The Adaptable and Flexible Leadership of Paul

By Dr. Kevin Dougherty –

The “skills approach” to leadership “frames leadership as the capabilities (knowledge and skills) that make effective leadership possible.”[1] Identifying the exact traits that distinguish a good leader has generated much discussion, but no clear consensus. However, something along the lines of “adaptability and flexibility of approach” is a skill set that appears on many lists.[2] An example of such a leader is Paul.

Paul was born in Tarsus, a city in what is now south-central Turkey. In Paul’s day, Tarsus was “a fusion of civilizations at peace under the rule of Rome: indigenous Cilicians; Hittites whose ancestors had once ruled Asia Minor; light-skinned Greeks; Assyrians and Persians; and Macedonians who had come with Alexander the Great on his march to India.”[3] A devote Jew, Paul was among those present when Stephen was martyred sometime around 31 A. D. for preaching the Gospel of Christ. That winter the Jewish authorities, with Paul as their chief agent, embarked on a systematic suppression of the followers of Jesus.[4] All that changed when the Risen Christ appeared to Paul perhaps two to five years later. Rather than a persecutor of the followers of Christ, Paul became what many consider to be Christianity’s greatest missionary.

The people that would come to be known as Christians represented but one of many religions that made up Paul’s world. Paul’s native Judaism flourished, and many proselyte Gentiles found their ways into the synagogues.

Adherents to Greek mythology worshipped numerous gods including Zeus, Apollo, and Aphrodite while their Roman counterparts worshipped Jupiter, Venus, and Mars. Legends and names of some members of the pantheon were often intermingled with local myths and deities to form all sorts of permeations and variations. A given city might be devoted to the worship of a particular deity. For example, Artemis, the famous goddess of Ephesus, was a local fertility goddess only loosely similar to the Greek Artemis.

By Paul’s time, however, many Greeks had moved on from the original methods of worshipping the gods and formed cults filled with secret and unique rites. Most cults emphasized exuberant and passionate celebrations. Many involved sexual orgies and animal sacrifices. The cult of Dionysius, the god of wine, for example, was made up mostly of women who celebrated by drunken and ecstatic dances.

Similar to the cults and probably influenced by them were the near Eastern mystery religions. One of these was the cult of Sibyls, successor of the original priestess Sibyl, who pronounced euphoric gibberish that was translated into widely circulated prophetic oracles.

As time passed, Roman rulers also began adopting the practice of claiming divine attributes, in part as a means of securing unity and loyalty in a far-flung empire. The Roman Senate proclaimed Julius Caesar divine after his death, and this measure seemed to set the stage for later emperor worship. Nero, for example, erected a huge statue of himself with his face as the face of the sun god.[5]

In the midst of this eclectic mission field, Paul used his status as both a Jew and a Roman citizen to full advantage. He tailored his message and technique to his specific audience in order to establish credibility, to connect with them, and to help them understand. This is not to say that Paul in anyway compromised what he considered to be the Gospel truth. He maintained his integrity and his authenticity. What he adjusted was his delivery. In 1 Corinthians 9:20-23, Paul explains that “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.”

Paul used adaptability and flexibility to influence others. He did not pander or deceive. He related and showed empathy. “I have become all things to all people,” Paul explained, “so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” As our world, societies, and communities become more and more diverse, the example of Paul’s conscious effort to make connections and meet people where they are is a good example of how we can be more effective missionaries.

[1] Peter Northouse, Leadership Theory and Practice, (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2004), 39-40.

[2] See, for example, John Gardner, On Leadership, (New York: The Free Press, 1990), 48-53.

[3] John Pollock, The Apostle: A Life of Paul, (Colorado Springs, CO: David Cook, 2012), 17.

[4] Ibid., 28.

[5] Robert Picirilli, Paul The Apostle: Missionary, Martyr, Theologian, (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1986), 109-111.

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