I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go. John 21:18
There is a difference between “leading” and “being led.” A Christian leader is primarily someone who chooses to be led, instead of leading. It’s an interesting concept. Our culture emphasizes the importance of leading. We crave great leaders who are visionary and charismatic. We search for those who can help us navigate the changing waters of the future and guide us into the unknown. Our world celebrates these types of leaders. Our churches hire these types of leaders. Jesus, however, has a different version of leadership he shares with his people: the art of being led.
Jesus calls us to follow him. We are to be disciples. Learners. Students. Followers. He doesn’t call us to be leaders. He calls us to follow one true leader. Jesus’ version of leadership is to strip away any barrier or position and submit to his way and not our own. Jesus is anti-institution, anti-“The Man” and anti hierarchy. In the gospels, Jesus avoided any kind of conversation that was political or power oriented. When James and John argue about their places in heaven, Jesus talks about the little children. When Jesus is questioned about paying taxes, he doesn’t get caught off guard, but refocuses the attention on serving God, not man. A Christian leader is called to mimic his example (Ephesians 5:1).
Peter was one of the foundational leaders of the Christian movement. By the time we reach the book of Acts, he is leading a great deal. He is bold, strategic and effective. But we shouldn’t forget the advice Jesus gave him before he became this great leader.
John 21 shares a unique scene in Scripture: the reinstatement of Peter. Most scholars believe the twenty-first chapter of John was a later addition to the gospel, being as chapter 20 concludes the gospel quite nicely and a number of other theories that we don’t have time to explore. In my opinion, though, John 21 offers one of the clearest pictures of what a Christian leader should do. Regardless of its origin, I am thankful the gospel bears this chapter.
The story is quite fascinating. After Peter is reinstated, Jesus tells him a proverb about young age versus old age. Peter was reminded that when he was younger (perhaps, in his days before Christ) he did what he wanted and went where he wanted to go. When he is older, however, he will stretch out his hands and be led… even to places he would rather not go. Jesus reinstates Peter to be a leader. But his primary “leadership ability” is going to be as a follower. He needs to choose to be led.
Peter’s world came crashing down when Jesus was arrested and crucified. It destroyed his hopes of what the Messiah would do—restore Israel, reestablish the law—and who he would be. Jesus’ mission was different. God’s true plan for the Messiah was something bigger than Israel—it was global and spiritual and far more radical. In John 21, Peter has left the path of following Jesus and turned back to his old way of life. He is on a boat, fishing. The same thing he was doing before he met Jesus.
Jesus appears to Peter and challenges his current way of living. No longer would he sincerely follow Jesus according to his way or his own thoughts about how things should be. Now, he would be led. Furthermore, he would also be led to places where he might not want to go. That is a shocking thought! Following Jesus means going where you might not want to go? Henri Nouwen says, “Jesus has a different version of maturity: it is the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go.” Peter’s new found commitment to Jesus eventually led him to martyrdom. It also established him as a Christian leader.
I’ve heard a number of pastors and other Christian leaders talk very candidly about “following” God’s leading in a given situation, usually when it relates to a new job or opportunity. The line of thinking goes “We’ve prayed over the right decision and believe God has led us to make it.” Interestingly, when it comes to accepting a position at church or other organization, it seems people are always led by God to accept the job at the bigger church, with the bigger pay check. God doesn’t lead us to stay at our current churches, or heaven forbid, accept a position at a smaller church in a less affluent area. He doesn’t lead us to work with the poor or give up the comforts we desire. The way people talk about following God’s leading, it seems God only guides us according to our bank accounts. I wonder why we can’t just be honest and say this isn’t God’s leading, it’s my own.
The Christian leader, however, will learn the art of “being led.” He may learn to dismiss certain opportunities because he’s following God’s leading and not his own. He may choose to look foolish in the eyes of the world because he understands there is a difference between “leading” and “being led.” Like Peter, he may choose to stretch out his hands and follow the path of Jesus, even to places he would rather not go.