Identity Theft or Open Systems? What Would Jesus Lead?

Here is why we need an open systems view of Jesus’ leadership related to public policy, less we engage in identity theft.

In May of 2007 I presented a paper entitled, “What Would Jesus Lead?: Identity Theft, Leadership Evolution, and Open Systems.” The occasion was the inaugural meeting of the “Biblical Perspectives in Leadership” Roundtable hosted by Regent University,

Representing various fields of biblical, social-science, historical and leadership studies, this annual meeting aims to extend the understanding of leadership as found within the contexts of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

Since this was presented, this paper was published by the Journal of Biblical Perspectives in Leadership (JBPL). This paper is now published in .pdf format. I welcome critique.


Recent discussions of ‘What would Jesus drive?’ by environmental groups have raised the issue of whether Jesus of Nazareth would embrace the industrial growth paradigm. This paper evaluates this Jesus and public policy debate by examining various leadership typologies that have been used to study Jesus. Drawing upon Daft’s four-cell evolutionary theory of leadership studies, this paper lays out an open systems and post-industrial research agenda for leadership scholars as they examine Jesus’ actions within the first-century context.


On November 20, 2002 in Detroit the Evangelical Environmental Network launched a public relations campaign. Their director, Jim Ball turned the popular question, “What Would Jesus Do?” into the now famous retort, “What Would Jesus Drive?” Six months later Ball and his wife Kara drove a Toyota Prius from Austin, TX to Washington, DC to dramatize how creation care was a biblical mandate and not just “liberal claptrap cooked up by enviros to wreck the economy” (Bell, as cited in Lane, 2006).

Riding a wave of criticism about rising gas prices, the ‘gas-guzzling’ Sport Utility Vehicle (SUVs) became demonized as “Axles of Evil,” in part responsible for American addiction to foreign oil, and driving the Middle East conflict. Sales of SUVs began to plummet from their highs in the 1990s (Webster, 2006).

Not all Evangelicals embrace Ball’s campaign and the core of its supporters in the National Evangelical Association. As recent as March 2007, traditionalists like James Dobson and Gary Bauer warned this association that their climate change initiative would distract America from conservative pro-life issues, such as opposing abortion and same-sex marriage (Goodstein, 2007).

In a recent pre-Easter CNN Special entitled, “What Would Jesus Do?” Pastor Frederick Douglas Haynes III expressed a parallel charge. Speaking against the organized Christian Right, he claimed, “Jesus has been crucified on a cross of identity theft…” Haynes claims Jesus “has been de-radicalized, sanitized, to the point where he is totally divorced from the social, political and economic realities of his day.” Haynes then warns we should not “con ourselves into limiting Jesus to certain pet moral issues.” As a leader, Haynes sees Jesus would be concerned about the budget deficit of the United States, the war in Iraq and providing health care to 9 million uninsured children (Martin, 2007).

Whether among liberals or conservatives, Blue states or Red states, the question of leadership has never been more important. The debate over climate change, fuel economy, pro-life issues and identity theft reminds us that Jesus of Nazareth will continue to animate our discussion of post-industrial leadership (Pelikan, 1985; Rost, 1991). In today’s pluralistic religious context, even among Evangelicalism, we may not be able to develop consensus of “What would Jesus drive?” or even “What would Jesus lead?” But we should be able to answer the question, “How would Jesus lead?”

Despite this opportunity Evangelical scholarship is seriously deficient today in its purported “worldview analysis” (Ebertz, 2006). Both outsiders and insiders recognize it is deaf, mute and dumb in regards to constructively shaping the future of U.S. society (Gerzon, 1996; Noll, 1994). Furthermore, most business leadership books that appeal to Jesus (Jones, 1995; 2001; 2004; Tamasy, 1995; Wilkes, 1998) are so derelict in understanding his first-century context that they tempt us to agree with Haynes’ charge of identity theft.

To fill this void, this paper draws upon Daft’s evolutionary model of leadership studies to examine various ways in which scholars have understood Jesus’ leadership. An ‘open systems’ research agenda is proposed to examine Jesus’ actions within the context of Second Temple Judaism and correlate this to 21st century leadership issues of industry transformation, high performance management, and public policy.

Share Button