The God Who Goes before You: Pastoral Leadership as Christ-Centered Followership

Written by Michael S. Wilder and Timothy Paul Jones Reviewed By Christopher A. Sarver

The driving concern of Michael S. Wilder and Timothy Paul Jones’s The God Who Goes Before You is that much of what is written on the topic of Christian leadership fails to adequately take into account the Christ-centered, kingdom-focused, gospel-grounded metanarrative of Scripture. Indeed, the authors contend that a fair amount of the contemporary, popular Christian leadership corpus, while making appeals to Scripture, is often presenting secular, leader-centric models. While undoubtedly well-meaning, such projects tend to approach the Bible as a moralistic leadership sourcebook from which we can pick and choose principles that fit our particular preferences or correspond to prevailing paradigms. In contrast, Wilder and Jones hold that the Scriptures are a grand story about God—a God who goes before and leads his people.

Given such a view of Holy Writ, the authors observe three important themes across the whole of Scripture that undergird their argument: (1) leaders are not sovereigns over but stewards of God’s community, of which they, too, are members; (2) leaders are to exercise God’s delegated power and authority by his prescribed means and for the sake of his community; and (3) leaders must declare God’s truth rather than their own vision. The foundational premise that unifies these key suppositions and forms the thesis of this book is that “the leaders’ pursuit of God always takes precedence over the leaders’ positional authority. Before we are leaders, we must be followers—followers of a God who goes before us” (p. 10). Wilder and Jones aim for nothing less than advancing a distinctly Christian model of the leader-as-follower, informed by a rigorously employed biblical theology.

They divide their project into three sections. The first presents their leader-as-Christ-follower construct in contrast to prevailing notions and in light of God’s intent for leadership. To accomplish this task, they examine the opening books of the biblical corpus (i.e., Genesis and Exodus), expounding upon the key concepts of vicegerency, sonship, rulership, and stewardship, as well as God’s presence and power. In the book’s second section, Jones argues that it is mistaken to view the Old Testament offices of prophet, priest, judge, and king as new covenant leadership typologies. Rather, he maintains that God would have us see these offices as fully and magnificently fulfilled in Christ. Then, as one follows Jesus—the archetypal prophet, priest, judge, and king, as well as Immanuel—in the context of the redeemed community, the leader’s entire life and approach to leading are transformed. In part 3, Wilder traces the thread of the leader-as-shepherd through the entire canon. He rightly contends that Jesus is the paradigmatic shepherd to whom all earlier shepherds point. Furthermore, he submits that all new covenant leaders are first sheep needing to follow and be shepherded by the Chief Shepherd. Only as contemporary church leaders learn from and follow after the one true shepherd will their lives and leadership mimic Christ’s.

Much contemporary Christian leadership literature not only reflects an individualistic bias and leader-centric focus but often neglects the communal orientation of the Scriptures. Wilder and Jones avoid these mistakes. First, they hold that the phenomenon of leadership should only be leader-centric inasmuch as Christ is recognized as the singular leader. Second, they emphasize the pastoral leader’s place within and as part of the broader community of Christians. Thus, congregational leaders are mindful of their status as followers of the one true leader, Jesus, and as fellow followers among many.

The authors also adroitly avoid the “romance of leadership” error, so prevalent in much older leadership literature, by emphasizing the importance of followers and recent followership research. Nonetheless, they carefully evade “reversing the lens” and presenting a purely follower-centric model of followership, as neither outlook comports fully with Scripture. Rather, their Christ-centered leadership-as-followership model coincides with several core suppositions shaping much of contemporary followership theory: (1) followers are equally important as leaders in leadership; (2) the self-perceptions (i.e., identity markers), traits, and behaviors followers exhibit in their relations with leaders are just as important to outcome creation as those of leaders; and (3) followers and leaders relationally engage with each other in the coproduction of outcomes.

Wilder and Jones stress the equal importance of pastoral leaders and congregational followers along with their shared identity as the basis of that undifferentiated significance. As people created by God in his own image, leaders and followers possess a fundamental similarity that grounds and supersedes any differences in individual characteristics, traits, or roles. In addition, both are united to and follow the resurrected Christ. The central identity markers common to both Christian leaders and followers establish their ontological equality, orient their behavior toward each other, and ground the basis of their relations.

The authors also point out that kingdom leaders (i.e., Christ-followers who lead other followers) are vested with God-given identities that define their role and ought to govern their actions. The key identity monikers and roles the Scriptures place upon leaders are vicegerent, son, ruler, slave, steward, and shepherd. Wilder and Jones also argue that leader-followers are called to exercise their delegated power justly and to proclaim and instruct the truth as given to them through the Scriptures in submission to Christ for the benefit of the community of fellow followers.

The God Who Goes Before You emphasizes the importance of the follower-leader relational dynamic in the production of God-glorifying outcomes. Wilder and Jones again and again stress the centrality of the relationship between Jesus and the leader (i.e., the pastor). The nature and quality of the Jesus-pastor relationship directly affects the nature and quality of the pastoral leadership expressed in the ministerial context. Similarly, the pastor-parishioner relational dynamic becomes critical for the realization of biblical imperatives and outcomes within the church and through its ministries. The authors, however, do not suggest abolishing authoritative leadership hierarchy in favor of some purely relational, distributed egalitarian model. Rather, their schema of leadership as Christ-oriented followership calls leaders and followers to approach leading, following, the exercise of authority, the use of power, and the execution of duties on the basis of God-granted and defined identity as well as motivational and behavioral norms.

For all of its strengths and thoughtful integration of followership theory into a biblical leadership construct, this volume lacks an extensive study of the apostle Paul. Only brief references are made to his embodiment of Jesus’s instructions regarding humble service on behalf of God’s people, and only a few lines are devoted to the imitation motif and the important pedagogical role it played alongside Paul’s emphasis on instruction and teaching (pp. 152–53). Had the authors engaged Paul’s teaching, as they did Peter’s, their biblical theological analysis would be far more complete.

Despite these shortcomings, Wilder and Jones masterfully accomplished their goal of addressing the topic of pastoral leadership by studiously grounding their reflections in a well-applied biblical theology. In so doing, they demonstrate the Christocentric nature of pastoral leadership and explicate its meaning and significance for the church. Furthermore, they present a distinctly Christian followership construct, reflecting familiarity with followership theory and a judicious integration with Scripture. In sum, they have produced a biblical, Christ-centered, and carefully nuanced model of pastoral leadership as primarily that of followership.

Christopher A. Sarver

Global Service Network
Fishers, Indiana, USA

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