Book Review / Witness

Developing an Imitation-Based Framework of Healthy Leadership in Christ (‘The Scandal of Leadership,’ Part III)

*Editorial Note: JR Woodward is one of the founders of Missio Alliance, and a long-time partner with Missio in the holistic development of the local church across North America. Currently he serves as the National Director for Church Planting with V3. His newest book, The Scandal of Leadership, releases at Awakenings 2023 this week, and touches on the intersection of many core issues we will dialogue about during our National Gathering in Chicago. Over the next 3 days, we will preview the introduction to JR’s book as a means of engaging critical leadership content, and as a (written) window into the in-person dialogue we will have together at Awakenings. Part 1can be found herePart 2 can be found here.

JR is graciously donating a portion of his book profits to the ongoing work of Missio Alliance, so if you feel led, you can purchase his book here.

If you’d like to participate virtually in Awakenings 2023, you can still purchase livestream access here, joining us virtually April 27-29, 2023! ~CK

Introduction to The Scandal of Leadership, Part III

There is a need to offer a more comprehensive missiological understanding of the problem of domineering leadership. Missional theology begins with the metanarrative of Scripture that moves from creation through the fall to new creation and the missio Dei, which is the work of God in making all things new.1 A critical but often overlooked part of that narrative is how the fall not only affected humanity but also social and cosmic realities.2 From the garden to Christ’s temptation in the desert all the way to the beast and dragon in John’s revelation, there are Powers manifest through social realities that actively warp God’s intentions for the world. But the good news is that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus represents the victory of God over the Powers.3 In an attempt to understand how this dynamic shapes the present and dictates the future, some missiologists have sought to retrieve the biblical language of the Powers.4 The Scandal of Leadership deals with both power and the Powers (Satan, the demonic, principalities, and powers). The Powers as a catch-all term will be capitalized. When speaking to just one aspect of the Powers—such as the principalities and powers, the demonic, or just the term power—capitalization will not be used.

I will take these incipient arguments and apply them to leadership, in both its fallen and redeemed states. “Fallen” leadership occurs when leaders forsake the mission of God in the way of Christ through the Spirit and instead move (knowingly or unknowingly) toward imitation of the Powers to achieve the leader’s agenda.

I will demonstrate the link between leadership, imitation of desire, and the Powers. As this link is developed, it will become evident how the Powers seek to subvert us in shrewd ways and easily influence us to “fall” into patterns of domination. In addition, I seek to make the case that “fallenness” is driven by malformed desires and that the reshaping of our desires should be at the heart of leadership formation. After the link between imitation and desire is made, I suggest that the primary way to reshape our desires is through imitating the desires of Christ, who found his identity and telos in God and the mission of God. Finally, as leaders, if we seek to imitate Christ and live our lives in God, our desires can be reshaped, and we can subsequently become positive models for imitation in the church, which leads to genuine discipleship and healthy multiplication.

When leaders fall to domineering leadership, it does not always lead to a resignation or removal from leadership. However, I argue that domineering leadership does always lead to rivalry, chaos, and scapegoating in the congregation and thus a poor witness to the world. Redeemed leadership is reflected in the apostle Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1 ESV).

Thus, the central question I seek to address is the following:

How might a theology of the Powers help us as missional leaders practice a spirituality that reshapes our desires for the sake of discipleship, community, and mission?


Domineering leadership hurts people and damages the witness of the church, so it is therefore important to develop a proper diagnosis. Albert Einstein reputedly once said that if he had only one hour to solve a problem in which his life actually depended on the solution, he would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask.5 If he knew the right question to ask, he could solve the problem in less than five minutes. This book focuses on the fifty-five minutes of that hour, seeking to ask the right questions and uncovering what is below the tip of the iceberg.

I seek to make a missiological contribution to the study of missional leadership from the perspective of a theology of the Powers. Missiology as a methodology, described by Bruce Ashford and Scott Bridger, “is a theological discipline, that is undertaken in conversation with Scripture, church history, and the social sciences and in consideration of its cultural context.”6 I will address each of these areas, with emphasis on Scripture and the social sciences relating the Powers in the cultural context of the Euro-tribal Western church, in particular the North American church.7 

My research approach involves developing a conceptual framework, which I refer to as an imitation-based framework. A conceptual framework performs “as the overarching argument for the work—both why it is worth doing and how it should be done.”8 Such a framework not only shapes the argument but provides a methodology for the construction of this book. The beauty of this approach is that it can “provide the researcher with theoretical frameworks to advance the argument beyond where previous researchers have taken it, or to introduce new questions, considerations, hypotheses, or explanations into the inquiry.”9 

The conceptual framework (see figure I.1) I am seeking to advance incorporates the leader, mimetic desire (imitation), a theology of the Powers, and imitation of Christ. But due to the emphasis on developing a deeper diagnosis of the problem of domineering leadership, this book will focus more on the missional leader, the Powers, and mimetic desire. The focus of how the missional leader is connected to the Powers via mimetic desire will help us recognize that we are all captive to imitation. I am proposing that the only way to overcome the Powers is through imitation of Christ, in particular his desires, which always leads to how we act.


Figure I.1 The Imitation-Based Framework 

Although this imitation-based framework is simple, it is not simplistic. Looking upward from the center where we, as leaders, stand, we will ultimately either imitate the desires of the Powers or the desires of Christ. If we imitate the desires of the Powers, the result will be fallen leadership characterized by egotism, pride, and a command-and-control approach to leadership. Our imitation shapes how we incarnate our leadership, which in turn shapes others. If we imitate the desires of Christ, it will result in true missional leadership, evidenced by others-centeredness, humility, and a kenotic (self-emptying) approach to leadership.

My approach is both theological and missiological, since the life of the leader greatly shapes the formation and witness of the church. In section one, after exploring a preliminary understanding of the Powers, I examine the current missional church conversation and demonstrate the need for this imitation-based framework as an alternative approach to leadership theory and practice. The fruit of such an approach may stimulate deeper self-reflection among leaders that will help to avoid fallenness and to adopt a spirituality that leads to redeemed missional leadership in the church. An imitation-based framework invites leaders to a spirituality that shapes the three contours of leadership, which grounds their identity (being) in the life of the triune God; orients their telos (becoming) toward life in God, the mission of God, and new creation; and ultimately reshapes their praxis (doing) as they seek to imitate Christ in identity formation and telos.


The hypothesis I seek to confirm is that a robust theology of the Powers enables leaders to better imitate Christ and resist the temptations common to fallen leadership. Leaders are thus enabled to participate in the life and mission of God through the power of the Holy Spirit; through this, they will develop lives worth imitating.

Developing this imitation-based framework will take a multidisciplinary approach. Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner paints practical theology10 as an orchestra “of musicians in relationship,” which is different from the performance of a “soloist” or a “guest musician,” because “practical theology plays in concert with other disciplines or areas in theology.”11 Because practical theology can dialogue across a wide array of disciplines — from biblical theology to cultural anthropology, from sociology to emergent science, from psychology to systematic theological reflection — the interlocutors chosen for this study have expertise that spans various fields. 


Walter Wink was a New Testament scholar adept in psychology, biblical studies, philosophy, and social ethics. He was not only a scholar but also an activist — someone who put his life at risk as he married theory with practice. His seminal trilogy on the theology of the Powers demonstrates that leaders will face personal, social, and cosmic temptations that seek to subvert the three contours of leadership—identity, praxis, and telos.

René Girard was a literary critic, cultural anthropologist, and historian who wrote in the fields of theology, mythology, sociology, and philosophy. His mimetic theory demonstrates the link between the Powers and imitation and desire (mimetic desire). Mimetic desire suggests that humans are the most imitative creatures on earth and that we imitate the desires of our models. This can be seen in all sectors of society from Madison Avenue to the fashion industry to the network effect in stock trading to keeping up with the Joneses. Although our physical needs for sex and food are instinctual, our wants are mimetic. Girard helps us to understand our “hidden models” and how they shape our desires. Mimetic desire eschews individualism and speaks to the reality that we are relational creatures. Mimetic theory ties together the imitation-based conceptual framework of this book, because through Girard we learn that, ultimately, we will either imitate the Powers or Christ. There is no neutral ground. And our ultimate model will determine the nature of our incarnational leadership.

William Stringfellow was a practicing lawyer, incarnational activist, political analyst, and social critic who engaged in empirical theology.12 He was an early incarnational practitioner who discovered the Powers while living in Black and Brown Harlem in the 1950s and ’60s. Stringfellow will add to our understanding of the Powers and enable us to identify the specific ways that the Powers seek to subvert our leadership.


Although my research led to these primary interlocutors because of their seminal works in these given areas, I also recognize their inherent limitations. They represent diverse Christian traditions, but they do not represent diversity of ethnicity or gender. As a White male, I have sought to bring in a number of other voices that offer more diverse perspectives, but it nevertheless remains a limitation. Because I am a White male, my life experience is different from men of color, so it is important for men of color to contextualize this message based on their lived experience. And it’s important to acknowledge that the topic of abuse throughout the history of the church mainly relates to male abuses of power. Sadly, the story of women’s leadership has not been documented in the same way as men’s. I’ve heard from female friends in leadership that the cautions I share about dominating leadership are not necessarily speaking to the temptations they often face — the temptation to avoid power altogether. Referring to this very issue, author and pastor Mandy Smith says in her book Unfettered,

When childlike faith leads us to follow, childishness will bind us in our inadequacy. Rather than leading to childlike dependence, our childish sense of limitation can lead to shame, despair and passivity. We see this temptation in every Bible character who says “Who am I?” as a way to avoid God’s call—every way that Esther hesitated, every way that Moses rested in his lack of eloquence, every way Jeremiah used his age as an excuse. Underuse of power can be just as much an abuse of power as overuse. It feels Christlike because it doesn’t grasp for power. But we’ve created a caricature of Christ. His childlike reliance led to obedience which expressed itself in surprising authority. He was childlike and adult-like—free to be powerless and free to be powerful.13

Such an exploration is beyond the scope of this project, but I pray that we all have more opportunities to learn about and from women’s ways of leading.

Another limitation to my research is that although Wink, Girard, and Stringfellow all address a number of other themes, these lie outside of my conceptual framework and therefore the scope of this book. Thus the imitation-based framework guides my argument as well as helps to strengthen my focus.


In sections two and three, I will explore the life and work of Wink and Girard to help deepen and connect the elements of the imitation-based framework. In section four, I will look at the life and work of William Stringfellow, and I will uncover how the Powers seek to subvert the missional leader at the three contours of leadership: identity, praxis, and telos. In section five, I offer a synthesis of Wink, Girard, and Stringfellow as well as others, and I consider a theological immunity for the disease of domineering leadership and prescribe the remedy of formation of desire through positive mimesis. In this section, I also seek to interpret the book of Philippians through a Girardian lens, and I examine the life and work of Óscar Romero as a recent example of kenotic spirituality.

It is likely that as you read, you will come across new terminology, because some of my interlocutors develop their own vocabulary. I seek to define terms the first time they are mentioned. However, the use of the words myth and mythology are used differently depending on the context. When Girard uses the word myth, it is typically in the negative sense: the stories we tell about ourselves that hide the truth of our complicity to violence. However, I also use mythology to refer to the reality of the Powers. Theologian Rudolf Bultmann seeks to demythologize the Powers, but I, with Croasmun and others, seek to remythologize the Powers. In other words, Satan, the demonic, and the principalities and powers are real creatures, remythologized through an emergent ontology. This will become clearer as the themes are developed.

With the help of these interlocutors, I hope it will become clear that we are all captive to imitation. Who we choose as models determines our desires; and ultimately, either Jesus or the Powers will be our arch-model. Because there is much misunderstanding on the nature of the Powers, we do not tend to take them seriously enough. Although a psychological and social analysis are helpful, a full analysis requires a theological exploration of the Powers, so let us get to the work of unmasking the Powers of domination in the church.



    1. Why is it important to have a deeper diagnosis to the problem of domineering leadership in the church?
    2. How familiar are you with Walter Wink, René Girard, and William Stringfellow?
    3. What are your initial thoughts on the “imitation-based framework”?


JR Woodward, PhD (University of Manchester, UK) loves to awaken people to join God in the renewal of all things. He is a catalyst who has been passionately starting churches and ministries for the good of the world for over twenty-five years. He co-founded Missio Alliance and currently serves as the National Director for the V3 Church Planting Movement. He is an adjunct professor at several seminaries and universities, including Central Seminary and  Missio Seminary. He is the co-founder of the Praxis Gathering, and serves on six different boards, including Reliant Mission, Movement Leaders Collective, and Fuller Global Mission Advisory Council. He is the author of Creating a Missional Culture, and co-author of The Church as Movement. His most recent book The Scandal of Leadership is based on his PhD research, and written to provide a remedy to the problem of domineering leadership in the church.  He loves to surf, travel, read, and skateboard as well as meet new people. He enjoys photography and film and tries to attend the Sundance Film Festival whenever he can. Find him online at


Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006).

The following are some works on the Powers from a distinctly missional point of view. (Only the Power and the Powers has a chapter specifically on leadership and the Powers.) Thomas H. McAlpine, Facing the Powers: What Are the Options? (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003); Andrew Hardy, Dan Yarnell, and Richard Whitehouse, ed., Power and the Powers: The Use and Abuse of Power in Its Missional Context (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015); James V. Brownson et al., StormFront: The Good News of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003); A. Scott Moreau, ed., Deliver Us from Evil: An Uneasy Frontier in Christian Mission (Monrovia, CA: World Vision International, 2002); Loren L. Johns and James R. Krabill, eds., Even the Demons Submit: Continuing Jesus’ Ministry of Deliverance (Scottdale, PA: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2006).

N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1997); N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013); N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (New York: HarperOne, 2018); Walter Brueggemann, Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2013).

Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: William. B. Eerdmans, 1989); Lois Barrett, “Missional Witness: The Church as Apostle to the World,” in Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, ed. Darrell L. Guder (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998).

I say reputedly, because it was not a part of his written corpus. Though it is popularly espoused, it cannot be confirmed.

Bruce Ashford and Scott Bridger, “Missiological Method,” in Missiology: An Introduction to the Foundations, History, and Strategies of World Missions, rev. ed., ed. John Mark Terry (B and H Academic, 2015), 16.

Euro-tribal is a term developed by Roxburgh and Robinson. Alan J. Roxburgh and Martin Robinson, Practices for the Refounding of God’s People (New York: Church Publishing Inc., 2018).

Sharon M. Ravitch and Matthew Riggan, Reason and Rigor: How Conceptual Frameworks Guide Research, 2nd ed. (Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2016), 8.

Ibid., 9.

10 The meaning of practical theology I adopt here is defined by John Swinton and Harriet Mowat as “critical, theological reflection on the practices of the Church as they interact with the practices of the world, with a view to ensuring and enabling faithful participation in God’s redemptive practices in, to, and for the world” (John Swinton and Harriet Mowatt, Practical Theology and Qualitative Research, [London: SCM, 2006], 7).

11 Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, Overture to Practical Theology: The Music of Religious Inquiry (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016), 1–2.

12 Empirical theology is seeking to think theologically about current social realities.

13 Mandy Smith, Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith Beyond the Baggage of Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2021), 126.