The following is a portion of a chapter I wrote in Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday Leader (Edited by Benjamin K. Forrest and Chet Roden, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017). The section below is the conclusion to the chapter. In the earlier part of the chapter, I survey positive and negative aspects of the leadership of Saul, David, and Solomon. That survey leads to the summary of leadership theology and its application to leadership today in this excerpt.
Theology of Leadership in the United Monarchy
Israel desperately wanted a king to be like the other nations. God knew that this time would come and made provisions in the law. But the law mandated that Israel’s king not be like the other nations. Their king must be submitted to the one true God. He must not view himself above his brothers, but serve as one of them. Together, fearing God and obedient to his ways, the king and the nation would prosper together. The three portraits we have studied lead to the following theological principles regarding royal leadership.
Motivation: Salvation or Fear
To lead God’s people, the king must not seek to provide for his own salvation, or seek his salvation through the people. Instead, he must place his faith solely in God’s saving grace. This faith that salvation only comes from God must drive how the king views his kingship, how he leads in battle, and how he deals with the word of God. If God is the source of salvation, then obedience to his word is the only real option. Kings who abandon this approach to leadership will inevitably lead from a position of fear instead of faith. Godly leaders must be motivated by their faith in God as the sole source of salvation.
Discipline: Obedience and Repentance
As we saw in each of the three portraits, leaders will fail and sin. Although leaders must strive not to sin, when they do, how they respond will dictate the course of their leadership. Saul never truly accepted rebuke and correction. Instead he made excuses, confessed without genuine repentance, and continued in the same sin. Solomon, in his three encounters with God (1 Kgs 3:14; 9:3-9; 11:11-13) was warned what would happen should he choose to follow other gods. Yet, even though he knew the word of the Lord, he failed to take it to heart. He allowed it to be mere knowledge disconnected from a renewing relationship with the Lord. As a result he mired himself deeper, and deeper in sin, failing to respond to the Lord’s correction. Like Saul and Solomon, David sinned greatly. Yet at each occasion, when confronted with his sin, he responded with humility and true repentance. Even when it took some time as in the episode with the ark, David did not stop following the Lord. He worked through the discipline until he could once again lead the people obediently, and joyful before the Lord. Godly leaders must not despise the discipline of the Lord. They must welcome it as a sign of the Lord’s love for them.
Wisdom: Knowledge and Relationship
God’s people need wise leaders. But wisdom flows not out of mere knowledge, but out of a deep relationship with the living God. Solomon was wise, accomplished, and well-regarded internationally. He was by every observable external measure successful. And yet, he was a fool. He traded the wonder of a relationship with the Lord for gold, women, and fame. He treated the word of the Lord as an object to be studied instead of a path to knowing the God of the universe more intimately. True wisdom is godliness. It is founded on the fear of the Lord. It is a relational knowledge of God, not just knowledge about God. True wisdom leads away from sin not to it. God’s people will only flourish when their leaders are godly. Human greatness is not enough. Only godliness—true wisdom—will lead to a flourishing people.
This essay has been focused on a royal theology of leadership. Now it might be assumed that the “royal” language is because the targets of the study were kings. This is only partially correct. To fully appreciate the applied significance of these texts we must understand that all believers are “royal leaders.”
Where does this idea come from? Initially we see it in Genesis 1. The language and imagery related to God’s creation of humanity are royal. Humanity was created to be God’s vicegerents. That is to say, humanity was created to exercise delegated authority given to us by the sovereign ruler, YHWH. As his royal representatives, we are given a representational reign. We display our connection to God, and reflect God to the world. We can extend this idea that we as the people of God are royal leaders by considering Peter’s metaphor for the church. Peter declares, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9 ESV). Humanity in general was created with a royal task to exercise dominion over the world on God’s behalf, and we as the church were called out of darkness into the light to be a royal priesthood. That is, we are to be a people who are connected to God and reflective of God in the world. So we are royal leaders and as such need to learn from the theology of royal leadership found in the narratives of Samuel and Kings.
Our Representational Reign: Connected to God and Reflective of God
Godly leaders must be motivated by faith in God as the sole source of salvation and leadership.
It is easy for leaders to subtly shift away from trusting in God to trusting in themselves, their plans, their past successes, and the accolades of observers. One sure sign that this has begun to happen is when fear becomes the motivation for actions. Just like Saul who acted in the name of expediency when Samuel was late, and who sought to please the people when they wanted to save what was devoted to destruction, leaders who cease to view God as the sole source of not just their salvation, but their leadership, will be motivated by fear. When we act out of fear we allow those who evaluate us to serve as the measure of what is right. Keeping followers is the most significant good for a leader driven by fear. So as we seek to learn from Saul’s successes and failures we can employ two diagnostic questions. First, what is our reaction to those who openly question our leadership? Second, what do we fear? When we are consumed by whether or not people might abandon us instead of whether we are faithfully connected to and reflective of God, then we have likely shifted from faith to fear. We must trust in God alone, like Christ who was willing to entrust himself to the one who judges rightly (1 Pet. 2:23-34) instead of demanding to defend his own reputation. Saul when leading out of faith that God was working salvation, that God was the origin and power behind his leadership, was willing to face adversity with peace and silence. He was able to handle the temptation of others to retaliate. He was able to lead others away from sin by refusing to act out of fear that the group opposed to his leadership might grow. When acting out of fear he did whatever people demanded to preserve his following at all costs.
This leadership principle does not reject communal wisdom, a plurality of leadership, or the priesthood of all believers. It does not set us on a trajectory of solitary leadership disconnected from those we lead. This is proven through David’s example where we learn that godly leaders must not despise the discipline of the Lord, which often comes through those around us.
Godly leaders must not despise the discipline of the Lord
Seminary was a wonderful time. I learned so much from godly professors who knew and loved the word and who had deep and meaningful ministry experience from around the globe. But perhaps the greatest thing I learned in seminary was how critical accountability is. A friend in school asked me at the beginning of our time there if I would be willing to meet regularly. I assumed he wanted to study together, or to go over ministry plans. I thought perhaps he might even want me to help him with some of the academic things that were a struggle for him. To my surprise (and if I’m honest, my shock and horror) he wanted an accountability partner—and he wanted to be my accountability partner! Each week we would gather to ask four simple questions. What Scripture have you been meditating on? How have you reached out to others to share the gospel? Have you put your mind, hands, or eyes somewhere you should not have this week? And how can I pray for you? The prospect frightened me because for me sin was something to be hidden, wrestled with, and finally defeated so that if it ever came out publicly, it was in testimony of how I had struggled with that now conquered sin.
David’s life teaches us that sin never stays hidden and that we need others in our lives to regularly challenge us with the discipline of the Lord. We are, as James instructs us, supposed to confess our sins to one another, so that we might be healed. This is especially important for leaders. It is so easy to realize how the word teaches, corrects, instructs, and reproves others without seeing how it does that for us. David shows us that leaders will sin, but that sin can be overcome if we are willing to embrace discipline.
God’s people will only flourish when their leaders are godly
Another way to state this principle would be great leadership is not enough. It is not enough that plans are accomplished, that awards are given, that numbers increase, that everyone acknowledges success. If there is not godliness, then the greatness is a mirage. It is success built on a foundation of sand that will ultimately crumble, either in this life, or under the weight of divine evaluation (1 Cor. 3:10-15). Solomon was wise and he accomplished more than the greatest leaders, yet he became a fool and ultimately the people he led did not flourish, they floundered. As punishment for their idolatry, the nation was torn in two and set on a path towards exile.
Knowing a lot, even a lot of Scripture or theology, is not the same as having a vibrant and living relationship with the God of the universe. One of the most frightening realizations I had as a young scholar was meeting men and women who knew the Scriptures better than I likely ever will, but who also actively rejected Christ. They could quote extended sections in Greek and Hebrew, but had no love for God. Knowledge of the word is no substitute for a relationship with Christ. The royal leadership that God has created us for, is a relational leadership. As we get to know him better and better, we become more faithful representatives of him in this world. Yes, to do this we will come to know more and more about him through his word, but this knowledge is not abstraction, it is intimacy. It is coming ever more to know God, not to know about him.
The church, our families, our communities do not need great leaders. They need godly leaders through whom God might accomplish the great act of reconciling people to himself. This is the grand task of our representational reign. We come as ambassadors of the great king, whom we know personally, and we invite others to see and taste the goodness of his kingdom where they too might become citizens. Godliness in leadership, not greatness, leads to flourishing among the citizens of the kingdom.