One of the great lessons of life is that faithful leadership matters. When leaders fail, it harms more than the leader who falls—likewise when leaders succeed, everyone who follows closely behind will enjoy the victory. Average leaders can lead when the waters are calm, but true and brilliant leaders shine when the sea is angry and the outcome is questionable. What makes a great leader? When we examine leaders and faithful leadership, there are three characteristics that stand out and such characteristics are necessary for pastors in local churches and Christians leaders who are entrusted with leadership of institutions, organizations, and denominations.
Conviction Over Courage
Courage is the willingness to take a risk, but conviction is the willingness to subject yourself to risk after having considered both the positive and negative outcomes that may result. One man who exemplified great conviction in church history was Jonathan Edwards. After becoming the successor to his grandfather in the church in Northampton and serving faithfully for more than 20 years, a source of controversy regarding the Lord’s Supper created a division between he and his people. Although Jonathan Edwards desired to make his points clearly known through a sermon series to the people, the leadership thought it would be best for him to put his theological positions in print. Before the book was finished, printed, and delivered to Northampton, the controversy reached a boiling point. In a letter to John Erskine on May 20th 1749, he writes the following:
A very great difficulty has arisen between my people, relating to qualifications for communion at the Lord’s table. My honoured grandfather Stoddard, my predecessor in the ministry over this church, strenuously maintained the Lord’s Supper to be a converting ordinance, and urged all to come who were not of scandalous life, though they knew themselves to be unconverted. I formerly conformed to his practice but I have had difficulties with respect to it, which have been long increasing, till I dared no longer proceed in the former way, which has occasioned great uneasiness among my people, and has filled all the country with noise. 
The result of this controversy is that Jonathan Edwards was fired. We often remember him for his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and how God used him during a season of revival—but it must be remembered that although Jonathan Edwards lost his pulpit as a result of his convictional stand, we still remember Jonathan Edwards to this very day and are grateful for his willingness to stand firm with a rugged conviction.
Communication Under Control
Without question, words matter and how we employ the words we choose matters even more. Great leaders learn to use words like great soldiers learn to use their swords. A master craftsman learns to use his tools well, and a great leader learns to use his words well. Without question one of the greatest leaders in the history of the world was Winston Churchill. He emerged as the leader of England during it’s darkest hour. With conviction and self-determination—Churchill stood when many men refused. When other men remained silent—Churchill spoke, and when he spoke people listened.
Winston Churchill was a man who understood the value and the power of words. Edward Murrow explained, Churchill did far more than commission troops into war, he also “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” As a leader, he understood he would be quoted in the newspapers and that people would gather around their radio to hear him make his public addresses. For Churchill, words were his tools and weapons that he would use to lead England to victory. Many people believe that a man of great words was used to save England during its darkest hour. At one point, Churchill suggested that the British people themselves had the heart of a lion, but he went on to say, “I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”
Church leaders and pastors must always remember the value of words and how they should be employed—especially during times of controversy. When leaders speak during seasons of controversy, people are often listening with eager anticipation. The words chosen will be used for clarity, light, heat, warnings, and exhortation to stand—even when the cost may be high.
Commitment to the Truth
What separates an average politician from a great leader is one who is unwilling to capitulate on the truth. During seasons of controversy, people need faithful leaders who understand that the truth matters. The church needs far more than an average politician. The church has seen enough political characters come and go—rise and fall. Bold and convictional leadership within the church is characterized by a firm commitment to the truth of the gospel. Once man who exemplified such commitment in church history was Martin Luther.
After attempting to have a conversation within the Roman Catholic Church on issues of indulgences in 1517 by nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Door in Wittenberg, Luther would eventually be converted and come to the daunting realization that no such internal conversation or opportunity for reform would be possible. What really sent the Reformation into full motion was Luther’s courageous stand at the Diet of Worms. While Luther’s stand exemplified conviction and the proper use of words—he made it known that the truth of the gospel must be defended and is worthy of more than a courageous stand—if necessary it’s worthy of death.
As the Royal assembly publicly accused him, he was commanded to be silent until called upon to speak. Then the moment came. All of Luther’s books were on tables before him. He was asked if these were his books. He was then asked to recant of everything he had written. Luther, in a humble voice, spoke up and asked for additional time to consider his answer. He was given until the following day.
On the next day, Luther is once again brought before the assembly. Late the following afternoon – he stood before the table of books once again. Upon being asked to recant, he responded with these words:
I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God; I cannot and I will not recant of anything. Since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience, I cannot do otherwise, here I stand — May God help me. AMEN.
As Luther was being escorted out, the shouts of protest and requests for Luther’s life were ringing in his ears. As he was taken back to his quarters, upon entering the room – he was relieved that he had come through. He turned to a friend and said:
If I had a thousand heads I would rather have them all lopped off than to abandon my gospel.
Luther boldly took his stand for the truth, and as a result the Reformation continues to march forward to this very day. When the church experiences seasons of controversy, men of conviction who understand that truth matters must be willing to stand firm. Pastors and church leaders must learn from the example of Luther. During seasons of controversy, far too many leaders refuse to stand because they’re attempting to protect their own legacy or their little empire within evangelicalism while ignoring the fact that God’s truth is being assaulted.
Will you be remembered as a leader who stood courageously to defend the truth or will you be remembered as a sleeping lion who refused to roar? Faithful leaders are willing to defend the truth because they recognize that something far greater than their platform is at risk. The souls of men, women, boys and girls are assaulted when the truth is compromised.
During seasons of controversy, people look for leaders to stand up, speak up, and lead forward through the fog of controversy. May the Lord be pleased to raise up faithful leaders in our day.
- Jonathan Edwards to John Erskine (May 20, 1749), in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Letters and Personal Writings, (Yale University Press, 1998), 271.