Kings and Christian Leadership: An Introduction

ZahrtmannWhen it comes to contemporary Christian leadership material, experience has unfortunately lead me to expect two things: (1) sparing as well as shallow biblical exegesis and (2) an oversubscription to trendy business and management literature along with secular leadership principles. I previously wrote a post addressed to church leaders sounding a caution against worldly wisdom, considering the Bible’s language about wisdom contrast with God’s. One of my conclusions in that post was, “Wisdom in the New Testament comes from God by prayer, can be found in Scripture and empowers Christians for faithful service.” But much so-called Christian leadership seems unapologetically shaped by the world rather than the Word.

One of the reasons for what I have outlined above can be traced back to doubts over the sufficiency of Scripture. Of course, it would never be articulated as such. But it is evident in common and reductionistic approaches to the Bible. Some will say that the Bible informs our message but not our practice—after all, it was written for another time. Thus I’ve heard comments from pastors like, “We can change anything in church but the gospel.” Martin Kähler famously warned against the view of the Gospels that makes them into little more than passion narratives with long introductions. Are we guilty of treating the entire Bible as a passion narrative with an incredibly long introduction? Either the Bible is singularly a book about the gospel – as in Christ’s death and resurrection – or it is sufficient to equip God’s people for all of life (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Perhaps you think I am being unfair. Maybe you have heard talks and read books on leadership that drew on the pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus). I hope that is true. I tried to develop some thoughts on leadership from 2 Peter, here. But when last did you hear about leadership from the Old Testament? When I recently sat down to write a paper on Christian leadership and Old Testament kingship I could think of only one passage that received anything more than short thrift: Exodus 18. In that chapter, Moses is overwhelmed by the needs of Israel. So Jethro, his father-in-law, urges him to appoint leaders to assist in the task. In other words, Moses delegated responsibility. But I find it hard to believe that all the Old Testament teaches about leadership is the necessity of delegation.

More than two thirds of the Bible is essentially passed over when Christian leadership is addressed. ‘Yes,’ you may retort, ‘That is because Israel was a theocracy not a church community. They had prophets, priests, kings and judges.’ Exactly. Despite Israel’s quite unique status, the nation was governed and lead by people. In fact, some scholars have gone as far as saying that Joshua through 2 Kings is primarily about leadership. If this is right, we must go beyond reductionistic approaches that consider how alike or unlike Christ those leaders were—how to they pointed to Christ in both their successes and failures. We are talking about a rich theology of leadership, where there is far more than principles for delegation to learn.

In the upcoming weeks I hope to draw out some theological principles regarding leadership, from 1 Kings 1-11. But I want to bring this post to an end with some points for reflection, tying back to my opening paragraph. Leadership in Old Testament Israel was meant to be markedly unlike that of the nations surrounding her. There is plenty of material dealing with kingship and politics from the ancient near East, and the Old Testament stands apart in significant ways. This should immediately raise concerns over Christian leadership that draws from and is shaped by the world’s view of leadership. One of the ways Israel was meant to distinct was in the manner of her leaders. Note that when Israel implore Samuel for a king they ask, “Appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5). There are at least two problems with their request, the first is explicit and the second implicit. Firstly, Yahweh says, “They have rejected me from being king over them” (8:7). Secondly, Yahweh describes what kind of king they will receive (8:9-17), concluding, “In that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves” (8:18). A king chosen by the standards of other kings with rule in kind. The application for and warnings regarding Christian leadership are obvious.

It is not that the establishment of Israel’s monarchy caught Yahweh off guard. Consider Deuteronomy 17:18-20, “And when [the king] sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.” In many ways, the king of Israel was barely distinguished from common Israelites. Sure he possessed a judicial office. But his kingship was not defined by pomp and power, the trappings typical of other monarchs (see Deuteronomy 17:14-17). At the end of the day, the king of Israel was under God’s law and he was required to set an example of fidelity, obedience and appropriate fear. Likewise, a Christian leader must be above reproach, evidently submissive to Scripture.

In a short biographical piece about the horror author H. P. Lovecraft, Michel Houellebecq said that Lovecraft is a visceral example of someone who succeeded in his work but failed at life. As I will argue in the upcoming posts, Solomon fits that description well. But this cannot be the case for Christian leaders, who are warned to watch both their life and doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16). There is no succeeding at ministry but failing at the Christian life. I wonder if the growing appeal of Christian leadership material is that it presents a vision for ministry that is alluringly pragmatic— promising results and outputs based on inputs. But success in ministry, just as the shape of Old Testament kingship, is far more concerned about the life and beliefs of leaders than their successful strategies snatched from the world.

Graham Heslop
I have an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dip into theology and am presently reading for my Masters in theology at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. Most often found on the beach, a soccer field or my couch.