Leadership, politics and the Bible

February 15th, 2016

There are countless books written for clergy about leadership. In this season of political horse races, with each candidate portrayed as humanity’s best and last hope for salvation while the others will likely return us to the stone age, I find it helpful to remember one important fact about the Bible’s great leaders:

They all had opposition.

Not just mild disapproval, either — outright hatred and hostility. In fact, if we read between the lines, we can see that many of them were hated by nearly half their followers.


During one of the three — three! — civil wars under David’s administration, as he fled Jerusalem, one protester followed his entourage shouting insults for miles (2 Samuel 16:5-8). He had his own interpretation of national politics: David was a usurper, and possibly a murderer, of God’s anointed royal family. He was a traitor who had even worked for the Philistines (1 Samuel 27). No wonder there were plenty of Israelites who wanted him gone!

David’s name means “Beloved,” but we can tell from the historical account that he was also hated by nearly half his kingdom. At the first opportunity, when his son Solomon died, the Northern tribes kicked his dynasty to the curb and set up their own kingdom.

It took seven years of war before the rest of Israel accepted Judah’s favorite son as their leader, but it’s clear their acceptance was grudging and tentative.


Deborah has the distinction of being the only named female judge to lead her people. But her second-in-command didn’t seem to trust her military judgment. When she ordered her general, Barak, to engage the enemy in direct combat, he refused (Judges 4:8).

I had often read this as a sign of Barak’s timidity, but I think there is something more sexist going on in this passage. Would Barak have refused an order from a male judge? Probably not. But because his leader was a woman, he doubted her decision. “I’ll go,” he said, “but only if you go with me.” I do not think Barak was asking her to hold his hand. I think he was being insubordinate: “I’ll only go if you also put your life on the line, lady.”

Her response is classic. “Fine. But the victory will not belong to you — it will belong to a woman” (4:9). Indeed, the enemy general would be killed by a woman wielding a tent peg, not a man with a sword (4:21).


Moses straddled two worlds: Egyptian aristocracy and Hebrew. His own people resented his interference on more than one occasion (2:13-14, 5:21, 14:11-12), complaining that they would be better off without his notions of resistance. When he seemed to be gone on vacation too long, they rejected his leadership and his God (32). When they balked at going into Canaan, they decided to stone Moses and his leadership team, choose a new captain, and return to slavery (14:1-10).


I’m often mystified when religious, political, or business leaders admire Jesus’ leadership. Here was a guy who lost as many followers as he gained, and whose downfall came from the people in his own hand-picked cabinet (John 6:66-71). Perhaps he didn’t have the right people on the right seats on the bus? Even after intensive leadership training, they didn’t understand his vision of the Kingdom, and when the crisis moment came they abandoned him.

Of course, in hindsight we can admire his leadership and pretend that we would be loyal followers, that we would always vote for Jesus and could see the genius of his leadership style, which often seemed to involve making as many people angry as possible (Matthew 23).

When we read the stories of stubborn Hebrews in the desert, rebellious tribes, or disciples who miss the point, we act as though we can’t relate to their frustration and fear. What I appreciate about this political season and our public discourses of moral disapproval is what it reveals about us. We are a contentious people. We are alternately frustrated, fearful and hopeful. Who would want to lead us?

For all the ways we express disgust with politics, we humans are political animals. We can no more escape our political nature than we can escape our social, spiritual and religious nature. We are creatures who organize, who create institutions and organizations that outlast us. We are creatures who think and strategize about the future. We can be skeptical of institutions and organizations, but one thing is certain: there are plenty of institutions — powers and principalities — who do a great job organizing against us.

For those of us called to ministry, to some form of leadership in the church, what do these biblical examples of leadership mean for us? Does it change the way we think of our work if we acknowledge that a 49% disapproval rating — or more — is normal?

I think it does. If I’m going to lead like Jesus, Moses, Deborah or David, I’m going to need some tough skin and the courage to keep going in the face of opposition. And if I find “politics” distasteful, I may want to find another line of work.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. 

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