Assertive and Humble Leadership

Columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr., reported on Senator Chris Coons of Delaware speaking to the Secular Coalition of America (“A Senator’s Faith — and Humility,” Washington Post, May 3, 2015). The group is committed to amplifying the “growing voice of the nontheistic community in the United States.” Senator Coons was invited because of his commitment to the separation of church and state and to equal protection for both the religious and the secular.
Christian leaders today would do well to emulate both assertiveness and humility. We need renewed assertiveness not about privilege or special standing in society but rather about the religious message of our faith.

The senator acknowledged that many are skeptical of religious faith today and that religion has sometimes been used to “justify discrimination” and as the “basis of intolerance,” causing “pain and distance and discomfort for many.” Dionne notes that the senator could have stopped with these comments and left with a pleased audience, but he continued.

Senator Coons gave a second message as “a practicing Christian and a devout Presbyterian.” He told his own story in which the same Bible that some use against people led him to follow Jesus’s command to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned. He recounted how as a Yale Law School student, he decided to pursue at the same time a degree from Yale Divinity School. That is when he discovered that secular progressives could be just as intolerant as narrow-minded religious people. “Frankly, we were a group of progressives who were really proud of how welcoming and open we were,” Coons said, “right up until the moment when I said I believed in God.”

Dionne found the presentation “instructive and encouraging.” For me, it combines two important and often missing components of leadership — assertiveness and humility.

Notice how the senator, before a profoundly secular audience, was clear about his faith and the tenets of that faith that drove his life toward helping the most vulnerable. At the same time, his discomfort with “rigid certainty” kept him from claims of exclusive truth with no error. He showed how “practicing and devout” Christians need to remember the importance of doubt and humility for themselves and in public policy.

Christian leaders today would do well to emulate both assertiveness and humility.

We need renewed assertiveness not about privilege or special standing in society but rather about the religious message of our faith. The problem is not that people are no longer interested in God. Even a majority of those who claim “none” as their religious preference believe in God, and a good portion pray daily. People are very concerned about spiritual questions and are, in fact, interested in precisely what is primary in the Christian message. However, they are not necessarily interested in that which engages us as religious leaders. Just at a time when so many are searching for meaning, many religious leaders have no word for their spiritual needs.

There is also a need for more humility. The Christian message is not so much about debate as testimony. Jesus said to the disciples, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22). When there is “rigid certainty,” what is lost is the reality that all of us — no matter how true our doctrine, how spotless our character, or how pure our social positions — are in need of God’s grace. We are in need of love, as well as judgment, and forgiveness poured upon all our human limitations. Notice the wording when the apostle Paul reminds us of the primacy of Christ and the cross. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who arebeing saved it is the power of God” (I Cor. 1:18, italics added). If there is a need for a greater assertiveness about the gospel message, there is also a need for a greater humility that comes from knowing we are allbeing saved.

Assertiveness and humility may not seem to go together. Even Dionne admits that “respecting each other on matters of faith and politics seems beyond our current capacities.” But this paradoxical combination may be precisely what is needed today for church and politics to move into a better future.

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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.

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