Knowledge, Humility, Zeal, and Leadership

Note: This article was originally published at SI on October 2, 2006.
I really love Peter. It is so easy for us, in retrospect, to snipe at him for his antics, but I have been thinking a lot about him lately. Peter strikes me as a man who had given himself over entirely to follow Jesus. He rightly vested in Christ all of his hopes and dreams. So much so pryde_direction.jpgthat when asked if he were going to leave Jesus, he responded, “Where else can we go? You have the words of life.” Peter was exactly right; Jesus is the only way to life. All other paths are leading directly to sin and death.

Yet much of Peter’s ideas of discipleship were colored by his own misguided expectations and misunderstandings. Jesus had a habit of turning those expectations upside down, and we frequently find Peter struggling to reconcile what Jesus was doing and teaching with his own preconceived notions of the way things were supposed to be.

In John 13, we see this misunderstanding clearly demonstrated. Jesus stooped to the level of a servant and approached Peter to wash his feet. Peter immediately (and somewhat impulsively, I think) responded that this wasn’t right. According to all he understood, the rabbis, teachers, and great people of his day didn’t ever do such things. It was unbecoming of their status and position, and Jesus was even greater than these. In Peter’s eyes, this request was an affront to the accepted order of things.

However, Jesus was insistent. If Peter wanted to be His disciple, his obedience was essential; and when Peter realized this, he exclaimed, “Then don’t just stop at my feet! Wash the rest of me as well.” You have to give Peter credit. Once he knew what to do, he zealously jumped in headfirst. Of course, he still misunderstood the point. Jesus was preparing to teach the disciples an important truth regarding discipleship, and Peter especially would need to understand it in the coming years. Fundamentalism needs the same lesson.

The truth is that God can really use a completely devoted disciple who is zealous for Jesus, even if that person starts out a little misguided, and this is exactly the case with Peter. Indeed, the first step of discipleship is to understand that our lives belong wholly to the Lord. We must be reminded that our reasonable service is to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice for His glory. Peter seemed to have this part down better than the rest of the disciples. After all, wasn’t it Peter who drew his sword to take on the Romans who had come to arrest Jesus?

However, in order for God to really use Peter, he had to be confronted with the truth. Even when the intention is good, zeal without knowledge is dangerous; and when this zeal is mixed with pride, it can be devastating to people, families, and churches. Peter needed to learn that leadership, in God’s economy, requires an accurate knowledge of God and the selfless humility to serve others. Jesus, the Master Teacher, used this opportunity to demonstrate these truths and to provide an example for us all.

It is truly a remarkable picture. The first thing Jesus did was correct Peter’s misunderstanding. In order for his zeal to be used, Peter needed to have zeal according to knowledge. Like Paul, who zealously persecuted believers, Peter needed to be confronted with the truth of who Jesus was. If you want to follow Jesus, you must first know and love Him. Then you must obey Him; and if you want to obey Him, you must set aside yourself to love others. This is what Jesus taught when He took the form of a servant.

John set what Jesus did in sharp contrast to who He is. “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God.” The Lord of the universe stooped to the role of a menial slave. What a contrast! It almost takes your breath away to think about it. Jesus then made the point clearly. “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Basically, Jesus said, “You aren’t any more important than Me, so you should be serving one another as well.” Zealous disciples needed this reminder, and so do we.

Pride is deeply ingrained into our society. In our world, those who are diligent and work hard rise to the top, and others correspondingly admire them for their work, knowledge, or skill. They are held up as examples on the sales floor and paraded around to provide motivation for others to aspire to be like them. Those who are elevated in this way are actually in grave personal danger. Our own hearts most naturally follow this pattern, yet from God’s perspective, it is completely backwards.

Fundamentalism has an abundance of zeal. In fact, this is one of our greatest strengths, but our zeal often lacks in both knowledge and humility. A look at the way leadership is often handled in cultural Fundamentalism underscores the reality of this. Under the intoxicating influence of pride, positions of power and influence can easily create a virtual prison for the truth, where the fear of man effectively hinders the proclamation of what is right. Similarly affected leadership has also led many fundamentalists down the primrose path into a trap of dependence upon their leaders and institutions, as if these hold the answer to the Christian life.

Others in leadership have so dogmatically proclaimed the rightness of their own particular stripe of Fundamentalism that they have become blinded to the truth of their own pride and ignorance. Worse, many have reacted against theology, allowing ignorance to be lauded and theology to be viewed with suspicion and contempt, as though theology were the enemy of the Christian life. This produces another sort of pride that actually revels in its own self-deprecating ignorance.

Interestingly, the only way to truly understand humility is through a proper knowledge of theology—the knowledge of the person and work of God. That was the lesson that Peter had to learn; his ignorance of God’s perspective was confronted by Jesus’ singular act of selfless service. This is theology in action; the person of Christ stooped to serve. To be effective for God, our zeal must likewise be informed by the mind of Christ and must also be turned to humility.

It is important to note that by humility, we don’t mean that we think of ourselves as crummy and worthless so we must stoop to serve all the “better” people. That actually is pride working in reverse, and it is largely why Peter stopped the Lord. The humility of Christ cannot be thought of in this way, for He was the King of the universe. He cannot be anything but perfect and glorious because He is the One to whom all owe their devotion! Rather, true humility requires that we simply put aside ourselves to take the opportunity to be like the Lord of glory and serve one another. The difference between the two perspectives is immense.

If we truly understand God, particularly as revealed in Jesus Christ, we will gain that necessary, and much needed, humility. Now many may read this article with great sympathy, shaking their youthful heads at our leaders. Yet there is a grave danger in this, for in so doing we risk becoming the very thing that we rightly reject. The critics’ pride can easily blind them to their own weakness, and it leads them to forget how much easier it is to critique than to build.

My heart’s desire is to be an influence, furthering a proactive Fundamentalism; and I have been surprised by how many people seem to resonate with this idea. However, it has become increasingly clear that if there is to be any lasting success, we must not point the finger of pride at the ignorance of those who are not in all respects perfect; neither should we be proud of our own knowledge or ignorance. Instead, we need to endeavor to increase in the knowledge of God and to serve one another with humility and love. In so doing, we will demonstrate that we are truly His disciples. This is the kind of leadership that Fundamentalism badly needs.

pryde08.jpgThomas Pryde has recently started “Sermons in Song,” an itinerate ministry of helps to local churches and is also helping to establish the Veritas School of Theology, an Internet-based distance education program designed to return the locus of theological training to the local church. In his spare time, he continues to help Crossroad’s Baptist Church, a church plant in Tracy, California. He and his wife, Martha Mulfinger Pryde, have five children. Visit his blog at
1065 reads

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.