Friday, 25 March 2011

Looking at the leadership of Moses and other Old Testament figures

In a recent session on my theology course we looked at lessons we could draw from the life and leadership practices of Moses. The session leader picked out three key questions that are vital for leaders to keep in mind, lest they get mired in the details of their role and lose sight of why they are leading. Here are the questions:

Lessons from the life of Moses
Who am I? This is about our identity, which will feed in to what we do and how we do it. We see Moses wrestling with his identity in Exodus 2:11-15 when he sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave. Moses kills the Egyptian and runs away from Egypt when Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, hears of what Moses has done and tries to kill him.

Whose am I? Who do I belong to? Who do I have family or community responsibilities to? Exodus 3:1-6 (the account of God speaking to Moses from within a burning bush) tells of Moses responding to God's call: 'I am the God of your father – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'. Moses now knows that he belongs to God.

What am I to do? The rest of Exodus 3 and then chapter 4 recount God's mission for Moses and how Moses rather struggles to accept it. Interestingly, God seems to change his plans based on how Moses reacts to what God requires him to do. I might blog about this at a later date...

I found all these questions interesting and I can certainly see how they apply to any modern-day task of leadership. It's so important to keep the big picture in mind, avoiding the trap of drowning in the details. But I keep wondering how useful it is to look in detail at Old Testament figures, considering that the New Testament offers such a redefined picture of Godly leadership.

How useful are the Old Testament examples?

Here's what I mean. In the Old Testament, God's purposes were almost entirely worked out through a nation, with politics, structures, taxes (or tithes, as they were known then) and many other things that we would recognise in modern-day nations. So most of the leaders in the Old Testament were either involved in government (Moses, David and so on) or they tried to bring God's word to government from the outside (the prophetic tradition – the likes of Isaiah and Amos).

Moving to the New Testament, the situation is vastly different. Jesus had relatively little to say about government; he seemed much more concerned with how his followers should relate to one another and to the outsiders, the marginalised. He socialised with the failures and outcasts of his time, not those who had power or authority. And look at these passages on the topics of leadership and decision-making:
So Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father. And don’t let anyone call you ‘Teacher,’ for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Then the apostles and elders together with the whole church in Jerusalem chose delegates, and they sent them to Antioch of Syria with Paul and Barnabas to report on this decision. The men chosen were two of the church leaders – Judas (also called Barsabbas) and Silas. This is the letter they took with them:

"This letter is from the apostles and elders, your brothers in Jerusalem. It is written to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. Greetings! We understand that some men from here have troubled you and upset you with their teaching, but we did not send them! So we decided, having come to complete agreement, to send you official representatives, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ..." (Italics added)
So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Italics added)

Christian leadership (as opposed to Old Testament leadership) is all about mutual submission. And I'm worried that focusing on pre-Christian figures like Moses and David leads us to lose sight of the distinctive flavour of Christian leadership as illustrated in the New Testament. Leading a nation (even the nation chosen by God) is, I suggest, fundamentally different from leading God's people in the Christian era.


  1. Isn't that an icon of Saint Moses, an Ethiopian Saint, rather than THE Moses, the chap in the Old Testament?

    Phil Williams

  2. Whoops, thank you Phil! I've changed the picture...