5 Principles for Evangelical Leadership

from Aug 05, 2011 Category: Articles

Time for a confession: I once thought an evangelical leader had to be a good marketer. Sensing a call to serve the church vocationally during high school, and since most pastors I knew were polished message crafters and used slick methods, I set out to study marketing in college to prepare for ministry in “seeker-sensitive” churches. Leaders in the church were studying the latest advertising trends and picking up gleanings from sociological research to ensure we could pull the correct “felt need” levers. Focus group theology sounded about right to me. My colleagues and I headed to seminars and sought to take those best practices back to our student ministry. Better sound system. Skits and videos. Rocking bands. Smoke machines. We chided those who didn’t “get it” and grew impatient with those who we perceived were anemic about reaching the lost. God’s kingdom depended on us. If we did not act now, God’s purposes in this world would be thwarted.

Enter the ministries of John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul. I cannot remember which came first, but they were my Calvin and Luther. It was transformative. They articulated a robust understanding of the authority of Scripture, the finished work of the cross of Christ, the Lordship of Jesus in the life of His disciples, and a high view of gospel preaching, God-centered theology and church life that was, at least to me, radical. Zeal for evangelism was bolstered by an unshakable confidence in the God who works through His un-thwartable Word. Gone was the tiring treadmill of pursuing the next best thing. They introduced me to a chorus of evangelical leaders calling the church to the pursuit of God as He sovereignly worked out his purposes in this world.

Iain Murray recently released a biography of John MacArthur. (Do try to pick up a copy.) In the opening of that book, he uses some of Dr. MacArthur’s teaching to illustrate five qualities of an evangelical leader. We asked Mr. Murray if we could reprint a portion and he graciously agreed. Twenty years ago, this wise counsel would have saved me several years of heading down an unfruitful path. Perhaps it can do the same for another generation.


An evangelical is a person who believes the ‘three Rs’:  Ruin by the Fall, Redemption through Jesus Christ, and Regeneration by the Holy Spirit. It follows that an ‘evangelical leader’ is a person who stands out in the advancement and defense of those truths. The title does not necessarily imply success judged by numbers and immediate results. On that basis neither Paul nor (William) Tyndale might qualify.

1. An evangelical leader is one who leads and guides the lives of others by Scripture as the Word of God. He seeks to repudiate every other form of influence and pressure. His great concern is to teach Scripture accurately, and to see lives submitted to its authority.

2. An evangelical leader inspires the affection of followers because they learn Christ through him, and see something of Christ in him. They follow him because he follows Christ. And they love him because he loves them in Christ’s name. ‘The apostle Paul summarized the spirit of the true leader when he wrote, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.”1 And what is to be imitated the Scriptures do not leave in doubt: ‘Almost every time Scripture holds up Christ as our example to follow, the stress is on his humility.’2

3. An evangelical leader is a man prepared to be unpopular. From the days when Ahab said to Elijah, ‘Are you he that troubles Israel?’, faithfulness to Scripture will not bring the approval of the majority. Dr. MacArthur says bluntly, ‘You cannot be faithful and popular, so take your pick.’ A quest for popularity is a very short-term thing. For an evangelical, ‘success isn’t measured in hours, or even centuries. Our focus is fixed on eternity.’ Success ‘is not prosperity, power, prominence, popularity, or any of the other worldly notions of success. Real success is doing the will of God regardless of the consequences.’3

4. An evangelical leader is one who is awake to the dangers of the times. Not every Christian has the distinction that was once given to the tribe of Issachar, ‘The men of Issachar had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do’ (1 Chron. 12:32). There are periods in church history when the leaders have seriously mistaken the way in which the cause of Christ is to be carried forward. The signs of the times have been misread. A true evangelical leader is raised up to provide God-given direction.

5. An evangelical leader will not direct attention to himself. He personally owes everything to Jesus Christ. As a sinner he sees the need to live in a spirit of repentance all his days. He knows the contrast between what he is in himself and the message that he preaches: ‘We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that  excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us’ (2 Cor. 4:7).  ‘God chooses whom He chooses in order that He might receive the glory.  He chooses weak instruments so that no one will attribute the power to human instruments rather than to God, who wields those instruments.’4

It follows that genuine spiritual leadership will lead others to the conclusion:  ‘Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to Your name give glory, because of Your mercy, because of Your truth’ (Psa. 115:1).

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Chris Larson is the president of Ligonier Ministries.