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On Humility in Leadership

This essay continues to explore the paradox of humility in Christian leadership.

I once attended a consultation that brought together women and men of several Judeao-Christian traditions to talk about how leadership issues are addressed differently in those traditions.1 I was taken by the dilemma of one participant. Richard J. Wood, a Quaker, and dean of Yale University Divinity School at the time, explained that many of his own communion “regard the term ‘Quaker leadership’ as an oxymoron.” Whereas usually the difficulty is how to be or appear humble in the exercise of dynamic leadership, for Wood it was how to exercise any real leadership at all, much less defend it theologically, in a context that mandated Christian humility above all virtues, characteristically in the form of silence.

In theological literature humility is most often addressed in an ethical context, as an element of character that Christians (and Christian leaders) ought to inculcate. It is often treated as a sort of honorary fruit of the Spirit; even though it is not in that list of nine (Galatians 5:23), it is characteristically found in texts together with such fruit as love and meekness (e.g., Col. 3:12-14).  

But there is another way of approaching humility, one that is perhaps more incisive theologically, along lines provoked by K. E. Kirk’s observation that “Worship alone can make us humble.”2 The link to worship highlights humility as a structural component in the divine-human relationship, that is, something objective and inalienable in what is a creator and what is a creature, and therefore a structural component in humanity itself—rather than to a relative or subjective difference between beings of greater and lesser stature. Humility is proper to this relationship because it accords with the truth that I am not God.

We can follow this up with reference to the Book of Romans. In 1:18-21, as Paul describes the fall of humanity into error and sin, he places particular emphasis on one factor: “though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give him thanks” (1:21). In a sense Paul’s extended account over chapters 1-11 presents God’s initiative in redemption as the resolution to the problem of humanity’s abandonment of the humility of worship—culminating with Paul’s own cry of worship: “For from him and through him and to him are all things! To him be glory forever! Amen!” (11:36).

But if our discussion of humility embraces redemption as well as creation, then we are dealing with a two-fold objective basis for what we have termed structural humility. The Creator-creature relationship demands an acknowledgement, in absolute humility, that the Creator is Lord. But God’s second movement of the redemption of the now-fallen creation demands a further and absolute acknowledgement, in absolute humility, on the part of the redeemed, that the Redeemer is Lord. There is nothing relative or proportional about the honor we owe God, either as Creator or as Redeemer. The instruction is absolute: “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God” (1 Pet. 5:6). Equally crucially, the same structural considerations imply that no human being is in a place to require humility or humiliation from another. The equality of all humans under the one God demands the recognition of that parity—although it takes an unexpected form: “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility with one another” (1 Pet. 5:5).

Concerns have been raised by feminist theologians that the language of humility may be inappropriate for all Christians. Judith Plaskow first asked whether the biblical motif of the humbling of pride pointed to a pattern of sin that was more characteristic of males in our patriarchal societies. Since then other writers have explored this question in women’s experience and spirituality.3 Especially in the case of those who perforce have lived in oppressive environments, where regular subservience and humiliation of one group has been required by another group, there has been the concern that the Church ought to foster self-esteem rather than humility. “A God who does not want human beings to enjoy profound self-acceptance and self-esteem is incompatible with a God of love, a God in love with the universe.”4 

To cast the issue as we have done above, defining humility as a matter of anthropological structure, may help define Christian humility over against its worldly counterfeits. If humility is something owed by the creature to the Creator, and owed to every other creature as an implication of that same humility, there is no justification for humiliation. And if humility is the antidote of pride in some cases, we might see the joy and purposefulness of obedience as the antidote of self-denigration or despair in other cases. Humility would then define dignity in limitation. In that light humility before God is perhaps the strongest place of refuge and resource that is available to humanity.

The singularity of Richard Wood’s resolution to the paradox of humility in leadership is his refusal to soften either imperative; he recognizes that both leadership and humility are absolutely necessary. But he finds a way out of sheer paradox by exploring how humility, properly understood as an absolute, must redefine what constitutes leadership in the Quaker context. His essay has much to offer those in other communions as well.

—Theopulos



1 Papers from the consultation, including Wood’s, have been published in Mouw and Jacobsen, eds., Traditions in Leadership: How Faith Traditions Shape the Way We Live (Pasadena: De Pree Leadership Center, 2006); his words are cited on p. 208.

2 K. E. Kirk, The Vision of God; cited in Childress and MacQuarrie, eds., The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), p. 284.

3 Judith Plaskow, Sex, Sin, and Grace: Women’s Experience and the Theologies or Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich (Washington: University Press of America, 1980).

4 Caroll Saussy, God Images and Self-Esteem: Empowering Women in a Patriarchal Society (Louisville: John Knox Westminster, 1991) p. 13