How to be a Christian Leader in a Secular World


February 18, 2013 by cbbeard

We live in a clearly secular world.  From the time of the Enlightenment, Western society has systematically and effectively removed faith from the public sphere and has placed it within the closet of individuality and privacy. (Read seven ways the Enlightenment messed up the church here.)

Scripture, however, provides no support for the privatization of faith; Christ followers are to be in the world but not of the world (John 17), salt and light (Matthew 5), and are to shine like stars IN the sky of darkness (Philippians 2).

Can the two principles coexist?

Lindsay J. Thompson (2004) identified the tension between the two principles and provided a philosophy that may help us answer this question: How can Christian leaders lead in a context in which overt scriptural awareness is not accepted?  She wrote:

We are a nation of privatized morality that places corporate and civic leaders in a labyrinth of uncertainty when they try to establish a moral foundation for actions and decisions affecting the public interest…In the secular tradition, spirituality is a private pursuit with no legitimate role in the public domain. (Thopmson, 2004, p. 28)

This is certainly a problem for Christian leaders who desire to lead with Christ and Scripture as their guide, but find themselves in leadership contexts where the overt presentation of the very center of their morality and ethics could be seen as unethical!  How then, can anyone with specific moral expectations based on religious convictions lead with those convictions without offending others who do not share those views?

Thompson (2004) suggested that the answer is not necessarily to nebulize those convictions completely, but to apply those passions in a new way.  She wrote, “moral abstraction represents a more dangerous leadership failure than moral passion” (Thompson, 2004, p. 30).  She also suggested that leaders must understand that even when ethics are based on a seemingly objective source (such as the Bible) that moral meaning is ever-shifting and subject to interpretation and re-interpretation.

That interpretation and re-interpretation can be used as a tool for leading in a diverse context.  It allows the usage of certain leadership tools to be morally and ethically specific of the leader’s convictions as flexible and adaptive for others.  As Thompson shared, “in liberal, pluralistic societies, individuals and groups may create divergent moral meanings from shared structures, processes, and symbols” (Thompson, 2004, p. 31).   This “Moral Compass” as she calls it, allows the leader to still lead within his or her own conscience and religious convictions, while not forcing those convictions upon others and still allowing the ethic to be common and consistent.  For example, one with Judeo-Christian values may identify the ethic of not stealing with one of the Ten Commandments while another person might just consider that a matter of law or respect for others.  Thompson further explained, “A symbolic act unifies viscerally and emotionally while each participant is free to draw inferences and conclusions that relate the event’s significance to his or her life situation and intellectual framework” (Thompson, 2004, p. 32).

This, as I see it, is the greatest strength of the “Moral Compass.”  If indeed it can meet the definition and purpose that Thompson described, it could be quite valuable in a pluralistic postmodern society.  If the Moral Compass is “both elastic and adhesive, deconstructing traditional conceptualization of morality and reframing them as generic categories of moral meaning and experience: vision, values, practice, and performance” (Thompson, 2004, 33), then specific Christian views, for example, can be adhered to in a more generic way.

However, as is the case with most theories in leadership, there are caveats.  One might suggest that within certain religious systems there are some values that cannot exist in a generic way.   The Moral Compass has no answer for such issues.

But what of the ultimate purpose of a Christ follower to “make disciples of all nations?”  Is this Moral Compass not simply hiding our faith at best and denying our clear responsibility to advance the Kingdom of God at worst?  I would suggest not.  As discussed, the Moral Compass does not ask the leader to ignore his or her convictions, but rather asks them to avoid labeling them overtly.  Certainly the principles of the Kingdom of God can be lived out without identifying them as such from the start.

I would also suggest that while spreading the Gospel absolutely requires the use of words (the Gospel is “good news” after all), that a leader will be able to build a foundation for the message of Christ through his or her actions as a leader.   And while a follower might recoil at an overt “forcing” of Christian values and ethics from a leader, that same follower might be receptive to the Gospel once the foundation has been built with respect and consistency.

Finally, never discount the work of the Holy Spirit; with prayer and a receptive spirit, God may open doors for Kingdom purposes that seem to be locked tightly by man.

Christian leaders certainly find themselves in a complex time and context, but even though overt faith may not be accepted by followers in certain contexts, that does not prevent a leader from being both an effective leader and a faithful  Christ-follower with Kingdom purposes in mind.  Thompson’s Moral Compass may provide a tool for both leadership and for advancing the Kingdom of God.

What do you think?  How can a Christian leader navigate a secular context?  Can the Moral Compass be a tool for God’s Kingdom?

Thompson, L. J. (2004). Moral Leadership in a Postmodern World. Journal Of Leadership & Organizational Studies (Baker College), 11(1), 27-37.

2 thoughts on “How to be a Christian Leader in a Secular World

  1. Janet says:

    Pluralistic postmodern society…………….this label does confuse me. To me, with all I have read, this means believe what you want, do what you want, be who you want. Which, according to your own moral compass, society does. Just what they want. Just what they believe is good and right. A Christian leader needs to be brave, speak the truth (according to the bible), and be brave enough (and lovingly enough) to tell others just what that truth is.
    As far as making religion “private”……….that is a nice way of saying society has taken God (religion) out of the public arena and religion should stay out of the public arena. Who is to say this isn’t exactly the plan of God? He is in control. (Everything is the heavens and on earth is yours, O Lord, and this is your kingdom. We adore you as being in control of everything. Riches and honor come from you alone and you are the ruler of all mankind, your hand controls power and might, and it is at your discretion that men are made great and given strength. 1 Chronicles 29:11-12). If one believes (or interprets) the bible, this is what God has planned anyway. Do I believe in the rapture……………….no not really, it wasn’t noted until around the 1800’s, but do I believe in the second coming, most assuredly. If I read correctly, America will not be a “superpower” in the end times. It then makes sense that this society will believe, do and live as they want. But, it is our duty, as followers of Christ, to bring people into a “personal relationship” with Christ. Does one do that solely by living a “good life”, leading by example, and loving others? I don’t think so. There are many good and kind leaders that do not believe in Christ. Are they bringing others to Christ? Can someone preach that society is wrong to embrace immoral behaviors and bring others to Christ? In a secular society? I don’t know.
    Thanks for making me read and think!

    • cbbeard says:

      Hey Janet,
      Thanks for your thoughts! I believe there is such an adverse reaction to the church and Christianity that often we have to be more “covert” in our attempts to share Christ. I think this is where the “moral compass” comes in handy. I can lead in Christian ways without people even knowing! Of course, as you mentioned, you can’t keep quiet forever. Preaching the gospel is absolutely more than just an example, it is the message as well. So in the end, we won’t be able to keep from offending, because the message of the cross is offensive! But Christian leaders do have the option to introduce Christ subtly through their leadership.
      Thanks again for your thoughts!

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