When Active Leadership is Actively Wrong image

When Active Leadership is Actively Wrong

In my personal Bible readings I recently got to 1 Samuel 13 and the account of Saul’s ‘unlawful sacrifice’. I’m familiar with the story, but on this occasion it struck me with particular force. Perhaps this is because I have not been feeling especially effective as a leader recently. Perhaps it was just one of those things. It is a leadership story though, and I’ve heard it preached on several times as a typology of when leadership goes bad. You know the story: Saul is impetuous and self-absorbed and nearly loses the day, whereas Jonathan trusts God and saves the day. That, of course, is an important part of the story, but what struck me as I read it again was not how bad Saul’s leadership was, but how his actions were in complete alignment with what would typically be considered outstanding leadership.

Picture the scene: Israel is in desperate trouble, completely under the Philistine cosh. Rather than a tightly drilled army, Saul has his at disposal men who would sooner hide in a grave than fight (1 Sam 13:6) and who possess only garden tools to fight with (13:20). Samuel the prophet is meant to be on hand to bring the courage of YHWH to the army, but is nowhere to be seen, and Saul’s frightened troops are beginning to run away (13:8). Now, picture a somewhat parallel scene playing out in a local church – it might not be quite so life and death, but churches do experience moments of crisis when people get afraid and are inclined to give up the fight. (I experienced one of these moments last year when a big building program we were committed to came off the rails.) In such a scenario – surely – the role of the leader is to intervene and do something!

In The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork church leadership guru John Maxwell puts it like this:

The road to the next level is always uphill, and if a team isn’t intentionally fighting to move up, then it invariably slides down. The team loses focus, gets out of rhythm, decreases in energy, breaks down in unity, and loses momentum. At some point, it also loses key players.

That pretty much sums up where Israel was at. What was Saul to do in response? Surely he needed to step in, or, as Maxwell puts it, “A team that reaches its potential always possesses a catalyst.” By stepping in, being the catalyst, and offering the sacrifice, Saul regains control over the people and appears to rescue the situation. He is doing what any leader worth his salt should do. Only it was the wrong thing to do. In fact, Samuel (who now appears, jack-in-the-box like) tells Saul he has “done foolishly.”

Of course, there are examples aplenty of Old Testament leaders being the catalyst, seizing the moment, rallying the people of God, and getting it right. Saul himself did this in his earlier defeat of the Ammonites. The key difference on that occasion, however, was that Saul’s intervention came when “the Spirit of God rushed upon him” (1 Sam 11:6). The problem in 1 Samuel 13 is that rather than leading under the leadership of the Spirit, Saul leads by his own initiative and in his own strength.

The vast upsurge in leadership teaching resources over recent years has had considerable benefits. I, certainly, have benefitted tremendously from the likes of John Maxwell, and many others, both Christian and secular. The potential downside of this emphasis, though, is that it can condition us to think that the appropriate leadership stance is the one adopted by Saul in 1 Samuel 13, rather than that which he experienced in 1 Samuel 11. In times of crisis, leaders need to do something! But in the economy of God, our doing isn’t always the right thing to do. Taking the initiative often looks courageous, but often the braver thing to do is trust to the grace of God and not try to fix the issue ourselves.

Those of us who have been entrusted with leadership in the church need to remember that in the end the people God calls us to lead are his sheep, who he wants to be led in his way. Sometimes this means that the last thing required is our leadership initiative – rather we should be waiting on God to bring his rescue, even if that means it looks like we are letting things unravel before our eyes. Saul should have led on that day in Gilgal, but he shouldn’t have led as he did. And let’s not kid ourselves that we are always playing the role of Jonathan, when in fact we are more likely to be Saul.

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