Spiritual leadership is not the same as military leadership, political leadership or corporate leadership! This is not to say that there are no similarities between spiritual leadership and these other kinds of leadership. There are certain elements common to all types of leadership. Furthermore, the good qualities of military leadership, political leadership or corporate leadership can certainly be used by the Lord when a committed Christian dedicates these natural and developed abilities to Christ. Spiritual leadership, however, is more than just dedicated natural traits and talents. Successful Christian business persons, for example, do not necessarily have what it takes to be successful spiritual leaders. They may be very effective in leading a company or a campus organization, but this is no guarantee that they will be effective leaders in a church or ministry--even though they may be dynamic Christians! The reason for this is that there is an added dimension to spiritual leadership; it requires more than dedicated natural abilities. Spiritual leadership, simply defined, is God-given spiritual ability and responsibility to lead God's people. This all-important dimension is a "must" for effective leadership in any Christian service. Let us be careful not to read our own cultural concepts of successful leadership into the biblical standards when we're choosing or recognizing our spiritual leaders.
There are many examples of spiritual leaders in the Bible. Ezra of the Old Testament is an outstanding example. In chapters 7 through 10 of the little book of Scripture that bears his name, we learn that Ezra not only fully dedicated his natural abilities and talents to the service of the Lord, but he also had that added ingredient of spiritual ability and responsibility for leading God's people. In fact, of the three "post-exilic" leaders of the Jewish people, Ezra is remembered most for his spiritual leadership. Zerubbabel is remembered for leading the people in the reconstruction of the Temple. Nehemiah is remembered for leading the people in the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem. Ezra is remembered for leading the people in a spiritual revival. As we look at the inspired record of Ezra's leadership in these chapters, we can gain a lot of insight about the kind of people God uses as spiritual leaders.
First and foremost, we see that Ezra was a person who was devoted to God's Word. His priestly background and training (7:1-5) certainly contributed to this, but Ezra had gone further in his devotion to the Word of God. He had become a scribe. The Hebrew scribes of that day not only copied the ancient sacred scrolls, they studied and taught these Scriptures as well. Ezra's devotion to the Word can almost be felt in Ezra 7:10. Ezra had set his heart to study and practice and teach the Law of the Lord. No wonder he was skilled (7:6) in the application of the Scripture to life's situations. This is the kind of spiritual leadership that is needed today. God is looking for Christians who are devoted to studying His Word, and to practicing and applying the principles for Christian living it contains. Becoming skillful in the use and application of God's Word takes more than a Sunday School background and a brief "quiet time" each day. There must be that devoted heart--set on the study of the Law of the Lord. Could God choose you right now as a spiritual leader?
Ezra was also a man of prayer. He practiced what we all preach but do so little. Ezra prayed about everything! He prayed for a safe journey before the long trip from Babylon to Jerusalem. He included the kids and even the material possessions (8:21). Yes, it's biblical to pray for safety on the road before a long trip--even about the stuff in the luggage rack! But Ezra prayed about more than just the mundane things of everyday living. When he heard the sad news about the moral condition of God's people living in Judah, Ezra prayed a long prayer of confession (9:5-15). Although Ezra himself was not guilty, he humbly identified with the nation in their sin. He poured out his soul before God on behalf of the people. His prayer life was not self-centered. Ezra was characterized by a heart for the people of God. This is the kind of person the Lord chooses for spiritual leadership. Do we qualify? Notice how Ezra's example led the people to repentance (10:1). Spiritual leaders with an Ezra-type prayer life will find similar results today!
Ezra knew how to work well with people. This was another very important and necessary aspect of his God-given ability as a spiritual leader. He could motivate people to move in the right direction without manipulating them. When no Levites showed up to go back to Jerusalem (8:15), for example, Ezra used just the right approach to get a number of Levites to change their minds. This was no easy task. Joining the caravan meant saying goodbye to relatives and business and property and the easy life in Babylon, and taking the long trip to Jerusalem--a city still much in ruins from Nebuchadnezzar's invasion over 100 years before. And the Levites had no prospect of "striking it rich" back in Jerusalem! No, they would be required to get involved in the unglamorous work of the Temple. Remember, they were the tribe of Israel which was responsible for helping the priests with all the necessary legwork around the House of the Lord. Why would any Levite want to leave the good life in Babylon for that? But somehow Ezra was able to motivate over 250 of the Levites to leave their prosperous life in Babylon for the service of the House of the Lord in Jerusalem. That took God-given spiritual ability! Spiritual leadership like that is needed today to motivate Christians to get going, especially in the humdrum everyday areas of Christian service.
Another evidence of Ezra's ability to work well with people was his "flexible firmness". This sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it really isn't. When Ezra was confronted with a moral problem on the part of God's people (9:1-4), he didn't condone sin or change God's standards to water down the problem. He remained firm in his position that the people had greatly sinned before God and that serious action must be taken. At the same time, however, Ezra was flexible in the way he went about handling the problem. He was willing to take helpful advice from Shecaniah (10:2-4). Some would-be spiritual leaders today would never take advice from their flock. They are inflexible in their ideas of what is to be done and how it is to be done. They need to take a lesson from Ezra on flexibility!
Ezra's flexible firmness is further observed when the people assembled in the open square in Jerusalem (10:9). His firmness is shown in his continual stand for the biblical standards and the necessity of getting the problem of intermarriage with the pagans resolved (10:10-11). His flexibility is seen in his ability to listen to reason (10:12-15). The people admitted their guilt and they really wanted to set things straight, but they needed a little more time. Besides, it was raining and they were getting chilled. Ezra wasn't so rigid a leader that he demanded the matter be settled immediately--rain or no rain! Unfortunately, some Christian leaders today are that rigid. They are inflexible and demanding and will not listen to reason. Consequently, they do not work well with people and therefore cannot possibly be good spiritual leaders. Ezra knew that the people were repentant in heart and were not just "stalling for time". He was therefore confident that the matter would be corrected in good time--and it was (10:16-19).
Ezra's handling of money is one more important indication of his spiritual leadership. This is a critical area, and many spiritual leaders since Ezra's time have failed because of mistakes in the matter of money. Notice how Ezra avoided two dangerous extremes. On the one hand, he made sure that he did not allow himself to get too close to the money, where he could be easily tempted or accused of "mismanagement". He delegated the responsibility of looking after the funds to twelve reliable men (8:24-30). These funds included freewill offerings from God's people in Babylon as well as monies from the royal treasury of the Persian king, Artaxerxes (7:11-20). I wonder if we could have kept our hands off the cash if the offer of Ezra 7:18 had been made to us! What purchases for our own selfish interests and desires would we have condoned? As a spiritual leader, Ezra avoided those potential problems by releasing direct control over the treasury.
On the other hand, Ezra avoided the extreme of divorcing himself completely from the financial end of things. He made sure that the money was not only in good hands, but that everything was completely accounted for (8:33-34). Spiritual leaders must keep tabs on what's being done with the funds entrusted to them. Let's face it, there is a financial side to every Christian church and ministry, and the proper use of money is a spiritual matter. Avoiding the two extremes can be difficult at times, but a balanced approach to finances is a mark of a good spiritual leader.
Several times over in these chapters from the book of Ezra we are told that "the good hand of God was upon Ezra". (See Ezra 7:6, 9, 28 and 8:18, 22, 31.) God never calls people to spiritual leadership without also giving them the ability to do the job! Because spiritual leadership is God-given ability and responsibilty to lead God's people, you can be sure that if you are ever called to such a role, the good hand of God will be available to you.
David R. Reid