Friday, 11 May 2018

Who'd be a leader?

David said to Joab and the commanders of the troops, “Go and count the Israelites from Beersheba to Dan... so that I may know how many there are.” But Joab replied... “Why does my lord want to do this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?” The king’s word, however, overruled Joab... 1 Chronicles 21: 2-4

Leaders are important people. Very important people. They can make or destroy a nation, a business, a school, a sports team... a church. Which is why the Bible takes them very seriously.

David is God’s appointed leader of his people Israel, a man beautifully described elsewhere as “after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14: could you be described that way?). But he was far from perfect, and the Bible is honest in describing his various lapses and sins. (It’s encouraging too in the way it describes his willingness to confess and repent of these sins - one of the very things, I imagine, that made him a man after God’s own heart).

In 1 Chronicles 21 David allows Satan to seduce him into sin: he decides to carry out a census of the people of Israel. Why this is wrong isn’t explained, so we needn’t bother to speculate. But it draws a protest from Joab, David’s right-hand man, who says very plainly that it will “bring guilt on Israel”.

We then read, sadly, the key statement: “the king’s word, however, overruled Joab.” The rest of the chapter describes the appalling consequences of this stubbornness: by his sinful folly David, in effect, dragged the whole nation down with him.

As I reflect on this, I can’t help thinking of the world of politics, especially what is going on presently in both Russia and America. If I weren’t a Christian, and therefore a believer in God’s sovereign rule over the affairs of humankind, I think I would feel quite frightened. And of course I think too of our own prime minster here in Britain and the great avalanche of problems she has to contend with. I find myself wondering how often, in our churches, we obey the command of 1Timothy 2:1-2 to pray for Theresa May and other world leaders...

But what about church life? Can the disaster of 1 Chronicles 21 help us?

I suggest three things.

First, and stating the most obvious, recognise the sheer importance of leadership. If we are called to be leaders, let’s take this privilege and responsibility with the greatest seriousness. And if we are among those who are led, let’s make sure that we pray and care for those God has set over us.

Let’s be under no illusions: just as David’s sin had dire repercussions for the whole nation, in the same way bad leadership affects everyone - it drags into the mire not only the leader, but also the people who look to him or her.

Second, in appointing leaders, look for the kind of qualities God originally found, presumably, in David. Not perfection, of course, because that would be asking for the impossible; but - to pick out just three - humility, teachability, and a willingness to admit it when he got it wrong.

Sadly, in this instance David failed in the areas of humility and teachability - he obviously was too proud, or too self-absorbed, to seek God’s guidance regarding the census in the first place, and he compounded this by refusing to listen to Joab’s wise rebuke.

But give him credit for his simple words in verse 8: “I have sinned greatly by doing this... I have done a very foolish thing.” No leader is to be trusted if he or she isn’t prepared to say “Sorry, I was wrong.”

Third, set leadership in the context of teamwork.

In the world that David lived in, kings were supreme and that was that. Yes, there were those - Joab in this case, elsewhere prophets like Nathan - who were on hand to offer wise advice and sometimes sharp rebukes. But “teamwork” isn’t a word that springs to mind when we think of the way kings operated in the ancient world.

But the New Testament church was a very different case. It’s clear from Acts that the churches had groups of people (sometimes called “elders”) who directed their affairs. Paul, for example, starts his letter to the church in Philippi with the words “to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus in Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons” (NIV translation). 

In 1 Timothy 2 he sets out the kind of qualities leaders should have; certainly Timothy appears to be “the leader of the leaders”, but he will just as certainly have worked in close partnership with these people.

It’s hard not to wonder - would David have been saved from the census disaster if he had had such a group around him? “One-man (or woman) leadership” is dangerous and unbiblical.

Whether we are leaders or led, are there things in this sorry episode that we need to give serious thought to?

Thank you, Lord, for those you appoint to serve as leaders in the church. Help them to be good and faithful under-shepherds to the Good Shepherd himself, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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