Romans 12:1-81
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.


 

Some of the spiritual gifts are a little bit of a tough sell. Like prophecy, serving, compassion, or giving… Convincing people that they have these gifts to offer can be like pulling teeth. But some gifts seem to go the other way, and leadership is one of these. I did a search on amazon.com for books about leadership, and came back with 122,189 results. By contrast, if you do an amazon search for “followership” or books about following, you get 297 results. That’s a ratio of 411 to 1.

Book publishers are not stupid―what they publish is generally a reflection of the market demand. So for every one person out there looking for a book on how to be a better follower, there are 411 people out there who’d rather be a leader. Leadership is popular in our culture, it is valued and sought after. Everyone wants to be a leader, and those who don’t? There must be something wrong with them; maybe a lack of motivation or just plain old laziness. But this lopsided preference for leadership can cause problems. We even have a saying about it: “All chiefs…and no indians.” Can you imagine an organization that had 411 leaders and just one follower?

Some would argue that by definition, that’s impossible. In order to be a leader, one must have followers. I’ve heard it put this way: “He who leads and no one follows…is just taking a walk.”

So what exactly is our obsession with leadership all about? Why, in a country that got its start by abolishing the monarchy (the rule of one leader) do we strive so hard to be that one, the one at the top, the one in charge?

I think in part, it’s our fear of uncertainty, and the unknown. Being in charge means having control over others, rather than others having control over you. It’s also our competitive nature, our concept of the survival of the fittest. To lead is to be ahead of others, as in “he (or she) is in the lead.” The one who is “in the lead” at the end of the race, wins. And we live in a “winner take all” culture. We equate leading with winning, and we equate following with not winning…which is to say, losing.

And that’s a big problem for us as Christians. Because our Christ, our leader…was a loser. He died the same ignominious death as all those who challenged Rome (the world leader at the time) and lost. Yes, we are so quick to jump from the crucifixion to the resurrection so we can say, “No, no, he didn’t lose,” or “he only lost temporarily…in the end he WON, he was victorious over the greater enemy, death itself!” And we do that because we, as American Christians, we absolutely hate the idea of a leader who was a loser. No, not our Jesus. He was clearly a winner. Clearly.

But there’s a problem with that line of thinking, too. And it’s the very words of Jesus himself. Because not only was he a loser, he said that we must be losers, too. Matthew 16:25, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” And Matthew 20:16, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” So our culture says, “you want to be leader and not a loser,” but Jesus says, “if you want to be a leader, you have to be a loser.”

To put it a slightly different way, Leo Durocher said that “nice guys finish last.” But Jesus said that last guys finish nicely.

So that’s Jesus on leadership, but let’s take a look at Paul’s view. For Paul, leadership is a spiritual gift, one of a number of things that we, as the church, the body of Christ, can offer to God as our “spiritual worship.” Leadership is a gift that all of us can and should give to the church, to the community…though preferably not all of us all at once.

As I’ve done for the past few weeks (and by past few weeks, I mean the past 60 or 70 weeks) I’d like to start by looking more closely at the words themselves. In this case, we’re concerned with two words in verse 8: Leader (or the one who leads), and diligence, which Paul implies is how a leader should lead. Usually I start with Greek―the language Paul wrote his letters in, but today, we’re actually going to start in English and work our way back.

By the way, there’s a reason I do this a lot, and it’s not *just* because I’m a word nerd (although that’s definitely part of it). It’s easy to forget sometimes that the Bible is thousands of years old―the newest parts are two thousand years old, and the oldest parts are about three thousand. Languages and cultures are not static; they change over the years. Think how different our own language and culture were just a few hundred years ago. A few thousand years ago, neither one even existed. Add to this the fact that when you translate something from one language to another, from one culture to another, meanings change, and important contexts are lost. Whenever someone talks about the “plain sense” of scripture, or when someone tells me that the Bible is “simple…you just read what it says and do it,” that’s usually just an excuse not to think, not to examine critically what we read.

As a Presbyterian, I am proud to be part of a tradition that has always challenged simplistic readings of the Bible, that has challenged its members to study the sources, the languages, and the historical contexts that produced the Bible, and is committed to following unflinchingly where truth leads us, even if it sometimes changes and shakes to the core our long-held and traditional beliefs. This is the legacy of reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, and I’m proud to follow in their footsteps.

So…back to our two words: Leader and diligence. Merriam-Webster defines the verb “lead” as “to guide on a way especially by going in advance.” This is a very old word in the English language, and it goes back over a thousand years, to the Anglo-Saxon verb liđan, which meant “to go, travel, or sail.” What’s implied here is motion, movement. To lead is to get someone to move from point A to point B.

And this is interesting. Because in 1st Century Greek, the word Paul uses that we translate as leader is προϊστάμενος ― pro (before) + stamenos (stander). One who stands before. The implication is one who is firm, unmoving, who stands before the people as an example of how to be, not one who moves them from point A to point B. The word did a complete flip-flop. But that’s not all…

Remember our other word…diligence? Merriam-Webster lists as synonyms: Caution, care, thoroughness. The implication is slow and steady, with great deliberateness. The 1st Century Greek word that Paul uses here is σπουδή. It means…speed, haste, enthusiasm, zeal. This is the same word used in Luke 1:39 ― “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.” Or in Mark 6:25 ― “Immediately she [Herodias] rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.'”

So in modern English, to “lead with diligence” involves moving people from point A to point B in a slow, deliberate manner. In ancient Greek it meant to stand before people as an example with great speed and haste (how does one even do that??). What a mess. But I hope you can see how a few hundred years, a few thousand miles, across a few languages can make a big difference. And actually there’s one more language we need to look at, in order to make some sense out of this. It’s Latin. The New Testament was written in Greek, then translated to Latin, and it was a Latin Bible (the Vulgate) that was used to make the earliest translations of the Bible into English.

Romans 12:8 in Latin reads “qui praeest in sollicitudine.” This literally translates to “the one who presides, with anxiety.” To preside is to “sit before” so we go from standing to sitting before we get to moving. But sollicitudine, or anxiety, is an important link between “speed, haste, enthusiasm” and “caution, care, thoroughness.” Sollicitudine is also where we get the work solicit, to “ask for” or “try to obtain” something from someone.

If you are constantly asking about something, to the point where you are anxious about it, it’s obviously something you care a great deal about. Incidentally, to love or care for something in Latin is the word “diligere” which is where we get the word diligence from. It’s starting to come together, right?

Also in Latin, the word praeest, one who “sits before” is from the verb praesideo, which (as I’ve said) means “I sit before.” But sit before what? Who? and Why? In Latin, it is most commonly used in the sense of “I guard, watch, protect, defend.” In other words, I sit before something not because I want it to see what a great example I am, but rather because I care about it, I am anxious about it, I want to protect it.

A Leader, then, is one who stands, sits (or even moves) before people with great care, with anxious enthusiasm, watching over them and protecting them because he or she loves them. And this understanding makes sense, because Paul was following in the footsteps of his Lord and Master, the one who said, “If you want to lead people you must serve them. If you want to be first, then you must be last.”
Jesus, who in his last days on earth pulled aside his chief disciple and said to him, “Peter, if you love me, then feed my sheep.” Take care of them. Stand before them and behind them, all around them, love them and protect them, and put their needs ahead of your own. Lose yourself to help them find their way.

That’s what it means to lead. That’s what it is to be a leader.

To lead is to serve.

To lead…is to love.