The Duty of Leaders: Getting our Priorities Straight in the Church
- 2010 2 Jul
“Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all the people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel.” (Joshua 1:2)
When Joshua succeeded to leadership in Israel, there was no doubt in his or anyone else’s mind what his commission involved. The charge to him was threefold: lead Israel across the Jordan; engage the pagan nations of Canaan until every last one of them had been expelled from the land which they had so hideously polluted by their idolatry and immorality; and settle the people in their promised districts, according the Word of the Lord.
Joshua’s work was a precursor to and foreshadowing of the work of our Lord Jesus. He also came to lead His people out of one “land” into another (Colossians 1:13); to overcome and expel every enemy that stands in the way of the progress of God’s economy (John 12:31, Colossians 2:15); and to establish His followers in all the blessings and promises of His Word (2 Corinthians 1:20).
Moreover, this work, taken up by Joshua and brought to its highest level by our Lord Jesus, serves as a model for leaders in the household of faith for all ages. The duty of leaders — in churches, parachurch ministries, schools, and households — is to enable those in their charge to possess the promises of God to the fullest possible extent.
For this to occur, leaders must insist on leaving old ways behind, going by faith into a new Kingdom of divinely charted territory under the leadership of God’s Spirit (Romans 14:17-19). They must protect those in their care against the attacks of the enemy and teach them how to defend themselves against his wiles and ways (Acts 20:28-31). And they must set them to the hard work of developing the new “land” into which they have been translated by grace through faith, seeking the Kingdom and working out their salvation in fear and trembling before the Lord (Matthew 6:33, Philippians 2:12-13).
Now, such a view of leadership in the community of faith carries a number of important implications, as well as a raft of requirements that must be faithfully adhered to if success is to follow.
The first implication of this threefold charge is that leaders need to make certain that they are not confusing secondary responsibilities with primary ones. This happens, for example, when leaders get it in their minds that their primary duty is to keep people happy, or to increase the numbers in everything they’re doing, or to raise the resources necessary for their project to thrive.
Over the years, leaders in a wide range of Christian enterprises have complained to me about how oppressive these tasks can be, how spiritually and emotionally draining they are, and how much of their time is required in just doing these kinds of things. Many leaders I’ve talked with have set aside or minimized such clearly mandated aspects of their callings as prayer, developing relationships, and assessing progress, just to take care of the pressing needs that flare up or persist in each of these areas.
Each of these duties may well be a component in the leader’s commission. But they must not be allowed to take the first priority, occupying the best of a leader’s time, focus, and energy.
The leader’s primary duty, to be succinct, is to equip and enable the people in his care to take possession of all that God has promised them. The leader’s main focus must be on this. His time should be evaluated according to the extent to which the way he uses it issues in this result.
We would fault Joshua had he spent all his best time and energy making sure that everything in the tabernacle was being done just so — everybody had on the proper garments, all the furnishings in the right place, the sacrifices offered in a timely, efficient, and God-honoring manner, and so forth. Certainly it fell to Joshua to make sure that this was happening, but it was strictly a secondary duty in relation to the larger task appointed to him, a duty that fell primarily to others, and not to him.
A second implication relates to this: the leader must be careful to see that those with secondary oversight and leadership do their jobs. We see Joshua instructing and organizing the priests and tribal heads of Israel. He gives directions to the military leaders. Joshua knew that the success of Israel in this harrowing adventure of subduing the promised land would only come about as “every joint does its part” (Ephesians 4:16).
Joshua gave clear directions. He maintained tight organization. He frequently spoke to his leaders and all the people, reminding them of God’s promises, calling them to greater diligence, and proclaiming to them one or another aspect of the Lord’s will. And he made certain that those who had leadership roles under his command both understood and carried out all that was expected of them.
Leaders can’t do everything. They have their responsibility, and they must do it faithfully and well. But they must also make sure that those who have accepted roles of secondary leadership fulfill the expectations of their callings, which will parallel those of the leader in significant ways, albeit with differing foci and applications.
This suggests a third implication: the leader must be especially careful to guard against anything that may derail or subvert the mission. It fell to Joshua to deal with Achan and his sin. This was not pleasant duty, but it had to be done. And even when he himself was in the wrong — as in his dealings with the Gibeonites — Joshua had to take responsibility for the error and undertake whatever was required to set the situation straight. Similarly, when the heads of the tribes began to grow slack in their leadership roles, Joshua called them to task, reminding them of their common responsibility in seeking the full promise and blessing of God.
Good leaders do not tolerate sin or disorder. They know that God withholds His blessing where such things are permitted, and so they are diligent to maintain a close watch over the spiritual and moral wellbeing of those in their care, and to instruct, remind, and exhort as needed.
Just as there are three implications to the threefold calling of leaders, there are three prerequisites. Unless these are met, and met faithfully, day by day, leaders cannot expect to succeed in leading their people and their common project into the full realization of God’s blessings.
First, leaders must “be strong and very courageous” (Joshua 1:6,7,9). Crossing the Jordan, engaging the enemies of the Lord, and driving them out so that the promises of God might be enjoyed wouldn’t be a picnic. It would be hard work. All the people would have to take their place and do their jobs. They would have to be strong in the vision of the Lord, in each of their duties toward the realization of that vision, and in the spiritual and emotional strength their work would require. Further, the Canaanites would put up a fight; therefore, the people would need to be courageous, unflinching, and undeterred. Any weakness anywhere would be exploited to the detriment and destruction of the whole project.
For the people to be strong and courageous in all these ways, their leaders would have to be so as well, beginning with Joshua. The first prerequisite of leadership is to make oneself an example of what the people are called to be and do. Effective leaders are highly visible as embodying the mission and mandate of the people they are called to lead. Therefore the leader needs to make sure that, whatever he expects of anyone in his charge, at any level or in any niche of their common project, he embodies the strength and courage they will need to perform their duties as unto the Lord.
Second, all that God intended His people to realize in the way of prosperity and peace was bound up in the promises made to the patriarchs and the Law given to Moses. Therefore, Joshua had to make certain that he fully understood and submitted to the promises and Law of God as the driving force of his life (Joshua 1:7,8). Day and night Joshua was to meditate in Moses’ book of the Law, which would have included everything from Genesis to Deuteronomy. Joshua had to be a student of God’s Word, so that he could guide the people, equip and enable them, and help them understand the purposes of God for every area of their lives.
Simply put, effective leaders need to be diligent students of God’s Word. No enterprise or endeavor that expects the blessing of God can ignore His promises and Law, or any of the revelation He has provided in His Word. Leaders may try to push this duty off on others, while they devote themselves to the more practical demands of leading. Or they may simply ignore it, believing that the mission and vision of their project already sufficiently encompass and explain all the people need to know. Either of these would be a mistake.
God clearly tells the leader of His people that he must devote himself to the Word of God, reading, meditating, teaching, and obeying everything he finds there. Only then will God bless His people to the fullest extent.
Finally, Joshua was required to be resolute and undeterred, drawing on the presence of the Lord at all times (Joshua 1:9). Whenever Joshua failed to consult the Lord — as in the fiasco at Ai and the treachery of the Gibeonites — Israel’s progress was compromised. Leaders must be men of prayer, who pay careful attention to everything that’s going on in their endeavor (Ephesians 5:15-17) and strive to ensure that every aspect of their own lives, as well as their undertaking, is offered up to the Lord for His approval (Proverbs 4:5-6).
Leaders must be men of vision and prayer. Their plans and activities must be prepared and executed in the presence of the Lord. Any leader of a Christian enterprise who is not developing the discipline of praying about everything and praying with ceasing is setting his project up for derailment, disappointment, or worse.
Joshua is the model leader for those who accept this calling in the household of faith. Let us learn from him the implications and prerequisites of this calling, so that we may be faithful and blessed in leading the people of God to take full possession of all that He has promised them.
Do you pray for the leaders of your church? How do you try to encourage them? Is there a leader to whom you could email this essay, and then meet with him or her to discuss?
T. M. Moore is dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of 20 books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are The Ailbe Psalter and The Ground for Christian Ethics, (Waxed Tablet). He and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Concord, Tenn.