In a democracy, we use elections to choose our leaders. This means that the questions we ask are not just about parties, ideologies and policies. We want to choose the right people and so character is important. In a General Election, there is a double decision to make. We vote for a specific candidate and we will want to think about their suitability but we also know that our local decision will affect the national picture and who eventually becomes Prime minister.
In this article, we look at the characteristics that God looks for in a leader. We are going to do this by looking at Deuteronomy 18. We need to be careful in handling this passage because first and foremost this is about the leaders that God chose for his people Israel. This means that we won’t want to just apply it straight to a modern secular state. However, I think there are some helpful principles here.
Prophet Priest and King
Deuteronomy 17- 18 talks about 3 types of the leader:
The King was responsible for leading and ruling over God’s people. They were there to make sure that the people were protected and provided for. They were there to make sure that God’s Law was kept.
The Priest was there to offer sacrifices and to intercede for God’s people
The Prophet was there to speak God’s Word to his people.
I want to have a look at the King’s character in a little more detail.
The King (Deuteronomy 17:14-20)
Deuteronomy tells us that the people would ask for a King and if/when they did they were to appoint wisely.
The King was to be the one God choses (17:15). One of the strong themes when Kings eventually are anointed is that they should be people after God’s own heart. When Samuel is sent to anoint Saul’s successor, God tells him to choose David, the younger, less impressive brother in Jesse’s family because God looks on the heart. This is a reminder that leadership character is not just about charisma or strength. There are other qualities to look for. We should seek integrity, kindness, self-control, gentleness in our leaders.
The King was chosen by God. The role of the people was not to decide who they wanted so much as it was to seek God’s will and recognise his anointed one. Now, this has obvious and immediate implications for the people if Israel and it also reminds us that when the Church appoints elders then we are really recognising God’s calling rather than electing our preference. This may seem less the case when we come to secular government but I believe these verses should encourage us to remember that event here, God is sovereign. The next Prime Minister will be there because God wills and decrees it. However, this does not mean that they are going to be of a good character and bring blessing. Sometimes the rulers we get are the ones we deserve and sometimes they are raised up so that a nation will learn humility. Furthermore, God can use donkeys, fools and even wicked rulers to further his plans. However, our responsibility is to follow God’s revealed will inseeking out the types of leader that he describes as good.
The King was to be one of their own people (17:15). Remember that when God distinguishes between Israelites and foreigners (cf wives) this is primarily a religious not a racial matter. The issue was that foreign wives and foreign rulers would lead the people away from the Living God and into idolatry. So, these verses should not be applied today to justify the American constitutional requirement that a president must be US born and so put ethnic barriers in place.
It does mean that church leaders must have a clear testimony that they belong to Christ and are part of God’s people.
It is a reminder again, that whilst we seem increasingly unlikely to see believers holding office, character matters. We should look out for the idolatry that a particular leader may bring with them. This may be vanity and pride in their own abilities. It may be that they are obsessed about a particular ideology or political programme. Be ready to challenge candidates when this is the case.
The King was not to build up a large stable of horses (17:16). The point of acquiring horses was military prowess. Now, Israel did have an army and they did fight in wars so I don’t think this is the point God is making through Moses here. The key point is in the phrase “You must never return to Egypt.” The risk was that the King would trade primarily with Egypt for horses and this would mean in effect creating a dependent relationship on Egypt. They may be buying the horses but the relationship would be increasingly that of a vassal state.
This was important because such a King would be demonstrating his reliance more on that super-power and less upon God. Going back to Egypt was also turning back the page on the freedom God had brought them and going back to slavery.
I think there are two practical principles for choosing leaders today here. First of all, do they learn from the past or repeat previous mistakes. Secondly, who do they build alliances with. Your integrity is only as strong as the integrity of those you are yoked to. Look at the political and international alliances they prioritise.
This is a good application in church life too. Who do we partner with both individually and as a congregation? Do we learn from past mistakes? Do we resist the temptation to go back into what God has called us out from (sin, darkness, death).
The King was not to take many wives (17:17). This was another reminder that alliances (brought through marriage) would lead to idolatry. Leaders need to be aware of where their weaknesses and temptations will be,
The King was not to accumulate gold, silver and possessions (17:17). They were not to be characterised by greed. The sense was that they were one of God’s people, not above them. They were there to serve. They were not in it for gain and profit.
In the church, we are told that elders should not be lovers of money.
We have seen so often throughout history the ability of those who hold power to be corrupted. This includes in modern history, cash for questions, questionable expenses claims, bribery etc. Is a leader “buyable.” By the way someone can be wealthy and still buyable if they love money and possession’s. They can also be poor and incorruptible if they have integrity.
The King was to meditate on God’s Law (17:18-20). Did you notice that they weren’t just to read the Torah but to take time to write out their own copy before reading it daily. In other words, they were to put the effort into learning it, meditating it and letting it take root in their lives. Doing this would teach them to love and obey God. It would also keep them humble. They were not the Law makers, they were under God’s Law. They were the Law keepers.
Pastors and Elders are not there to come up with their own ideas. They don’t have their own authority. Rather, our authority is a teaching authority as we submit to God’s Word.
The general principle for civil authorities is that they should be under the rule of law. When rulers set themselves outside of the Law they become corrupt. When rulers set themselves above the Law they become tyrants. Even though we live in a secular state, it is still a joy and privilege when rulers seek to do what is right and do what God says rather than simply pursuing their own preferences. This is something that it is good to pray for all our leaders.
A Better leader
If we think that our leaders don’t get anywhere close to those principles, well neither did the Kings of Israel and Judah for whom these guidelines were specifically written. Solomon acquired wives and riches, most of the Kings built up dependent alliances with the super-powers around them. Even David fell into serious sin.
However, those Old Testament roles were types pointing forward to a better leader. Jesus is the Prophet, Priest and King who faithfully reveals God to us, has paid the perfect sacrifice and intercedes on our behalf, and who is God’s chosen, anointed righteous and eternal King who rules with love, justice and mercy.