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.

Pastor, Imitate The Apostle Peter

When I began the pastor series I had nothing more than a handful of anaemic drafts and almost no direction. I have appreciated interacting with readers (often pastors) about those posts and thought that I was finished with them. But over the past few weeks I have been mediating on 2 Peter. Yes, there is a New Testament book titled 2 Peter, somewhere in the wilderness between Paul’s epistles and Revelation. Rereading this short epistle I have been struck by the apostle’s pastoral heart, particularly on display in 1:12-15. My intention for this short post is to unpack those verses.

PastorBefore we get to 1:12-15 let me offer a few comments on the epistle’s historical setting, which also shapes our understanding of what it means to be a pastor. 2 Peter seems to be written to combat theological error. This is implied as early as 1:16, where Peter refers to “cleverly devised myths.” These inventive errors are likely what lies behind Peter’s exhortation to live a certain way (1:3-11). He reminds them of his authority as an apostle (1:16-21), which he later extends to Paul (3:15-16). This authority is contrast with “false prophets [who] also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you” (2:1). We cannot say precisely what these false teachers were preaching but 2 Peter 2 warns against licentious immorality, possibly being presented hand-in-hand with the denial of Christ’s promised return to judge (3:3-4). To summarise, Peter was writing in order to correct dangerous heresy that was poisoning the church’s faith, distorting their lives and witness (3:17-18). As Paul wrote in Titus 1:9, one of the elder’s functions is to refute error with sound doctrine.

It is with the above purpose or situation in mind that Peter wrote, “I intend always to remind you of these qualities [1:5-7], though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in the body, to stir you up by way of reminder…And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things” (2 Peter 1:12-13, 15; see 3:1-2). These verses are very unlikely to find their way into a church leadership seminar. They are not visionary or gripping. In fact, they are a little boring and uninspiring. But we should pay careful attention to this apostle’s aspirations. A few years ago I remember hearing a sermon on legacies. The preacher, a bishop over a large diocese and pastor of a church bordering on megachurch status, urged us to consider what kind of legacy we will leave behind. All these years later, I am struck at how far that man’s aspirations were from Peter’s. Aware of his imminent death (1:14), Peter outlines his desired legacy, his aspirations for the congregation he would soon leave behind.

“I intend always to remind you”

The word “remind” occurs throughout 2 Peter. The apostle understood his ministry as one of repeatedly calling Christians back to the simple truth. Even though they are established in their faith (1:12), he makes it his mission to continually remind them. The comfort and challenge of this observation is that Peter did not feel the lure of innovation, novelty and trends. I imagine most pastors are tempted by all of those and many have succumbed to them. But Peter saw his task as a pastor as teaching and reteaching. Of course, this does not mean Peter majored in the basics or that he was content with spiritual immaturity (see 1 Peter 2:2-3; also Hebrews 6:1). Yet he did not feel the need to move outside of the revelation of God in Christ, and all its entailments, promised in the Old Testament. Peter’s example is liberating. Pastor, imitate Peter by reminding your people of the truth and urging them to live in ways consistent with it.

“To stir you up”

In the verses preceding those we are focusing on, Peter lists a set of qualities or characteristics (1:5-7). These are to be added to our faith (1:5), as we depend on God’s gracious power and pursue godliness (1:3-4). But notice what Peter says about those qualities in 1:8, “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they will keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful”. While the presence and propagation of godly characteristics mean productive Christian living, Peter delivers an uncomfortable point about their absence, “Whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins” (1:9). The Christian is incomplete apart from these things, perhaps even lacking assurance (1:10-11), therefore Peter seeks to stir his congregation up by way of reminder (1:13). It is important for us to note that he does not whip up fervour by something other than the truth. Godliness is inseparable from the gospel. We must hold these first two points together, for Peter did not desire mere morality. He longed to see believers so gripped by the gospel truth that their lives were utterly transformed.

“So that…you may be able to recall these things”

Finally, Peter’s did not aspire to be remembered. As we have seen above, his message pointed away from himself and translated into Christian maturity not personal recognition. There are no ambitions beyond that. Peter’s legacy was only that once he had put off his body his congregation would remember Christ. Admittedly I am venturing beyond what the text says when I imagine that Peter would happily have been forgotten. Because it was never about him. Pastor, what do you aim to leave behind? Does it hurt that you may not be remembered, that they might never name a youth hall or library after you? If it bothers you then seek to imitate Peter, as we meet him in 2 Peter. Here is a desirable, noble and God-honouring legacy to aspire for: that your congregation will be able to recall the truth you taught and continue living that truth out. Soli Deo Gloria.

If you enjoyed this post there are a few more in this series:

Pastor, You are Dispensable

Non disposableThe confluence of social media, celebrity pastor culture, hugely successful churches and the millennial assumption that everyone is exceptional has lead many pastors to a dangerously over-exaggerated view of themselves. I realise that on the other hand these forces can cause discouragement, as we measure ourselves against John Piper or Matt Chandler. But that is not what I want to address in this short post. My aim here is to challenge the notion that any specific pastor is indispensable. When we begin to imagine that without us this ministry or church would no longer function let alone flourish one thing is certain: we have developed far too high a view of ourselves. A second thing may also be true: we have created an unhealthy, not to mention unbiblical, ministry structure or strategy that makes us appear not only integral but indispensable. But God does not need us. You may think your church needs you but bear in mind that it is Christ’s church, not yours. It got to where it is because of his sovereign grace and God willing it will continue long after you are gone.

The apostle Paul understood this well, especially when we consider his significance in the early church. Writing to the Philippians he said, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (1:6). Paul was not issuing platitudes. He was writing from prison. Incapacitated, Paul needed a confidence that exceeded his leadership, influence and abilities and he enjoyed that in God alone. The great apostle is in chains yet he wants his readers to know that the gospel is not bound (1:12-18a). The survival of God’s church is not dependant on men and women, not even on great ones like Paul. Yet how quickly we deceive ourselves, and often others, into believing that this church or that ministry would collapse without us. In his superb book The New Pastor’s Handbook, Jason Helopoulos reminds those in ministry that they are nothing more than ordinary men and women with extraordinary callings. He goes on to say that pastors must give their accountability partners the right to challenge them regarding any growing “superhero complex”. Do you believe that God is powerful enough to accomplish his will without you? Are you fully persuaded, as Paul was writing from prison, that God will finish the good work he has started, whether he uses you or not? If your instinct to those questions is not genuinely affirmative then you need to repent.

In a section of his Institutes, titled “Why does God need men’s services?”, John Calvin makes a few more important points on the dispensability of pastors, or any Christian for that matter. Though God uses the ministry of men and women “to declare openly his will to us by his mouth, as a sort of delegated work, not by transferring to them his right and honour, but only that through their mouths he may do his own work—just as a workman uses a tool to do his work” (4.3.1; also see 4.1.5). Those who teach, preach and lead in the local church are nothing more than tools in the hands of our omnipotent God. He may pick up one of these tools and wield it mightily. But we must never forget what we are, lest at the same time we forget who God is. Calvin goes on, “He could indeed do it either by himself without any sort of aid or instrument, or even by his angels.” If we understand what Calvin is saying, we would wash our mouths of phrases such as, ‘He grew that church.’ God grew that church. Furthermore, he did not need that specific pastor or ministry team he used to do so. The succinct answer to Calvin’s question is that God does not need men’s services. Pastor, God does not need you. You are dispensable.

While Calvin does insist that honour is due to those serving as pastors in local churches (4.3.3), echoing the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 5, this still does not mean any of them are indispensable. Let me conclude by encouraging pastors with something D. A. Carson said at the TGCA launch last year. When was asked which theologians and leaders he foresees stepping into the vast gap his death will create he essentially dismissed the question as irrelevant. But he went on to give an answer that was truly astonishing, for two reasons. Firstly, he told us that it is very likely we do not yet know the names of the men and women who will lead Christ’s church in the future. Secondly, he does not even consider himself to be of any major significance in Christ’s church. How could he give such an answer, when he is undoubtedly aware of the most likely unrepeatable impact he has made for Christ and God’s people people? He believes God can raise up whoever he needs and will continue to use weak tools by his unfailing strength. Carson understands Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

If you enjoyed this post there are a few more in this series:

Galatians: The Lord’s Anointed may be Accursed

If you are a Christian then there is a good chance you have observed, or even received, the stern reproach: ‘Don’t speak against the Lord’s anointed.’ It is one of those declarations dripping with piety and a zealous concern to protect Spirit empowered leaders, apostles, and prophets. But more often than not, it is an excuse for theological ignorance and the undiscerning acceptance of influential, charismatic, and public Christian figures, regardless of what they preach or teach. It is, after all, much easier to meet criticism with a phrase that reveals your reverence for God’s mighty servants and the refusal to be dragged into an ungodly squabble.

Icon St PeterNow meet Peter. John may have been the disciple Jesus loved, but Peter is the disciple we love. He frequently overestimates his devotion to Christ and is subsequently humbled but also graciously accepted by Christ. In what N. T. Wright calls the ‘Peter cycle,’ we are offered a window into the Christian life, “Firm public declarations of undying loyalty followed by miserable failure, followed by astonishing, generous, forgiving love.” But we often think that that is the pre-Pentecost Peter. For at Pentecost Peter becomes a great hero of the early church. Wrong. Peter, like all Christians, was an object of God’s grace, throughout his life. He was far from perfect, despite his special appointment, Spirit anointing, and apostleship. Peter erred and was not above rebuke.

What does this have to do with Galatians or those who claim to be the ‘Lord’s anointed’? In Galatians 2:11-14, the apostle Paul recounts a striking event in the life of the early church, when he publicly opposed the apostle Peter. And he does so for reasons similar to his refusal to circumcise Titus, in Galatians 2:3-5. Paul boldly challenged any practices that threatened or obscured the gospel of grace (1:6-9). Peter was undoubtedly a giant in the early church. Paul on the other hand was a relatively unknown itinerant preacher who spent an earlier part of his public career killing Christians (1:23-24). Yet when he sees Peter behaving hypocritically (2:13) and out of step with the gospel (2:14), Peter’s status, title, feats, and fan club mean nothing. Paul is uninhibited in speaking against a man who might rightly be called the Lord’s anointed, second only to Jesus.

Paul’s language is unapologetically severe, claiming that Peter’s behaviour meant that he stood condemned, grossly in the wrong (2:11). Peter’s inconsistent conduct was leading others, including Barnabas, astray (2:13). And the implication of his withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentiles subtly implied that they needed to keep the Old Testament law and live like Jews (2:14). Earlier in the letter, Paul wrote that anyone preaching a gospel other than the one true gospel is accursed, under the judgment of God (1:8-9). It does not seem that Peter’s hypocrisy placed him in that category, but his misunderstanding warranted a stinging reproach. Even the apostle Peter got things wrong and repented. There is a reassuring familiarity in the blundering apostle, but also a noticeable humility and willingness to be challenged, even repent. Your leader might call himself the ‘Lord’s anointed,’ but if that means he is beyond being challenged and corrected, perhaps he is not the great leader he claims to be.