As a kid I was an incurable reading addict. The worst thing that could happen to me was being grounded from books. Several times my parents punished me in this way, forcing me to read at school and in closets with one ear perked for footfalls on the carpet; I really did not know how to live without reading for hours every day.
Once I’d finished my stack of library books, I would raid my parents’ shelves, and I ended up reading a lot of Christian books about leadership. A lot of them had good things to say, but they also tended to be at odds with themselves. Be humble, they said, while also making it clear that leaders are Very Important People. Listen to God, they said, while also impressing upon readers the urgency of Casting Visions for Big Things. At the time, though, I didn’t notice the contradictions; I came away with a very clear idea of how Christians and churches are supposed to approach leadership.
- If you want to be a leader, God is calling you to be a leader. “Here I am, Lord, send me,” and all of that.
- Leadership is about servanthood: listening, learning, caring for people, and sharing credit or glory. (While this is beautiful, these guys never mentioned that women, who are trained to do these things from birth, might need to focus on other skills.)
- Successful leadership is evidenced by the growth of a church or program.
Of course these authors used scripture to support their points. But that’s not necessarily where the ideas came from. The ideas appealed to people like me because they reflected us back to ourselves; they corresponded, respectively, to:
- The upper-middle-class values of mobility and power.
- The Christian values of humility and love.
- The capitalist values of growth and metrics.
Look, I sincerely believe there is a place for all of those values in some churches at some times. But we have to at least try to sort them out.
These days I’m still sometimes surprised at how much more diverse the Bible’s pictures of leadership are than those books made them out to be. I’ve been studying Gideon lately, for instance, and when I first got to his story I was ready to skim through: Gideon is afraid, but God gives him these crazy signs involving a fleece, so he takes a very small army into battle, they smash some jars and win. But it turns out his story is actually much longer, weirder, and more complicated than that.
The surprises start at the very beginning of the story. Gideon is hiding from the Midianites when some kind of angel comes to him and says, “The LORD is with you, valiant warrior.” And Gideon is not like, “here I am, send me!” The first two things Gideon says directly contradict what this messenger just said. He literally says, “If the LORD is with us, why do we have all these problems?” And the messenger “turns to him” and goes, “For real, you’re going to go get rid of the Midianites because I’m telling you to.” And Gideon says, “I don’t think so; I’m not a mighty warrior.” Then he asks the messenger for a sign. In fact, by the time Gideon finally goes into battle, God will have sent him five different signs about all this.
Once he gathers an army, God tells Gideon to make it smaller by sending home everyone who is afraid; we’ll see later that Gideon should truthfully be sending himself home. God cuts the army down again so that Gideon is left with only 300 men. With some more reassurance from God, he leads a surprise attack on the vast Midianite army, which God throws into confusion and Gideon’s band defeats.
Biblical scholar Juliana Claassens notes that there’s a shift at this point in the story. Up until now, God has been the primary actor, Gideon a reluctant follower. But when he leads the attack, he instructs his men to shout, “For the LORD and for Gideon!” Maybe that’s not a big deal on its own, but from here on, God is nearly absent from the story. Gideon has driven off the Midianites, and now he embarks on what is revealed to be a revenge mission: he ends up killing a bunch of people along with some Midianite rulers. Then when he returns to Israel, they try to make him king, and he refuses. He says the right answer: that God will be their king. But he doesn’t really give God the credit for the victory, and he’s already stolen the show that was, perhaps, supposed to have ended with that first victory. The defeat of Midian never inspires the nation to repent from idolatry or worship God; instead, they give Gideon a bunch of gold and end up worshipping the thing he makes from it.
Maybe it’s hard to say what exactly any of this “means” for us; if it were easy, pastors would preach out of Judges more often. The book depicts the nation in a downward spiral that really begins in earnest with the second half of this Gideon story, and we’re not sure what to say or think about that.
I think, though, if you read through these three long chapters and pay close attention to God, you’ll catch the thread of a tragedy here. Gideon, who had been utterly dependent on God, who had heard God’s reassuring voice so clearly before, caught up in a wave of hubris. He probably even thinks he’s doing the right thing by pursuing the rulers who had oppressed his people; but while he’s pursuing his agenda and enjoying the adoration of his followers, God has gone silent.
I’m coming to believe that all the great heroes of our faith are people who have escaped this oh-so-familiar cycle of distraction. It’s not because they are rigorous theologians or cross-referencing Bible readers and it’s certainly not because they’ve adopted the values of growth and power. It’s because they’ve made a point, every day, to hear and obey God’s voice. All their teaching, writing, fighting for justice, all the things we see and adore them for, grow out of that secret, sacred time with the God who comes to those who wake up, every morning, remembering their great need for him.