Who or what leads?

Leadership is well considered in terms of concept over action or role, but let’s think about roles and activities first.  During most activities, someone is probably leading, one way or another.

In most traditional ballroom dancing, the man leads.  His female partner may be more assertive off the dance floor, but she does not lead there.

In team sports, there are leaders.  You got your quarterbacks, your point guards.  In baseball, a team captain may be a noteworthy leader, in addition to managers and coaches.  Major league baseball has sometimes enjoyed player-managers who both led the team from the bench and contributed actively on the field.  It can get more complicated, though, if we think of activities and not only identified roles.   ◊ ◊ ◊

When Jackie Robinson entered the majors, 73 years ago Wednesday, who was it who led the team?  General Manager Branch Rickey?  Interim manager Clyde Sukeforth?  Shortstop Pee Wee Reese?  Jackie himself?  Someone on the Boston Braves (the opposing team)?  Depending on the moment, it could have been any one of them.

Conductors are musical and artistic leaders, but, even in a conducted instrumental ensemble, it is often good practice for individual players or sections to take the lead from time to time.  Dr. Lauren Reynolds, now Director of Bands at one of my alma mater institutions, speaks to this aspect of leadership in ensembles within the first three minutes of this fine pedagogical video.

Leadership by players is even more necessary, if not more advantageous, when there is no conductor, e.g., with chamber groups such as brass quintets and string quartets.  It isn’t the same person who is the actual leader in every moment.  Just as in baseball, the nature of the music (or other practicalities such as a line of sight) might suggest who should lead at a given time.

Now to move toward the conceptual and invisible (as opposed to the more observable) actions of leadership.  When we ponder something, there are primary thoughts that take the lead.  Who or what leads us in ways of faith?  Who or what takes the reins as we think about God—and how to live in Him and for Him?  When we think about something, there are primary thoughts that take the lead.  Hear N.T. Wright as he differentiates between theology and text:

I have long had the sense that theology, especially philosophical theology, and perhaps even analytic theology, has tended to start with its own abstract concepts and, in expounding and adjusting them, has drawn in bits and pieces of Scripture on the way.  That is to say, it’s often system first, scripture second.

That, I suppose, is better than nothing, but it can provide the illusion of engagement with the text rather than allowing the text to lead the way.   – N.T. Wright Online  (emphases mine  -bc)

We ought to be alarmed by the common “illusion” that Wright spotlights above.  Personally, far more often than weekly, I see the effects of a theological-system-driven Christianity.  It has far more dangerous ramifications than a baseball team driven by the team owner’s greed, or a band led by an errant bassoonist.  It is our scripture texts that ought to steer our ships.  The effects of the illusion of scripture’s primacy run deep.  They are difficult to discern, and even more difficult to admit.  People will speak of theology and text as though they are part of the same ball o’ wax, and they are, in a sense.  Still, it is someone uncommon for a person to realize that theology is driving things for him; it is rarer still for someone to allow the scripture text to lead.  Conductors these days¹ will typically allow the musical text to steer, over and above their personal philosophies or other factors such as the perceived needs of the moment.  Such conductors are admirable . . . and Christians ought to let their texts guide, too!

A recent study opportunity from Coffee With Paul did allow the biblical text to set the agenda.  In the process of examining and applying the John 2 text about the upsetting of the traders in the temple courts, one of our study partners in that group commented, “The thought of ‘God is constantly at work turning over evil in the world’ is comforting and reassuring!”  And in saying that, she was leading, in a most welcome and conceptual sense.  Her thought was primarily philosophical, but she had been guided first by a focus on the text.

What or who should lead in churches, practically speaking?  That’s a different topic, and one I’ll reserve for a different day (or maybe never again!).  But I’ll say this:  it is a philosophical theology, not a text, that assumes that the leader in a church should be “the pastor.”


¹ In a bygone era, conductor Eugene Ormandy once said, quite disrespectfully of the composer or his musical text, “That’s the way Stravinsky was—bup, bup, bup—The poor guy’s dead now.  Play it legato.”

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