Why Leadership Matters: Plato, Pie, and the Central Nervous System

by | Feb 18, 2019 | Church Health, Leadership, Theological Musings | 0 comments

“Christian makes a bad adjective.”

– Rob Bell

He may have been pushed to the fringes of many Christian circles, but he’s right.

Christian makes a bad adjective.

It’s why I hate the term Christian leadership.

(Is hate too strong a word?


But I’ll run with it.)

I know you didn’t ask for an explanation, but I’ll give you one nevertheless. Really, the reason is simple.

I don’t think anyone’s really doing it.

That’s right, I don’t think the authors, speakers, and practitioners of a supposed Christian leadership are really doing it.

To borrow from Jerry Seinfeld, it’s like the dry-cleaners claim to be cleaning things dry. In his own words, “There must be some kind of liquid back there.”

If there’s a liquid, how can it be dry?

He doesn’t believe they’re really doing it.

Much like Seinfeld’s inability to believe in the claims of the dry cleaner, I don’t readily believe in the claims of possessing a Christian version of leadership. Embedded within that one overarching reason, are two sub-reasons…if that’s a term.

Let me explain.

Reason #1: Degradation & Dualism

In the first place, the term Christian leadership degrades both the Divine and leadership.

With a philosophical flourish, here’s why.

The word Christian is, ultimately, an adjective to describe someone’s personal faith position. That’s all the word denotes. It’s not a word that suggests anything else, really. Oh, sure, we may impart a special meaning to it; but, ultimately, it doesn’t do anything but suggest that the individual who is describing leadership theory and practice is a person of Christian faith.

That’s all that the term Christian Leadership denotes.

The same thing is true of Christian counsellors, Christian artists, Christian music, and Christian summer camps. It simply speaks to a personal faith position.

It’s interesting, though. I often find that once the faith position has been asserted, it’s proven to us by referencing various passages from Scripture. My personal favourite is when the line “Jesus was the greatest leader the world has ever seen,” or some variant of it gets dropped, and they reference some obscure interaction Jesus had with someone. It’s as if the case is closed.

Jesus is the best.

Didn’t you read it there, just like I did? This passage says it so clearly. Now go. Lead as Jesus did. The perfect example of everything.

But the Bible isn’t a leadership manual. That’s too reductionist. Jesus didn’t come to show us how to lead. He’s so much more than that: the Divine Creator-Messiah for starters.

This is why I find Christian Leadership to be a damaging leadership paradigm. It provides an air of leadership superiority based on a morality that is cherry-picked from biblical snippets. The result? Christians present that they possess a leadership monopoly because the Divine – you know, the greatest leader that ever lived – is one of us. So you better listen up.

What it amounts to is a theology of leadership that finds its foundation in asserting a personal faith position.

It’s a bit triumphalistic if you ask me.

I think it’s damaging to the body of Christ.

I think it’s damaging to leadership.

There’s something else at play, though; and it’s even more subtle than claiming a faith position and passing it as an entire theology of leadership.

It’s the resultant duality.

When someone lays claim to Christian leadership, the implicit suggestion is that leadership can be partitioned into the sacred and the secular. It’s as though we can slip in and out of the “God version” of leadership and into a version of leadership that is separate from God.

But it doesn’t work that way.

There truly is no division between the sacred and the secular.

There is one God and one Creation.

All of Creation has been born out of Divine speech.

It finds its genesis in the very breath of God.

Because of that reality, I don’t believe it can have a secular resonance.

If we claim that secular and sacred versions of leadership exist, we find ourselves arriving at a Platonic dualism that we, as Orthodox Christians, would wholly protest and readily live. (But that’s a paradox for another time.)

For those unfamiliar with Plato and his dualistic ideology, let me provide a brief summary.

At its most surface level, Plato proposed that there is a distinction between the spiritual and the material. They are wholly separate, wholly different, and wholly hierarchical. (That last one is critical.) You see, because of Plato’s teachings, there was a belief that emerged that said the spiritual is vastly superior to the material. Accordingly, it is our duty to escape the material bondage we find ourselves in and strive for the greater, better, and sacred spiritual. Conversely, we must forsake the material.

But you and I both know, deep down, that it can’t work that way. Why? Because it degrades the goodness of both the spiritual and the material. In fact, on the penultimate day of Creation, God declared all of it to be very good. Everything poured forth at the word of God. His breath infused life into all of it.

Because of that, we know the material matters. We know the material is very good. We also know that the material and the spiritual live, work, and play together.

In truth, there is no idea that is formed, no theory that is generated, no love that is given, no forgiveness that is extended, no matter that is determined, no word that is spoken, no shred of truth exposed, and no leadership paradigm set forth that does not find its source in the Divine.

You and I are living proof.

We are image-bearers of that Divine God.

You and I have the fingerprints, the marks, the imprint of God all about us.

We are material. We are spiritual.

And that cannot find its origins in the so-called secular.

Spiritual Pie.

Think about it this way. What if I asked you to represent yourself as a pie chart. You know, the kind of chart that is a circle that is formed by different sized wedges. Perhaps a little colour, a few percentages, maybe even a little separation between the pieces to emphasize different statistics.

Those pieces form a whole. They form a circle that is 100% filled.

What would your whole look like?

What would you say creates that pie chart that represents you?

Would it contain work related things? Education? Familial? Religion? Leadership? Creativity? Music? Athletics and sports? Travel? Character traits?

Think about it for a minute, and write those things down that form the whole of who you are.






Now, let me ask you to do something. Take out one of those slices and continue to be you.






Take the “spiritual” slice, whatever you called it, out of the pie.

Can any of those remaining pieces truly exist without the spiritual?






Can you fathom being who you are without knowing that second language?

Can you continue to be you if you don’t love to create culinary delights?

Can you sustain your you-ness without engaging in your family?

Can you survive without your craft?






Can you exist as only a portion of that pie?

Could you still be considered you if you lose any one of those slices?

Can you be you without the spirit?

Can you be you without the material?






I don’t think you can.

In fact, think about how all those pieces of the pie are interrelated, too. Without one of them, the others cease to quite be themselves.

To paraphrase John Philip Newell, wholeness cannot be found in isolation. Wholeness is found when the whole is whole.

Every piece of your spiritual-material pie is necessary to make you exactly who you are.

Sure, you will change over time. That slow process of change that we call life will inevitably shift who you are as you experience new things, gain new ideas, and meet new people. But you can’t know, right now, who you will be at some undetermined time in the future. It doesn’t work that way.

All we have, right now, is right now.

And right now, you would cease to be you if you lost any of those slices.

It would fragment you.

You would lose your integrity.

Your wholeness.

Your essence.






And that is why we cease to have a conversation about leadership when we are reductionistic enough to label it as Christian.

It loses its integrity. It loses its wholeness. It loses its essence.

By labelling it Christian, you suggest that God could be removed from the equation.

The result? Dualism.

It fragments.

It pulls apart.

It degrades.

When we come to understand that at the very word of God all things came into being, we cease the meaningless conversation surrounding what is deemed sacred and secular in origin.

As it pertains to leadership, when we refrain from labelling it as Christian, we cease to search for a leadership ethos that meets or surpasses the religious standard of the age, and we move into a place that allows us to explore, to engage, and to enjoy the very gift that God has given each of us.

Honestly, it’s the first reason that I dislike the idea of Christian leadership; it makes distinctions it has no business making, and it degrades the Divine and results in dualism.

But it’s not the only reason.

Reason #2: What, Precisely, is The Point?

Okay, so I took a while to explain my first reason for objection to the term Christian leadership. Perhaps, the second will be a little quicker.

My first reason for loathing the Christian adjective that can be slapped on the term leadership is more philosophical in nature. My second is entirely practical. I don’t think Christian leadership ever stops to honestly ask, or answer, a much-needed question: what’s the point?

Still sound a bit philosophical? Hear me out.

Have you ever attended a leadership conference and marvelled at the people who are presenting? One after the other, leadership gurus, pastors of mega-churches, titans of industry and innovation, authors, thinkers, successful millionaires, and perhaps a comedian or two, are paraded across a stage, and as they stand on the platform, they tell you what they think.

And that’s just it.

They tell you what they think.

There’s nothing wrong with that. But I don’t think it can quite be called leadership theory. It’s more like Uncle Bob’s best practices. And believe me, some of their best practices are dynamite.

But do they ever tell you why those practices are best? Not why they worked so well, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about at their deepest, most basic, why they are best.

Have you ever sat in a back room, or an auditorium with several thousand seats, and heard anyone tell you what the precise point of leadership is?

I can’t recall hearing it either.

Oh, I can remember countless generic statements about influencing people, getting people to achieve collective goals, mobilizing efforts for the greater good, progress toward some nebulous and ethereal better state…but I’ve never heard a single speaker pinpoint why.

And that should throw up some red flags.

If we can’t pinpoint why leadership matters, does it matter that we talk about it so much?

I’m not sure it does.

Many of you are probably familiar with Simon Sinek’s famous Ted Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action. Perhaps you are more familiar with his book, Start With Why.

It’s a basic message, but it’s also a powerful one.

Sometimes that which is basic is essential.

In sum, he says the following: Don’t start with best practices, start with the reason for doing what you’re doing. Don’t start with what or how. Start with why.

Simple enough?


So why do we insist upon sharing best practices instead of uncovering the why?

From my observations, the result is a lot of people running around, believing they are leading because of their behavioural patterns, that haven’t a clue as to why they are running around doing what they are doing.

A thousand best practices, for precisely…I’m not sure.

In other words, chaos.

To borrow the Hebrew found in Genesis 1, tohu vevohu (תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ). (In Genesis 1, we are told that the state of things, before Creation, was chaos…it was formless and void. The Hebrew words for chaos are tohu vevohu.)

And while the beginning of all things was described as tohu vevohu, it quickly gave way to order. It gave way to very good. It gave way at the breath of God.

And I think our leadership should be doing precisely the same thing. It should bring order out of chaos. (More on that in a minute.)

It’s the second reason I don’t like the term Christan leadership. I don’t think it every seeks to understand what the point is. It simply assumes there is one because it is Christian. And without understanding what, precisely, the point is, we become busy-bodies that drag ourselves and others back to a state of tohu vevohu.

There’s no map. There’s no plan. There’s no guiding light.

Only chaos.

So is That All There Is Then?


Unequivocally, no.

I simply think there’s a better way forward.

Toward A Theology of Leadership.

I know it’s a bit of a heady title, but I think it’s of the utmost importance. There needs to be a rigorous theology that informs our leadership.

If you’re concerned that it’s about to get heady, don’t worry, I’ll break it down.

Theology is derived from two Greek words: theos (θεός) and logos (λόγος). Quite literally, these words are translated as ‘God’ and ‘word.’ Therefore, we can conclude that theology is, quite simply, words about God.

So, basically, we’re going to talk about God and try to understand how it applies to leadership.

Easy as pie.

You do this all the time. You just don’t think about it.

So stop and think about it for a second.

Remember the conversation about the material and spiritual existing in harmony? If that’s true, then whenever you speak you are having a spiritual moment. You’re theologizing. When you engage the Creation you are experiencing the creativity of the Divine. It’s a lived and experienced theology. When you speak words of encouragement, you are joining the Divine within the space between you and another person. When you prepare a meal, you are experiencing and living theology.

Theology isn’t always heady. Theology is also practical. And that’s very good. Theology is an everyday experience for you…if you remember it to be so.

So let’s theologize a little bit more right here.

For Real Now…Toward a Theology of Leadership.

Most people look at leadership within the context of an organizational chart.

Anthony Vander Laan - Organizational Chart

What follows is this simple assumption: the best leaders are above everyone.

Why? Because of how we draw the organizational chart. The further up the ladder you go, the more people you leave behind, the more down on the ground they are, the more superior and above you are. Then, from that position of above-ness, you lead them.

When people have interpreted Scripture, they’ve drawn the very same conclusions. Leaders are above other people. They lead out of a position of above-ness.

Here are a few examples from the Scriptures.

“But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.” (Exodus 18:21, NIV)

“And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” (Ephesians 1:22-23, NIV)

“But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:3, NIV)

Did you catch it?

I hope you did. I emphasized the words just for you.

It’s easy to read these passages, home in on those few keywords of the head, over, and under, and create a theology that teaches hierarchy and subordination.

But can that really work?

I mean, read the passage from 1 Corinthians 11 once more.

“But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. ” (1 Corinthians 11:3, NIV)

Did you catch the hierarchy?

God —> Jesus —> Man —> Woman

Did you catch the piece that didn’t make sense?

Aside from all of it, it makes total sense.

Let me explain.

There is no hierarchy amongst the Trinity.

Jesus cannot be subordinate to the Father. (I won’t dwell on the reasons here, but the Scriptures are insanely clear on this one. John 17:20-26 anyone?)  It just doesn’t work.

There is no hierarchy amongst humankind.

Women cannot be subordinate to man. (I won’t dwell on the reasons here, but the Scriptures are crystal clear on this one, too. Galatians 3:28?) It just doesn’t work.

Am I blowing your mind yet?

I know mine was totally blown the first time I recognized the oxymoronic tension that the Scriptures were presenting.

Whenever you see that in the Bible…you know, the thing that doesn’t make sense…you need to stop to ask a question of the text. Any question will do. It will help you start thinking rather than a simple, listless, passive reaction.

So let’s ask the question. If there’s no hierarchy, what is this passage, and the others I referenced, really trying to tell us?

I think they’re trying to tell us about the reality of a relationship.

There is a relationship within the Divine.

A relationship between the Father and Son.

There is a relationship within humanity.

A relationship between men and women.

There is a relationship between the Divine and the human.

A relationship made possible by Jesus. Jesus; a confluence of spirit and matter.

(It’s funny, as I type this, my editor doesn’t know what to do with the word “within.” It keeps coming back as an error. Sometimes language can’t adequately contain the deep mysteries.)

We use the word “head” and “over” in our Scripture translations to denote the quality of the relationship between things.

But it’s not a hierarchical quality.

Yes, it makes sense to translate the Greek and Hebrew words to “head” and “over” since that’s the direct translation. But the reality is, it doesn’t convey the message adequately.


Because those are loaded words in the English language.

Anytime you hear the words “the head over/of” and “over” you instantly think of hierarchy. It’s just how our language works.

But what if we were to do our best to reclaim those words? Humour me for a moment.

A Lesson in Anatomy: Why Head and Over Aren’t What They Seem.

When you think of the word “head”, what do you think of?

Likely the 10-pound ball on top of your neck!

And where is your head located?

Over/on top of your body. (Duh, Anthony…)

Put it together and what have you got?

The most superior part of your body that is over and above everything else. It’s the most important part of you. That’s why it’s so unsettling when someone “loses their head” for a moment. It’s the most important part of you. You can’t lose that. It only results in chaos. (Remember the tohu vevohu…good.)

But what if it wasn’t important because it was on top? What if superior was simply a term to denote an upward direction? (Hint: it is just that.) What if the reason the head was important was for an entirely different reason?

Let me explain.

You head contains a critical part of your being. Your brain. Your brain is roughly 3-pounds in weight, and it is part of a system known as the Central Nervous System. The most critical electrical signals that pass through your body are integrated within your Central Nervous System. Those electrical signals help you feel pain, temperature, friction, wind, touch, and countless other things. They help your muscles move and stabilize. They make you taste food. The list could go on, and on, and on. Suffice it to say, those electrical impulses are of the utmost importance.

Your brain is vital because it interprets, integrates, and acts upon all the information that it receives, through those signals, from various parts of the body.

It’s not more important than the neurons that receive and send the signals. It’s not more important than the feet you are walking on.

It’s not more important than the heart that pumps blood for every minute you’ve been alive.

It’s not more important than the tooth that grinds, crushes, and begins digesting your food.

It’s not more important than your lungs that inhale vitality and exhale waste.

It’s simply central to them all.

It’s over them because, well, your head happens to be on top.

It’s a better design that way.

This is what it means for the head to be over and superior. It’s over because of its location. It’s central because of its function.

It’s not a hierarchy. It’s a relationship. It’s an interconnectedness within and between things.

It’s like leadership.

Back to the Theology Bit.

See, when the Scriptures refer to something or someone being “the head of” or “over” it’s more about centrality rather than superiority.

It’s a question of relationship.


There’s a passage in Ephesians that is often misrepresented. (Who am I kidding, there are lots of passages in Ephesians that are misrepresented.) I’m thinking of the one that says, “Wives, submit to your husbands…” (Ephesians 5:22a onward, NIV)

The problem?

They forget to mention Ephesians 5:21; the passage that says, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

It’s a question of relationship.


It’s about submission and reverence.

See, in relationship, there is always a one-anothering.

There’s a give and take.

An ebb and flow.

The brain doesn’t think for itself. It receives electrical signals, impulses, that tell it what to think.

It receives.


It then responds and tells the organs, muscles, and other tissues what to do in light of the original impulses.

It gives.


A person doesn’t exist in a vacuum. They obtain signals and impulses from other people. They receive. They then respond to the people around them. They give.

The crucial piece to one-anothering is to do so in a fashion that embodies a reverence for Christ. A Philippians 2:3-4 kind of thing:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (NIV)

And you might be tempted to say, at this point, that this is a uniquely Christian idea. After all, it was the Christ that showed us the way.


But it’s incomplete.

The Spirit of the Divine, the breath of God, brought order out of chaos. Christ is the full incarnation…the full materializing…the full embodiment of the Divine. He shows us the very essence of what it means to be human. He is the one that shows us how spirit and matter intersect and interact. He shows us how all spiritual and material beings are to live the way of submission to others.

It’s all about one-anothering.

It’s the order that was brought into being from the very beginning.

Christ shows us the one-anothering that has always been true.

Out of chaos, out of the breath of God, came one-anothering.

It was always there.

It was always spiritual.

It finds its reality in the material.

(After all, without embodying humility and submission, you can’t really see and experience it. The material does what the spiritual cannot, and vice versa. But for us, they always go together. There is no duality.)

It’s not a Christian idea. That makes for a bad adjective.

It’s the reality that always was, always is, and always will be.

It found its origins in the breath of God.

Back to the Beginning.

So what precisely is the point of leadership?

(I bet you forgot the question, it had been so long…)

The point, in short, is to one-another in a way that the Divine Spirit showed in fully material form. This is how very good is brought from chaos.

It is to…

– be selfless when it seems best to be selfish

– choose love when indifference seems best

– forgive when you’d rather begrudge

– be righteously angered when injustice is rampant

– give away power when you’d rather hold onto it

– see others as bearers of God’s image, just like you

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The beginning of leadership is the realization of that which has been true the whole time. You are human. You are spirit. You are matter. You bear the image of the Divine.

And so does everyone else.

And that means you one-another with them in a way that is fitting. In the way Christ would.

This is the purpose of leadership.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all of what you do as a leader, but it is the point.

Leadership begins the minute you understand this.

It’s not about hierarchy. It’s not about climbing an organizational chart of superiority. It’s not a linear thing.

It’s a relational thing.

It’s a one-anothering thing.

It’s the way it is supposed to be. It’s precisely why leadership matters. 


Anthony VanderLaan Church Consultant Cropped


I am a blogger, researcher, and church consultant, here to inspire and empower you to become a better leader and pastor; a leader and pastor that inspires and equips your church to come alive.

I write and speak about how churches can stop wasting time with sideways energy to get back on mission.

And I will inspire you to remember your calling and be proud of it.

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