What doesn’t get mentioned much in Christian leadership, at least from my perspective as a North American involved in full-time missions in East Asia, is the essential quality of spiritual authority. So much is emphasized on the power and position of a leader that we often do not even have mainstream terms to help describe the true foundation of spiritual leadership. The very thing that I think followers are seeking most often remains undefined, undiscussed, often forgotten.
While the need for defining spiritual leadership couldn’t be greater, the stakes couldn’t be higher. One of the most common reasons given both historically and in the present worldwide church for why people walk away from the church, and thus God, is the abuse of power. Genuine spiritual authority counters this abuse. Spiritual authority is the right to influence conferred by followers because of their perception of the spirituality in a leader (as defined by J. Robert Clinton). A Christian leader’s positional power gives the initial platform, but true influence flows from his or her reliance on and submission to God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, wrote from prison, “Genuine authority realizes that it can exist only in the service of Him who alone has authority…” (Life Together). God-anointed leaders rely on gifted power and faith to propel them forward. And they are sustained over the long haul by that spiritual vitality that A.W. Tozer describes as “something in them … open to heaven, something which urge[s] them Godward.” An inner zeal to know God will always mark the leader with authentic spiritual authority.
Are we, as leaders, operating from a platform of spiritual authority, or merely relying on our position or influence? As we seek to develop leaders in our churches, ministries, and Christian vocations, are we looking for those whose lives are marked with a sensitivity to God’s voice and leading? Are we seeking to instill a deep, insatiable desire for the type of leadership that is subservient to the desires of God and sensitive to His voice? It is challenging to measure any type of inner quality like godliness, but — you know it when you see it. And leaders who model credible spiritual authority will attract others with the same spiritual hunger — like attracts like.
In 1987, a gentleman stepped up on the platform, about to give the closing session at the North American Urbana missions conference. It was almost his turn to speak. But his legs where shaking so much that he kept grabbing them with his hands to stop the movement. He leaned over and whispered to the Urbana Director, “Remind me next time you ask me to do an Urbana that I can’t do it. What in the world do I have to share with 20,000 young people?”
Billy Graham made his way up to the podium.
And as he stood there, everyone in the audience spontaneously stood up and began clapping as hard as they could. They gave him an immediate standing ovation.
He never said a word. The titles after his name didn’t matter; no one really cares where he studied or his position in an organization. Everyone in that stadium was aware of one thing: here was a man who had spiritual authority stemming from his deep and abiding walk with Jesus.
Spiritual authority will have varying nuances in different parts of the world. But wherever you might go, followers will be able to point them out: leaders whose platform rests in spiritual authority. I wonder what would happen in the global church’s search for good leadership if we were more diligent in seeking and understanding spiritual authority and the vitality from which it flows.