Ambivalent Leadership: It’s Biblical!

Every once in a while, the various things that I do match up in happy ways. I write Westminster Reads, a weekly on line Bible study and we’re reading our way through 1 Samuel right now. And just a couple of weeks ago I was musing about leadership on this blog.  Well here is the fun part: 1 Samuel tells a story about leadership: Israel’s change from judges to a king. What is so interesting about that is how ambivalent the text is about kings.  In the first 10 chapters, there is God’s warning to Israel about kings and there are three different stories about Saul’s call to kingship.

Recall that Israel had no ruler but God until Saul. They had judges, prophets and priests with interwoven and somewhat indistinct boundaries and responsibilities. The system was not particularly linear or hierarchical. It was a more horizontal system where responsibility was shared by many. However the system of judges didn’t work well long term and so the people decide they want a king, “to be like the other nations”. (1 Sam 8:5,19-20) Samuel, at God’s direction warns the people that kings inevitably oppress.  Samuel delivers a grim appraisal of human leadership.But just like us, Israel knows better than God. And then we get Saul’s call stories. They are worth reading (1 Samuel 9:1-10:11 and 1 Samuel 10:17-27). In the first story Saul encounters Samuel (who has been instructed by God to anoint Saul as king) because he is looking for some lost donkeys. What do you think Saul did after he was anointed and several signs were fulfilled? Saul went home. And when his uncle asked about his trip, Saul tells him about the donkeys, not about being anointed king.  Odd, isn’t it?

The next call story has Samuel gathering all of Israel together and casting lots to discover who the king shall be. Finally the selection process settles on Saul, except no one can find him.  They have to ask God where Saul is and God finds him hiding among the baggage. The people shout, “Long live the king!” and then once again Saul goes home. Odd again.

Asking a prophet to help you find lost donkeys and hiding among the luggage are not commonly recognized leadership development techniques.

Often we study biblical leaders to glean how to be a leader. You have seen the titles in bookstores about biblical leadership.  I searched Amazon’s website for books on “biblical leadership” and got 2,812 titles! But if you think about biblical stories where someone is called to leadership, no one really wants to be the leader. Nobody aspires to leadership. They are reluctant leaders, uncertain, insecure and afraid. Leadership in the bible is depicted as hard rather than glorious. If you know Saul’s story,you know it doesn’t end well.It seems the biblical message about leadership is avoid it if you are able!

All this makes me wonder about our cultures and churches fascination with leadership. I’m still thinking out loud about leadership, but I’m beginning to wonder if we might want to shift our focus away from leadership and onto humility and community?

What do you think?



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