A Biblical Framework for Leadership

The Key to Unlocking the bible’s point of view on leading

It is customary in recent books on biblical leadership to approach the sacred text as a source of enduring principles and moral guidelines for leading. Indeed there is a wealth of helpful insights for today’s leader in the ancient biblical record. One cannot help but gain valuable lessons for leading when gazing into the biblical mirror offered in the lives of Jesus, Paul, Moses, David and other ‘founding fathers” of the Christian faith. For sure, these books offer sound advice, even eternal wisdom, for leaders today. And their faithful emphasis on servant leadership as the paradigm for leading is outstanding. .

But is that all there is? The current genre of biblically based leadership books generally seeks to answer the question, “What lessons can leaders today glean from the examples and lives of biblical leaders long ago?” As instructive as these leadership lessons are, suppose there is actually a prescriptive model for leading in the Bible. While denigrating, neither the lessons learned from these books nor their authors, if we addressed the Scriptures with a different question, would we get a different answer? Refreshingly, the answer may well be “yes”. If the Bible does contain a definitive model for leaders in churches, mission agencies, and even in the business world, we all would do well to add it to our thinking and practice of leadership.

There are hundreds of verses directly or indirectly related to leaders and leadership in the Bible. The Pentateuch and other Old Testament books like I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, I & II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, the major and minor prophets, the wisdom literature, the many great leaders of the Hebrew nation – all of this material is written by and about leaders. The New Testament offers the supreme example of our Lord, the Acts of the Apostles, all church leaders, the Pauline epistles to the leaders of churches he planted, and other instruction for life in the early church.

This wealth of material can be sorted into four broad categories as a means of understanding the unified teaching on the subject of leadership. It has been said that theology is ‘faith seeking understanding’. These four categories may well constitute a framework for a beginning theology of leadership. At a minimum, they serve as a means of understanding the broad leadership themes in Scripture. Any biblical leader or leadership passage can be analyzed in terms of these categories. Understanding the core message in each of these themes leads us to a prescriptive model for leading in the Kingdom of God. As such, the four categories constitute a framework or a key for unlocking the biblical leadership message.

What follows is an explanation of this framework (see fig. 1). Two factors in the framework relate to the leader’s internal belief system and two relate to his/her external behavior. As we shall see, external behaviors are driven by internal beliefs. Mental Model and Motive are the factors that comprise the internal belief system while Manner and Methods comprise the external behavior. A thorough treatment of these four factors is not within the scope of these comments but they will provide an orientation or map that helps define the biblical leadership terrain.
Mental Model

The Bible sets forth a very clear contrast between competing philosophies or conceptual understandings of leadership. Jesus contrasted leaders of the day, including the Pharisees, who used their position to “lord it over” those they led with leaders in the Kingdom. Kingdom leaders are to be servants, ones who stoop to serve the purposes of God in the lives of those they lead (Luke 22:24ff; Mark 10:42-45; Matt. 20:20-28; 23:1ff).

Similar contrasts are depicted in the Old Testament as well. Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, teetered on the fence for three days between competing models of leadership, deliberating on the kind of leadership he would exercise. Unfortunately, he chose to be harsh and demanding rather than follow the wise advice of the elders to serve the people. (I Kings 12:1-24). The net of the decision was civil war in Israel and the death of over half a million men. Deuteronomy 17:14-20 sets forth God’s requirements for the future king of Israel, a standard that lies in sharp contrast to the leadership of most of the kings of God’s chosen people.

So even without a detailed examination of the teaching of Scripture, we can easily see that the Bible takes a position on what good leadership looks like. The point here is not the specific content of the teaching but that there is a clear distinction between the conflicting and opposing views regarding leadership. We shall call this part of the Bible’s leadership framework the Mental Model of leadership. It’s the conceptual model, the idea of good leadership.

Nearly all books and articles on leading attempt to set forth the author’s meaning of leadership. The Bible is no exception. It uses two primary metaphors for leading — that of the servant and that of the shepherd. We skip over a critical insight regarding biblical leading if we assume that these two metaphors are essentially synonymous. The servant qualities of the shepherd are what distinguish him from the hireling or the false shepherd. For example, the good shepherd left the 99 in search of the 1 precisely because he was a ‘good’ shepherd, not simply because he was a shepherd. So serving and shepherding have different connotations. The word servant is a modifier of shepherd. The biblical Mental Model of the good leader inextricably links these two concepts. (John 10)

First, a quick look at the concept of servant. As we review the leadership passages referencing serving, we note that most of them refer to service rendered to one person. Most often, service to a master or to the Lord is the key theme. “David, My servant”, is a good example. Hence, servant passages have a singularity to them. On the other hand, shepherds most often are referred to as those providing direction, protection, and guidance to a flock, i.e., a group or plurality.

What we learn from this distinction is that biblical leaders have two points of focus. One, they must be attentive to serving the purposes of God in the lives of individuals they lead. Second, they must direct the actions of the flock or group as a group. The actual shepherds of Israel provide a good illustration of this dual focus. They led their flocks to greener pastures while at the same time dealing individually with a wayward lamb. Consider Jesus himself. He served the purposes of God in the lives of specific individuals. Yet, He also came to the lost house of Israel. He healed individuals but he taught groups of disciples. OT examples abound in this dual role. Samuel counseled Saul but judged the nation.

Another thing we learn from a content analysis of the servant and shepherd passages is that the shepherd is the dominant leadership metaphor. The role of the shepherd was a cornerstone of the Hebrew economy as sheep provided key staples of wool, mutton and other commodities. God’s choice of the shepherd as a leadership metaphor made sense for a nomadic society dependent on sheep, goats and cattle. But inasmuch as the Lord Himself is described as the Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd, and the Chief Shepherd, perhaps the metaphor of the leader as shepherd has applicability today. The actual work of the shepherd with his sheep can provide insight into the work of the leader of God’s people in the 21st century of shepherding involved five priorities, grazing the sheep, watering the sheep, directing their travel to another location, resting and protecting them, and finally, producing the wool and other commodities that were a mainstay of the economy. The counterparts to these five priorities are likewise present in leading today’s church, small group, church committee, missions agency, or parachurch organization. Figure 2 depicts today’s analog to the work of the ancient shepherd.

Therefore the complete picture of the biblical leader is one who serves God’s purposes in the lives of individual sheep but also stands before the flock guiding, directing, teaching, standing firm for the fundamentals of the faith, etc. The Servant enables the God-ordained growth of the individual. The Shepherd calls forth the group to the work of advancing God’s Kingdom.

Read the historical record on Israel’s kings and one comment stands out in stark relief, … and he did evil in the sight of the Lord… (e.g., I Kings 15:26, 34, 16:19, 25,30, 22:52). This refrain refers to the moral character of the leaders and their heart’s devotion to God. With a few notable exceptions the leaders of both Israel and Judah promoted idol worship and turned the hearts of the people away from following the one true God. These were leaders with divided loyalties who made themselves fat at the expense of the people (Ezekiel 34). Leaders, who were expected to protect, nurture and lead the people into right worship and relationship with God instead abandoned them, scattered them and left them to be devoured by every beast of the field. Clearly, the driving motives of the heart of the leader are of utmost importance to God. Leaders of His people must have hearts wholly devoted to Him and to His purposes for His own people. Therefore, an essential element of the Bible’s leadership framework is the motive that resides in the heart of the leader.

The question of motive is often referred to as the question of character, or integrity, or the internal spring that drives behavior. Haman, in the book of Esther, was driven by, virtually compelled by, a desire to be recognized, to possess the power of position, to be the King’s favorite, literally a desire to be worshipped. (Esther 3:1ff.) Mordecai, on the other hand, acted out of a heart of principle, conviction and compassion. While Haman’s life typifies the pursuit of external treasures, of image, prestige, wealth, Mordecai’s life typifies the pursuit of principle, eternal values, and godly behavior. The one exercised leadership from the outside in, so to speak, the other led from the inside out.1 Mordecai’s leadership was grounded in godly character, Haman’s in the selfish pursuit of the tinsel of pers
ona and image.

The second factor in the biblical framework of leadership, then, is the concept of Motive. This concept reflects the intentions of the leader’s heart. It is the most important of the four factors, judging from the sheer number of passages that address the leader’s heart, not to mention the condemnation of those with impure hearts.

Mental Model and Motive comprise the leader’s internal belief system, certainly not all of it but the two most important factors in determining how the leader relates to others and to the methods he/she chooses. Rehoboam and Haman, for example, both had Mental Models and heart Motives that were evidenced in the way they treated others, and in the methods they chose. Likewise, today’s leaders who have repeated interpersonal problems, are ‘carriers’ of stress and conflict, and who choose unwise, self-serving methods are reflecting either their understanding of leadership, the real driving motives of their heart, or both.


The stories of David reflect a strong bond of love, respect, and devotion between David and his followers. With hearts of one accord over 350,000 men of war came to Hebron to crown him king over all of Israel. He made a covenant with them to limit his own prerogatives and protect the rights of the people in what some have likened to a constitutional monarchy (I Chron. 11:1-3). His manner of relating to them was entirely different from that of King Saul.

In a statement reminiscent of King David’s relationship with his countrymen, Jesus said to his disciples that he no longer called them “slaves or servants” but “friends” (John 15:15). He relates to those who obey him as to a close friend (15:14). Equally instructive to biblical leaders is His command to all Christ followers to love one another (15:17). Hence the third factor in the Bible’s framework for understanding leadership in the Kingdom of God is the manner in which the leader interacts with followers.

Compare the manner in which scribes and Pharisees related to those they led. They swindled wealthy widows out of their estates, (Matt. 23:14), neglected justice, mercy and faithfulness in their dealings with others. (23:23) They required deeds of the people that they themselves did not fulfill, they sought the chief seats, the public recognition, and respectful greetings, and titles that elevated them above others. (23:3-7)

Christ, on the other hand, taught that leaders are to be humble, willing to serve, relating in loving kindness, turning the other cheek, doing good to others, in short, treating everyone, even enemies, as a best friend — two clearly contrasted styles or manner of relating to others.


The biblical record states that David guided the flock of Israel with skillful hands (Ps. 78:72). Matthew Henry, referring to this statement, says, ” He was not only very sincere in what he designed, but very prudent in what he did.” The wise and skillful David who earned his degree in leadership from Shepherd University guided the nation well. The methods he chose led the nation into peace and prosperity. The glorious Davidic kingdom was never matched again and became the standard against which all other kings were judged. By inference, we deduce that David’s leadership methods were not only wise but also effective and efficient. To be sure he made some mistakes, as in not following the prescribed method for transporting the Ark of the Covenant, but he quickly admitted his mistakes and mended his ways (II Samuel 6).

In this final factor in the Bible’s framework for leadership instruction, the emphasis is less on certain methods for leading but on selecting wise methods. A wise method is one that not only works well, but is also consistent with the Mental Model of biblical leadership and is chosen out of a pure heart. Thus, we should not use a method that helps the leader fulfill his/her lust to control even though it works, for instance.

The apostle Paul provides instruction to a young pastor and his protégé in various methods for conducting the affairs of the church. I Timothy records methods for selecting leaders, conducting worship, offering instruction, and generally managing the newly founded churches of the first century. In other letters to church leaders, Paul provides instruction in methods for gift-based service and in how to conduct communion.

Sound Methods advice today is found in most of the books written by and for biblical leaders. We do well to seek and heed this advice. But as we have seen wise and effective methods are but one of the factors comprising sound biblical leadership.

The right Mental Model, plus the right Motive, plus the right Manner of relating to followers, and the selection of wise Methods comprise the four factors in the framework for understanding the Bible’s instruction on leadership.
Using the Biblical Leadership Framework

In each of the four factors, the Scriptures give a preferred and a non-preferred means of understanding them. Grasp their meaning and you have mastered the basis for establishing biblical principles of leadership in today’s church and parachurch organization. In fact, today’s many secular models of leadership can be understood and compared to the Bible’s model using this framework. When the biblical instruction is fleshed out in each of the four areas a workable guideline or leadership prescription is established for daily use in all leadership roles in the Church.

As explained above the Bible’s Mental Model of leadership is built upon two dominant metaphors, that of the servant and the shepherd. The Lord Jesus Christ is the culmination of both of these metaphors. Could it be that the NT is merely reflecting the outworking of word pictures begun in the OT, or did the Spirit choose these metaphors with a deliberate purpose in mind? We do well to ascribe intentionality to the Holy Spirit’s choice of words, especially so, because they are applied to the Lord Himself. God sees leaders as shepherds over His people and He expects them to serve His purposes in their lives just as Christ did in the lives of those the Father gave Him.

The work of shepherding, as previously mentioned, involves five priorities: grazing, watering, traveling, resting, and producing. These priorities apply simultaneously to the flock or group as a whole and also to the individuals in the group. The servant shepherd’s job description revolves around ensuring that these priorities are met in the life of the flock and for the individual sheep. How then does the servant shepherd fulfill these priorities? The accompanying chart in Figure 2 illustrates how these priorities are fleshed out.

For instance, grazing is required to nourish the body, sustain life and ensure growth. The obvious analog to the Christian life is the Word of God. It is imperative that the servant shepherd communicate the Word of God to the flock. Failure to do so dooms the flock to being tossed about by every wind of doctrine and the trickery of men. Likewise, the individual sheep needs to hear the Word of God. But in the case of interpersonal interaction, the servant shepherd needs to model the word. Individuals have heard it communicated via teaching being members of the flock. Now what they need is to see what the Word looks like when it is lived out in the ordinariness of life.

In similar fashion, each of the priorities has its application to both leading the group and to serving the needs of specific individuals. Watering implies the refreshment of true worship in the heart of the flock. As such the question of heart loyalties is raised. Do fear, materialism, pride, comfort, and the like, control the heart of the flock, or is it controlled by faith, love, and trust in God? Samuel, as the last of the judges, had to call the nation’s heart back to faith in God in order to prepare for the coming rule by an earthly king. Individuals often need to be encouraged when their heart loses focus on the power, love and wisdom of their Lord.

Traveling clearly implies the changing of pastures. Therefore, the servant shepherd needs to be skilled in managing change so that God’s vision for the group can be realized. Change in the life of the individual implies the transition or transformation in their life’s calling to ministry. The servant shepherd will encourage them to become all that God has intended them to be.

Paul took great pains to instruct local church leaders to maintain a spirit of unity and peace in their flocks. The protection against conflict and the maintenance of peace enables the group to rest free from distraction and more focused on the work of the ministry. Individuals need periods of renewal, refreshment and recommitment so that they do not become burned out in ministry efforts.

The preceding four priorities are for one purpose – that the sheep and the flock can be fruitful. A group’s efforts will not be fruitful if there is no or little alignment among its various parts. Strategic alignment, then, is required if the servant shepherd’s work is to have maximum impact. Additionally, he/she must draw on the special giftedness of the individuals in the group, holding them accountable for the results entrusted to them, if they are to reach their full potential. The flock depends on their contribution.

As the servant shepherd addresses the five priority needs of the group and the separate individuals, he/she must concentrate on these ten skills or task areas. Effective methods in these areas will build strong, effective ministries capable of advancing God’s kingdom as He directs. It should be obvious that the work of the servant shepherd is essentially developmental. The purpose of the servant shepherd’s leadership initiatives is the development of others for the special work the Lord has given them. Effective development results in rich, abundant God-produced fruit. Just as the shepherd did not cause the sheep’s wool to grow, the biblical leader cannot produce fruit in the lives of those to whom he/she ministers. The biblical leader’s job is to provide the right ingredients, the proper conditions, for the Chief Shepherd to accomplish His purpose.

Implementing Insights from Biblical Leadership Framework

Do the four factors in the leadership framework really offer a prescriptive model for Kingdom leaders today? The answer to this quite legitimate question turns on one two-part assumption, that the metaphor of the servant shepherd applies beyond the nomadic times in which it was birthed and that God’s people are sheep-like in their needs as individuals and as groups. If the Holy Spirit intended His words to carry direct application for us today, then we can seriously consider the implications as instructive, even prescriptive for our work as leaders. To be sure leaders have many other issues to address, some quite petty, some quite momentous, but all of which must

be considered in the context of the five dominant needs of the individuals and groups we lead. These five needs form the core, the basics, the priorities of Kingdom leaders. Ignore these at your peril. Emphasize the needs of individuals over the needs of the group, or vice versa, and forfeit balance in your leadership initiatives. Blindly assume only one set of needs exists and your leadership will be so compromised that
you may lose your follower’s altogether.

The key to effective, biblical leadership is addressing the five needs of both the individuals you serve and the group you lead. The Servant Shepherd Priorities Matrix below is a reminder of the work to be done in each set of needs. Beyond that, effective

leaders must always guard their hearts, (Prov. 4:23) lest self-serving tendencies undermine their godly character. And they must be conscious of treating their followers and other colleagues as best friends, not with ill-advised professional distance.

Finally, the choice of wise methods adopted with input and counsel of numerous advisors (Prov. 15:22) will assure biblical leaders that their plans glorify God and strategically advance His Kingdom.