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What is Christian Leadership? Dr. J. Michael Thigpen

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April 19, 2023
Faith Seeking Understanding
Faith Seeking Understanding
What is Christian Leadership? Dr. J. Michael Thigpen
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Guest: Dr. J. Michael Thigpen | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Thigpen about Christian leadership. Topics of conversation include:

  • How the Bible portrays Christian leadership in the examples of Saul, David, and Solomon
  • How Christian leaders should reflect the character of God
  • Godly vs. successful leaders
  • A perspective shift on evaluating your pastor
  • Resources for further reading on the topic of Christian leadership.

Dr. J. Michael Thigpen is professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary. He previously served as the executive director of the Evangelical Theological Society, as well as an associate professor of Old Testament and Semitics at the Talbot School of Theology. Dr. Thigpen holds a PhD in Judaic, Hebraic, and Cognate Studies from Hebrew Union College.

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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:19):

In First Peter five, Peter writes, "So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for 'God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.'" It is interesting that Peter gives the example of a shepherd leading a flock, since one of the last conversations that Peter had with Jesus was Jesus asking Peter three times if he loved him.

Brian Arnold (01:12):

And each time Peter said he did, and Jesus told him to feed his sheep. Jesus was installing him as a shepherd over the sheep. And in First Peter five, Peter was instructing the church how to lead well. Yet today we see so many people in Christian leadership not leading this way. We hear too often of toxic leadership where pastors abuse the flock. Too much leadership is focused on CEO business principles, and not enough on shepherding flocks. In an age of cultural shift, in an age in which the church is witnessing decline, we are in need of strong shepherds who can, with wisdom, patience, love, and boldness, lead the flock of Christ. With us today to talk about Christian leadership, is Dr. J. Michael Thigpen. Dr. Thigpen holds a PhD in Ancient Near Eastern studies from Hebrew Union College, and serves as professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary. Prior to this, he was the executive director of the Evangelical Theological Society for 10 years, and was a professor at Talbot, in addition to decades of local church ministry experience. Dr. Thigpen has a breadth and depth of leadership experience that makes him perfect for this topic. So Dr. Thigpen, welcome.

Michael Thigpen (02:20):

Thank you, Brian. It's great to be with you.

Brian Arnold (02:22):

So, as you remember, we ask our guests a big question, and today it is—what is Christian leadership? So I would like to kind of frame this discussion biblically. So there's a lot of different views on this today, and how different, you know, even consulting groups talk to churches about leadership and things. But let's start with the Bible. How does the Bible portray Christian leadership?

Michael Thigpen (02:49):

I think the Scriptures portray leadership as that which is in line with God's character. So it shares his character traits. It is enabled by his Spirit, and it's driven by his Word. So as we put those things together, we're always thinking of ourselves—if we're in a place of leadership—as under-shepherds, or junior shepherds, as it were. So that we are trying to work in the way that the Great Shepherd does. And so we should be like him in character, we should be like him in the ways that he relates to his people. And those, then, really are that they're Spirit-empowered and that they are driven by the Word. And so the Word's going to do all sorts of things for us, because it's going to both correct us when we've gone off onto the wrong track, and it's going to encourage us and show us the right paths that we could go. But all this can't be done in our own human power. So, much like Zerubbabel is told in Zechariah that this has to be accomplished "not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit." And that's in his leadership of the rebuilding project of the temple. So I think those are the core pieces. There's a lot to unpack there, but I think it's his character, empowered by his Spirit, and driven by his Word.

Brian Arnold (03:59):

Well, let's look at maybe some examples that we have in Scripture. I know you've written on some of the period of the times of the kings, with David and Saul, and thinking through leadership as it really comes out of even those stories. So what kind of led you to study even that, you know, those texts, and what can we learn from that even today as Christian leaders?

Michael Thigpen (04:21):

The book that I contributed to, it was interesting. A group of guys got together and they wanted to write a book that was about what the Scriptures say about leadership, because they felt like the majority of what we were getting were books that sort of gave us two or three principles, and then expanded it. And so they asked us to go, book by book, and unpack what the Scriptures had to say about leadership. And I did the united monarchy, so the period of the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon. And what I found really interesting about those is that Saul, as we think back on him, we always think of him as a leader who failed. We generally think positively about David as a leader—he was a man after God's own heart. And we think about Solomon—he's the greatest, he's the wisest, he completes the temple. But all their stories are much more complex than that.

Michael Thigpen (05:11):

Saul actually has some positive periods, and there are places where he's praised in the texts, but we generally don't grab that. David has these huge failures. He is a murderer and an adulterer. So how is it that he is both a man after God's own heart, but he also has these terrible falls into sin where he is just unrighteous? And then how do we think about Solomon, who is one of the greatest ever? He's the wisest, he's so rich, he's so powerful, and in many ways he looks successful, but yet he is one who leads the nation into idolatry, and the nation splits after him into north and south. And so, really kind of unpacked these, and they all...that's where my...sort of that trio that I gave you of them being in God's character and responsive to his Word and empowered by his Spirit, really come from looking at these three. Because they all represent a wrestling with God's character—in that they both reflect it in some cases, and they miss it in others. They respond differently to the Word as rebuke is brought to them, as encouragement is brought to them. They have different ways of doing that. And then the nature of whether or not their work is Spirit-empowered is a bit different as well.

Brian Arnold (06:25):

Which gives me great solace, knowing that there is no perfectly portrayed leader in Scripture outside of Jesus Christ. That each of them have their own blemishes in leadership, and each of them have their own triumphs, where they're actually following the will of God. I like that trio you've done. So let's actually unpack that, then. And if you want to throw in some biblical examples as we go, I think that'd be helpful. But you're talking about character, and the character of God, and what it requires of those who will be leading. I have the opportunity to lead a Bible study on Tuesday mornings with some people here in Phoenix, and we're walking through First Timothy right now. And in First Timothy chapter three, you get all of these qualifications of elders and deacons in the church. And the only one that has any kind of focus on skillset is that elders are able to teach. But the rest of these are character qualifications. So what is the character of God? Tell us about the character of the leader.

Michael Thigpen (07:27):

Well, I think if we...the probably the clearest statement of God's character, if we want to look at the Old Testament, is Exodus 34. So this is after the golden calf, and Moses says—look, I want to know you, and know who you are. So show yourself to me. God says—well, I'm going to pass by. You can't see my face, but I'm going to let you see the after-effect of me moving through. And he pronounces his name, which is a way of saying, "this is who I am." And what he gives him is this statement of how merciful and gracious he is, the kind of God that he is, but it is remarkably balanced in the way that it moves forward. So as he pronounces his name for Moses, he tells him that he is a God who is both just, but also merciful. He is a God who is forgiving, but yet he will hold sin to account.

Michael Thigpen (08:15):

And it's...I like to frame it as it's a way of giving full disclosure about who he is, and who he is calling his people to be. So I think if we start with that—he is a God who takes seriously the nature of sin. And he says to Moses, "I will by no means let the guilty go unpunished." I will never let that happen. At the same time, he is a God who is abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands. He forgives inequity and transgression and sin. So we have to be able to grab ahold of that, I think, first. And this is really when I think about the nature of the Word and its role in us, right? As we think about what Paul's going to say to Timothy—he's going to tell him that the Word is going to do kind of basically two things for you. On the negative side, it's going to rebuke you, it's going to correct you. But that is for the purpose of then training you in righteousness, and making you equipped for every good work.

Michael Thigpen (09:09):

So that as we think about character traits, we're always thinking about those two sides. Are we in a character where we receive the correction of the Word well? We receive the correction of others well? And are there developing character traits where we are pursuing and being equipped for the work of God? And so I think, you know, I mentioned David as a character here, who we wrestle with, because he is a murderer and an adulterer, yet he is someone who is after God's own heart. And then we have Saul, who is just this kind of train wreck of a leader, except that there are a handful of places where he responds well and faithfully, and accomplishes the work of God. And so the question I wrestled with when I looked at them is—how do they turn out so differently? And I think in every case the primary difference of why David is approved and Saul is rejected, is not because one is inherently more righteous than the other.

Michael Thigpen (10:02):

Saul's not out committing murder, he's not out committing adultery. David is. The difference comes in, in that when Samuel confronts Saul, Saul always responds with excuses. "It's not my fault, the people made me do it, they're the ones, I was scared of them." And so there's always this sense in which he is rejecting rebuke and correction. Part of the function of the Word here. In this case, through the prophet. For us, through the Scriptures. But he's rejecting that. So he refuses to learn and to grow through his mistakes, be trained in righteousness. Whereas David, you know, Nathan looks at him and says—you're the man. You're the one who did this. And he responds in humility and in repentance. So it's not that David is inherently more righteous than Saul, but he's responsive to discipline in a way that Saul refuses that discipline.

Michael Thigpen (10:53):

So I think it's this, for me, it's what, you know, oftentimes is thought about as the crucible of leadership. How do you respond to the challenges? And I think the most frequent challenge that we get is our own sinfulness. And the way that we engage with that, as others bring us critique, as the Word itself brings us critique, our two primary paradigms is—I can be like Saul, I can push it away in excuse, I can give myself an out, and never respond well to discipline. Or, I can, like David, fall on my face in repentance and say in Psalm 51, you know—God, I've sinned against you and you only. And then work our way in a way that we allow the Word to grow us in responsiveness to that. Or we can push it away. And I think that's a primary sort of character paradigm of how we respond to discipline.

Brian Arnold (11:38):

And I think a lot of leaders somehow believe that their sinful areas are not as widely recognized as they are. Your people know them. They see them. There's no hiding those things, or not thinking they're that big of a deal. You know, we talk about toxic leadership a lot today. I feel like that's where a lot of pastors are losing ministries right now, and other institutional leaders, is around the area of just yeah, toxic leadership. Where they're not willing to repent, where they're not willing to see sin in their lives, acknowledge it and turn from it. Why do you think that is? What is it that is prohibiting so many leaders from doing that?

Michael Thigpen (12:27):

I think sometimes it is...this is where, for me, Solomon comes in. Solomon's an interesting study, because if you look at him externally, he's completely successful, right? He's super wise. People are coming to him from all over, other nations, to sit at his feet and learn from him. He is corporately successful, right? He's got so much gold roaming around, he's making military shields out of gold, which means that they're just for show. They're not useful in battle. They're only there to say—you want to know how rich I am? This is how rich I am. And he's been able to build the temple and all of his administrative structures. So if we look at him from the outside, he is the very model of a successful leader. But we know that his life is falling apart, because he's falling into idolatry and he's doing these other things.

Michael Thigpen (13:17):

So I think part of what happens with toxic leadership is we confuse results with godliness. And there is an extent to which we can look at many things that, on the external, are successful. But what we need—and I want to say this carefully—what we need are not necessarily successful leaders. We need godly ones. So that if we were to look at certain aspects of leadership, you know, we might say—well, well wait a minute, was Jesus a successful leader? Right? He never really wins over the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He ends up getting himself killed. The guys that he selected to come around him—they're not the best bunch in the world. Peter's always putting his foot in his mouth. You know, he selected one guy who's going to go out and betray him. So if we look externally, we might even be tempted to look at him and say he didn't lead them well, because it didn't turn out the way we think it should have turned out.

Michael Thigpen (14:09):

And so that confusion of sort of external success versus godliness in character, and following the Word, and being Spirit-enabled leads us then to say—well, it's okay if I'm abusive or heavy handed, or I have to have it my way, because I'm getting the results that I want. Because we're looking at an external measure, not an internal one. And this is part of what God says about David, right? I look at the heart. I don't judge things the way that you do. I don't look at this externally. I'm going to look at the heart of the individual, and that's how I'm choosing my leaders, and that's how I'm moving them. And so, in that way, we might think of that as being one of our primary keys here. So I think people are tempted to abuse, in many cases, for what we might say are some good reasons. Because they think the results they're getting are the ones that they're supposed to be after, right?

Michael Thigpen (15:00):

So for pastors, it's the ABCs of ministry—attendance, buildings, and cash. If the numbers are going up, then that must be good. That must mean that things are going well. The building projects are getting done. That must mean that things are favorable, and that God's blessing us. And if cash is good, and the tithes and offerings are coming in, then we must be doing well. When in fact, all of that can be hollow on the inside. So I think I'm being a good leader by being heavy handed in doing that. But in fact, all I'm doing is looking at the wrong measures for whether or not my leadership is actually effective, because I'm looking at the externals and not at the heart—either at my heart or at the heart of the people. I think that's at the core of a lot of abusive leadership. It's because we're defining success wrongly—by looking at it, not first and foremost through the lens of character of the Word and of the Spirit, which would then bring in all the fruit of the Spirit that we're supposed to have.

Michael Thigpen (15:59):

And, in fact, that's oftentimes not how we lead.

Brian Arnold (16:02):

So let me shift the spotlight for just a second, from the leader to the congregation. Let's just use pastors, and continue to use them as our example. It does seem like that's what churches are looking for. They want the CEO. There are these business people in the congregation. They run their lives on metrics and accomplishment and achievement and profit margins. And then when the pastor comes in, they'll throw a thin veneer of "we want godliness and character." But really what they want, what every church says that it wants—whether or not they're willing to do what it takes to see these things happen or not—is growth. They...like you said, the ABCs of pastoral ministry. And I think that burden is placed oftentimes on pastors, as to whether or not they're doing a good job or not on those pieces, by the congregation. So maybe people are listening today who are not pastors. They're in local churches. They might serve as deacons or elders, or they might just be lay folks in the church. How can just Christians in the pew help realign the pastor's focus on what matters most in Christian leadership?

Michael Thigpen (17:11):

I think in a couple of ways. One is the cooperative nature of ministry. So I should not expect that the pastor is omnicompetent any more than I am. If I'm in the pew, I know that I'm good at some things, I'm not good at others. And so, part of the body concept is that even though this person is our primary leader, they're not going to have everything that the church needs. So to the extent that I put everything off on them, and the success or failure here is all on their shoulders—well, that's missing the concept that we're working this all together as a body. So we should have people who are really great at planning, and finances, and all these other sort of technical skills, pouring into the work of the church. So that the pastor's gleaning from that, because the whole body's operating together, and they're not doing this all on their own.

Michael Thigpen (17:57):

They're gaining wisdom through the counsel of others, and so they're doing that. But then they're always keeping in mind that for themselves, the hallmark of how they're going to be measured by God is their relationship to Christ. And whether or not they're growing in the fruit of the Spirit, or they're growing in all the ways that says...you know, as Christ will say to his disciples—people are going to know you're mine by the way you treat one another. He doesn't say by your success, by your portfolio, by all of that. He uses these things that are always character orientation. Which is why that's what we get for the leadership qualities—with the exception of being able to teach, all of them are character qualities, because he is really looking to grow people who look like his Son. So we were created in the image of God, we've fallen, and we sin, and we don't reflect him rightly.

Michael Thigpen (18:45):

We're not rightly connected to him. So in being saved, then, God is recreating us more and more into the image of his Son, who is the perfect image of God, who reflects him. So we keep that big picture in mind. Then it means, then, that the way that I begin to judge my pastor is—you know what, perhaps he's not great at this, but we've got people in church who are. So let's pour in with him so that we do this work together. And always what I'm looking for is—is he growing in likeness to Christ? And then—is he leading me to grow in likeness to Christ? That is our measure of success. And the other things will come and go. So we've always had, you know, think of the wisdom literature, who we've always had the wicked poor and the righteous poor. We've always had the righteous rich and the wicked rich.

Michael Thigpen (19:35):

It's never that external measure. It's always their character that results in whether or not they are rightly related to God. So we've got to take that into the church as well. And then sometimes we want people to run in these directions and we push it off on them, because we want them to do it for us. And I think sometimes we think about the nature of the vicarious work Christ has done for us. He did all this on our behalf. And we actually want that to happen everywhere. I want my wife to be the one who takes care of all these things at home. Christ did it for me. Why doesn't she just do all these things? I want my children to just do it for me. I want my pastor to just do it for me. And it's really a way of not doing, as Paul says in Philippians, working out my own salvation with fear and trembling. Because God's the one at work in me, it's his power that's doing this, but I've got to work hard. I really want someone else to do that work for me. So I throw all that on the pastor. And I've got to own it myself, because although I'm part of the body, I also have to do my own work if I'm going to be a rightly related part of the body.

Brian Arnold (20:37):

I love all that, Mike. And just the thought of what ministries would look like if the church was spurring their pastor on to deeper godliness. And the benefits that the flock would receive through the character conforming to Christ more and more, and how that will have the reciprocal effect on them growing into godliness and Christlikeness as well. It's scary out there, the rat race that pastors are up against. I think it's one of the reasons why we see so many of them leaving ministry, is they just can't keep pace. They can't be as cool as the church down the street. They can't get as many baptisms as another church does, and they just feel like utter failures when they love their people well. When the pastor down the road may not ever actually be with the sheep, all he is doing is working on marketing and a great 25 minute message, but not on some of the actual aspects of pastoring. So if you've got a great pastor out there who's really godly and pouring into you, let him know. And then you've got two other aspects that you've mentioned, and we don't have a ton of time, but could you give some summary of how those play into godly leadership?

Michael Thigpen (21:42):

Yeah, I think it really is the Word and the Spirit. And those two are so cooperative, because the Spirit's the one who gives us the Word, and he's the one who causes the Word really to do its work in us, as he is reshaping us and we're cooperating with him. And so I think all this is that we...sometimes I think our greatest failure is that we say it's our pastor who's the one who is supposed to know the Word. And that is true that they're charged with teaching us the Word. But I'm called to have the Word hidden in my heart so that I won't sin against God. I'm called to be shaped and formed by it. So the fact that they're using it...it's kind of like a doctor and a patient. I have to do everything possible to be healthy, but I want their expertise, and I want their care for me to help me when I'm sick, and to move me forward into greater health.

Michael Thigpen (22:34):

But I've got to do the work myself to do that. Carry out their instructions. So we need that sort of cooperative work, where they are the person of the Word for me, in that they're bringing that to me and they're teaching me. But at the same time, I've got to unpack that in my own life. I've got to unpack it in my own heart and in my own family, in my own business and all those things. So that we're working together to be shaped into the people of God through the work of the Word. And that's ultimately the work of the Spirit in both of us, so that we do that. And I think it's another one of those places where if I put it all off on the pastor, then actually when I'm doing is short-cutting the Spirit's own work in my life. If he's the one responsible for knowing the Word, as opposed to teaching me to know it better. He's the one who's responsible for shaping me, as opposed to my own responsiveness to the Spirit's work. It really is, again, this cooperative nature. They're key, and they're central, and I need them. But I need them to help me, so I can also do what I'm called to do.

Brian Arnold (23:33):

So those are really helpful, and I think back to the Reformation, where you really have this Word-Spirit movement and conformity, more and more to the character of Christ. You know, I think Martin Luther who said, "The Word did it all." And you see the movement of the Holy Spirit moving out through revival, as the Reformation poured out, and what God might do in our day through that. Mike, what are a couple resources that people might want to pick up and read on Christian leadership, kind of the way that you've laid it out?

Michael Thigpen (24:03):

Yeah, I think the first one for dealing with toxic leadership is Mike Kruger's Bully Pulpit. I think it's one of the best new resources dealing with the way that leadership goes off the rails. And so I think that's a really good one. And then I would recommend—this is one that I contributed to—it's a book called Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday Leader. And it is written for everyone who leads. Which is everybody—not just for pastors. And that's a Kregel work that's out in their Biblical Theology for the Church. And so, that one edited by Ben Forrest and Chet Roden. So those two, I think—Bully Pulpit and then Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday Leader. Those are two great places to start.

Brian Arnold (24:46):

And I think that's a really helpful place to end is we've talked a lot about pastors and what church leadership looks like, but this really is for any Christian who's in any kind of leadership role—that you would be conformed by the character of God, that you would do your work through the Word, and empowered by the Spirit. And that's going to have a major impact on whatever you're doing, especially as it as it pertains to the church as well. So Mike, thanks so much for your time today.

Michael Thigpen (25:14):

Happy to be here. Good to be with you.

Outro (25:16):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we've been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you're called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can't join us on campus, I'd like to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you've heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

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