Courageous leadership is the willingness to exert influence, make decisions, and communicate clearly when circumstances are difficult, solutions are unclear, and the consequences are significant. From a Christian perspective, truly courageous leadership is not driven by personal opinions or self-promotion; it is motivated by biblical convictions and the need to point people to Christ. Courageous spiritual leadership is so convinced of the Word of God and concern for the church of God that it is willing to pay any price necessary to lovingly lead people to follow Christ.
What is it that leads to this kind of Christ-like courage?
From a biblical perspective, the language of “courage” is always used to describe or encourage decisively acting in faith:
- “Love the Lord, all you his saints! The Lord preserves the faithful but abundantly repays the one who acts in pride. Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord!” (Ps 31:23–24, ESV)
- “And when the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks. The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”” (Acts 23:10–11, ESV)
- “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Cor 5:6–10, ESV)
True biblical courage is the confidence that God will act according to His Word, the kind of conviction that leads an individual to act according to God’s Word. In other words, courageous leaders are firmly persuaded of God’s truth and you can tell by the way they live. The church needs leaders like this, who are willing to completely entrust themselves to Christ as they lead others toward Christ.
If you want to be this kind of leader there are several common courage killers you need to watch out for:
1. Sinful Fear
Along with the boldness to make hard choices, leaders must have the courage to be wrong. No leader wants to make the wrong decision, but a paralyzing fear of making a mistake may be the biggest mistake a leader can make. Good leaders must be willing to make good second decisions after they have realized and admitted that their initial decision wasn’t helpful. Along the way, leaders need the courage to not worry about public perception. The fear of man will be the downfall of many leaders who aren’t courageous enough to care more about what God thinks than what other people think.
2. Hidden Idols
If there is something in this world that you fear losing more than you fear losing Christ, it is by definition an idol. Not only is it an idol, it is also something that will keep you from courageously following Christ in the midst of consequential circumstances. For instance, if you love your comfort more than the cross, you won’t have the courage to take up your own cross to follow Christ. Or, if you love your possession more than you love the Scriptures, you won’t be willing to forsake everything to proclaim the truth. Here is the point: the hidden idols in your life will tempt you to compromise instead of being courageous.
3. Biblical Ignorance
If courageous leadership is essentially the faith to stand for the truth, then you can’t be courageous if you don’t know the truth. Christian courage has nothing to do with worldly bravado, youthful hubris, or manly machismo. Foolish risks and prideful inflexibility don’t make you brave, in fact, they often distract you from true bravery. Courage is a virtue that is rooted in the promises of God, not the passions of our heart. Doing what you want to do no matter how it affects other people isn’t gutsy, it is selfish. In contrast, basing your entire life and leadership on the eternal principles found in God’s Word no matter the world thinks—that is true courage. This means it is only possible to exhibit Christ-like courage if you know what God’s Word says. Too many men fail in their efforts at leadership simply because they have not put sufficient effort into knowing their Bible.
4. Theological Compromise
Knowing what God’s Word says is an essential for developing Christian courage in your life, but it is not enough. In addition to understanding the truth, you must hold fast to the truth. The opposite of biblical courage is personal compromise, and every form of compromise in your life always begins with theological compromise. In other words, you capitulate to temptation in your life because you have set aside some truth in your thinking. This is especially true in leadership, where it is easy to exchange your biblical convictions for situational pragmatics. But pragmatism is really nothing more than a compromise rooted in a lack of faith in God to accomplish His will—just ask Aaron, the founder of the “Golden Calf” worship craze. Courageous leaders are always clear thinkers who have had their minds renewed by the truth, which is the only way to avoid worldly compromise (Rom 12:1-2).
5. Patterned Idleness
Spiritual idleness is rebuke worthy (cf. 1 Thess 5:14) because it always represents a lack of faithfulness in personal responsibilities. The man who is idle might know the truth, but he choses to act upon his own lusts rather than the word of the Lord. Again, this represents the polar opposite of the kind of courage that spiritual leaders must pursue. Courage is the faith to act upon what God has said, whereas the essence of spiritual apathy is to act as if God will not act. Or, as the prophet said, “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The LORD will not do good, nor will he do ill’” (Zeph 1:12).
6. Selfish Desires
Ultimately, the number one courage killer will always be your own selfish desires. If you care more about yourself than what the Lord thinks, or what the people around you need, you cannot be a courageous spiritual leader. Self-promotion, self-gratification, self-protection, and any other kind of “self” you can think of will always produce spiritual cowardice. The boldest biblical leaders are always concerned with God’s glory and the good of their people rather than saving their own skin.
Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.