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When the leader walks into the room, a passion for truth had better enter with him. Authentic leadership does not emerge out of a vacuum. The leadership that matters most is convictional—deeply convictional. This quality of leadership springs from those most deeply held beliefs that shape who we are and establish our beliefs about everything else. Convictions are not just beliefs; that is, they are not those beliefs that are merely held by us. Instead, convictions hold us in their grip. We would not know who we are but for these bedrock beliefs, these convictions, and without them we would not know how to lead.

Christian leaders recognize that conviction is essential to our faith and discipleship. Our Christian experience begins with belief. That most familiar of all New Testament verses, John 3:16, tells us God sent Jesus Christ, His only Son, “that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” When Paul and Silas told their terrified jailer how he could be saved, they expressed it with powerful and unmistakable simplicity: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31).

The command to believe is central to the Bible. Christianity is founded upon certain nonnegotiable truths, and those truths, once known, are translated into beliefs. The beliefs that anchor our faith are those to which we are most passionately and personally committed, and these are our convictions. We do not believe in belief any more than we have faith in faith. We believe the gospel, and we have faith in Christ. Our beliefs have substance and our faith has an object.

Put simply, a conviction is a belief of which we are thoroughly convinced. I don’t mean that we merely believe that a given set of statements is true but that we are convinced that these truths are essential and life changing. We live out of these truths and are willing to die for these truths.

Consider Peter and John, the two Apostles who, just days after the death and resurrection of Christ, had the courage to stare down the Sanhedrin and defy its order not to preach in public about Jesus. They told the arresting authorities that they simply could not stop telling what they had “seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). Those same beliefs are the convictions that do not allow Christian leaders to be silent today, even in the face of threats and opposition.

Justin Martyr, one of the leaders of the early church, also serves as a portrait of convictional leadership. As he led members of his own congregation to execution at the hands of the Roman authorities, Justin encouraged his people with these words: “Remember, they may kill us, but they cannot hurt us.”

The starting point for Christian leadership is not the leader but the eternal truths that God has revealed to us.

Now, that is authentic leadership in its clearest form—the leadership to lead people to their deaths, knowing that Christ will vindicate them and give them the gift of eternal life. Thankfully, most of us will never have to experience that kind of leadership challenge.

Nevertheless, the convictions remain the same, and so does the function of those commitments in the life and thinking of the leader. We know these things to be so true that we are willing to risk for them, live for them, lead for them, and, if necessary, die for them.

The leadership that really matters is all about conviction. The leader is rightly concerned with everything from strategy and vision to team building, motivation, and delegation. But at the center of the true leader’s heart and mind, you will find convictions that drive and determine everything else.

I find many of my most encouraging and informative models of convictional leadership from history. Throughout my life, I have drawn inspiration from the example of Martin Luther, the great sixteenth-century Reformer who was so convinced of the authority of the Bible that he was willing to stand before the intimidating court of religious authorities that had put him on trial, and even to stare down the Holy Roman emperor, declaring, “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me.”

Here I stand. Those words are a manifesto of convictional leadership. But Luther was not merely ready to stand; he was ready to lead the church in a process of courageous reformation.

When I was a teenager, I saw the movie A Man for All Seasons, based on the play by Robert Bolt. The story concerns the final years of Sir Thomas More and his trial on charges of treason. The former Lord Chancellor of England, More earned the fury of King Henry VIII for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, which declared the king to be the supreme governor of the church. I later learned that More had himself persecuted the Lutherans and William Tyndale, the great translator of the Bible into English. Bolt’s version of Thomas More did not tell the whole truth, but from the first time I saw that film until now, I am still inspired by the example More set as he went to the scaffold in order to be true to his convictions. Facing the crowd gathered to witness his execution, More stated: “I am commanded by the king to be brief, and since I am the king’s obedient servant, brief I will be. I die His Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.”

That is the kind of conviction that makes all the difference. Sadly, far too many of today’s leaders seem to have little idea what they believe, or they appear to be driven by no clear and discernible convictions. How many of today’s leaders are known for the convictions for which they are willing to die—or even to live?

You can divide all leaders into those who merely hold an office or position and those who hold great convictions. Life is too short to give much attention to leaders who stand for little or nothing, leaders who are looking for the next program, riding the latest leadership fad, trying on idea after idea, but driven by no deep convictions.

I want to be a leader who matters, to lead in a way that makes a difference precisely because these convictions matter. If you think about it, nearly every leader who is now remembered for making a difference in history was a leader whose convictions about life, liberty, truth, freedom, and human dignity changed history.

This is the only leadership that matters. Convictional leaders propel action precisely because they are driven by deep convictions, and their passion for these convictions is transferred to followers, who join in concerted action to do what they know to be right. And, they know what is right because they know what is true.

How could any Christian leader be satisfied with anything less than this? Positions, offices, and titles fade faster than ink.

I once took my son, Christopher, on a trip to New York City. At several points, we found ourselves looking at statues and monuments to men who were, at some point, famous or powerful. Most have faded from all memory, and their likenesses now blend in with the New York landscape, with millions passing by without even a second’s notice.

Most Americans consider the president of the United States to hold the highest office of secular leadership imaginable. But how many Americans can name even twenty or thirty of the forty-five men who have held that office? When was the last time you heard someone mention Chester A. Arthur or William Henry Harrison?

We do remember those who were known for their convictions and for the courage that those convictions produced. This same principle can be extended to every office and position of leadership imaginable. Without conviction, nothing really matters, and nothing of significance is passed on.

I believe that leadership is all about putting the right beliefs into action, and knowing, on the basis of convictions, what those right beliefs and actions are. Far too much of what passes for leadership today is mere management. You might be able to manage without convictions, but you cannot really lead.

For Christian leaders, this focus on conviction is of even greater importance. We cannot lead in a way that is faithful to Christ and effective for Christ’s people if we are not deeply invested in Christian truth. We cannot faithfully lead if we do not first faithfully believe—and if we are not deeply committed to Christian truth.

At the same time, there are many Christians who feel called to lead and are passionately committed to all the right truths, but they are simply not sure where to go from here. The starting point for Christian leadership is not the leader but the eternal truths that God has revealed to us—the truths that allow the world to make sense to us, frame our understandings, and propel us to action.

The Apostle Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to know that the gospel had come to them, “not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5). As a Christian leader, that is what I hope and pray is true of me—and of you also. I want to lead “with full conviction.”

The Eternal Love of God

Leaders in the Church

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From the November 2017 Issue
Nov 2017 Issue