Originally published in the Midwestern Magazine, Issue 41
Winston Churchill | 1874–1965
At first reflection, Winston Churchill and church leadership seem like an odd fit. In fact, Churchill’s churchmanship was clearly lacking. He famously quipped he was “not a pillar of the church, but a buttress, supporting it from the outside.”
Some Churchill biographers, like Paul Reid, depict Churchill as an agnostic, or something similar. More charitable assessments, like that of Stephen Mansfield, argue Churchill was—though private about his faith—a believing Christian.
The truth, I believe, lies somewhere in between. Though we can’t peer into Churchill’s soul, we can read his books and hear his speeches. Moreover, we can familiarize ourselves with his times, his presuppositions, and his inherited and articulated beliefs. Churchill’s embraced worldview—or as Charles Taylor might say, his “social imaginary”—was, indeed, clearly Christian.
Churchill spoke movingly of the Christian faith and of Christian civilization. His speeches were littered with references and allusions to the King James Bible. Most pointedly, he saw the Allied efforts in World War II as an endeavor to preserve Christian civilization.
Among Churchill devotees, assessing the great man’s true spirituality is something of a parlor game. In the final analysis, it’s impossible to know the state of another man’s soul. However, we can see their spiritual fruit, or lack thereof, and draw conclusions accordingly.
Though Churchill’s relationship with Christ is unclear, the fact that God raised him up and used him to save “Christian civilization” isn’t. Churchill’s life and leadership provide key lessons—five in particular—for those who lead, especially those who lead the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Maintain Moral Clarity
To be sure, Churchill was a man of his times. He exhibited many of the preferences and prejudices of one who came of age in the late-Victorian era. He was a committed imperialist, and he, at times, romanticized military conquest. He consumed too much alcohol and had an explosive temper. In short, Churchill was not a bastion of biblical morality.
Yet on the biggest moral question of his age—Adolf Hitler and the rise of Nazism—he was right, early and loudly. However, Churchill’s prophetic accuracy cost him. Before his prophetic voice rallied his nation, it alienated them. Before his prophetic warnings brought him the premiership, it sent him to the back bench in the House of Commons.
As William Manchester noted, Churchill was a Manichean. He saw the world, and World War II, as a great struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness. Churchill was amongst the first to discern what most would eventually come to acknowledge—Hitler epitomized the forces of darkness.
Churchill’s prophetic courage throughout the 1930s meant that he was the singular leader with national credibility, and he also demonstrated the personal fortitude necessary to lead his people. When the hour of trial came, so came the man.
Gospel ministers must maintain moral clarity as well. In a more localized sense, their struggle is often good versus evil. Informed by biblical truth, you must have the moral clarity to know right from wrong, truth from error.
Our generation has taken it upon itself to reimagine and reinvent the most basic realities of life, truth, sexuality, marriage, and a host of other issues. From the pulpit, our church members must hear a clear word and, through our leadership, they must see it.
Develop Personal Courage
If Churchill was anything, he was courageous. His courage is most often seen in the crucible of the Battle of Britain, but that courage was a lifelong development. As a young man in the British Army, he pursued conflict and rode into battle. As a journalist in the Boer Wars, he knowingly endangered himself, leading to his own capture and daring escape. As a middle-aged man in World War I, after resigning as First Lord of the Admiralty, he became a commissioned officer and served a stint in France near the Front Line.
Even as Prime Minister in World War II, when the air-raid sirens blared over London and others hustled to basements and bomb shelters, Churchill often rushed to the rooftop to watch the air attack as it unfolded. Foolish? Possibly. Needlessly risky? Perhaps. Courageous? Absolutely.
Churchill’s well-earned reputation of personal courage enhanced his ability to lead his nation and inspire its armed forces. Churchill’s gallantry and valor made him an easy leader to follow into battle.
Regardless of the arena, in times of conflict, courageous leadership is essential. Even for the gospel minister, personal courage is indispensable. Ministry is not for the faint of heart.
As a general rule, the larger the platform God entrusts to you, the more courageous you must be. Temptation, criticism, resistance, and accusation will all be known by the faithful minister, and that is in good times. In more severe times, persecution may well be in play.
For the minster, we must not confuse courage with abrasiveness. We are called to be brave, not needlessly belligerent. But we must have the courage of our convictions, and Churchill inspires us toward this end.
Cultivate Personal Productivity
Churchill was indefatigable. Throughout his life, he burned the candle at both ends. While in office, he often maintained multiple full-time jobs, supplementing his government income by also working as an author and public speaker.
Churchill reflected on how to maximize his own productivity. He broke up his day with an afternoon nap, recharging himself for what amounted to a second workday. Additionally, he maintained hobbies that would rejuvenate him for greater levels of productivity and new seasons of exertion. Churchill observed that one who worked primarily with his mind needed hobbies that used his hands. Along these lines, Churchill took up painting, masonry work, and gardening.
Throughout his life, Churchill threw himself into his work. This was especially true throughout his first stint as Prime Minister during World War II. Though he entered the premiership at the age of 65 and held it the next five years, he outworked men half his age. This pace was indicative of his entire life. Churchill worked productively and sacrificially.
Ministers often get typecast as lazy. Critics suggest they only work on Sundays, envisioning the ministry as a life of leisure. For the faithful minister, nothing could be further from the truth. Let us incorporate a touch of Churchill into our own lives and ensure that is the case.
Steward Your Words Wisely
Like Churchill, the pastor is a communicator. We preach, teach, and write biblical truth for God’s people. Churchill’s proficiency with words strengthened his people during the darkest hours of the Battle of Britain. In fact, Edward R. Murrow famously observed that Churchill “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
Gospel ministers, too, exercise a stewardship of their words. They speak the oracles of God, trying to rightly preach truth without any mixture of error. The more faithfully and thoughtfully they do so, the more they mobilize the Word of God and send it into battle.
Rest in God’s Providence
Though Churchill’s personal faith in Christ is questionable, his high view of the providence of God is not. In fact, Andrew Roberts’ widely acclaimed biography of Churchill picks up on this theme, so much so that he named his work Churchill: Walking with Destiny.
Nowhere is Churchill’s view of the providence of God more clearly witnessed than in his journal entry the night King George VI invited him to form a government and, in so doing, become Prime Minister. Churchill journaled, “I feel as though I am walking with destiny, and that my whole life has been in preparation for this moment and this trial.”
Churchill sensed God was with him, his people, and the Allied forces. That confidence propelled him forward with the assurance that “in God’s good timing,” they would prevail.
Christian minister, you are walking with destiny, too. If God has called you to be His servant, He is with you. He will lead you. He will protect you. He will accomplish His will through you.
As gospel ministers, we will never be called upon to lead our nation through global conflict. But in the eyes of eternity, we are called upon to do something consequential in its own right: to lead our churches—and the souls who comprise it—through spiritual warfare and to point them to the safe harbor of the Word of God and the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.