Yes, God uses one-way leaders

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“Was Martin Luther a multidirectional leader?

This question, posed by Collin Hansen last year, got me thinking. Can we say that Luther, the incendiary theologian whose work launched the Reformation, was “multidirectional” in the way my book describes him – aware of the dangers coming to the flock from multiple sides of the field, ready to hold on tight to multiple truths in their fullness?

On some issues, maybe.

Luther opposed the errors of the medieval Catholic Church, but he also recognized the anarchist dead end of the radical Anabaptist movement. Yet there is little resemblance between Luther and a model multidirectional leader like John Stott, especially considering Luther’s temper, his rhetoric, and his laser-like emphasis on justification by faith alone (to the point where he s questioned whether the Epistle of James belonged to the canon of Scripture!).

Was Luther an extremist? A one-way leader in most areas? It seems so. And yet we Protestants recognize that Luther’s extremism on a matter of central importance was used by God. Even the one-way leader plays a part in the sovereign purposes of God.

God at work

I don’t find it fruitful to expend too much energy worrying about the state of the evangelical movement in the United States, or even the fractured state of many churches today. Yes, I mourn the wounds and scars of war inflicted by brothers and sisters who peach in how they treat each other. But in these cases, it is the sins – pride, anger, lack of love – that afflict me. I don’t have a hand-wringing sense of despair when I think about the current state or the future.

In a recent episode of simple fidelity, Tim Keller was asked if “moderation” – seeking to find a position between extremes – could sometimes be a problem rather than a solution. Aren’t there times when you look at two extremes and, instead of looking for something in between, you have to say, “This extreme is the right position”?

Keller acknowledged this point, saying that Christianity is not a religion that fits easily into ideological categories. It is not a middle way but a “patchwork of extremes”. The search for a “third way” on every issue, something Keller is known for and sometimes criticized for, comes from a pacifying impulse as capricious as it is theological. “Sometimes I overdo it,” he admitted.

The next question follows: Does God use leaders who do not display this pacifying tendency, the “extremists” who can sound various alarms about compromise or launch into tirades against an aberrant theological position? In other words: does God also use unidirectional leaders?

The answer, of course, is Yes. Keller points to two pairs of theologians to make this point: Luther and Calvin, and Kuyper and Bavinck. Calvin was much more of a synthesizer than the iconoclast Luther. Bavinck carefully weighed opposing viewpoints, sought to bring people together, and presented a constructive theology intended to capture the breadth and depth of the Christian position. Kuyper clashed with many leaders of his day, got into the turmoil of politics, and took a few theological positions that were idiosyncratic.

The one-way leader – the “extremist” – worries that the multi-way leader who remains aware of threats from various parts of the field is not hard-nosed enough. The desire to always be tuned and cautious makes the synthesizer susceptible to compromise. On the other hand, multidirectional leaders fear that iconoclastic and high-spirited “one-directional” types often do more harm to the church than good, leaving behind unnecessary fractures and divisions.

Effects of sin

The problem here is sin. Sin affects both styles of leadership, but in different ways.

Although I argue for multi-directional leadership – supporting this perspective with examples from scripture and church history, and although peace is a commandment of Christ, I recognize that sin can infect this leadership posture by leading to the wrong sort of synthesis. Cowardice can hide in caution.

On the other hand, the “extreme” a one-way leader can be right on the spot and yet infected with a pugnacious, contentious spirit, plagued by the sin of self-righteousness, caustic words and a vengeful vision that is more like the Accuser than the fruit of the Spirit .

God uses all kinds of people

The good news is that God controls history. He uses all types of people to accomplish his goals. The story is messy. “An extremist-type personality might be needed to get some things done,” Keller acknowledged, citing Soren Kierkegaard’s attack on Christianity as a case in point.

I read slowly through Kierkegaard Provocation over the past few months. He makes statements that I find deeply exaggerated and yet strangely helpful, which leads me to think, It may be necessary for someone to say something so extreme in order to see the truth for what it is.. Splashing cold water on someone’s face tends to wake a person up, although that shouldn’t be our everyday experience.

God can use someone’s overcorrection, even an over-focus on a particular doctrine or affirmation, as part of His larger plan for the church. Ten years ago, when members of my church family were debating the intricacies of Calvinism, I wondered if God could, through the very means of those disagreements – the back and forth between opposing sides – keep our movement from slipping in errors that crush evangelism, whether by sliding into inclusivism on the one hand or into hyper-Calvinism on the other.

I believe that multidirectional leadership is a wise and biblical way to assess multifaceted threats and dangers to the church, yet I recognize that God can use leaders who focus inordinate passion in one direction. Sometimes God uses one-way leaders to help the church as a whole stay multi-way!

Different theologians and church traditions vigorously presented their ideas, all with a degree of passionate extremism. Some evangelicals engage in the theological task of seeking out what is either totally true or totally wrong. But much of our theological study should rather be seen as a balancing act – a tapestry where different threads throughout Christian history and theologians with varying degrees of insight on important topics are woven together to help us better understand the whole. It’s because some theologians are out of balance that the church can stay stable. So don’t worry. God knows what he’s doing.


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