Alongsider Briefings: Reflections of a Life Lived with God

God’s Trump Card


“Trump!” you yell as you triumphantly lay down your hand of cards. You win the hand  and the game is over.

Our Lord has a trump card to play when it comes to leadership. Winning at His leadership “game” requires a different “hand” than is typically played. What’s the trump card that wins His leadership game? The card may surprise you.

If leadership is defined by whether one has a following then this leader was head and shoulders above everyone else. He took a group of people who were beat down, discouraged, and without hope and gave them a new vision and identity. He took leaders from a variety of occupations and molded them into a team. His speaking skills inspired multitudes and his books were best sellers. This leader possessed an intuitive sense of the big picture and took bold action to turn this vision into reality. There was a natural charisma to him. 

He had it all — charisma, command, competency. Who was this amazing leader? His name was Adolf Hitler. The German Fuehrer demonstrated the leadership skills we often prize today. Unfortunately, behind his charisma and skills was an evil core. He was racist, devoid of conscience, and saturated with narcissism. 

Did I catch your attention? I know that Hitler’s example is extreme but it demonstrates a basic truth: we must assess leadership as something more than one’s public performance or success. The New Testament shows us a different way — a way where character trumps the hand of competency. 

There are five basic passages in the Epistles that describe the qualifications and functions of local leaders. My cursory study of these New Testament passages found forty-four character qualities associated with leadership. These qualities include marital faithfulness, self-control, respect, hospitality, and gentleness. Leaders are not drunkards, violent, quarrelsome, or greedy. 

A leader’s quality of life should be so visible and well-known that even “the outsider” — unbelieving neighbors, family, or co-workers —respects him or her (1 Timothy 3:7). If character is so important then the leadership task must be huge. 

How big was the job and what competencies were needed for these church leaders? I noted just three competencies or functions in comparison to forty-four character traits. First, leaders should be good managers or stewards (1 Timothy 2:5; Titus 1:7). Second, they’re skillful shepherds of people (1 Peter 5:2-5). Finally, they are able to instruct and rebuke in sound doctrine (1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:9). The conclusion is obvious: the New Testament teaches that character trumps competency. 

This does not mean that we neglect competency. After all, being competent displays excellence in doing a task and excellence is a mark of character.  Jesus set the example, doing “everything well” (Mark 7:37). Competency is what we do, character is how we do it. Sometimes we reverse the order and value doing over being.

It’s convenient to value leaders who are skilled, credentialed, and able to get things done. Sometimes the unspoken qualification for membership on a church or ministry board is the volunteer’s career. We value having lawyers, doctors, or business leaders on our leadership councils. We allow credentials and competency to give an aura of authority, allowing competency to trump character. 

Why does God’s trump card of character beat the hand of competency? Let’s travel back in time to find a clue.

Ancient rulers did not leave their authority to chance. They placed statues of themselves in far-flung cities to remind their subjects who ruled them. Images of the ruler were stand-ins for their physical presence. 

We’re like those statues. As God’s image-bearers (Genesis 1:27) we are stand-ins for His rule (Psalm 8:5-6). Author and historian N.T. Wright explains that “God has placed his image, human beings, into his world, so that the world would see who its ruler is.” 

As God’s stand-ins, we reflect Him to the world. We’re challenged to “be imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1). We’re urged to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling” (Ephesians 4:1). What is this calling? We’re to put “on the new self, created after the likeness of God” (Ephesians 4:23). We mirror back the likeness of Christ to people around us. We’re God’s stand-ins, honoring Him by our likeness to Him.

For several years I worked in construction and was apprenticed to Don, a skilled and experienced carpenter. Periodically Don would leave me alone to work while he ran errands. It was in these moments that I realized that my work represented him; I was Don’s stand-in to the homeowner. 

His reputation was at stake through my work. I was not left alone to do whatever I wanted; my task was to work Don’s plan on the construction site. As his stand-in, I stewarded Don’s reputation and this showed up in the quality of my work. 

As God’s stand-ins, we mirror Him to the world. Our task is simple, do His mission in ways that represent and honor Him. This is the “hand” that wins the game; this is why character is important.

The “stand-in” of one’s character has a practical, utilitarian quality. The management guru Peter Drucker wrote that “manners are the lubricant of an organization.” Lubricants reduce friction, heat, and wear between surfaces. In the body of Christ, the surfaces that rub together are the interaction of people with one another around the mission. Manners are an outcome of character and when character is present friction is minimized. Character is the best friction lubricant.

If you’re like me, you’re probably asking, “If character is the standard, who is qualified to lead?” None of us embodies all of these forty qualities. 

Our hope is this: the standard is not perfection but “progress” and this progress should be “seen by all” (1 Timothy 4:15). What do people see? They see the arc of our lives noticeably bending towards maturity in character. We never fully arrive but we’re committed to the process.

The question about who is qualified to lead is not about arrival but the tenacious and noticeable bending of the arc. We face two choices in our growth as leaders and in our selection of leaders. The first choice is obvious – are we committed to bending the arc of our lives from self to the character of Jesus? Second, do we place ourselves in public settings where others can see in honest and unscripted ways the arc of our lives of character? God made us his stand-ins to be noticed and to representational.

Leaders are men and women whose life arc is intentionally bending towards character. When this happens we become God’s trump card in the game of leadership. The arc towards character trumps public displays of competency. Let’s trust God to be leaders, and to choose leaders, whose lives are curving towards character. When this happens we trump the world’s standards as God’s stand-ins. Ok, world, trump that!

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