Power and Leadership: Imaging God in Our Communities

Years ago my friend’s father gathered a group of men around him and groomed them so one of them could assume his role as pastor of the church when he retired. At his retirement he and the elders chose one of these men as pastor. Within a few years the new pastor had become unmanageable. He had become obsessed with his own significance. To resolve this the elders tried to reign in the pastor but their actions only led to conflict. As a result of this conflict the majority of the elders felt that they had no recourse but to resign, entrusting the church into the hands of God. With the elders out of his way, the pastor became more and more controlling. The pastor’s new rule for the staff was: my way or the highway.

Misguided leadership is not a new phenomenon. The world’s history is filled with examples of bad leadership. One example that stands out in my mind is the leadership in Germany in the early 16th century. At that time no peasant could freely hunt, fish or chop wood because the lords had assumed control over all the common lands for their purposes. Besides assuming control of the common lands, each lord assumed the right to use his peasant’s land as he wished. The peasant could do nothing but watch as his crops were destroyed by wild game and by nobles galloping across his fields in the course of their chivalric hunts. When a peasant wished to marry, he needed the lord’s permission and had to pay a tax. When the peasant died, the lord was entitled to his best cattle, his best garments, and his best tools. The justice system, operated by the clergy or wealthy jurists, gave the peasants no redress.

In response to this injustice, in 1524 about 300,000 peasants revolted. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Martin Luther supported the established lords. He wrote:

It does not help the peasants when they pretend that according to Genesis 1 and 2 all things were created free and common, and that all of us alike have been baptized. For under the New Testament, Moses does not count; for there stands our Master, Christ, and subjects us, along with our bodies and our property, to the emperor and the law of this world, when he says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” [Luke 20:25]. Paul, too, speaking in Romans 12 [13:1] to all baptized Christians, says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” And Peter says, “Be subject to every ordinance of man” [I Pet. 2:13]. We are bound to live according to this teaching of Christ, as the Father commands from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him” [Matt. 17:5] (Martin Luther, Against the Robbing and Murderous Hordes of Peasants).

It is estimated that about 100,000 people died in the Peasants’ War. Tragic.

Is this the kind of leadership that God intended for us? If not, what kind of leadership did God plan for his people? And how can God’s ancient plan for leadership shape the way we think and act as leaders today?

Deuteronomy 16:18-20 as well as chapters 17 to 20 answer these questions and present us with a vision of good leadership. First, these verses give us an overview of Israel’s leadership structure. Second, they give us a perspective of the character leaders were to have. Finally, we will turn our eyes to the character of Christ, who as the fulfillment of the law exemplified biblical leadership.


In Deuteronomy 17 to 20 we see that there were to be four categories of leaders in Israel: judges, priests, kings, and prophets.

The first in the leadership structure of the community were the judges. Though the judges were to be chosen from among the people, if we look at how Moses chose leaders in Exodus and elsewhere, those chosen to be judges were probably the wealthy and influential in the tribes. These judges were to be committed to divine law and justice as defined by the Torah. When decisions were too difficult for the judge to make, they were to go to the “capital” and get help from the “chief justice” and the priests.

The second in the leadership structure were the priests. Deut. 18:1 reminds us that the priests were landless. This landlessness put a check on the amount of power and influence the priests could wield. Since wealth has always been a means to accrue power, the priests did not have traditional venues by which to build and take advantage of wealth. The landlessness of the priests placed the priests in direct dependence on the people for their livelihood. This priestly dependence on the people balanced out the independent landed and influential judges.

The third in the leadership structure were the kings. In Deut. 17:14 we read that the kings were not supposed to multiply their wives or their wealth; and they were not supposed to view themselves as better than their people.

The last in the leadership structure were the prophets. Prophets were given the status of the mouthpiece of God. However, how were people to know who among the prophets were to be obeyed? The obvious way for people to know if a man was a true prophet was the outcome of his prophecy. Yet, I sometimes wonder how that was to work itself out? Would not waiting to see if the outcome was true be just a bit too late for the people if God was calling them to repentance or face judgment?


The law shaped how the power of leadership was to be used by these leaders.

In its cultural context, ancient societies were large power distance societies. In large power distance societies, people with power and wealth viewed themselves as inherently better than others. The kings of the small city-states were often viewed as semi-divine. Also, people with power were expected to live privileged lives. The economic disparity that existed between those with power and those without was a means of keeping the social order.

Into this large power distance way of seeing the world, the Pentateuch was a prophetic voice, injecting a different way of seeing power and leadership. The creation narrative declared that the entire human race was made in the image of God. Each and every human was a divine representative, not just the kings. The creation narrative denied the exalted status kings gave themselves and upheld the dignity and honor of each and every human being. This truth is repeated in Deuteronomy 17:20 where it says that the king’s heart was not to be lifted up above his brothers. He was not to think that he was better than his subjects. He was not allowed to use his kingship to advance his person or his family as he was restricted by how much he could accrue. He was limited in how many tanks he could buy (horses), how much wealth he could acquire, how many wives he could have. The king was meant to serve.

The service nature of leadership is also embedded in Deuteronomy 16:18-20. Leaders were to be subservient to the Torah, and the leaders were selected by the people to serve the people. Their service to the law was a service to the people. In verse 19 it says: You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality. Judges were not to show partiality to anyone. We in small power distance cultures are not usually tempted to show partiality to the rich (which is the more customary temptation in large power distance cultures) but we are tempted to show partiality to the poor. Showing partiality to the poor is also forbidden in the Torah. Lev. 19:15 says: You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness you shall judge your neighbor.

Humility was also embedded in the instructions to the judges. In 17:8-13 we read that there would be cases that judges would have to admit were too big for them to handle. They did not have, nor were they expected to have all the answers. There was a higher body to appeal to. Acknowledging a case is beyond your ability to decide demands humility. This enjoinder was also another reminder to the judges that they were to be guided by Torah, not by their own inclinations. Their service to Torah was a service to God and the people.

There was also a balance of power embedded within the system, a balance that was to be respected. Judges needed priests when the cases were too hard. Kings, judges, and priests were subject to prophets. Prophets could not assert their own authority but had to submit to the community for testing to see if they were judged fit to be listened to.

What I find most intriguing is that kings and leaders could not be manipulative. In chapter 20:1-10 the leaders were to assemble the fighting men and then give the men reasons to go home and not fight. The leaders were not to pressure the men to fight. Manipulation of any form was to be uncharacteristic of any leader. This makes sense when we see leadership as a means of service. If leadership was a means of serving people, why would a leader even want to manipulate the people she or he is called to serve?

In conclusion, on the basis of these chapters we can say that each leader should have:

  • a commitment to God
  • a commitment to justice
  • a commitment to others
  • a commitment to not manipulate or control others
  • a commitment to humility
  • a commitment to serve


In the light of this, let us turn our eyes to Jesus. Paul describes the leadership of Jesus this way in Philippians 2:3-8
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

What a blessing to have Jesus as the ultimate example of leadership. Paul’s vision of Christ in Philippians 2 is fleshed out in John 13 – where Jesus takes off his robe and adorns a towel and washes the feet of the 12 disciples, Judas included. To follow Jesus’ footsteps and image his character as a leader takes real faith in Jesus’ ability to achieve his purposes in and through us and in and through the people he calls us to lead/serve.

Let us use these passages of Scripture as a means of encouragement. Let us press on to be like Christ and be good leaders, and let us do all we can to foster good leadership in others.