What the Bible Says About Leaders

By Sigrid Fowler

All writers in Op Ed are here to inform and acknowledge issues of importance to our communities, however these writings represent the views  and opinions of the authors and not necessarily of The Advertiser. 

            The Bible talks about leaders—their choices, character, and example, the unwise leaders who bring down a nation. Jesus describes the role of a leader, and other biblical voices provide additional insight. In an election year, the subject of leadership is more than relevant. What the Bible says has wide application, for leaders of the state as well as leaders of the church. Those of us who live under leadership do well to be informed.

            The Lord Jesus defines leadership. Americans, historically guided by his words, will listen. Jesus speaks to his disciples, some of whom are jockeying for position in a kingdom they think he will soon inaugurate. He says, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (Matt 20: 25-26). Then Jesus gives a striking example, himself: “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt 20: 28). A leader is to be servant.

            The Book of Proverbs adds another point. Leaders must speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, those who will not be heard for whatever reason. One proverb, addressed to a king, advises: “Open your mouth for the mute, / For the rights of all the unfortunate. / Open your mouth, judge righteously, / And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy” (Prov. 31: 8-9). Other proverbs elaborate on the meaning and impact of rule: “A divine decision is in the lips of the king; / His mouth should not err in judgment . . .. It is an abomination for kings to commit wicked acts, / For a throne is established on righteousness” (Prov 16: 10, 12). Moreover, “If a king judges the poor with truth, / His throne will be established forever” (Prov 29: 14). We Americans will adjust the biblical language away from references to kings and thrones that “last forever,” but the basic principles of godly and successful leadership are clear—service, advocacy for the powerless, an ear for what God is saying about governance. Such leaders will abhor bribes. They will lead with truth and the search for truth. They will exercise good judgment. These things are critical because leaders impact those they lead, as Scripture notes: “Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained” (Prov 29:18a). Further, “When the righteous increase, the people rejoice. / But when a wicked man rules, people groan” (Prov 29: 2). “The king gives stability to the land by justice, / But a man who takes bribes overthrows it” (Prov 29: 4). 

            The prophets call out ungodly leaders. “Your rulers are rebels / And companions of thieves. / Everyone loves a bribe / And chases after rewards. / They do not defend the orphan, / Not does the widow’s plea come before them” (Isa 1: 23). Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah (8th C. BC) agrees, “The prince and also the judge ask for a bribe, / And a great man speaks the desire of his soul; / So they weave it together. / The best of them is like a briar, / The most upright like a thorn hedge” (Micah 7: 3-4a).            Isaiah, speaking for God, describes the impact of unjust laws: “Woe to those who enact evil statutes / And to those who constantly record unjust decisions, / So as to deprive the needy of justice / And rob the poor of my people of their rights, / So that widows may be their spoil / And that they may plunder the orphans. / Now, what will you do in the day  of punishment / And in the devastation that will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help?/ And where will you leave your wealth?/ Nothing remains but to crouch among the captives / Or fall among the slain” (Isa 10: 1-4). 

            Leaders and leadership are a given; in a democracy, we are fortunate to have a say. Paul declares: “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God, and they who have opposed will receive condemnation on themselves. . .. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor” (Rom 13: 1-2, 7). 

Then Paul gives the bottom line—for rulers and those they rule: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (Rom 13: 8).