What qualities should we look for in our leaders? The best leaders inspire us to become better people. We may admire then for what they can do, but we follow them because of who they are. They are people worth imitating. Not everyone will become a great artist or scientist or businessperson, but everyone can become a great human being. In the kingdom that is to come, those who are least in the eyes of the world can become great in the eyes of heaven. This is the good news of God, who not only saves us through Christ, but also sanctifies us through the Spirit, so that we may fully participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). Great leaders are living proof of this gospel. They are holy people. And as a result, we trust them to speak into our lives and lead us into a better future.
Paul begins his letter to the Thessalonian community by reminding them of the power of example. “You know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thess. 1:5-7). The way that our leaders live shapes the attitudes and behaviors of the whole community.
Unfortunately, the world doesn’t always recognize or value Christlike leadership. Paul recalls the suffering, rejection, and mistreatment he experienced from the church in Philippi (v. 2:2a). Unflattering gossip and slander about him may have also spread to the believers in Thessalonica, prompting Paul to defend his character to the community. In so doing, he presents a model for the faithful to follow, inviting them once again to imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).
“We had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition,” he writes, “for our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts” (v. 2:2b-4). Paul’s ministry was motivated by a desire to please God. He did not resort to falsehoods or hyperbole or stagecraft to manipulate anyone into believing the gospel or joining the church. He simply spoke the truth about Jesus with courage and conviction.
“We never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or others,” Paul continues (v. 2:5-6). Narcissists are attracted to fame and power. They crave adulation and praise and can become abusive when they don’t get it. It is deeply troubling that narcissists often end up in positions of power, even within the church. But the apostles made no demands of the Thessalonian believers, choosing instead to be selfless and gentle among them, “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (v. 2:7). This is the way of Jesus, who says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart” (Hebrews 12:2, Matt. 11:29). True leaders are not concerned with giving rousing speeches to adoring crowds; they are compelled by love to serve others with no expectation of reward. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Paul shares the indispensable quality of Christlike leadership: “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us” (v. 2:8). The people who are impacted most deeply by Jesus are those who spend the most time with him. This was true for the first disciples and it is true for us today. The gospel is not that God has given us His law, but rather that God has given us Himself. We do not follow a book; we follow a Person. God shared Himself with us by dwelling among us through Christ and now dwells in us through the Spirit. It is God’s nearness that transforms our hearts. Love requires proximity.
In the same way, those who seek to lead like Jesus must share their lives authentically, transparently, and consistently with those under their care. Inviting people into our homes, breaking bread often, talking and listening to one another, suffering through trials together, and serving Jesus as God’s family helps us develop empathy, without which we cannot learn to love our neighbors and even our enemies.
Christlike leaders do not rely on charisma, manipulation, or deceit to influence others. They do not abuse their power or make moral concessions to get results. They do what is right and lead with integrity, even if it takes longer or invites criticism. The high road demands more of us than the low road. The narrow path is more difficult and less traveled than the broad path. Few things will reveal a person’s character more clearly than the way they handle power, fame, and money. Yet we are often attracted to leaders who give the appearance of outward strength, even when they exhibit significant inner flaws. This was true when Israel demanded that the Lord appoint Saul as their first king, despite God’s warning that Saul would exploit them and their children for his own personal gain, take the best of their fields and livestock, treat them like slaves, and continually violate their trust. But they insisted, “No! We are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:19).
Paul, after being mistreated by the church in Philippi, reminds the Thessalonian believers that the apostles represented a different kind of leadership, one grounded in meekness, hospitality, servanthood, and love. Those who follow Christ are to imitate their example, for it is the way of Jesus, in whose image we are being remade.