In times of crisis or controversy, spiritual leadership is of paramount importance to both the church and the world. If in these moments the church is a beacon of light to a dark world, the church’s leaders are the lightkeepers faithfully lighting the lamps on the darkest of days. These spiritual leaders are to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12), pay careful attention to themselves and to the flock (Acts 20:28), and set an example for the flock (1 Pet. 5:3; 1 Tim. 4:12).
But while the world wavers and wanes, it seems that the default response of spiritual leaders is to instantaneously take to every format available to offer one’s own analysis of the day’s headlines—from 280-character rants to podcasts to even Sunday morning sermons. Often, a thoroughly biblical, gospel-oriented, and winsome worldview is exhibited, but at other times the main takeaway is a philosophical, political, and clinical viewpoint. Even at their very best, the immediacy and decisiveness of our assessments and opinions risk communicating to those under our watch and those watching in the world that to be a spiritual leader is to simply be a thought leader; to be a spiritual leader is to be a Bible-based intellectualist; to gain the upper hand in any spiritual battle is to have promptly gained full clarity on the issue at hand and have pithy answers for every difficult question. But is this the way God has called His shepherds to lead His church? Is this the means by which the frontlines of God’s army is to engage the unsaved world? Is this simply what God-ordained leadership has been relegated to in a digital world? How should we respond when a crisis or controversy seems to demand a response?
To be sure, the man of God must speak with clarity into the chaos of the world. Spiritual leaders are called by God to boldly proclaim the truth of the Word of God, whether it’s fashionable or not (2 Tim. 4:2). As ministers of God who seek to build up Christ’s church, we do so in love (Eph. 4:15). The divinely inspired Scriptures are our sufficient source, more current than tomorrow’s newspaper and able to provide clarity on anything that happens in the world (2 Tim. 3:16–17; Heb. 4:12). In the face of worldly opposition, we must be prepared to make a defense for the reason for the hope that is in us (1 Pet. 3:15).
But before we speak, as we speak, and sometimes instead of speaking, we ought to give attention to whether our leadership is indeed spiritual in nature or whether our default is to offer axiomatic lip service to our King. Is our leadership focused on bringing glory to God or ourselves? Does it exalt Christ as Savior and Lord, or are we playing the rescuer to a lost and dying world? Is the character of our leadership indicative of a Spirit-filled life or a self-fulfilling life? Is our approach allowing us to effectively minister to people or are we leaving others hurt and exasperated?
Consider these three practices that will fix our gaze on God, aid our effectiveness in ministry to people, and help us to maintain a proper spiritual emphasis in our leadership as we speak into a broken world.
Wait on God in silence.
When our world is shaken to its core, our first response should be like that of David in Psalm 62:
For God alone my soul waits in silence,
from him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.
The humility inherent to spiritual leadership dictates this kind of sober yielding to Almighty God. As undershepherds of the Chief Shepherd, we are to clothe ourselves in humility before God and toward one another (1 Pet. 5:1–5). Times of crisis or controversy put a magnifying glass on the necessity of the spiritual leader’s humility before God. If our God has ordained this circumstance for His people, will He not also be powerful to bring them through it? If He is to use us as His instruments in this trial for the benefit of His people, should our first inclination not be to prayerfully and patiently wait on Him? Like the Psalmist, our souls must wait in silence for God alone, acknowledging that power belongs to our God (Ps. 62:11).
We must look to God with a spirit of patience and forbearance with the world’s nagging worries, knowing that the sovereign God of all will act—in His way and in His timing—to quiet the very storm He has ordained. While we wait on God in silence, we demonstrate to others that we trust a sovereign God who has promised to work all things together for the good of those who love Him (Rom. 8:28). Even in the face of the fiercest of trials, Jesus has promised that He will build His church (Matt. 16:18). As we wait on God, we acknowledge that we are not experts about that which only the all-wise God knows and has ordained (Ps. 50:1; Rom. 11:33–36; Heb. 1:3). Amidst crisis, spiritual leaders keep their gaze fixed on God in creaturely silence. And when we finally do open our mouths, it’s to cry out to God in our imperfect words to beg for wisdom and guidance from the Chief Shepherd.
Exercise compassion toward others.
Unprecedented days are chock-full of unprecedented opportunities for spiritual leaders to speak and act with compassion toward others, ministering to weary souls and giving gospel hope to the lost. Spiritual leaders sense the change in social climate created by crisis, whether it’s the death of fellow image-bearers, a global pandemic, or a natural disaster. We follow the example of Jesus, the Great Shepherd, who looked upon the crowds—many of whom were probably unregenerate and even opposed to Him—with compassion (Matt. 9:36; Mark 6:34). He befriended tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners in order to offer the hope of salvation. As shepherds of God’s flock, we must likewise look for opportunities to exercise compassion toward others for the sake of the gospel. As God’s ministers, we seek to empathize with others as our Great High Priest did with us (Heb. 4:15). This means that we will rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). We will contribute to the needs of the saints and show hospitality (Rom. 12:13). We will walk in wisdom toward outsiders and use our words graciously (Col. 4:5–6).
The time is ripe for initiating relationships, breaking through otherwise difficult social barriers, and expressing kindness and love toward others. We do all of this for the sake of gospel progress—that God would be glorified in the salvation of many and that saints would be encouraged toward greater faith in Him.
These opportunities for gospel compassion, however, are not accessible to opinionated truth-bombers, but to genuine ministers of God’s mercy willing enough to listen, ask questions, and empathize with others’ physical and spiritual needs. People have very real fears, cares, and pain that we have never experienced ourselves, and we would do well to patiently listen to them if we truly desire to shepherd them toward gospel hope. In the pew and at the grocery store, we will more effectively lead others to see the beauty of Christ and His compassion toward sinners if we actively till the gospel soil with our compassion. When we cultivate this kind of compassion for others, we will “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10). It is only when we’ve come alongside our fellow image-bearers in humility and understanding that we can begin to thoughtfully and patiently address their spiritual needs (1 Thess. 5:14).
Consider your brother in love.
As the world crumbles around us, the church is a haven for God’s people—a people with different backgrounds and varying convictions and differing consciences. As we make decisions and implement solutions that help God’s people move forward in humble faith, we would do well as spiritual leaders to consider our brothers in love. A crisis or controversy puts Paul’s instructions for believers in Romans 14 under a microscope, and the gravitas of spiritual leadership further intensifies the effects of how we apply its truths to lead the church in these situations. What is the posture of our hearts toward “them” in a given situation? Is this posture beneficial or detrimental in our example to the flock? Whether we are aware of it or not, the position God has put us in as spiritual leaders allows others to very clearly see our posture toward others who differ.
As we lead the church in unchartered territory, we are far too often more concerned with convincing others of our approach than we are with pursuing what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding (14:19). When we make autonomous judgments and move forward without shepherding the flock with care and consideration, consciences are left in the lurch and the building up of the body of Christ is put on hiatus. Paul even ventures to say that when we are unwilling to consider our brother in love, we destroy the work of God (14:20); the gospel of reconciliation and peace is tarnished at the expense of our arrogance. Instead, in our differences of conviction about how to proceed, we are not only to accept one another (14:1) and not judge one another (14:3, 13), but we must also commit to never causing others to stumble (14:13) and seek to build one another up (14:19). We must be humbly dedicated to preserving the unity of the body of Christ, an endeavor that begins very simply with our own obedience in loving and welcoming in those who differ with us.
Unity in the body of Christ ought to be far more crucial to us as spiritual leaders
than the validity of our own opinion, and that must show in our love for our brother
When we welcome others as Christ has welcomed us, we become a beautiful chorus of gospel unity (15:5–7).
Lead in Love
Times of crisis or controversy demand leadership. In this trying season, there is much talk of how leaders must now lead in unprecedented ways. However, more than anything else, we need spiritual leaders who love in unprecedented ways. Leading and loving must be the same thing. We need spiritual leadership that is patiently fixed on tracing the hand of God in how He might use us for the good of His people and the salvation of the lost. When we are tempted to give assessments and provide answers to the difficult questions that come from chaos, may our first answer as spiritual leaders instead be to draw near to the all-wise and loving God, and by our love for others may we help them to do the same.