign purposes of God.

God at Work

I don’t find it fruitful to expend too much energy worrying about the state of the evangelical movement in the United States, or even the fractured state of many churches today. Yes, I grieve the wounds and battle scars inflicted by brothers and sisters who sin in the way they treat each other. But in these cases, it’s the sins—pride, anger, lovelessness—that distress me. I don’t have a hand-wringing sense of despair when I think about the present state or the future.

In a recent episode of Mere Fidelity, Tim Keller was asked if “moderation”— seeking to find a position between extremes—could sometimes be a problem rather than a solution. Aren’t there times when you look to two extremes and, instead of looking for something in between, must say, “This extreme is the correct position”?

Keller acknowledged the point, saying that Christianity is not a religion that fits easily into ideological categories. It’s not a middle road but a “patchwork of extremes.” The search for a “third way” on every issue, something Keller is known and sometimes criticized for, comes from a peacemaking impulse that is as much temperamental as theological. “Sometimes I overdo it,” he admitted.

The next question follows: Does God makes use of leaders who don’t display that peacemaking tendency, the “extremists” who may sound various alarms about compromise or launch into tirades against an aberrant theological position? To put it another way: Does God use one-directional leaders too?

The answer, of course, is yes. Keller points to two pairs of theologians to make the point: Luther and Calvin, and Kuyper and Bavinck. Calvin was much more of a synthesizer than the iconoclastic Luther. Bavinck carefully weighed opposing views, sought to bring people together, and set forth a constructive theology intended to capture the breadth and depth of the Christian position. Kuyper butted heads with many leaders in his day, jumped into the rough and tumble of politics, and adopted a few theological positions that were idiosyncratic.

The one-directional leader—the “extremist”—worries that the multi-directional leader who stays aware of threats from various parts of the field isn’t sufficiently hard-line. The desire to always be listening and careful makes the synthesizer susceptible to compromise. On the other hand, multi-directional leaders worry that the iconoclastic, fiery “one-directional” types often do more harm than good to the church, leaving behind unnecessary fractures and division.

Effects of Sin

The problem here is sin. Sin affects both styles of leadership but in different ways.

Even though I make the case for multi-directional leadership—backing up this perspective with examples from Scripture and church history, and even though peacemaking is a command of Christ, I do recognize that sin can infect this posture of leadership by leading to the wrong kind of synthesis. Cowardice can mask itself as carefulness.

On the other hand, the “extreme” one-directional leader may be right on the point in question and yet infected by a pugnacious and contentious spirit, falling prey to the sin of self-importance, caustic words, and a vengeful outlook that more closely resembles the Accuser than the fruit of the Spirit.

God Uses All Kinds of People

The good news is, God is in control of history. He uses all types of people to accomplish his purposes. History is messy. “An extremist type personality might be necessary to get certain things going,” Keller acknowledged, pointing to Soren Kierkegaard’s attack on Christendom as a case in point.

I’ve been reading slowly through Kierkegaard’s Provocations over the last few months. He makes statements I find profoundly exaggerated and yet strangely helpful, leading me to think, It may be necessary for someone to say something this extreme in order to see the truth for what it is. Splashing cold water in someone’s face does tend to wake a person, even if that shouldn’t be our everyday experience.

God can use someone’s overcorrection, even an exaggerated focus on a particular doctrine or contention, as part of his bigger plan for the church. A decade ago, when people in my family of churches were debating the intricacies of Calvinism, I wondered if God might, by the very means of those disagreements—the back-and-forth between opposing sides—keep our movement from slipping into errors that squash evangelism, whether by sliding into inclusivism on the one hand or Hyper-Calvinism on the other.

I believe multi-directional leadership to be a wise and biblical way of assessing threats and multi-faceted dangers to the church, and yet I recognize God can use leaders who focus inordinate passion in one direction. Sometimes God uses one-directional leaders to help the church, overall, remain multi-directional!

Different theologians and church traditions put forth their insights vigorously, all with a degree of passionate extremism. Some evangelicals engage the theological task looking for what’s either totally true or totally in error. But much of our theological study should instead be seen more as a balancing of emphases—a tapestry where different threads throughout Christian history and theologians with varying degrees of insight into important subjects are woven together to help us better glimpse the whole. It’s because some theologians are unbalanced that the church can stay steady. So, don’t fret. God knows what he’s doing.

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