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The “Peter Principle” of Church Leadership

Douglas A. Felch

Good morning![1] It is a double honor to be with you this morning. First, I am honored to have been asked to lead in devotions during the concurrent meetings of the United Reformed Church Synod and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church General Assembly. Second, I am an alumnus of Wheaton College (1973), and after waiting at the phone and pining away for forty-five years, this is the first time that I have been asked to preach in Edman Chapel! So, thanks!

Let me direct your attention to three short passages from Luke 22 and then three verses from John 21.

Luke 22:24–27

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

Luke 22:31–34

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”

Luke 22:54–62

Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest's house, and Peter was following at a distance. And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down among them. Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” And a little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

John 21:15–17

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

Introduction to the “Peter Principle” of Church Leadership

Several decades ago a popular book took the business and management community by storm. The title of the book was The Peter Principle named after Dr. Laurence Peter, who authored it.[2] Its basic thesis was quite simple and rather devastating. Dr. Peter argued that, in the field of management, a person tended to become promoted to the level of his or her incompetence.

For example, a man is an excellent mechanic in the shop. Therefore, he gets promoted to general manager. But he does poorly. It is a desk job and he is a “hands-on” mechanic. Therefore, he is not promoted. Yet he cannot be “demoted”—that would involve a loss of status and salary. Therefore he remains stuck at the level of his own incompetence.

In the passage before us this morning, we have another management principle—the principle of leadership in the church. We could also title this a “Peter Principle,” for not only is it delivered to Peter and the other disciples, it is also profoundly illustrated in the life of Simon Peter himself. But this Christian “Peter Principle” differs markedly from the first: The worldly Peter Principle of leadership argues that humans will rise to the level of their own incompetence. The Christian Peter Principle of leadership suggests that we will grow as leaders only as we humbly embrace our incompetence and seek to serve others. Thus, in the kingdom of God, leadership is defined by service and humility. This principle is demonstrated in Jesus’s ministry to Peter in both Peter’s failure and restoration.

The Principle Illustrated in Peter’s Betrayal and Humiliation

Throughout the Gospels, Peter is again and again presented to us as one who has tremendous natural leadership ability. He is frequently a spokesman for the disciples as in Matthew 16, where in response to Jesus’s question he declares, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” He is often self-confident, as in Luke 22:33 where Peter insists, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” He is also forceful. When the women report to the disciples that the body of Jesus has disappeared and they have spoken to angels, the disciples go immediately to the tomb, but pause at the door. However, Peter goes right on through (John 20:6).

But being a natural leader does not mean that you have the gifts of spiritual leadership any more than being a school teacher means that you have a spiritual gift of teaching, or being a carpenter gives you the gift of edification!

Jesus makes this clear in his words to all the disciples in Luke 22:24–27. In the world, leaders lord it over others and are given patronage. But Jesus’s disciples are not to be like that. They are to be clothed in humility and willing to put others first. Peter had to receive this humility, and the way he was going to receive it was by humiliation: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 21:31–32).

The point is clear. Jesus tells Peter that he is going to go through a devastating experience. He will deny the Lord three times. But after the experience is over, Peter will be enabled to serve his brothers, and Jesus charges him to do so. In humiliation Peter would learn humility. It happens just as Jesus said it would (Luke 22: 54–62). After Jesus is taken, Peter follows. Three times he denies knowing the Lord. The third time, as the cock crows, the eyes of Jesus and Peter meet. The account tells us that Peter wept “bitter tears.”

I can hardly begin to fathom the sorrow that must have wracked Peter’s body as he sobbed uncontrollably over his denial of the Lord. I have had some dark nights of the soul, as we all have, but they do not hold a candle to Peter’s experience. Surely no more bitter tears were ever shed than those of Peter. And the reason is not hard to see. Peter really loved Jesus. I don’t think Peter was being arrogant or presumptuous when he told the Lord that he was ready to die with him. He said those things because he really loved Jesus. He was absolutely committed to him. But here is the sober reality that Peter experienced. We can genuinely love the Lord and still horribly betray him.

But while his weeping was bitter, at the same time, no more beneficial tears were ever shed. For through humiliation comes humility, through failure and sorrow, encouragement. Having been forgiven much, Peter loves much.

The Principle Realized in Peter’s Restoration and Service

A sequel to this story makes this point in a dramatic way. After his resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples, including Peter, from the shoreline. Peter, being Peter, does not wait to get to shore, but plunges into the water and swims to Jesus who has breakfast prepared. Then Jesus has the exchange with Peter that is recorded in John 21:15–17, in which he asks Peter repeatedly if he loves him. Some commentators focus on differing words for love that Jesus uses. However, most current commentators agree that the words are synonyms. What is more significant is that he asks him three times: Do you love me.

And here we see a different Peter: Peter was grieved because Jesus said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Then Jesus restores him: “Feed my sheep.”

And of course, Peter will. Having been restored, he will strengthen his brothers. He will provide premiere leadership on the day of Pentecost and in the early days of the church. Having been instructed by the Lord and after his ministry to Cornelius, he will encourage the church to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. And, finally, as also revealed in John 21, he will lay down his life for the sake of the gospel.

Summary and Takeaways

At the beginning of this devotional I drew a contrast between the worldly and Christian Peter principles: The worldly Peter Principle of leadership argues that humans will rise to the level of their own incompetence. The Christian Peter Principle of leadership set forth by Jesus and illustrated in the life of Simon Peter suggests that we will grow as leaders only as we humbly embrace our incompetence and seek to serve others.

Of course, this requires humility and compassion, a humility and compassion that is often obtained by passing through a valley of sorrow or humiliation. For example, brash seminary students oftentimes experience difficulties in their life, health, or marriage. These experiences are hard, yet they are frequently the means that the Lord uses to prepare these men to become compassionate pastors. There are other trials as well.

On the southeast narthex door of Edman Chapel, where many of you came in, there is the portrait of a man. I invite you some time while you are here to take a moment to gaze at it. The portrait is that of Evan Welsh, who was chaplain here at Wheaton College. I knew him well when I was a student here. He was one of the most godly and loving men that I have ever known. But this heart of compassion came at great personal cost. In 1941 his first wife was killed in a car accident. The event left him to care for his two young daughters alone. Yet out of that deep sorrow came great humility and a compassionate heart. This profoundly struck me even when I was a student here, and even back then I began to reflect on the relationship between personal hardship and pastoral warmth.

I have also witnessed the opposite. I have seen men in high positions who lost their spirit of servanthood. I have observed young pastors who have longed for the power of ministerial office, or who have soaked up being at the center of attention and made shipwreck of their ministries.

Let’s admit it. There are difficult temptations connected with being a church officer: temptations to pride, discouragement, to lord it over others, to become impatient; the painfulness of criticism coupled with the likelihood of it because we are public figures; the stress of endless demands (because there is always more to do); and the temptation to make odious comparisons of our ministries with others that appear to be either more, or even less, successful than our own.

We must resist these temptations, and instead we must be servants. We must put others before ourselves; we must set an example of godliness and patience; we must let our failures not embitter us, but rather humble us to depend upon the Lord all the more. This is not easy. But it is our stewardship and our greatest privilege. We need to discharge it faithfully.

In closing let me suggest three brief takeaways from the passages we have read. First, even those who really love Jesus are capable of betraying him. A sobering thought. Let anyone who thinks he stands, beware lest he fall. Second, we should seek to use our failures to humble us to better serve God’s flock. Here the “Peter Principle” clearly stands out. Out of humiliation comes humility, out of humility service.

This does not require some type of gross sin. We don’t need to explicitly betray Jesus or commit adultery or provoke a public scandal to be humbled by our sin. Each day, despite our love for Jesus, we are capable of betraying him—and frequently do. Let us use these day-to-day failures to promote humble service. Finally, and we don’t have time to give this the attention it deserves, remember that Jesus is praying for us in the midst of all our weakness: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32). None of what happens to us is accidental. Jesus knows our circumstances and our weaknesses, and he prays for us. This is very comforting and hopeful.

I close with the exhortation of Peter himself to all of us who are elders of the church of God. This exhortation drips with the Christian Peter Principle:

I Peter 5:1-4

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

AMEN.

* * *

Closing Prayer Hymn of Response: 500 (Trinity Psalter Hymnal):

  1. Father, I know that all my life is portioned out for me;
    The changes that are sure to come, I do not fear to see:
    I ask thee for a present mind, intent on pleasing thee.
  2. I would not have the restless will that hurries to and fro,
    Seeking for some great thing to do, or secret thing to know;
    I would be treated as a child, and guided where I go.
  3. I ask thee for the daily strength, to none that ask denied,
    A mind to blend with outward life, while keeping at thy side,
    Content to fill a little space, if thou be glorified.
  4. In service which thy will appoints there are no bonds for me;
    My secret heart is taught the truth that makes thy children free;
    A life of self-renouncing love is one of liberty.

Endnotes

[1] This was originally a sermon preached at the Eighty-Fifth General Assembly (2018) at Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL, on June 14, 2018.

[2] Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull, The Peter Principle (New York: William Morrow, 1969).

Douglas A. Felch is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a retired professor of theological studies at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, MI, and serves on the Session of New City Fellowship OPC, also in Grand Rapids. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2019.