Spirituality and leadership: lessons from Acts

When spirituality characterizes leadership, the church and its institutions as a whole shall turn to its main function: proclamation, evangelism, mission, nurture, healing, awaiting.

Leadership at any level – be it the local church, the school, the conference, or even the General Conference is an exciting spiritual passion for some and an administrative mechanism for others. Those selected to serve attribute the working of the elective process to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and those disappointed would suggest that the whole process is political, pushed by influential lobbying. Whenever we face the issue of leadership and administration, it would be well to consider some principles from the book of Acts, which records the apostolic church’s struggles with choosing leaders that would extend God’s kingdom on earth, even as it awaited the Parousia.

Four instances from Acts give us the spiritual qualities to expect from leaders and the principles the church should follow in choosing its leadership for any of its entities. Those instances are: the replacement for Judas (Acts 1:21, 26); the choosing of deacons (Acts 6:16); and the mission to Antioch (Acts 11:19, 25); the mission to the Gentiles (Acts 13:2).

1. Personal experience with Jesus

Personal experience with Jesus is the first and foremost qualification expected of a leader. To fill the vacancy left by the tragedy of Judas, the disciples were convinced that they needed a person who knew the Lord as he “went in and out among us” (Acts 1:21).1 Theology, culture, erudition, management, personal charm, and persuasion were all skills that the church could have used in its administration, but none of these could have taken the place of knowing Jesus personally, heart to heart, mind to mind, one to one. A person had to be a companion of Jesus before he or she could become a leader of His flock. A potential leader should have been a witness to Jesus “from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up” (verse 22).

By witness, we mean not simply spectators of the spectacular events in the life and the ministry of Jesus, but personal and unreserved identification with that ministry and that call: in Jordan, to initiate a baptismal vow of obedience to the Father; in Nazareth, to proclaim liberty to the poor and downtrodden; in Cana, to extend a helping hand to an urgent need; with Nicodemus, to speak of the new birth; with the woman at the Samaritan well, to help break down a wall; with the lepers and the blind and the dead, to show that God is the God of hope and the harbinger of new life; at the communion, to gird up the loins in servanthood; in Gethsemane, to discover the cup of God’s will; at the cross, to witness reconciliation and redemption; at the empty tomb, to proclaim the living Lord; at the Ascension, to accept a global mission, to experience the power of the heavenly high priest, and to await the Second Coming.

2. “A witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:22)

This is another qualification that the church should seek in its leadership. Resurrection cannot be isolated from the cross. The cross vindicates God’s redemptive plan for sin, and the resurrection offers the hope of newness. One cannot be a Christian, let alone a Christian leader, without experiencing the power of the cross and the empty tomb. Even as early as a few weeks after the Crucifixion weekend, the disciples insisted on this affirmation of the crucified and risen Lord as essential to Christian discipleship. Witnessing to the Resurrection, Paul held, was imperative to being a proclaimer of the gospel (1 Cor. 15:8).

To be such a witness does not mean theological veracity or doctrinal certainty. It includes these, but more so it demands that Christian leaders walk with Jesus daily, talk with Him, plead with Him for both themselves and others, and experience the mediating power of the heavenly high priest. Christian leaders cannot be any less.

3. “Good repute” (Acts 6:3, 5)

Good reputation is a qualification that the apostolic church insisted on in their choice of leaders. We see this in the appointment of deacons to care for the routine needs of the Jerusalem church and in the selection of Barnabas (Acts 11:5) to investigate the miraculous happenings in Antioch and to lead the church there. In both cases, the church wanted good and trustworthy persons. The selection guidelines defined goodness in two ways that the church today can ignore only at its peril. First, goodness meant “good repute” as persons of integrity. Their work required the handling of money: the Jerusalem deacons were in charge of caring for the needy; Barnabas was to carry funds from Antioch for the poor in Jerusalem. Leaders cannot afford to be easy on their own integrity.

Second, goodness called for fairness, dealing with all segments of the church on an equal footing, recognizing neither race nor ethnicity, neither gender nor tribe, in Jerusalem as well as Antioch. Barnabas was so good at this that the Antioch church was perhaps the first corporate body to break down every wall of partition; as a result, it grew to great proportions. In fact, Antioch launched the Christian church’s first global mission. When we have leaders who are honest and fair, loving and compassionate, “prudent [in] management and … godly [in] example,” church growth can take care of itself (see Acts 6:7; 11:24).

4. “Full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24)

This is another element that the early church sought in its leadership. These terms describe not a political process but a spiritual maturity, not a longing for power but a submission to a higher calling, not a jockeying for positions in administration but a willingness to be used by the Spirit as mediators of His grace.

A Christian leader is willing to be led by the Spirit all along the way and at every fork where the road divides. A Christian leader waits on bended knee for clarity of the task and for power to accomplish it. A Christian leader has the wisdom to distinguish between the essential and the peripheral, between the compulsions of the kingdom and the concerns of self, between people and things. A Christian leader is full of faith in God and fellow beings, and manifests the grace to forgive, the ability to empower others, and the generosity to be inclusive.

If these are the qualifications that the church should look for in prospective leaders, what are the principles the church should follow in appointing leaders?

Three principles

The instances referred to in Acts also point to three principles the church should follow in the selection of its leaders.

First is prayer. Whether it was choosing a substitute for Judas or selecting deacons or sending missionaries to the Gentiles, the early church placed the utmost emphasis on prayer. The disciples must have learned this process from their Lord, who “was wholly dependent upon God, and in the secret place of prayer He sought divine strength, that He might go forth braced for duty and trial.”2

Before the Antioch church sent Paul and Barnabas as missionaries to the unreached, the church fasted and prayed. When the church as a corporate body and as individual members fast and pray before leaders are elected, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit will thwart political ambitions and guide in the selection of persons “full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24). Submit to God as the ultimate chooser. The prayer in Acts 1 has this dynamic opening: “Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosen” (verse 24).

Second is the unity of the believers in seeking God’s will and the admission that the Lord knows the hearts of all and will reveal His purposes. The history of the church tells us that whenever God’s people unitedly seek to know and do His will, God has never failed. The failure comes only when we, because of our selfish arrogance or our corporate strength or our Laodicean indifference, seek to become our own gods and pay mere lip service to God’s true will and purposes.

Third is the recognition that we choose leaders to advance God’s purpose. Selection of leadership in the church at any level has no other significance. “Preaching the word” (Act 6:2, 5) cannot be surrendered to administrative expediency. Global mission cannot be held back by the glorious achievements of Antioch. Nurture cannot be constrained by a costly structure. Evangelism is not to be held hostage to the feeling of “we have prospered and we lack nothing.”

The church we are a part of is a transcendent body, however frail and human it might be. It is not a political institution; it does have elections, not to prove democracy, not to convert the body into a perpetual political arena, but for choosing leaders. Once the process of selection is over, the inadequacies of that process must be put aside. The body as a whole must turn to its main function: proclamation, evangelism, mission, nurture, healing, awaiting. These are the transcendental dimensions that we are called to serve.

History tells us that whenever church members or leaders are preoccupied with anything less, there begins a decay. Hence the call to a higher ground: power and pomp must give way to a passion for ministry and modeling; ecclesiastic positions must become instruments of compassion and service; institutions must become dispensers of love and grace to the communities in which they exist; a sense of stewardship and integrity must permeate dealings at personal and organizational levels. When this happens, the triumph of the church will not be far behind.

John M. Fowler (M.A., Ed.D., Andrews University; M.S., Syracuse University) is an editor of Dialogue. E-mail: fowlerj@gc.adventist.org.


  1. All Scripture passages are from the Revised Standard Version.
  2. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press, 1940), p. 364.