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You are the Messiah and I should know: Why Leadership is a Myth (and probably a Heresy) – Justin Lewis-Anthony

March 6, 2016

YATMAISKThe origins of the title of this book will be known to film buffs; it is taken from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian and in the long section of the book dealing with film, the author explains why. (And also how church leaders misunderstood it when slagging it off.)

Justin Lewis-Anthony opens his book with a brief overview of Christian teaching on leadership and points out the glaring lack of anything like a coherent, shared idea of what leadership is. Instead he says, books on leadership assume that the author knows what it is, and that the audience both knows and agrees with the author on this point. What is assumed, says Lewis Anthony, is usually not some specifically Christian view of leadership but a model of leadership embedded in the general culture out of which the author is writing. We are, he reminds us, subject to various culturally defined myths of leadership which we assume, as we do with many of our cultural mores, to be unarguable universal truths. These myths are usually unconsciously held and are therefore completely invisible to us. If we wish to see them and examine them, the place where they find their most coherent expression is the place where all of our culture’s myths are most transparently displayed and promulgated: the movies.

Bishop Michael Turnbull described the situation faced by church leaders, and questions that haunt them: A question never far from the mind of a church leader is ‘How can I break out of institutional shackles and be the true, adven­turous, uninhibited leader I want to be?’.” ‘The Bishop is famous for have authored a report which restruc­tured and reformed the secretariat of the Church of England, but this question makes me think that he was actually ambitious to be Aragorn, true King of the West.’

Archbishop George Carey can be relied upon to say something silly. When asked about his leadership style, Carey responded, “People have described me as a ‘management bishop’, but I say to my critics: ‘Jesus was a management expert too.”

In contrast to that buffoon, his successor: ‘People want religious leaders to tell them that they’re right’, and thus, by extension, that the ‘Others’ are wrong.’

And: A society’s mass fantasies are anything but trivial, and I do not think we have anything to gain by underrating or simply mocking them… Societies give themselves away in their favourite fantasies; they betray their assumptions of what the world is really like.

As movies in the West are dominated by Hollywood, the leadership myths of America have increasingly become those of the whole of Western Civilisation. He says that the model of leadership embedded in our culture and illustrated time and again in our movies is characterised by individualism and violence and that this is the model uncritically assumed by many writers on Christian leadership. In the church, however, another form of leadership entirely is called for. In the Jesus movement the leader and the community are indissolubly linked and leadership is marked not by rugged John Wayne style individuality but by obedience to God. The path of Jesus is about discipleship and in the closing chapters of the book Lewis-Anthony leans heavily on Dietrich Bonhoeffer as he explains the path of discipleship: a path of death and resurrection taken by all members of the community, including the leader, together. The culturally defined individualistic leadership, exercised through physical, intellectual, emotional or spiritual violence is, in the final analysis a heresy. We are on a different journey and use methods defined by and appropriate to that path.

Maybe it’s because evangelicals are currently in the ascendance, with their belief in the centrality if the cross for atonement, that their leadership ideals are based on dominance and come from a background of violence. The American hero owes more to the Babylonian creartion muyth than to the Christian one(s).

To end, Lewis-Anthony draws on one last film, Of Gods and Men, in which eight monks work out in their community how they are to lead and follow under the stress of persecution and death. The Prior makes a decision for the community: an act of individual Leadership: but the others reject it, not because it was the wrong choice, but because he did not consult, honour the community, lead as a member rather than as an outsider.

I can’t help thinking that the author wanted to write two books: one about theology in film and the other about leadership. There’s too much detail about the former, more than enough to make the point about the latter. So, for me, the book doesn’t really get going until Section 3 on page 217.


`And the Word became flesh and lived among us…’ [Jn 1.14] is better translated as ‘and tabernacled in our midst’. This tabernacled presence was that as found in the Temple in Jerusalem not in the sense of an image or metaphor, but exactly. The work the Temple (forgiveness of sins and restoration of fellowship with God), was also the work of Jesus: ‘He was acting as a one-man Temple-substitute… [and when he] came to Jerusalem the place wasn’t big enough for both of them

In what ways might we describe the Jesus Movement as being ‘bounded’, with a clear delineation of roles within and without? We might be able to see boundaries of the Jesus Movement by looking at the oft-mentioned parallels between it and the rabbinical movement.

At first glance the parallels seem promising. Jesus is frequently called or referred to as ‘rabbi’ – twice in Matthew, four times in Mark, none in Luke, and eight in John, although, in comparison, and perhaps equivalently, he is referred to as ‘teacher’ Sthacricakoc (didaskalos) 44 times, and mentioned as having pupils [Mt. 9.11; 17.24; Mk 12.32; Lk. 19.39; and so on].

However, Hengel is not convinced that the Jesus Movement was rabbinical: he entitles a section of his classic study on the ; Movement ‘Jesus was not a “rabbi-. Theissen and Merz agree with Hengel: all three think the best sociological match to Jesus is the wandering charismatics). They produce a table of contrasts between traditional understandings of rabbinic-pupil relationships and what seems to be at work within the Jesus movement:

Rabbinic teacher-pupil                     Relationship of Jesus to his

relationship                                        disciples

Stable abode in a house of study        Itinerant life in Galilee and its environs

Limited period of time: a change of Discipleship is a permanent

teacher is possible                            relationship

Conscious forming of traditions by Free formation of traditions memories

Discipleship is reserved for men    There are also women among the

followers and hearers

Dunn, among others, has pointed out, it is more useful to note the overlap than to fix on the differences between the three. During the twentieth century scholarship moved from describing a single, pre-Rabbinic ‘normative’ Judaism to recognizing the huge of practices and doctrines — this as a direct result of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Thus Kraft and Nickelsburg that ‘early Judaism appears to encompass almost unlimited diversity and variety — indeed it may be more appropriate to speak of early Judaisms’.

The ministry of the shepherd, especially in John, is not a ministry of leadership, but rather of protection…according to John, the model shepherd is …..the gatekeeper to the sheepfold, is recognized by the sheep, and leads the sheep out from the fold [Jn 10.3 4]; but this is not the ultimate purpose, the telos, of the ideal shepherd. Thus Schnackenburg overstates his argument when he says Peter ‘is to lead the ‘lambs’ to the pasture of life and guard them in union with Jesus’. The telos of the ideal shepherd is to lay down his life for the sheep as a direct result of receiving the commandment to do so from the Father [Jn 10.18].

‘Supervisor’ is the best translation for the word, idea, and role, says Johnson, as it is ‘a remarkably simple structure of ‘ leadership, and [has a] complete lack of theological legitimation’. Or, as Raymond Brown emphatically puts it: ‘No cultic or liturgical role is assigned to the presbyter-bishops in the Pastorals’….The supervisor is to maintain order in his household, and by analogical extension, within the ecclesial community. This is leadership modelled uncritically on the cultural norm of Greco-Roman culture, particularly in the absolute rule of the pater familas…. Clearly, leadership here is envisaged as a much more directive and controlling role than is comfortable for contemporary readers who at best consider leaders as ‘enablers’ or ‘facilitators’.

The call is not one to accept a certain system of teaching, live by it, continue faithfully to interpret it and pass it on, which was in essence the call of a rabbi to his disciples; nor was it a call to accept a certain philosophical position which will express itself in a certain type of behaviour, as in stoicism; nor is it the call to devote the alleviation of suffering for others; nor is it the call to pass through certain rites as in the Mysteries so as to become an initiate of the God, his companion – the carrying of the cross is no rite! It is a call to fall in behind Jesus and go with him.

For Troeltsch, ‘purely religious’ problems are to do with ‘the salvation of the soul, monotheism, life after death, purity of worship, the right kind of congregational organization, the application of Christian ideals to daily life, and the need for severe self-discipline in the interests of personal holiness’. Jesus has nothing to say about social injustice. He ‘was too lofty a figure to be addressing workaday concerns of social reform… Above all, he was concerned to help the individual prepare the soul for an imminent Kingdom that was not of this world’.

This may have been so for nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany, in which a Romantic and heroic individual was the proper seat for the ‘self’. It certainly is so for North Atlantic society, as we have seen, where a separated and lonely individual, separated out from the rest of society, is given the highest social status. We cannot say the same for the culture of the Palestine of Jesus’s day.

We might say that ‘self’ is the arena in which `self-interest’ might be expressed, and the values of self-interest protected: in ‘individualistic cultures’ like our own, ‘self-interests are proper to single persons’. In ancient Mediterranean culture, the ‘self’ was to be understood properly as a ‘collective’ entity. What we call the ‘self’ is limited to the autonomous actions of an individual: within a collectivist culture, the lines of the self are drawn, paradoxi­cally to our way of thinking, further out, incorporating the needs and identities of other individuals and groups, what Malina calls ‘ingroups’. This wider self finds security, identity and meaning within something called a ‘fictive kin group’.

As Sanders points out, this teaching has a double impact. The first, a positive one, is widely recognised: to be a disciple of Jesus is a response to an urgent call, and trumps all other responsibilities. So, for example, Schweizer argues that this shows ‘discipleship excludes all other ties’. The disciples of Jesus ‘should be prepared to deny everything, including their lives’. But, as Sanders notes, the refusal to bury one’s parents is not just disobeying filial obliga­tions; it is also disobedience to God in the Torah. Caring for the dead bodies of one’s family superseded all other commandments of the Torah:

He who is confronted by a dead relative is freed from reciting the Shema, from the Eighteen Benedictions, and from all the commandments stated in the Torah.

It is not enough to set this refusal to obey the Torah to one side, as if Jesus were referring to a different situation from that envisaged in the Law: it is hard, says Sanders, ‘to believe that Jesus saw the requirement to bury dead parents as only “domestic responsibility” and did not know that it was a commandment from God’ . In this circumstance at least, it appears Jesus believed that the call to follow him would require clear disobedience of the Law of Moses. Discipleship, here, sets the disciple beyond the conventions and requirements of society. The ‘fictive kin group’ has first call.

The leadership of the Leader is exercised on behalf of the community, and thus must be directed outwards: to be successful, leadership is something that is exercised against the ‘Other’ .

In locating grace within community we see how Bonhoeffer’s theology of discipleship and sociality was radically variant to the prevailing Harnackian individualism of his day. It is true that the operation of grace acknowledges the importance of individual obedience:

Christ makes everyone he calls into an individual. Each is called alone. Each must follow alone.

But this ‘aloneness’ is emphatically not the same thing as the heroic individualism of nineteenth- and twentieth-century German Protestantism and the American Frontier. Then the individual was defined by his own, autonomous, authority.52 Rather, Bonhoeffer means that the obedient disciple, through a radical dislocation, is called out of, away from, ‘immediate relationships’, ‘connec­tions with the world’, for this ‘immediacy [Unrnittelbarkeit] is a delusion’, and one which is strengthened and deepened by every claim of ‘father…, mother…, spouse…, child…, nation…, history’ upon the disciple: it is ‘the caprice of self-willed life.

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