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The Leader and Identity

As someone who has been involved in Christian leadership for more than 40 years, I believe I have discovered the one key component for someone’s leadership: their personal identity in Christ. When someone understands who they are in Christ, their effectiveness and fruitfulness in their leadership task is truly phenomenal. Not just knowing their gifts or their personal strengths, but understanding who they truly are as a son or daughter of God, who they are at the core of their being. Of course, having an understanding of one’s gifts, talents and abilities is essential in the practice of leadership. Learning skill sets appropriate for the task or role in which we serve is also critical. However, the keystone of our leadership is who we understand ourselves to be as persons. This is the inner foundation of our function as a leader: the knowledge of ourselves in Christ as revealed by the Holy Spirit. Leadership flows from the inside to those outside of us, from the self-knowledge provided by the Spirit. The Apostle Paul indicates that by God’s grace expressed in Christ we have been adopted and have received the Holy Spirit:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:13-17 ESV).

It is to this grace that Paul appeals when challenged in his apostolic role, declaring, “I am what I am by the grace of God” (1 Corinthians 15:10a). He was convinced of who he was in Christ, and such realization empowered him. The “ontological knowing” of himself as an adopted son, as a co-heir with Christ, allowed him to face the hardships of his life and ministry – even opposition from Corinth, a church which the Lord established through him. Here is my “working definition” of what I think identity is:

Identity: The core ontological reality derived as created beings, bearing the image of our Divine Father, and as His offspring, we are His children, His sons and daughters. While, as the social scientist may contend, there are various aspects of identity, the core identity is encapsulated in this: we are His sons and daughters. The relationship with our Creator/Father is what ultimately defines us, giving us our core relational identity. (Johnston, Tom. The Way of the Master: The Leader Development Methodology of Jesus (p. 15). Kindle Edition.)

As our leadership flows from within, coming to know ourselves in Christ is of utmost importance. Let’s look at a few reasons why:

1. Leaders who know themselves in Christ are secure in themselves and are not easily threatened. Insecure leaders are always worried about what others think of them, are often intimidated by other gifted leaders, and resist new leaders emerging. They are always concerned with self-protection and can become controlling.

2. Leaders who understand who they are as a son or daughter of God can be decisive and resolute. Insecure leaders are often indecisive and wracked with self-doubt. He or she will be double-minded, unstable in their ways, and receive nothing (ref. James 1:5-8).

3. Leaders who know who they are in Christ are bold, having confidence in the Lord and the Holy Spirit’s ability to guide them. Those who lack identity in Him are often fearful and unable to make decisions or influence others to follow them towards Christ’s preferred future.

4. The leader who does not know themselves in Christ is ineffective evangelistically. In contrast, those confident in the Lord can engage others in life-giving conversations about Christ.

5. A leader who has a solid grasp of their identity in Christ can engage in the vulnerability of life in the Kingdom community – indeed, and lead in and through a larger community of leaders. An insecure leader isolates in order to avoid exposure and does not truly embrace community. Deep adult-level relationships are only possible for those secure in Christ.

6. A leader with a strong sense of identity can admit when they are wrong, as well as repent and ask forgiveness. The leader with a weak sense of self will avoid disclosing their errors, seek to justify their actions (rather than explain), and shift the blame to others.

7. And, of course, leaders who know their identity in Christ can help others discover theirs! You cannot give away what you do not have.

So, how do we get there? How do we know ourselves in Christ? First of all, we have to understand that we don’t define ourselves; we discover who we are – and that discovery comes to us by the revelation of God. Our attempts at self-definition are the greatest of sins. We are who our Father says we are, as Paul points out to the church at Ephesus:

For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:15-23).

We know who we are when we know Him. We seek self-knowledge through seeking to know God. In the Rule of Life which Mike Perkinson and I developed for the churches we pastor, called The C.O.D.E. (Christians Observing Disciplines Every day), we have a series of affirmations based in the Scripture. One of them relates to this issue of discovering our identity in Christ and says:

“I will seek self-awareness through God-awareness.”

This comes from 1 Corinthians 13:12, where Paul tells us that we only know ourselves as a dim reflection, but someday will know who we are, as we will know Christ fully in the Resurrection:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

The great Reformer, John Calvin, said it this way, “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves” (Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Chapter 1). Indeed, this is how Calvin began his epic work, as it is foundational to the understanding of our very being.

As leaders, then, it stands to reason that we should press into the Lord, His Word, and the community of those fellow disciples of Jesus around us that He might speak to us about who we are. Not just in the general sense, but in the specific sense to each of us as individuals. For while there is significant commonality in our adoption in Christ, there is also a distinct identity for us individually, which Christ Himself reveals to us by all the aforementioned means, but also by the Holy Spirit as well. This is a foretaste, a “knowing in part” of the full knowledge that will come to us in the ultimate revelation of Christ:

‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it’ (Revelation 2:17).

Press in, dear leader, into the person of God, that you might know Him more, and thereby come to know yourself more fully, becoming a healthy leader, secure in your identity, becoming effective and fruitful in Him!

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