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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: Christian Leadership after St Paul

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Archbishop Fisher OP speaks at the Sydney Catholic Business Network Luncheon at Sheraton on the Park on 19 May. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Archbishop Fisher OP speaks at the Sydney Catholic Business Network Luncheon at Sheraton on the Park on 19 May. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Christian Leadership after St Paul, Sydney Catholic Business Network Luncheon, Sheraton on the Park, 19 May 2023

Christians rightly look for inspiration on leadership in the Bible and the lives of the saints. There we find the teaching and example of Christ and His mother, Abraham and the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets, David and the kings, Peter and the apostles, the great pastors, witnesses and teachers.

I. Paul’s threefold identity

St Paul was a stand-out Christian leader. He was the most influential figure in early Christianity after Jesus Himself. What made Christianity’s first ‘business development manager’ so effective?

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Well, first a bit of context. Two millennia ago the Incarnation took place in the nowheresville of Nazareth at the edge of the Graeco-Roman empire. Here the monotheistic spirituality of the Jews and the philosophic rhetoric of the Greeks met the imperial organisation of the Romans, that would allow Christianity to be articulated with the best of faith and reason, and then spread across the world. Paul was uniquely suited to unite those three worlds in himself and put them at the service of the Gospel.[i]

First, Paul was Jewish. Born around the same time as Jesus, he was given the name of the first Jewish king, Saul. When opponents said he was too pro-gentile, he insisted that he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the People of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, as to Law a Pharisee” (Phil 3:5; cf. 2Cor 11:22). We know a little about his strict Jewish family and his schooling under Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 5:34-42; 22:3,16; 23:16; Rom 16:7,11,21). He mastered Jewish Law and opposed the new-fangled ‘Christians’.[ii] He never abandoned his Jewishness.

Secondly, he was born in the port-city of Tarsus in the province of Cilicia, i.e. in the old Greek empire and modern-day Turkey. So he was of Hellenistic culture and spoke the koine or working-class Greek of the eastern Roman Empire in his preaching and epistles. But he had a love-hate relationship with Greek philosophy, Tarsus being a centre of the Stoics. Cilicia was also famous for its goats’ hair cloth, called cilicium, used in tent and sail making, and this was Paul’s own trade and income (Acts 18:1-4; cf. 20:33-34).

Thirdly, Paul was a Roman. Paulus (Acts 13:9) is a Roman name meaning ‘small’ (which he was) or ‘humble’ (which he was not) (Acts 14:12; Onesiphorus, Acts of Paul and Thecla).  He was born a free citizen of the empire, and his ‘passport’ made it easier for him to take the Gospel everywhere and resist some of his enemies (Acts 21:39; 22:25-29; 25:9-12).

Paul’s triple identity helped make him the complex person he was. Like all of us, he brought particular gifts, experiences and passions to his leadership. It allowed him to be a spiritual translator, bridging three great cultures, converting them to his purpose, creating that special hybrid that would be Christianity.

On the Damascus road from Jerusalem, he heard the Risen Christ accuse him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ (Acts chs 9, 22 and 26) This gave him his insight into Christ’s total identification with Christians and vice versa; Christians are limbs of Christ’s mystical body the Church,[iii] given life and identity by Him, offering their eyes and tongues, hearts and minds to be conformed to His and be His instruments. Saul experienced conversion as being Christened, remade like Christ (Rom 8:29; 12:2). Yet radical as was Saul’s conversion, it took him a long time to be ready to lead. At first blinded by the light rather than enlightened by it, he spent years being readied for his mission and martyrdom.[iv]

As we follow the story of Paul, we meet a sophisticated theologian who helped crystallise Christian doctrine and morals, and wrote a third of the New Testament; an itinerant preacher who racked up more first-century frequent-flyer points than anyone else and took the Church way beyond its comfort zone in the Holy Land; a solicitous pastor of Christian communities, whose members had the benefit of his counsel whether they wanted it or not; a ‘company man’, who received his instructions from ‘the board’ of Peter and the Twelve; and a team leader, who did what he did with others. Paul smashed all his KPIs and received the same bonus as Jesus and Peter: he was persecuted, imprisoned, and finally martyred!

St Paul Healing the Cripple at Lystra by Karel Dujardin, c. 1663.PHOTOS: Picryl/Rijksmuseum, CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication
St Paul Healing the Cripple at Lystra by Karel Dujardin, c. 1663.PHOTOS: Picryl/Rijksmuseum, CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

II. God chooses the weak

Paul was great but not flawless. He was zealous and brave, an original and systematic thinker, a commanding, charismatic presence, loyal and generous, affectionate towards his flocks. But he was also conflicted in various ways, a domineering hardliner some days, conciliatory on others, quirky and sometimes hard to understand. He fought with his pastoral associates and burnt secretaries at a great rate, was obsessed with his title as apostle, and was much more comfortable giving orders than taking them. A modern-day Paul would have had more than a few calls from his board Chair and the Head of HR.

What can we learn from all of this? Well first, being a leader doesn’t make you perfect. God chooses the weak and makes them strong.[v] He even uses our weaknesses in His service: what we call stubbornness in ordinary people and single-minded devotion in saints was part of what made Paul so successful. God graces people with wisdom and courage through prayer and sacrament, and with humility and prudence through humiliation and learning from mistakes. The Bible says loud and clear: don’t imagine you have all the answers or don’t need help. Discipleship is a journey through practice, scrutiny, reflection, change. Ultimately, it’s God’s work, and so leaders must be open to His will. Paul the braggart needed to learn humility,[vi] but he ultimately wrote: “God has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Therefore, I boast most gladly of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may be revealed in me.” (2Cor 12:9)

Secondly, as Jesus made abundantly clear, leadership is not about accolades and privilege. It’s about service. If you want to be big, assume the stature of a child; if you want authority, wash people’s feet; the last shall be first in my kingdom, the slave greatest.[vii] Paul understood this in principle, but still had to experience it. He knew he was to give witness to One who came to serve, not to be served (Mk 10:41-45; Jn 13:14-20) and so his leadership must not only be visionary, inspiring, and directive, but also gentle, compassionate and self-giving (1Cor 5:22; 9:22; 11:16). It meant he would forego much and suffer much.[viii] To the Romans and Philippians he called himself ‘servant’ or ‘slave’ (Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1; cf. Titus 1:1); to the Thessalonians and Corinthians he said he would share the Gospel and his very self (1Thes 2:8; 1Cor 4:1-5; 9:7,19). The deal for Christian CEOs is clear: if you want thrones right and left of the Lord in His Kingdom (Mt 20:21; Mk 10:37), be prepared for crosses right and left of Him on Good Friday (Mt 27:38; Mk 15:27). Forget the “look at me, look at me” stuff. Leadership is about service and sacrifice.

Thirdly, the best Christian leaders teach us that if it’s not all about them, it also doesn’t all depend on them. Paul leant on God and others, repeatedly, especially when things were hard.[ix] Arrested on trumped-up charges, falsely imprisoned, beaten and worse… even if Paul didn’t have to submit to auditors, he didn’t have it easy. But he soldiered on to the end (2Tim 4:7-8) and inspired many others to do so. We too must live by sound principles and godly virtues, and so seek divine insight and practical wisdom. Then we might hope to be leaders of dignity and harmony, moderation and good sense, good teachers and managers, not domineering, drunk or greedy—as Paul outlined in his J.D.s for kings and prelates (1Tim 2:1-2; 3:2-4).

Which means, finally, we have to be team players. This wasn’t Paul’s strongpoint, but he knew he needed companions like Barnabas, John Mark, Silas, Timothy and Luke. Modern leadership models push collaboration even more strongly. At the heart of Pope Francis’ talk of synodality is the idea that our leadership is richer if we have listened, long and hard, to different voices, and discerned God’s Word amongst all the words; if we have associates in our leadership, so it isn’t all on one person or perspective, but enriched by others. I, for one, make better decisions when others have helped inform them. And I know that my team need common purpose, commitment, direction.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP speaks on the qualities that made St Paul a stand-out Christian leader. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP speaks on the qualities that made St Paul a stand-out Christian leader. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

III. Why leadership?

Leadership guru Simon Sinek rose to fame with his first book, Start With Why (2009). He made a compelling case that every business or institution has to answer why they exist, what is their purpose, what they are there to do… It’s an existential question qualitatively different from those about productivity, profit and loss, risk and return, products and services. The ability to crystallise and communicate purpose is far more likely to appeal to something deep inside oneself and bring others along on the journey.

The Sermon on the Mount (Mt chs 5-7) has lots of advice on the how and what of Christian living: we must be truthful, just and merciful, humble and prayerful, confident and obedient, non-judgmental but discerning, forgiving and loving. But first and last Jesus explores the why of it all: to be salt of the earth and light to the world, to be truly blessed, God-like. Likewise, Paul has much to say on faith and morals, worship and service—the Christian “products and services”—but more important is the relationship with God to which each is called. In the end, as he famously sang to the Corinthians, only faith, hope and love endure, and the greatest of these is love (1Cor ch. 13). Love is who God is (1Jn 4:8 etc.) and, if we are made in His image, it’s who we are (Gen 1:27 etc.). Love reaches outwards. It is creative, bringing things into being. It is redemptive, healing what was damaged. It’s the Why of Christ’s Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection. It’s the Why of the Church, the Bible, the Sacraments. The Why of Christians like Paul, and you, and me. Companies or organisations may offer products or services; God and the Church offer a person, an enduring identity and relationship: God’s love in the person of Jesus Christ. But surely we must set a lower bar for businesses and bureaucracies? How could we love all those we work with and for, in projects not half so elevated as the beatitudes. Yet Christ is clear that “By this shall people know that you are my disciples: if you have love one for another” (Jn 13:35). And if Christians must above all be great lovers, Christian leaders must be leaders in loving.

To put this another way: business is ultimately about relationships: with owners, board and management, colleagues and employees, customers and suppliers, competitors and regulators. Other people are not just resources—and so Boo to the term ‘human resources’. Nor are they essentially rivals, bosses, or subordinates. They are images of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, colleagues in diffusing God’s love to humanity. They are either already friends or friends-to-be. This sensibility is the antithesis of autocratic, ruthless, demeaning or exploitative leadership styles. It means collaboration is baked into the way we operate; a recognition that our work is strengthened by sharing our gifts. It means we must be genuinely Christian leaders, rather than leaders who happen to be Christian. As for Paul, so for each of us, that requires lifelong conversion, but hopefully by the end we can say with him “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now what awaits me is the laurel of righteous-ness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and with me all who long for his appearing.” (2Tim 4:7-8) St Paul the Apostle: pray for us!

[i] On the life of Paul see Pope Benedict XVI, St Paul (Ignatius, 2009); Siegwart Knipenga, Paul the Apostle: The Story of a Remarkable Life (Floris Books, 2022); Irving Brittle, St Paul the Apostle: The Right Man at the Right Time (3rd edn, Regency, 2022); Bruce Longenecker (ed.), The New Cambridge Companion to St Paul (CUP, 2020); William Ramsay, St Paul: The Traveller and the Roman Citizen (Lume Books, 2016); James Stalker, The Life of Paul (Counted Faithful, 2023); N.T. Wright, Paul: A Biography (HarperCollins, 2018).

[ii] Acts chs 7-9; 22:4-5; 26:10-11; Gal 1:13; Phil 3:6; 1Tim 1:13.

[iii] Rom 12:4-5; 1Cor 6:15; 12:12-27; Eph 3:6; 4:25; 5:30.

[iv] Gal 1:11-12,17-18; 2:1; 1Cor 11:23; 15:3.

[v] 1Cor 1:26-29; 4:10; 2Cor 12:9; cf. Heb 11:37-38; Jas 4:10.

[vi] 1Cor 15:9; 2Cor 1:12; 10:8,13-15; 11:16-18,30; ch. 12; Eph 3:8; Phil ch. 2; 1Tim 1:15.

[vii] Mt 11:25-30; 18:2-3; 19:13-15,30; 20:16,26-28; Mk 9:35-37; 10:13-16,31,42-45; Lk 13:30; 18:15-17; 22:25-26; Jn 13:1-17.

[viii] Acts chs 20-28; 1Cor 4:10-13; 9:3-18; 2Cor 11:24-28; 12:10 etc.

[ix] e.g. Rom 8:25-28; 1Cor 1:9; 2Thes 3:1-5; Phil 4:6-7; 2Tim 1:3-14; 4:18.

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