Home Wealth The Existing Concept of Leadership in the African Church

The Existing Concept of Leadership in the African Church


Ted W. Engstrom and Edward R. Dayton in their book, “The Art of Management for Christian Leaders” said that leadership can be looked at from many different angels. They went on to state three of these angles from which leadership can be looked at. They are: i ) from the viewpoint of position, for e.g., leaders of companies or organizations; ii) from the viewpoint of action: leaders are known by the leadership acts they perform. Regardless of the different viewpoints from which one could examine leadership, it will always fall under three basic concepts.1

The three basic concepts of leadership identified in the contemporary world are as follows: the traditional concept – from one’s social or ethnic background, the secular concept-from the view point of modern society in general and the biblical concept – from the teachings of scripture. In some cases, the traditional concept. However, in the African context, it is important to make the distinction. From the three concepts mentioned above, all other concepts of leadership have their roots. Therefore in discussing the existing concepts of leadership in the African church, these three concepts were examined. The format followed in this chapter is as follows: the first section was a discussion on the Biblical concept of leadership, the second a discussion on the secular concept of leadership and the third on the traditional concept of leadership. Following these discussions, the existing concept of leadership, within the African church was determined by comparing these concepts with actual practices in the church. From the comparison a conclusion is drawn.

The Biblical Concept of Leadership

The concept of leadership from the biblical perspective has been determined from the teaching of scriptures and from the examples of many who were called to leadership by God. In this section, the leadership teachings of Jesus and the life. The life he modeled as the ideal standard for Christian leaders will be examined. Following that, leadership concepts in the Old Testament will be discussed generally, but also making specific references.

A. Leadership Teachings of Jesus

In his book, “The New Leaders: A Revolutionary Approach”, Mytron Rush stated his purpose of writing as, “to help us rediscover the practices and principles of leadership thought as applied by Jesus”, He said that Jesus Christ was not just content to have followers. By His teachings and practices, He redefined effective leadership as the leader reproducing himself on the followers.2 In the process of reproducing leader, Jesus revealed His basic concept of leadership as that of service. Gottfried Osei-Mensah agrees with Myron Rush when he said, “the model of leadership the scripture consistently command to the people of God is instead what we may call the servant-Ieader”.3 Several passages of scripture can also be cited to support the fact that Jesus’ concept of leadership was that of service. In Matthew 20:25-27, following a request for high position made by the mother of two of Jesus’ disciples, Jesus made this statement: “Not so with you. Instead, whosoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.” Also in Matthew 20:28, Jesus said, “The Son of man did not come to be served but to serve”. Osei-Mensah observed that through His ministry, and especially in His relationship with His disciples, Jesus also consistently modeled this type of leadership. For example, when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, He clearly demonstrated this principle of humble service and show that it does not take away any dignity from the leader. It was this servant concept of leadership, which was epitomized in the life and ministry of Jesus that produced the first group of Christian leaders – the disciples of Jesus. This act of Jesus was also to show the disciples that true leadership is grounded in love, which must result in service.

B. Leadership teachings of Jesus’ Disciples

Scripture shows that long after Jesus had gone, His disciples carried on His concept of leadership. The apostle Peter in I Peter 5:2-5 wrote to other Christian leaders: “Be servant of God’s flock that are under your care, serving as overseers not because you must, but because you are willing. Clothe yourself with humility toward one another.” In this statement of the apostle Peter, it can be seen that his concept of leadership is purely that of service. He did not only accept this concept as that of Jesus but saw it as the norm for Christian leaders. For this reason, he was instructing them to adopt the same concept of leadership. Also, the apostle Paul, in I Thessalonians 2:9 talked about the kind of leader he had been to the Thessalonians. He said he labored night and day among them and that his life and that of his colleagues were examples of holiness, justice and blamelessness before God. Paul’s concept of leadership was exactly that of Jesus – service. The Thessalonians were not serving him, but rather he served them.

In spite of the fact that in the New Testament, leaders see themselves more as servants, yet leadership positions are also acknowledged. In his writing, Paul instructed both Timothy and Titus to appoint elders in the local churches. However, the New Testament focused on the act of service of the leader and not on the office the occupied.

C. Leadership Concept in The Old Testament

It can be observed from the Old Testament that all the leaders that God used were personally called to their respective offices. In addition, each one of them was given their specific ministry at the point they were chosen. This was probably an indication that God wanted them to focus on service rather than their positions. For example, in Exodus 3:1-10, when God called Moses, He gave him clear instruction as to what He wanted him to do. In verse 10, He says “… I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt”. When Moses left Median for Egypt, his focus was never on his new position, but rather on the task he had to perform. Another example is that of Nehemiah. In his book, “Excellence in Leadership”, John White made the following statement: “Thus the book of Nehemiah serves primarily to unfold for us part of God’s on-going plan for His people. But always it is the man, his character and his leadership that holds my interest. I present these reflections with the hope that they will help Christians young and old who face leadership responsibilities”.4 John White was not concerned about Nehemiah’s post as governor, but rather on what he did. From the first chapter of the book of Nehemiah, Nehemiah had been concerned with serving and he never strayed from that focus throughout the account. Whenever leader adopts this concept of leadership, for example, in the case of Nehemiah the leader is able to accomplish his goal.

The Secular Concept of Leadership

As the name implies, the secular concept of leadership is generally used in non-religious organizations and institutions. The Bible makes reference to this concept of leadership and a number of authors who have discussed it, point out its advantages and disadvantages. The secular concepts of leadership will therefore be discussed from the biblical and secular point of view.

A. Biblical Perspective of The Secular Leadership Concept

In Matthew 20:25 Jesus said, “you know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them. And their high official exercise authority over them. Not so with you. In this portion of scripture, Jesus was making a contrast between the secular concept of leadership and that of the Biblical. The immediate context of the text mentioned above gives one a better picture of the secular concept of leadership from the biblical perspective. The mother of James and John (the sons of Zebedee) was asking Jesus for specific high positions for her sons in the kingdom of God. In secular leadership, the focus is on position and control. The higher the position a person finds himself, the greater the control and authority he has. Also Jesus showed through contrast that this kind of leadership does not focus on serving, but to be served.

There are also scriptural accounts in the Old Testament that portray the differences between secular and Biblical concepts of leadership. In I Samuel 8:4-6, the Israelites asked the Prophet Samuel to give them a king to rule over them and Samuel was displeased by the request. According to Deuteronomy 17:14-20, God had plans for the nation to have a king, but that king must be distinguished from those of the Gentiles. But when the people were asking for a king, they said that Samuel should appoint for them a king such as all the nations have. A close examination of the Deuteronomy passage mentioned above reveals characteristics of secular leadership. God in the Old Testament made a clear contrast between the leadership he approves of for his people Israel and that of Gentile nations. It was a contrast between the secular and the Biblical concepts of leadership. From the biblical standpoint the following are typical of secular concept of leadership: i) the amassing of wealth, lack of reverence for God and a sense of superiority to all.

The Bible did not only discussed the concept of secular leadership but also gave a vivid example of the devastating effect such leadership concept can result to. In 1 Kings 12:1-7, the Bible records the circumstances that led to the division of Israel. Joyce Peel observed, “Rehoboam sees royalty in terms of privilege and absolute power. He ignores the advice of older, experienced counselors and encouraged by his arrogant friends, he returns a harsh answer. The result is the cry, ‘to your tents, O Israel” The enraged Israelites marched out of Rehoboam’s” presence and set up Jeroboam as their king.5 In this observation, Joyce Peel has shown that it was Rehoboam’s concept of leadership that resulted in the division of the nation. His concept was that of the kings of other nations, who used their power and position to force their subjects to serve them. This was really a practical demonstration of the secular concept of leadership.

B. The Secular Perspective of Secular Leadership Concept

Most authors discuss leadership concepts in terms of styles. This approach is however contrary to the Biblical concept which is not about styles but about basic principles. Engstrom and Dayton, in their book, “The Art of Management for Christian Leaders”, discussed five leadership styles. These are as follows;

i) Bureaucratic
ii) Permissive
iii) Laissez-faire
iv) Participative and
v) Autocratic.6

These five leadership styles can be put into two groups:
i) Domineering leadership-Autocratic and Bureaucratic styles and
ii) Tolerant leadership-Permissive, Laissez-faire and Participative styles. The

first group has been the focus of secular leadership.

In explaining the secular concept of leadership, it is necessary to first give a description of the two leadership styles under the first group. In the autocratic style of leadership, the leader acts more like a dictator. He makes all decisions as to how things should be done and who will do them. He relies on his authority and sees himself as indispensable. The bureaucratic style of leadership is marked by continual reference to organization rules and regulations. Decisions are made by parliamentary procedures. These two leadership styles can be seen as foundational to the secular concepts of leadership, which is a show of power, prestige and position. This type of leadership is work-oriented and not people-oriented and is quite different from the biblical concept of leadership.

The Traditional Concept of Leadership

This concept of leadership is being examined from a sociological perspective. It is significant to the discussion of this paper because it is still strongly recognized in African societies. In African countries, the social and ethnic backgrounds of individuals do influence their whole perspective of life, which includes both the religious and the secular. This concept of leadership will be discussed from both the Biblical and Traditional perspectives looking at the social dimension.

A. The Biblical Perspective Of Traditional Concept Of Leadership

From the biblical records, one can have the spiritual dimension of traditional concept of leadership. The Bible makes specific references to Jewish traditions in Matthew chapter 15 and Mark chapter 7. In Matthew 15:14, the Pharisees and teachers of the law questioned Jesus because His disciples had broken the tradition of the elders. In response, Jesus asked them – “And why do you break the command of God?” There is a twist in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees. He did not focus on the issue but on leadership and authority. These elders have equated their human commentary or interpretation of divine laws with divine revelation. Jesus recognized their leadership but questioned their authority. Their leadership, even though not acceptable was recognized. Unlike the western world, Africa still recognizes traditional leaders even though their authority may not be acknowledged by many. However, within their own sphere of operation, they are not only recognized as leaders but their authorities are also acknowledged. The Bible also acknowledged the facet of strong traditional leadership that had great influence on people.

B. The Social/Ethnic Perspective of Traditional Concept of Leadership

Magbaily Fyle made the following observation about how leaders were recognized in African societies or within an ethnic group. He said that a great hunter or a popular “moriman” (Quranic scholar) easily becomes a leader. As he further stated, warfare was the most important factor in recognizing a leader. One who had led people in a victorious battle has the right to lead.7 Also, F.K. Buah in his book, Ancient World mentioned that leaders were recognized on the basis of age and the fact that it can be passed down from one family member to another. F.K. Buah further showed how this indigenous concept of Traditional Leadership has been influenced by western concept over the years. Academic education has also become an important factor in Traditional leadership.8 However in this concept of leadership, the followers usually respect the leaders position and decisions.

The existing concept of leadership within the African Church

The existing concept of leadership within the African Church can be determined by comparing the three basic concepts of leadership with actual practices in the church. The comparison will be done in two segments: first, with respect to the leaders and secondly, with reference to their task or function.

A) Leadership within the African Church

In the African Church, there are laid down principles as to how leaders are chosen or acknowledged. For most churches it is by election. Such elections are usually preceded by nomination; which could be done before or during the elections. When the process of choosing or acknowledging leaders is by elections, the obvious question that arises is: ‘who is eligible to stand?’. Formal education in many churches has become a criterion for leadership. In fact, many considered it to be the most important criterion. For example, elderly people in the main-line churches in Sierra Leone are seeking formal education, in the theological field so that they will be qualified to enter the pastorate. Many also are going through formal education by extension. In evangelical churches there are certain positions that one cannot hold without a university degree. On the other hand, many independent churches considered spirituality or charismatic gifting as the most important in the criteria for leadership. Many charismatic leaders, by virtue of the fact that they planted the church assumed the position of leader and acknowledge other leaders by their gifts. These leaders however do not subject themselves to election.

If however they do, it is certain that they would have ensured the safety of their position by some clause in the constitution. However in both main line and evangelical churches, individuals aspire to leadership because they are convinced that God has called them. Charismatic and evangelical churches can be very welcoming in acknowledging these leaders, if their leadership abilities are obvious. It should be pointed out that this way of acknowledging leaders have opened the church to dangers, As Oswald Sanders has observed, “in many cultures today where Christian leadership carries prestige and privilege, people aspire to leadership for reasons quite unworthy and self seeking.9 Though some who had said they have been called to leadership have proved unworthy, it is still worth noting that churches acknowledge leaders in response to their personal call. The aspect of call is still very strong in the Roman Catholic Church. Without a personal call, one cannot enter the priesthood.

Having discussed the present practices of recognizing leaders in the African Church, it is in place to see which of the concepts of leadership already discussed, the present practices fit into. In the first place, leaders who were acknowledged through election fit into the secular concept of leadership. This concept does not consider calling. It focuses more on qualification and bureaucracy. Second, recognizing leaders because of their charismatic gifts or leadership abilities portrays more of the traditional concept of leadership. Traditional leaders were recognized because of the special abilities or qualities they possess. They may continue to be leaders until someone with greater abilities comes around. Third, the Catholics and some other churches still consider calling to be the main criterion for leadership. This shows that in the African church, there is an aspect of the biblical concept as far as choosing or recognizing their leaders is concerned.

B) The Task or function of African Church Leaders.

To have the complete concept of leadership in the contemporary African church, one needs to examine both the leaders and their function or task. The concept of choosing leaders has just been examined. Now the concept of the task and function of leaders will be discussed.

Most church leaders consider their position more than their task or function. Many ended up doing more administrative than spiritual ministry. They are more involved in business meetings and projects, such as building and relief. For some ministry has been basically church activities or special programs. Thanksgiving services have become the order of the day. Evangelical and charismatic churches however, seem to give more time to the needs of their members. They do this through Bible Studies, preaching, teaching and special services, healing, breakthrough and deliverance, etc. But at times the leaders seem to burden the people with financial demands.

To some extent, members generally believe that their leaders must be involved in almost everything as long as it has something to do with the church. In this way the leaders feel that everything has to be under their personal control. This has resulted in power struggles in many churches because leaders do not want any competition.

To determine the leadership concept in the African church on the basis of the functions of the leader, one has to make comparisons with the three basic concepts already discussed. Present day church leaders function more as traditional leaders, who are in absolute control and tolerate no competition. They want the followers to recognize their position and always be subjected to them. Also they function as secular leaders who are task-oriented and not people-oriented. They are more concerned with the work to be done or goals to be achieved than with the needs of the people. However, some leaders function as servants to the people, as can be seen in the Biblical concept of leadership.

With reference to the function or task of the leaders, it can be seen that three basic concepts of leadership are evident. It is clear that traditional and secular concepts of leadership are gaining firmer grounds in the church in Africa. However, the church continues to hold on to the biblical concept in principle.


The procedure of the presentation was as follows: First, the biblical concept of leadership was discussed; second, the secular concept and third the traditional concept. Finally the leadership practices in the present day church were discussed and comparisons made with the three basic concepts to determine what concept is prevalent in present day African church. It was noted that the secular and traditional concepts are prevalent. The biblical concept, which should be the norm for the African church has little or no recognition in practice.

In the present day African church, formal education and spirituality have been seen as two different entities. The leadership concept of some churches has been influenced by formal education, which has been considered as pre-requisite for position within the church. The leadership concept of some other churches has been influenced by spirituality or charismatic gifts and the leaders function more like traditional leaders who do not tolerate competition.

However, the leadership needs both formal education and charismatic gifts, but the Church in Africa must return to the Biblical concept of leadership, which portrays leaders as the servant of the people, leaders must follow Jesus’ principle and reproduce themselves in others. The African church can make use of the good aspects of secular and traditional concepts of leadership, but the Biblical concept must always be the norm for the Church.


1Ted W. Engstrom and Edward Dayton, The Art of Management for Christian

Leaders (Texas: Word Book Publishers, 1976), p. 23.

2Myron Rush, The New Leader: A Revolutionary Approach to Effective

Leadership (Illinois: Victor Books, 1971), p. 11.

3Gottfteid Osei-Mensah, Wanted: Servant Leader (Achimota: Afrcian Christian

Press, 1990), p. 8.

4John White, Excellence in Leadership: The Patterns of Nehemiah (Leicester:

Inter-Varsity Press, 1986), pp. 10-11.

5Joyce Peel, A Journey Through the Old Testament: The Story of God’s
Relationship with Man, Woman and the World (Oxford: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 1993), p. 84.

6Ted W. Engstrom and Edward Dayton, The Art of Management for Christian

Leaders (Texas: Word Book Publishers, 1976), p. 30.

7Magbaily Fyle, The History of Sierra Leone (London: Evans Brothers, 1981),

p. 5.

8F.K. Buah, Ancient World (London: Macmillan Publishers, 1960), p. 79.

9Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), p. 14.