I find that the cliche “lead by example” is one that probably needs to die, soon. It needs to be killed, retired, and forgotten. It needs to be buried beneath the deepest floor in the deepest part of the ocean.
You may be wondering why. It’s because I don’t know what it means.
Over the course of time, old phrases get used so much they become meaningless. The phrase might be used in a way it was never meant to be used and so it begins to fall flat. Flat like old soda. It has no fizz, no punch, no kick, no life. And I believe “lead by example” is one of those phrases.
I once used the phrase to tell someone that all they could do about a certain person in the situation they were put in is lead by example. What did that mean in that situation? What does that even mean?
If someone is going out destroying their body, you don’t “lead by example” by not destroying your body. They could care less what you’re doing. What you need to do is stop them from destroying themselves. You don’t lead by hoping someone will follow, you lead by action.
When I look through the Bible, I don’t find leaders who merely did things that were good examples. The reason why they’re good examples is because they did what needed to be done in the situation they were in. David didn’t merely lead by example. He didn’t just sit there and tell himself “I’m not going to kill Saul, and hopefully my men will follow my example.” No, David decided not to kill the Lords anointed, and he stopped his men from doing the same. He not only lived out his beliefs, he made sure those around him also lived it out.
Jesus didn’t just respect the temple and hope the people would see his example and respect it as well. No, Jesus made a whip and made them respect God’s house. He threw out the wickedness. He forced his beliefs upon people.
Of course this can be taken too far, and obviously I’m not saying that Christians need to go around forcing people to do what they want them to do. We have differences in thought about the way we ought to worship, when, how, and the way we should organize church. We shouldn’t force others to do what we believe they should do.
However, when it comes to “leading by example,” we have to stop pretending that being silent is going to get people to follow our example. We have to stop pretending that just seeing our good example will make people follow. If you don’t want people to follow your example, then don’t do what you’re doing. And if you don’t want to lead people in doing your example, then don’t think you’re leading by example. You’re being an example, but you’re not leading.
Joshua and Caleb were great examples. But neither of them lead the people of Israel for another 40 years.
Don’t abuse the word lead by thinking it means just doing good. Be an example by doing good. And sure, maybe you’re the first to do the good that ought to be done. But that’s still not leading, that’s just being the first. Sometimes it’s the third or fourth person who starts doing that good who becomes “lead.”
A better reason for doing good, for continuing to do good, is not because someone may follow or notice or it may change someone. A better reason is because Jesus told you to do so, and it is better to follow Christ than to lead people.