By Jeff Iorg
Several years ago, a trusted friend told me, “You can’t lead if you can’t inflict pain.”
That struck me as wrong on several levels, and for some time I tried to disprove what became prophetic words. Christian leaders are supposed to do good, make life better, and find ways to alleviate stress and conflict—not cause it.
But the longer I considered his observation, in light of both biblical examples and personal experiences, the more accurate and applicable it became.
Leaders intend real change—and that is often painful. It causes organizational upheaval and personal angst. Leaders’ decisions sometimes inflict pain on their followers.
Good leaders are not sadists (people who get pleasure from the pain of others). Leaders do not enjoy hurting others, but are responsible to make difficult decisions (in the short run) for the long-term benefit of advancing God’s mission and the particular mission of the organization they lead.
These observations beg the question—a seminal question for Christian leaders when it comes to making pain-inducing leadership decisions: Does God want us to do this?
Does God—who loves both leaders and followers—ever want a leader to initiate major changes, knowing they will produce painful consequences for everyone involved?
The answer is clearly “yes.” The Bible has many examples of God instructing leaders to take people into battle (both physical and spiritual), take positions that divided communities, or risk life-threatening situations as part of accomplishing his greater good.
Physicians take an oath to “do no harm.” They understand causing pain, like when setting a broken bone, is different than doing harm. They often cause short-term pain for long-term gain.
When a limb is set properly and heals completely, the painful treatment is remembered as a necessary step in the healing process.
The ultimate good makes the temporary bad acceptable. Christian leaders inflict pain, but try to avoid doing any harm in the process.
Jesus made some of his most pointed statements about the need for change—including the need for major change. He did so using illustrations that pictured the far-reaching implications and challenges of making those changes.
Before considering those illustrations, let’s take a look at the context in which those principles were first shared.
Jesus taught about the necessity of major change while dealing with people experiencing dramatic change and struggling with its implications and personal costs.
Responding to Major Change
Matthew 9:9-15 records three encounters Jesus had with people experiencing the biggest change of all—the inauguration of his kingdom.
As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow Me!” So he got up and followed him.
While He was reclining at the table in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came as guests to eat with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked His disciples, “Why does our Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
But when He heard this, He said, “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Then John’s disciples came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?”
Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests be sad while the groom is with them? The time will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
Jesus met Matthew at his tax collection booth, the Pharisees at a dinner party, and John’s disciples soon thereafter. Each of these represents a typical response to major change.
The Matthew Model
The first person Jesus encountered in this three-story progression was Matthew. Jesus may have had a prior relationship with Matthew, but the brevity of their recorded interaction communicates how definitive this moment was for Matthew.
Jesus met him at his place of business, a tax collection booth, and invited him to become his follower. His invitation was simple and direct, “Follow me.”
Without fanfare, the Bible reports Matthew’s acquiescence and obedience. Since Matthew later wrote this Gospel, it’s interesting he did not record any additional dialogue or his inner thoughts about this life-changing moment.
Jesus called. Matthew answered. Case closed.
But, in its context, there’s much more to the story. Matthew was a tax collector, a collaborator despised by the Jews (for selling them out) and the Romans (for being unprincipled and able to be bought).
First-century tax collection was a racket, rampant with abuse. It is hard to imagine a more despised profession from which Jesus would call one of his most prominent followers (Matthew’s stature is confirmed by his writing a Gospel).
Jesus calls people who become his valued followers through simple obedience. The kingdom of God was dawning, made up of people like Matthew that most religious leaders of their time considered embarrassing socially, inferior culturally, and anathema spiritually.
This was a major change for everyone.
The Matthew model of change is clear: Hear Jesus and follow him. That seems simple, and in some ways, it is.
He is still directing people today, and our task, more than ever, is hearing from Jesus and getting in step with his instructions. While discerning Jesus’ direction is often challenging, doing so is fundamental to the change process.
The Pharisees’ Problem
The Pharisees were the religious elites of their era. As part of their legalistic leadership, they created an elaborate system of ceremonial hand washing, complete with rules about what to eat, with whom to eat, and how to eat without being contaminated.
Those rules had been centuries in the making. Jesus obliterated them at one dinner party.
After securing Matthew’s commitment, Jesus attended a gathering at his house. The other guests were Matthew’s friends, whom he later described as “tax collectors and sinners” when he wrote the story.
Jesus reclined at table with them, shared food with them, and maybe even touched them. Scandalous!
The Pharisees saw this brazen disregard for their food consumption and hand washing standards. They were aghast. They could not believe any rabbi would stoop so low.
Being seen in the presence of wicked people was bad enough, but Jesus was eating with them—sharing table fellowship with unwashed masses.
The Pharisees confronted Jesus’ disciples with this pointed question: “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
The context of these events is significant. This story stands in contrast to Matthew’s response to Jesus just described.
The Pharisees were upset too much was changing too fast. They and their forefathers had spent millennia creating and perfecting a religious system which kept them in power and everyday people in bondage.
They were not about to let it all slip away because one rogue rabbi was flouting their religious traditions.
The Pharisees represent people so wedded to their religious systems that they fossilize practices, preventing change from every occurring.
In the process, they diminish their relationship with God and grow to resent those who create new methods for people to find their way to God.
They are obstructionists who complain about change and defend the status quo, often in the name of God. That is the worst part of dealing with these people.
They really believe God is on their side and anything that contradicts or countermands their position cannot be from God.
When it comes to major change, we must avoid the mistake the Pharisees made. When we resist change by ascribing eternal permanence to human-created systems or methods, we do the same thing.
We become idolaters, more committed to preserving religious practices than practicing a living faith in an active God.
John’s Disciples’ Problem
Soon after the Pharisees’ concern was answered, a second religious group came forward with another question revealing resistance to change. John’s disciples asked, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?”
John’s disciples were classic early adopters. They had responded positively to the preaching of John the Baptist, repenting of their sin and embracing his vision of a coming Messiah.
As they were meeting Jesus, they were gradually transferring allegiance to him. Keep in mind the limitations of first-century communication systems.
They were much slower than today, depending on word-of-mouth communication and tedious transportation methods.
No one sent a mass email or hopped on a plane to tell John’s disciples to start following Jesus. Their transition was a process. They kept following John’s ascetic practices (like fasting) while learning what it meant to follow Jesus.
As early adopters, John’s disciples saw change coming and embraced it. When they heard John’s preaching and saw his separated lifestyle, they turned from their past way of life and adopted outward demonstrations of their earnest spiritual devotion.
John lived in the desert and ate honey and wild locusts. His followers were certainly willing to deny themselves and demonstrated their devotion by fasting.
This was the background to the question John’s disciples asked Jesus—“Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?” In the context of this section of Scripture on change, what were they really asking?
The disciples of John were saying, in essence, “Jesus, we fast and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not. What gives? You need to tell your guys to get with the program. They need to pick up their spiritual pace. It’s time to get serious!”
John’s disciples had embraced major change and wanted others to change faster. Their problem: things were not changing fast enough.
Jesus’ answer helps leaders today understand how to deal with impatient followers. Jesus used an illustration of a wedding celebration—not the time or place for fasting—to make this point: there is a time and place for everything.
Jesus did not rebuke John’s disciples for their zeal or express frustration with their question. He answered with an illustration to help them understand the pace of change is often as important in determining success as the nature of the change itself.
Jesus interfaced with three unique situations, each illustrating a perspective on how people respond to major change. Some people (like Matthew) make an ideal response—they hear instructions from God and move forward obediently.
After leading others for about 40 years, this response seems like more of an elusive ideal than a frequent reality.
On my best days, this pattern prevails: I hear God’s instructions (through his Word and the Holy Spirit’s promptings) and obey him. Unfortunately, my inconsistency and spiritual dullness limit the frequency of my “best days” when that happens.
Depending on the issue, I careen between the two extremes modeled by the Pharisees and John’s disciples. I am frustrated too much is changing too fast or not enough is changing fast enough. Most of my followers have these same experiences.
Leaders who initiate major change must remember people respond to change in a variety of ways.
While the people Jesus encountered illustrate three categories of response, they are not rigid silos. There are subtle layers or shades of response within each of these categories and the categories can blend together or overlap.
Recognizing people respond to change in a myriad of ways and diagnosing how to lead them through major change requires discernment and determination.
JEFF IORG (@Jeff_Iorg) is the president of Gateway Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Leading Major Change in Your Ministry, from which this article was excerpted and adapted with permission from B&H Publishing Group.