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The Leadership Principle

The over-emphasis on “leadership” in today’s church reflects this underlying corporate outlook. Leadership is now the single term used for virtually every position of headship from father to teacher. In doing so, important covenantal positions like fatherhood are drained of their meaning by the indistinguishable label of “leader.”

  • Christopher J. Ortiz,
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“The thing that thou doest is not good.” (Exodus 18:17)

By the 1980s the dynamics of the mega-church challenged the way pastors approached their clerical office. The early church was analogous to the family, but the modern church saw more similarity with the corporation. Senior pastors became CEOs, churches started hiring comptrollers and administrators, and church secretaries became executive assistants. Though the Apostle Paul sought church elders who could “manage their own households well” (1 Tim. 3:4-5), today’s church demotes domestic credentials by courting those who can “manage their own businesses well.”

The over-emphasis on “leadership” in today’s church reflects this underlying corporate outlook. Leadership is now the single term used for virtually every position of headship from father to teacher. In doing so, important covenantal positions like fatherhood are drained of their meaning by the indistinguishable label of “leader.”

But do corporate leaders nurture their staff? Do CEOs wash their colleagues in the water of the Word (Eph. 5:26), or serve as covenant representatives of the sovereign Lord? Fathers are not simply “leaders.” Fathers are fathers. That’s why God called them fathers. Leadership is an aspect of fatherhood but so is teaching and nurturing. Our model is God, not Bill Gates.

The focus of much of the modern church is now on leadership training. Pastors are concerned with instilling in both volunteers and staff members the “laws of leadership” instead of the “laws of God.” For many of them the Jethro Principle of leadership found in Exodus 18 is their proof text for a vast system of delegated leaders overseeing the massive bureaucracy of the mega-church. However, a closer look at Exodus 18 yields an even greater secret than delegated leadership in Jethro’s sage advice.

Jethro Confronts Moses

Jethro had never seen such a massive undertaking. The sun was barely peeking through the desert sky, yet this long line of murmuring plaintiffs had risen well before the rooster’s first crow. By the orderly array of the frustrated multitudes, Jethro knew this early morning exercise was routine.

The patient crowd increased as the chilly desert air warmed beneath the rising sun. These former slaves were used to this sort of government. They had learned to depend on centralized authority during a few hundred years in Egyptian bondage. The Gospel of Moses delivered from tyranny, yet his ad hoc court system bore a strange resemblance to the previous bureaucracy. Maybe this was just their lot. How could Moses, the man of God, be in error? This system must be ordained of God.

By nightfall those still in line quietly dispersed to their respective dwellings. Maybe tomorrow would bring them to Moses. From the outset of their exodus they were told their preservation depended upon their obedience to God’s commands through Moses. Each day they were reminded of this by the carpet of manna that lay across each of their doorways. This object lesson contained a simple message: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Dt. 8:3).

Moses the Man of God

But only Moses knew the words of God; and meeting with him meant waiting in line. After all, this was a new enterprise for the Israelites. They were now freed from the protracted nightmare of Pharaoh, and judgment in the matters of desert life necessitated the revelation of God. Moses would level that needed insight if one could only secure a few moments before his judgment seat. Meeting with Moses became the objective of daily life.

Jethro, on the other hand, was a priest of Midian, and he knew how to better manage a religious body. Moses’ method of Egyptian statism was not proper for this new covenant community. Jethro took it upon himself to instruct his burdened son-in-law in the way of wisdom:

And when Moses’ father in law saw all that he did to the people, he said, What is this thing that thou doest to the people? why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand by thee from morning unto even? (Ex. 18:14)

It was obvious to Jethro that by placing godly responsibility in the hands of one man, Moses caused more harm than good. Judging between the parties on a case-by-case basis would not equip the people for personal responsibility nor enlighten them to the total scope of God’s law. Personally, Moses was on the fast track to mental exhaustion while the frustration from delayed attention left a bitter taste in the mouths of the waiting populace. Yet Moses’ view of himself as mediator clouded his consideration of alternate means to accomplishing God’s will:

And Moses said unto his father in law, because the people come unto me to enquire of God: When they have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws. (Ex. 18:15-16)

Jethro could easily see Moses was distorting the nature of his calling as the head of Israel. Moses had consolidated his spiritual gifts along with the task of administration and operations into a mammoth system of spiritual bureaucracy. Centuries later, the Apostle Paul would explain the division of labor under the auspices of the Godhead:

Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. (1 Cor. 12:4-6)

For whatever reason, Jethro better understood the wisdom of a decentralized administration with a godly division of labor. He deftly introduced this concept by highlighting the consequences of Moses’ chosen method of ministry:

[T]he thing that thou doest is not good. Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone. (Ex. 18:17-18)

Delegated Authority

This should be a lesson for recent history. Western statism is replete with instances of centralized authority. As citizens of the new Egypt, our perceptions are likewise fettered by the slavish impositions of top-heavy bureaucracies. We’ve been taught to wait in line. And any time you see a long line, you’ll find a welfare state.

Moses was wearing himself out. The burden of centralized government was too much for him to carry. He needed assistance. He was also wearing out the people and teaching them an unnecessary social dependency. Jethro offered a solution: decentralize the system and teach the people:

Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God shall be with thee: Be thou for the people to God-ward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God: And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do. Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens: And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge: so shall it be easier for thyself, and they shall bear the burden with thee. (Ex. 18:19-22)

Contemporary leadership gurus look at Exodus 18 as a lesson in corporate structure, where delegated leadership shares the workload with a down-line of qualified captains. Yet despite today’s use of this model, centralization, and now tyranny, is expanding at an exponential rate. The parasite of bureaucracy permeates every type of government. Elite dominance wears out leaders and laity, politicians and citizenry, executives and employees alike. This is especially true in the age of “professional ministry.”

The Leadership Movement

Although it’s difficult to determine the exact date, one could argue that with Peter Drucker1 came the rise of the leadership movement. The corporate explosion ignited in the postwar boom of the 1950s, aided by the rise of management consultants who in turn advised corporate leaders in the principles of structure, efficiency, and organization. Gurus like Drucker helped steer the numerous trends in leadership theory for the ensuing decades and soon found a willing audience in the modern church leader. The Christian Science Monitor recently highlighted this collusion of church corporatism in the rags to riches story of a Connecticut megachurch:

This nondenominational megachurch, which has passed through challenging stages itself, is now flourishing, along with hundreds of other megachurches that are reshaping the religious landscape in the United States. A national survey released last week found twice as many as there were five years ago. The late management guru Peter Drucker called the megachurch “the only organization ... actually working in our society,” and said it had much to teach other institutions.2

This leadership trend in the church is a disturbing phenomenon, and its influence is extensive. As an example, Appalachian, the world’s largest Christian book distributor, currently features over 700 book titles on leadership alone — the majority of these books being published within the last ten years.

Christians are consulting leadership principles because today’s church is a strange blend of the modern corporation and the welfare state. A multitude of “ministry positions” now beckons prospective ministers with new opportunities for expression and career choices. The staff listings at the average mega-church can be extensive. So, seminaries now offer doctoral degrees in “organizational leadership” and a new generation of Christian ministers is looking to find a management position in the massive enterprise of the modern church.

Theologian David Wells highlights the tragic transformation brought on by an era of “professional” ministers:

The pastoral ministry is thus being professionalized. It is being anchored firmly in the middle class, and the attitudes of those who are themselves professionals or who constantly deal with them are increasingly defining who the minister is. Once again, it is the old market mechanism at work — ministers defining themselves as a product for which there is a market. And so they feel they must present themselves as having a desired competence, and that competence, as it turns out, is largely managerial. They must be able to manage the unruly and painful forces within the human psyche as well as the turbulent and equally unruly forces in the organization of the Church.2

Jethro’s Secret

Much emphasis is placed on Jethro’s concept of delegated authority as the sole remedy to the Mosaic model. No doubt Jethro’s hierarchical structure better managed the immense sojourning population of transitory Israel. Yet, most leadership pundits overlook the foundational element to Jethro’s leadership principle:

Be thou for the people to God-ward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God: And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do. (Ex. 18:18-19)

Verses 18 and 19 come before Jethro’s suggestion to appoint a multitude of divisional leaders. Moses was to first teach the people the ordinances and laws of God so that the people might understand the way they must walk, and the work they must do. This was foundational. The hierarchy of delegated leaders would not work without a thorough grounding of the people in the law of God. Therefore, Jethro does not place the emphasis upon the structure of the leaders; rather, he focuses first on the self-governing individual under God’s law.

Once the people are grounded in the idea of self-government, a network of captains can be placed over them. However, even this was a limited role for leadership. The captains were not intended to be benefactors of a wilderness welfare state. They were only to serve the people in matters of judgment:

And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge. (Ex. 18:22a)

This network of leaders served the purpose of judgment in the matters of life. The leaders were to judge every small matter while Moses was to judge every great matter. What may be most important, however, is not mentioned but surely implied: if Moses and his down-line of shepherds were to judge every great and small matter, then the “smallest” matters must be judged by the individuals themselves.

This is the reason for Moses to establish the people in the law of God. They would learn for themselves the way God wanted them to walk and the work God expected them to do. The people could then make effective judgments in the smallest matters of life and without visiting their overseers for every situation. The corresponding effect would be felt up the chain of command to Moses himself.

Wisdom: God’s Law Applied

Judgment in the matters of life is the Biblical concept of wisdom. The book of Proverbs is essentially a resource for wise choices. Wisdom, in this sense, is God’s law applied. And the wisdom of God remains the world’s greatest treasure.

If you recall, the Queen of Sheba traveled a long way to hear Solomon’s wisdom (1Kings 10). She heard in her own country the reports of his great achievements and remarkable wisdom (v. 6). Yet she confessed that she had only heard the half of it, “thy wisdom and prosperity exceedeth the fame which I heard” (v. 8).

When God’s law is properly applied, it reveals a hidden wisdom not found in the hearts and minds of sinful man. This is what makes the wisdom of God so alluring. It draws the attention of foreign nations as they behold its operation in bringing resolution and peace to the social conflicts in the religious community. From early on God told Israel that by obeying His law they would evoke wonder in the sight of the nations:

Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day? (Dt. 4:5-8)

We in the modern church have chosen gospel preaching as the only means to world evangelism. Certainly, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). However, the nations are skeptical of our message because of the contradictory way in which we live. We preach a good sermon but live poor lives. We struggle with managing our families and our finances. We lie, cheat, and steal in an effort to do God a service. We take brother and sister to court over a business matter and regularly look to the state for benevolence and charitable support. In short, we are inept at making judgments in the matters of life.

The True Responsibility of Leaders

Our leadership structure has not cured us of these maladies. The multiplicity of church programs has not alleviated the dysfunction still permeating Christian society. We are mocked more than admired. We are scorned more than sought after. For all the resources spent on Christian leadership conferences, the average pastor is still unable to recite the Ten Commandments. It is here that the root of our sin finds ample room to spread.

Pastors must create a desire in their churches for self-government. They must teach their congregations how to love the law of God and make it their meditation throughout the day (Ps. 119:97). There should be a regular reading of God’s law in each service and an admonition to make Biblical judgments in the matters of life. God has provided pastors with a tremendous sermon source in the book of Proverbs. Pastors would be wise to make use of it on a regular basis.

Why has this not happened? Well, living wisely in daily life is not glamorous. Spending money to keep up with our neighbors typically outweighs the savings program Proverbs suggests. Living-room Christians prefer giving “seed faith” offerings to television preachers instead of practicing the mundane method of “six days thou shalt labor.” And, of course, it’s always easier to send our children to public school rather than making the sacrifice required to provide them with a Christian education. Essentially, we are far from Biblical Christianity.

Education begins in the pulpit. So does decentralization. Even the wisdom of Jethro was to be communicated through the lips of Moses. True ministry will teach people the concept of self-government. This is why so many pastors despise true Reformed thinking. It asks them to push people to God rather than draw away disciples after themselves. This is why many will ignore men like R. J. Rushdoony and turn a deaf ear to the Chalcedon Foundation. As ministers of Jesus Christ, we must all be watchful lest we become the kind of church leader the Apostle Paul contended with:

Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them. (Gal. 4:17)

1 Peter Drucker is often called the “father of modern management theory.” Other leadership theorists existed but Drucker became the prominent guru through his massive publishing.

2 David F. Wells, No Place for Truth, or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993), p. 236-237.

  • Christopher J. Ortiz

Christopher J. Ortiz is a freelance writer and independent communications specialist servicing churches, ministries, and publishers.

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